When you drive through the park gates and enter Jasper National Park, you get a double whammy. Not only is the land protected, so is the sky. 11,000 sq km (4,247 sq mi) of night sky, to be precise.
The park is sheltered from light pollution thanks to the vision of space pioneers like astronomer Peter McMahon, manager of the Jasper Planetarium. He was the first to propose dark sky status for one of Canada’s most beloved national parks. Peter saw promise – here was a perfect destination where visitors could set their sights skyward and learn about our universe. He worked closely with Parks Canada to acquire the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s official dark sky designation, which was awarded in 2011. What’s unique about this preserve is that there’s a town in the middle of it. No expedition needed; settle into cozy accommodation in Jasper, enjoy a delicious meal, then drive 10 minutes out of town for deep darkness.
Denizens of Jasper have been doing their part. Residents and businesses have been replacing their lights with dark-sky friendly ones that shine downward and have a warm hue. Excess lighting has been reduced. The result, says Parks Canada’s Rogier Gruys is that now you can clearly see the Milky Way without leaving the townsite.
The Jasper Planetarium
Peter knew visitors interested in space needed an activity, a place to learn and connect. He and three local business partners (Scott Eady of Jasper Raft Tours, Shayne Brooking and Paul Hardy of SunDog Tours) invested in a 6 m (20 ft) wide blow-up dome, projector, and interactive technology to connect people to Jasper’s skies. The best part? It’s a year-round experience that’s not weather dependent. Come anytime you want to feel the wonder of space.
In October, I went to Japer to experience the planetarium firsthand. It was set up at Marmot Lodge. The inflatable dome sits on the grounds in warm months and moves inside for the winter. Think of a bouncy castle that’s completely enclosed.
Peter greeted us, then unzipped the dome and ushered us inside in small groups to keep the structure inflated. We popped through the zipper, sat in a circle on reclined lawn chairs, then leaned back and looked up. It was like being around a campfire – but at the centre was Peter to guide us from Jasper to the edges of the universe.
He encouraged us to ask questions while he zoomed in on photorealistic images of planets and constellations projected on the ceiling. We saw the park’s night sky and some 6,000 visible stars. We saw First Nations’ names for constellations, like Bear (Corona Borealis) and Canoe (Orion’s Belt and Polaris). We looked at night sky photos of Jasper before and after efforts were made to reduce the light pollution. The difference was astonishing.
The experience is local and interactive. You can learn how to use a compass and sextant to find the park’s position on earth. The question and answer format means Peter can customize the tour, using planetarium technology to explore different aspects of the night sky. See the constellations from the point of view of Pyramid Lake, the Columbia Icefields or the top of the SkyTram. It’s not like watching a pre-recorded show. Every tour has options. Peter even transported us beyond our galaxy to what humans think lies beyond.
His favourite constellation? Orion. He calls it a buffet of cool things, including nebulas and star clusters. He loves it because it makes the night sky look even more brilliant – in Orion’s belt is the star Alnilam which is 375,000 times more luminous than the sun.
Spoiled for choice
Want more? After the planetarium, head out with SunDog tours and local astronomers to view the night sky. Their Wild Nights tours mean you get out into nature and hands-on with telescopes. Another option? Get closer to space by taking the SkyTram 1 km (0.6 mi) up Whistlers Mountain for a Star Session. You can look down on mountain peaks and up to the heavens and even eat dinner on the mountaintop. Planetarium interpreters are on hand with telescopes, ready to answer your questions.
Cool star facts
What I learned at the Jasper Planetarium:
- Our galaxy has 300 billion stars
- Saturn has 62 moons and its rings are made of ice
- The northern lights can turn a deep, rare shade of red
- Jasper has the largest and most powerful telescopes in the Canadian Rockies