History of the AstroTours

Tour-goers peer through the 8-inch dome telescope.

For decades, the David Dunlap Observatory (DDO) in Richmond Hill had been hosting free astronomy nights for the public. They were held twice a month and included an hour-long lecture given by a graduate student, post-doc or faculty member from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics (DAA) at the University of Toronto. This was accompanied by a viewing session through the DDO’s impressive 74-inch (1.9-metre) telescope. The University of Toronto sold the DDO in 2008, but it reopened in 2009 and now hosts public lectures run by the RASC.

The David Dunlap Observatory dome.

In 1997, Wayne Barkhouse, a graduate student in the DAA, started the downtown campus astronomy nights. Since the DDO tours catered mostly to people living in Richmond Hill and the occasional school group, it made sense to have a public astronomy tour on the downtown campus to serve the UofT community. Thus, the first observing night took place during the fall of 1997, when the comet Hale-Bopp was visible, and attracted close to 500 visitors.

After that inaugural evening, the tours were held on a regular basis: twice a month with a lecture followed by an observing session using the downtown campus telescopes located on the roof of the McLennan Physical Labs building. In addition, the telescopes would be opened to the public for special astronomical events, such as lunar eclipses, which garnered the tours much public attention and news coverage. In 2001, in an attempt to boost attendance and reduce strain on volunteers, the frequency of the tours was decreased to only once a month.

Over the years, the leadership of the tours has been passed down through generations of graduate students at the DAA with attendence growing steadily. Below is a chart of the average yearly attendance for the tours over the years. The International Year of Astronomy (2009) saw record attendance with over 200 people per tour for the last few months of the year.

Plot of AstroTour event attendance, averaged annually, from 1998 to 2013.

The success of the tours has mainly been attributed to better advertising tactics. In 2005, graduate student Alex Bouquin revamped the website, making it more user-friendly, and the website was overhauled again in 2009 by Ilana MacDonald, then once again Sergei Ossokine, Elliot Meyer, Andrey Vayner and Charles Zhu in 2014. Bryce Croll played a large part in increasing tour attendance with regular advertisements in NOW magazine, EYE weekly, the Toronto Star and Metro News. Subsequent AstroTour executives have spread our advertising umbrella to the U of T Bulletin e-newsletter, U of T events calendar and mutual advertising agreements with our partners at the RASC, ASX and StarSpot podcast.

In 2009, a Facebook group was started to increase our online attendance, and has since attracted over 500 subscribers. Facebook was joined by a Twitter feed in 2013. To increase the public outreach impact of their members, the Dunlap Institute recorded public talks made by their fellows. This tradition caught on, and we now have our own Youtube channel hosting an archive of recorded talks.

For years, the events we organized were known as the “University of Toronto Free Astronomy Public Tours”, and referred to by various nicknames, most commonly “Public Tours”. We currently use the portmanteau “AstroTours” both to recognize our historical name and to draw attention to the astronomical nature of our events.

Today, alongside other, far-reaching outreach initiatives by the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Dunlap Institute and Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, AstroTours maintains its strong tradition of regular high-quality talks, fun planetarium shows and the best telescope observing in downtown Toronto. Our mission continues to be spreading big and exciting astronomy ideas, and bringing astronomers at U of T and the general public closer together.

Special thanks to Wayne Barkhouse, Chris Burns, Lawrence Mudryk, Vjera Miovic, Allen Attard, Alex Bouquin, Francine Marleau, Preethi Nair, Stefan Mochnacki & Bryce Croll for sharing their knowledge about the history of the AstroTours at UofT.