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Astronomer from Nanaimo part of exciting discoveries at Hawaii observatories

Cam Wipper will share stories from his professional career at next Nanaimo Astronomy Society meeting
Cam Wipper, an astronomer with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, will talk about how his career took him from Vancouver Island to the big island of Hawaii at Nanaimo Astronomy Society’s upcoming monthly meeting. (Photo submitted)

An astronomer who grew up in Nanaimo and holds a key position at the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope in Maunakea, Hawaii, will talk about his personal journey from one big island to another at Nanaimo Astronomy Society’s next meeting.

Cam Wipper, a former Vancouver Island University student, has spent the past decade on the island of Hawaii, the Hawaiian chain’s big island, working at the Maunakea Observatories, most recently as a remote observer for the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, one of the world’s leading astronomical observatories. Wipper was also just promoted to the position of observing systems specialist astronomer, a position that combines telescope operator, project management and other roles.

Wipper, 30, moved in 2011 to attend the University of Hawaii because it was close to major observatories, and graduated in 2013. He has worked at the telescope since graduating and lives and performs much of his work in the town of Waimea, but his passion for astronomy began when he was a child. He remembers borrowing books on astronomy from Vancouver Island Regional Library’s old Wellington Branch when it was on Barons Road, but his decision to pursue astronomy as a career happened at VIU.

“I went there and took some astronomy classes with Dr. Greg Arkos … and he really was the one who inspired me to pursue astronomy from a career perspective,” Wipper said.

Wipper currently does observation work by operating the CFHT telescope remotely from Waimea. His new role as observing systems specialist will still involve some remote observer work, but will also involve supporting other observers and acting as liaison between observing teams and the technical staff who maintain the observatory. He said he enjoys the hands-on operations side of running the observatory versus working remotely as an astronomer who might make observations remotely from anywhere in the world.

“I think humanity, as a species, just has this drive to discover new things and explore…” Wipper said. “Every night that I work at the telescope, we could take images of something that’s never been seen before or contribute to a discovery we haven’t known before.”

One of the most exciting events of his career was the discovery of Oumuamua, an interstellar object first observed in 2017 as it passed through our solar system by astronomers at the University of Hawaii who specialize in searching for near-Earth asteroids. Oumuamua, which means “scout” in Hawaiian, is the first interstellar object ever discovered in our solar system.

“[CFHT] found what they thought was a comet, at the time, and then they sent it to us to image it and it became apparent pretty fast, from these two data points, that the orbit of this object was something that was not like anything else they’d seen before … and it emerged pretty fast that this was something special.”

READ ALSO: Hawaii telescope operator from Nanaimo will trace his path in astronomy

Wipper will share his stories, from the perspective of a scientific observer and telescope operator, at Nanaimo Astronomy Society’s Zoom meeting Feb. 25 at 7 p.m.

Membership at the club is on the rise, thanks in part to COVID-19. The society has switched to virtual meetings and doubled the frequency of meetings while membership fees have been halved.

“Our current online meetings are a great way to socialize and maintain contact with other like-minded members during these socially-distanced times,” said Chris Boar, NAS president, in an e-mail. “One big advantage of online meetings is the breadth and calibre of presenters we can book has expanded vastly, as physical location is now not an issue.”

Boar said public interest in astronomy has been peaking over the last 12 months, spurred by such recent events as Comet Neowise, the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction and the Mars Perseverance Rover landing Thursday.

“We have also experimented with Facebook Live public outreach with the recent Jupiter-Saturn conjunction at the end of 2020,” Boar said. “We hope to offer more online outreach.”

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Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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