By Valerie Stimac
Three winter destinations that offer a fresh perspective on the night sky
As astronomy enthusiasts, we understand that light pollution affects as much as 80 percent of the global population. Though wide expanses of Canada are free of light pollution, fewer than 1 percent of people live in areas that enjoy dark skies. Increasingly, we have to travel in search of opportunities to stand in awe of a starry night. Whether you’re a passionate enthusiast of the night sky or a fan of space agencies and astronauts, the emerging activity, known as “astrotourism,” offers a way to see the world while taking in the wonders of the universe.
The term “astrotourism” was first used by Condé Nast Traveler in 2017. The story, entitled “Astro Tourism Is Now a Thing,” noted a marked increase in interest for aurora holidays and the then-forthcoming total solar eclipse. Now it’s common to see many of the world’s top travel companies offering astrotourism destinations and experiences.
Space tourism and astrotourism offer incredibly diverse and immersive travel experiences beyond a visit to your local astronomy centre. These range from stargazing and aurora-viewing trip itineraries to stories about famous astronomers and off-beat space-related experiences in surprising destinations from Los Angeles to London. Here are three great winter astrotourism destinations that will appeal to families and amateur astronomers of all ages and interests.
An aurora destination: Churchill, Manitoba
Canadians are lucky to have ample aurora-viewing opportunities across the country—perhaps the best place to see the northern lights is the one many sky watchers know well for its dark skies and freedom from crowds. If you’re looking for an organized aurora tour this winter, consider a trip to Churchill, Manitoba.
On the shore of Hudson Bay, Churchill is an ideal destination for viewing the northern lights, a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle and auroral oval overhead. Northern lights activity is common throughout the winter months and visible most nights when the sky is clear.
Churchill’s most famous residents—polar bears—move out onto the frozen Hudson Bay during winter, so you may not see them during your northern lights trip. However, in part thanks to the efforts of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which studies arctic species and phenomena including the northern lights and polar bears, visitors can learn about the arctic climate and geography no matter what time of year you visit.
Astronomy in action: Mont-Mégantic, Québec
Fans of the dark-sky preservation movement should plan a trip to Mont-Mégantic; it was the world’s first designated dark-sky reserve. Mont-Mégantic is located in southern Québec near the U.S. border, and encompasses some 5,300 square kilometres including Mont- Mégantic National Park and observation facilities therein.
In the winter months, Mont-Mégantic is a popular hiking destination for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Once the sun sets, the main must-see stops are the Mont-Mégantic Observatory, the Mont-Mégantic Popular Observatory, and a visitor centre called ASTROLab. Home to the second-largest telescope in eastern Canada (a 1.6-metre Ritchey-Chrétien telescope), Mont-Mégantic Observatory is open to the public for daytime tours and nighttime astronomy events. Camping and other rustic accommodations are available in the park where you can set up on your own for some stargazing.
If you choose not to visit Mont-Mégantic this winter, mark your calendars now: totality during the 2024 total solar eclipse will pass over the observatory and it will be one of the most popular eclipse destinations in Canada.
America’s space coast: Kennedy Space Center, Florida
If you’re craving warmer weather, plan a winter getaway to Florida—specifically to Kennedy Space Center on the Atlantic coast. It’s a one-hour drive east from Orlando, Florida, to Kennedy Space Center and the rest of the region, widely called the Space Coast for the number of launch facilities and aerospace companies headquartered here.
The primary attraction for astrotourists is the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which has exhibits for NASA and rocket enthusiasts of all levels. You can wander among rockets in the Rocket Garden, stand in awe of the space shuttle Atlantis, or learn about NASA’s past (the Apollo program) or future (the journey to Mars) at current exhibits.
There’s also a chance you may get to see a rocket launch itself; Kennedy Space Center is one of four places in the United States where this is possible. In winter 2020, there are several launches planned, but scheduled dates change regularly so be sure to check the Space Coast launch calendar (visitspacecoast.com/launches) to see if one is due during your visit.
Aside from getting your fix of aerospace engineering and possibly enjoying lunch with an astronaut, you can spend time soaking up the Florida sun or trying your hand at surfing. This is a great way to get much-needed sun during the long, dark winter in the northern hemisphere.