Establishing the first Public Astronomical Observatory and Nature Centre in Whitehorse

The Yukon Astronomical Society (YAS) is a non-profit organization of amateur astronomers, that are devoted to popularizing astronomy, and its related sciences, to children, students, the general public, tourists, and, of course, amateur astronomers. Through education, research, technology, and hands-on activities/workshops, this centre will strive to enrich local education curriculums, at all levels, support local tourism, businesses, institutions, and promote Whitehorse as a centre of science in the north. This observatory will also provide a hub for the amateur astronomy community in Whitehorse, as well as for the other 18 communities of the Yukon.

Astronomy, in itself, is not an abstract idea that is upheld only for professional astronomers or scientists. We are, and should all be, connected to nature and discover its beauty ourselves. Observing or viewing the wonders of the night sky with the naked eye, or through a pair of binoculars, or with a telescope, is possibly the highest level of devotion, and deepest personal expressions of nature, for any human being. Having a connection with the stars, and our planet is one of the most uplifting, and marvellous experiences one can have. Many Yukoners already share the privilege of this experience, living so close to nature, in many different ways. Yet, there is no public astronomical observatory, currently existing, in the Yukon, or north of the 60th parallel, for Yukoners to better admire, study, and learn from their majestic dark skies.

Only two on-going astronomical observatory projects are currently in place in the Canadian North: first, a large astronomical observatory to be built in Eureka, Nunavut. When completed, this remote observatory will only serve professional astronomers. Second, the local amateur astronomer community in the Northwest Territories is also in the planning process of building the Fort Smith Observatory and Urban Star Park. With regards to the United States, the observatory in Fairbanks, Alaska, is presently closed.

The mission of the YAS is to provide every and all opportunities, for everyone, to discover the wonders of nature and of the Yukon’s night sky. The mandate for the YAS will be to continue to provide astronomical education, tools, equipment, and support for observation, and other key resources, so that Yukoners, and visitors alike, may gain knowledge in astronomy, and its related sciences, through first-hand experiences. In addition, the YAS strongly believes that a dedicated public astronomical observatory, built in Whitehorse, would serve as the center of astronomical observations, discussions and education, for both youth, and adults alike.

As the Yukon becomes more accessible and is able to provide key required services, the population of the Territory is growing. This increase raises the demand for more advanced, and diverse educational, recreational, and commercial infrastructure, including, institutions, such as nature interpretational facilities, and public astronomical observatories.

Canadians, throughout the country, are expecting that the local, and federal, governments take steps to bring improved technologies and infrastructure, needed for this rapidly developing part of our nation (Ref: EKOS, 2011).

Over the last few decades, there have been attempts, by individual local amateur astronomer enthusiasts, in Whitehorse, to popularize astronomy by providing regular observations with their personal astronomical telescopes. Unfortunately, there were difficulties to foster continuous interest, in large part, due to a lack of appropriate infrastructure in the Yukon. A permanently established astronomical facility would best respond to this need. As a result, these long-established amateur astronomers preferred to be mobile with their equipment, and due to individual circumstances, they are unable to provide continuity and stability in astronomy education and observation. For cases when you need to buy a dissertation on this astronomical topic this article would be helpful. Numbers of previous observing groups in Whitehorse varied greatly due to this instability.

The presence of this non-profit, incorporated, Yukon Astronomical Society, along with its supporting partner, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), and the proposed infrastructure of a public astronomical observatory in Whitehorse, would dramatically change this situation. This three-pillar foundation would create the opportunity for a consistent, year-round, and stable service, in the field of astronomy and nature interpretation to the public. The YAS is ready to take-on the responsibility, and is determined to plan, design, build and maintain Yukon’s first public astronomical observatory and nature centre.

The successful establishment of the observatory will have significant effects on the lives of participating Yukoners, and visitors alike. The presence of the observatory, and its diverse programs, will raise youth’s interest in astronomy, space exploration, nature, and science, while providing a chance for the general public to look through a real astronomical telescope. The observatory will be the center for astronomy in the Yukon, where everyone can participate in astronomical observations, studies, research, and workshops. The observatory will be designed to attract experienced personnel, and support advanced astronomical equipment.

This proposal will identify a suitable site for the observatory, as well as provide detailed plans for its location, and options for its construction, and its special equipment requirements. It will identify any environmental impacts, and will outline a more detailed, site-specific, heritage assessment, once a preferred site is both determined, and approved.
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Proposal to Yukon Education Minister: Astronomical Program

Astronomy is one of the few scientific fields that interacts directly with society. Not only transcending borders, but actively promoting collaborations around the world.

Throughout history, humans have looked to the sky to navigate the vast oceans, to decide when to plant their crops and to answer questions of where we came from and how we got here. It is a discipline that opens our eyes, gives context to our place in the Universe, and reshapes how we see the world.

Astronomy has always had a significant impact on our world view. Early cultures identified celestial objects with the gods and took their movements across the sky as prophecies of what was to come. Now, as our understanding of the world progresses, we find ourselves, and our views, even more entwined with the stars. The discovery that the basic elements, found in stars, and the gas and dust around them, are the same elements that make up our bodies; has further deepened the connection between us and the cosmos. This connection touches our lives, and the awe it inspires is perhaps the reason that the beautiful images Astronomy provides us with are so popular in today’s culture (ex.) Juno’s live mission to Jupiter, Mars Rover Curiosity, and of course the Hubble Space Telescope.

There are still many unanswered questions in Astronomy. Current research is struggling to understand questions like: “How old are we?”, “What is the fate of the Universe?” and possibly the most interesting: “How unique is the Universe, and could a slightly different Universe ever have supported life?” Astronomy is also breaking new records every day, establishing the furthest distances, most massive objects, highest temperatures, and most violent explosions.

Pursuing these questions, and these challenges, is a fundamental part of being human, yet in today’s world it has become increasingly important to be able to justify the pursuit of these answers. The difficulties in describing the importance of Astronomy, and fundamental research in general, are well summarized by the following quote:

“Preserving knowledge is easy. Transferring knowledge is also easy. But making new knowledge is neither easy nor profitable in the short term. Fundamental research proves profitable in the long run, and, as importantly, it is a force that enriches the culture of any society with reason and basic truth.”

– Ahmed Zewali, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1999)

As such, teaching Astronomy to our youth is of great value. It has been proven that pupils who engage in astronomy-related educational activities at a primary or secondary school are more likely to pursue careers in science and technology, and to keep up to date with scientific discoveries (National Research Council, 1991). This does not just benefit the field of Astronomy, but reaches across other scientific disciplines.

Several studies over the last few years have indicated that investing in science education, research and technology provides a great return, not only economically, but culturally and indirectly for the population in general. The scientific and technological development of a country, or region, is closely linked to its human development index, a statistic that is a measure of life expectancy, education and income (Truman, 1949).

Northern Lights monitoring for the Yukon Territory

Yellowknife is one of the top northern lights tourism destinations in Canada. Each year, it draws thousands of tourists from overseas during the winter season. A large part of this success relies on advertising and local initiatives (Northern Lighthouse, AuroraMax). While the city of Whitehorse is located further south, it is still a prime location for aurora viewing. Winter tourism is one of the only economic sector still growing despite a receding economy. Promoting Whitehorse as a destination of choice for aurora viewing could potentially benefit to the Yukon economy.

The purpose of this project is to monitor the aurora activity above multiple communities across the Yukon Territory and provide a live view of the Yukon skies through a publicly accessible website. An array of weatherproof cameras pointing at the sky will be used to capture images which will be periodically uploaded using an internet connection.

Commercial all-sky cameras already exist but none of them meet the requirements for this project (long exposure, low temperatures, digital output, etc). By implementing our own camera system, we are creating a device for a fraction of the cost that meets all of our criteria. Our system includes a high sensibility camera plugged to a credit-card size computer transmitting data over a wireless connection. These electronic components are kept dry and clean by a weatherproof enclosure. This device can be fixed on the rooftop of a building and use the local wifi to submit the images.

This network of cameras would not only benefit tourism but also the community as it could be used as a tool by science teachers to illustrate concepts of physics, astronomy and electronics. Automobilists and pilots would also be able to see the current sky conditions in various places of the Yukon and plan their travel accordingly. The advantage of using multiple cameras is that it enables tridimensional views of the sky. With this stereoscopic vision, scientific work can be achieved such as the measurement of the altitude of the aurora display or calculating the speed and trajectory of meteors.

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