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Exploring our night skies

Look up—way up—at Mother Nature’s time machine

It’s crazy to think that all those stars we see on a clear night could already be gone. That’s why stargazing is like witnessing time travel in its simplest form. This Einsteinian fact has everything to do with the distance that light has to travel to get to us. Witnessing this blast from the past, however, is hindered by the presence of light pollution, which makes all but the brightest stars invisible. Fortunately, areas of land across the world are being set aside where the only light to be seen is from the sky above you. So, getting out of the city to take in the full glory of a cloudless night is easy—all you need is time, a few astronomy basics, plus a blanket to keep you warm. Take a look.

Stargazing and city living may seem an unlikely mix, but being limited to the stars that are visible in urban areas can help you pick out the brighter ones with just a pair of binoculars. You can also invest in one of three basic types of telescopes: a refractor that uses lenses, a reflector that uses mirrors or a catadioptric that uses lenses and mirrors. Remember, however, that moonlight can hinder good sky viewing. Also, the moon rises about 50 minutes later each day because it constantly shifts about 13 degrees towards the east. Keep this in mind to minimize moonlight interference when you set up your telescope or point your binoculars towards the heavens.

Stargazing really doesn’t require more than a healthy dose of wonder and a few astronomy basics. Books and websites are also great resources to help you locate constellations, planets, galaxies or even the International Space Station. NASA’s website is always a wealth of information, and the RASC’s has a list of Canadian star parties to attend, as well as links to all the DSP sites across Canada. Don’t forget about Edmonton Telus World of Science. Its website lists classes and upcoming events.

So whether you are new to stargazing or were born with a telescope in your hands, looking up at a star that twinkles back at you is always awe-inspiring—especially when that star’s light took tens-of-thousands of years to reach Earth.

Dark-Sky Preserves

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) describes dark-sky preserves (DSP) as land found in or around parks that have a reduction or elimination of artificial light. Besides being a great place to view the night sky, DSPs also help nocturnal animals, plants and humans keep to their normal Circadian rhythms.

Beaver Hills Dark-Sky Preserve, Alberta

Location: Elk Island National Park, including Cooking-Lake Blackfoot Provincial Area

Size: 293 square km

RASC designation: Received DSP status 

September 2006, on Elk Island’s 100th Anniversary

Astronomy in the park: The Edmonton RASC has been visiting this preserve for over 20 years. It holds public astronomy programs, but also raises awareness about the damaging effects that light pollution has on the environment.

Jasper National Park Dark-Sky Preserve, Alberta

Locations: Marmot Meadows, Athabasca Glacier, Jasper House and Pyramid Island

Size: 11,228 square km

RASC designation: Received DSP status March 2011

Astronomy in the park: October is Dark Sky Month in Jasper and is celebrated with a Dark-Sky Festival. This year’s event runs October 16-25.

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