TORONTO, April 11, 2012 — Near the Maine border, about an hour east of Sherbrooke, Quebec, Mégantic has everything you could wish for in a wilderness park: 50km of Appalachian trails, interpretive hikes, rustic shelters, historical interest and, most importantly, peaceful unspoiled surroundings to savor the stunning vistas. Particularly breathtaking are the summits of Mont Mégantic and Mont Saint-Joseph, which are among the highest peaks in the region and accessible by car.
But that isn’t why we’re here. As beautiful as it is on the ground, we are here for the stars.
“I can’t see the edge of the moon,” my seven-year-old daughter declares. “But I can see a crater.” She’s looking through a powerful telescope inside the public observatory at Mont Mégantic National Park during an astronomy night.
Designated a dark sky reserve, by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), the lack of light pollution means that instead of the 500 or so celestial bodies you’ll see in the city, you can gaze at stars so thick you’ll know how the Milky Way got its name. It’s an awe-inspiring skyscape, and one that, unfortunately, fewer and fewer people experience.
It is estimated that a child born in the US or Europe today has a one in ten chance of witnessing a truly dark sky.
“Over 65% of the world’s population can’t see the Milky Way from where they live,” says Scott Kardel a spokesperson from the IDA. “It’s the first time in history that people haven’t seen the wonder of the night skies that have inspired world religions and the ideas of our universe.”
Watching and learning about this starry universe is the primary purpose of the Mont Mégantic Observatory. The large white-domed structure filled with high-tech equipment looks like it belongs on a futuristic sci-fi movie set. However, it’s one of the most important research facilities in North America and used by astronomists from McGill, Montreal and Laval Universities. The telescope itself holds a five-foot mirror and weighs in at almost 24 tons.
The kids are impressed, but confused. “How do you look through it?” they ask.
Our astronomy guide, Rémi Boucher, explains how images are projected on computer screens and also the importance of the telescope’s location. The air is thinner on the mountain, of course, and in the winter, they use infrared light that creates significant contrast in the cold. “When the temperatures dip to under –20°C, this telescope is equivalent to the most powerful ones in the world,” he says.
Daytime tours are offered during summer, but due to ongoing research at the facility, public access during the evening is limited to two nights during the Perseid meteor showers. Fortunately, there’s the public observatory, a smaller version of the research facility, which hosts astronomy nights.
On our visit, we learn about how planets are detected and the possibility of the existence of life outside of Earth. As interesting as this presentation is, the best part of the evening is climbing up the ladder and looking through the giant telescope at a magnified moon ‘with no edge’. Outside the observatory, another telescope is set up and we see Saturn and its rings in all their glory.
Also at the park is the ASTROlab Science Centre, which has 3 rooms of exhibits that attempt to answer the difficult question: ‘what is the universe?’ You’ll find displays like the replica of Galileo’s telescope and other items relating to the history of space exploration, along with instruments, such as infrared detectors and plasma spheres. A video presentation looks at time on earth and reveals just how short a period we humans have been living on our planet. One thing is certain: after a visit to Mont Mégantic, looking at the night sky will never be same again.
ASTROLab: open on Sat. nights late Jan. –March; weekends in fall & spring and everyday in summer. Astronomy presentations are in French, but park staff is happy to answer questions and provide explanations in English. Reservations are recommended 1-800-665-6527
Accommodation: Rustic shelters and tent sites are offered at the park. In Notre Dame de Bois, several places offer stargazing packages. Auberge Aux Toits Rouges, at the base of the mountain, offers comfortable cottages and a dining room serving up delicious French country fare. 1-866-559-2999
Other Places to See the Stars in North America:
McDonald Observatory, Texas One of the leading centers for astronomical research, it lies beneath some of the darkest skies in the US. It offers visitors daily public viewing programs and Star Parties with outdoor sky tours.
Jasper National Park, Alberta Exceptional darkness in such a large protected space means there plenty of opportunity to observe planets and constellations, and wish upon shooting stars. The park regularly host astronomy events like the Dark Sky Festival on October 12-14.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah Its remote location guarantees that light pollution will not impede the view of the clear night skies. Visitors can gaze on their own or take part in organized programs have been running at the park since 1969. www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/findapark/cherrysprings/ The 262,000-acre Susquehannock State Forest surrounds the 48-acre park making dark skies possible even in this populated state. The Black Forest Star Party takes place Sept.14-16.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii Several of the world’s top astronomical research facilities are atop of the 9,300-feet summit. The public, too, can take part in sky-watching programs and see just how many stars there are this high up in the middle of Pacific Ocean.
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.