Newbrook Observatory: Photographing world history in Thorhild County

Written by: Matthew Wangler, Executive Director, Historic Resources Management Branch

Alberta has a rich and fascinating history, and occasionally events in our past resonate with happenings of global consequence. That was the case in 1957, when a dedicated scientist working in a meteorite observation station in Newbrook captured the first North American image of Sputnik 1 – an object which came to embody both the fears and aspirations of a generation, and which heralded the beginning of a new age in science and geopolitics.

Sputnik I. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

The roots of the Newbrook Observatory can be traced to 1946, when the United States and Canada agreed to work co-operatively on space science projects, particularly meteorite observations. The northerly situation of Newbrook – with its clear view of the night sky and its relative lack of auroral interference – made it an ideal location for establishing an observation station to assist in this joint effort. Constructed in 1951, the Newbrook observatory opened in 1952 as a field station of the Stellar Physics Division of Canada’s Dominion Observatory in Ottawa.

The principal scientist at the observatory was Art Griffin, a man with a rare passion for space research. Griffin was lured west from his home in Ontario by the opportunity to study meteorites at Newbrook. Key to Griffin’s work was the unique design of the observatory. The building’s office featured glass panels in the roof that allowed him to gaze up into the night sky. The adjoining room featured a roof that could open along sliding rails. Located beneath the sliding roof was a sophisticated Super-Schmidt Meteor Camera – one of only two used in Canada of a total of just six produced by the Connecticut-based Perkin-Elmer Company.

Aerial image of the Newbrook Observatory. The sliding roof can be seen to the left. The glass panels on the office roof are visible on the right. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

While occasionally staring up at the wonders of the night sky has a romantic appeal to it, recording the behavior of meteorites in the upper atmosphere day after day, year after year, in northern Alberta, must have been a grind. Much of Griffin’s time at work was spent in “the coffin” – a special swivel chair located beneath the glass panels in the office roof from which he could observe the night sky. If Griffin saw something worthy of recording, he would have to shuttle between the Super-Schmidt Meteor Camera and the several smaller cameras he had installed outside the building to capture images of it. In the morning, he would summarize his observations. Griffin did this for years while contending with the bitter cold of northern Alberta winters, and the isolation and boredom inherent in his very unusual vocation. 

Art Griffin with the Super-Schmidt Meteor Camera. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Between 1952 and 1957, Griffin obtained thousands of photographs and spectrograph exposures. This data, combined with similar documentation from the nearby and identically equipped Meanook Observatory, supported efforts to better understand the properties of the upper atmosphere. The American government hoped that the insights gleaned from this data would facilitate their exploration and colonization of space. By the mid-1950s, that interest had developed into a national obsession as the Americans’ rivals for global dominance, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, raced to establish their pre-eminence in space science and technology.  

It was against this backdrop that the Soviets announced on October 4, 1957 that they had successfully launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite to be sent into space. The news of the launch sent shockwaves around the world. The announcement was particularly alarming to citizens of the United States, whose comfortable sense of scientific and technological superiority was deeply rattled.

Shortly after the launch, Griffin was asked by an American official to mark the satellite as it passed over the observatory, perhaps to confirm that the Soviets had, in fact, beat the Americans to the punch. In the early morning hours of October 9, 1957, Griffin caught sight of a thin beam of light that he thought could represent the flight of Sputnik I through the upper atmosphere. As the Super-Schmidt Meteor Camera was not nimble enough to shoot the object, Griffin used one of his outdoor cameras to capture its path through the night sky. In so doing, Griffin secured the first North American image of Sputnik I, and confirmed the Soviets’ claims. The launch of Sputnik I signalled the official beginning of the space race, a battle between the Americans and Soviets for scientific and technological supremacy that came to symbolize the larger clash between two great nations and the ideological systems they embodied.

Copy of Art Griffin’s photograph of Sputnik I. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

By the late 1950s, scientific and technological advances in rocket science had made it possible for scientists to launch objects into the upper atmosphere, expanding research possibilities and rendering meteor observation largely obsolete. By 1959, Griffin had left Newbrook to pursue other opportunities. Over the remainder of his career, he helped to establish research stations across western Canada dedicated to meteorite science. In 1970, the Canadian government consolidated astronomical research and the observatories at Meanook and Newbrook were closed, and the equipment within them removed.

The restored Newbrook Observatory. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.
The recently reinstalled Super-Schmidt Meteor Camera. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

In 1995, the Newbrook Observatory was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in recognition of its historic significance. Since that time, Thorhild County and the Newbrook Historical Society have done excellent work to restore the site. Recently, they managed to track down the Super-Schmidt Meteor Camera that had been used at the Meanook Observatory, and arranged to have it returned to Alberta from Ontario. They also restored the observatory building and have now reinstalled the camera. Municipal and society officials hope that this fascinating site will entice visitors to the community to explore the wonders of the night sky and to relive the moment when a dedicated Canadian scientist captured the first North American image of an event that reverberated around the world.

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