The Jasper Planetarium: A newly discovered star of local tourism
“As we head out you’ll see the star that looks like a yellow circle. That’s the north star, the point that the whole sky seems to be turning around.”
Moe Jennings is taking a dozen stargazers to one of the best places in the park to view the night sky: Pyramid Island. But even though the skies are cloudy and the air is chilly this evening, Jennings’ guests have a crystal clear view of the constellations. Not only that but they are perfectly cozy without a jacket.
“Grab a seat and feel free to take pictures,” Jennings says.
Although the group is peering at the sky-scape as framed by Pyramid Mountain, they aren’t actually on-location. Instead, Jennings has let them in on Jasper’s best kept stargazing secret: the Jasper Planetarium. Clear skies or not, the indoor planetarium allows amateur astronomers to unravel the mysteries of the universe, starting with the skies above Jasper.
“Up here on Pyramid Island, using our telescope, we can actually see things out in deep space,” says fellow presenter, Maegan Dukes.
As the picture of a white blob amongst the night sky enlarges 10, then 100, then 1000 times, we see that it is in fact a nebula—a star nursery. “We’re using the most powerful telescope in the Rockies,” Dukes says. Housed in a 12-foot inflatable dome and located at the Best Western Jasper Inn and Suites, the Jasper Planetarium uses a high-powered projector to display dazzling illustrations of deep space; interpretive constellation diagrams from both Greek astronomy and First Nations story culture; and impressive astrophotography shot in Jasper National Park. Set to an engaging, orchestral soundtrack, the 35-minute show gets up close to planets, the moon and the aurora borealis.
“What we see as the Northern Lights is pretty much space weather,” fellow guide Maegan Dukes explains as the Planetarium’s “sky” comes alive with ribbons of green, purple and golden light.
Paul Hardy, who owns and operates Sun Dog Tour Co., is part of the group which brought the Jasper Planetarium to town. Building on the success of Jasper’s burgeoning Dark Sky Festival, Hardy hopes the miniature IMAX theatre will be seen as a great post-dining activity for winter visitors.
“It appeals to a diverse audience,” he said. “It’s not just for star geeks.”
Part of the charm, certainly, is the local content. After Dukes and Jennings point out Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s rings, we take a virtual hike on Whistlers’ Mountain. Early explorers used the peaks to way-find, Jennings points out. And David Thompson, who mapped much of the west, relied on stars as navigation tools.
“You could imagine David Thompson seeing the night sky not unlike you see it here,” she says.
After a tour around the international space station, from which we get a great picture of how dark the Rocky Mountain trench is compared to the rest of the illuminated world, Dukes and Jennings take us on a journey down the Icefields Parkway, where we can see the full glory of the Milky Way and our local galaxies. We fly to the edge of the known universe and back, taking in the northern lights as seen from Churchill, Manitoba.
“Here in Jasper we get to see the auroras every one or two weeks,” Dukes says. “But in the Planetarium we can see them every night.”
The Jasper Planetarium operates Friday and Saturday nights. Check the website, www.jasperplanetarium.ca, for showtimes.