Stargazing has long been part of the human psyche. For thousands of years, we – and our
ancestors before us – have turned our eyes upward and wondered. With myths and legends, we have explained the sky’s magic with demons, heroes, gods and goddesses. Ancient Greek astronomers observed the heavens and began to explain the science behind how the universe operates.
Four hundred years ago, a Dutch eyeglass maker, Hans Lippershey, invented the first telescope. Galileo turned it to the sky and changed our view of the earth and universe forever – we were no longer the centre of the universe.
Telescopes grew in size and power and the first observatories were built. With them, our understanding of the universe and our interest in it grew.
With the help and direction of the Yukon Astronomical Society (YAS), Whitehorse is on track to have an observatory built less than 10 minutes from downtown.
The observatory and an accompanying nature and science centre is part of the Chadburn Lake Park Draft Plan.
“The idea of establishing an observatory here in Whitehorse has been in my heart for a number of years, ever since I moved to Whitehorse in 2007,” said Victor Zsohar, one of the co-founders of YAS.
Zsohar, an amateur astronomer for almost 30 years, first discovered his love for the sky in his home country of Hungary. In October 2015, he began the Society with Anthony Gucciardo and Catheryne Lord, both of whom have taught astronomy for over five years and are members of the Société d'astronomie du Planétarium de Montréal. Gucciardo and Lord shared Zsohar’s dream of an observatory and together they began to work toward it.
“We would like to help make Whitehorse the science capital of the north,” Zsohar says.
That’s one of the key goals behind the observatory.
“Besides the Yukon College, the presence of an astronomical observatory would lift the level Whitehorse is seen as a centre of science in the north.”
Presently, there are no public astronomical observatories in operation above the 60th parallel throughout the north, which, Zsohar explains, has left the north without a base for astronomy and space science.
The centre would provide a place where community members of all ages could discover and learn about the universe. In particular, Zsohar anticipates great benefits to students.
“We see great potential in astronomy and science education in Whitehorse. Especially, for the K-12 students, as they will now have the chance to discover their universe through first-hand experience.”
Getting students interested in science at a young age can help promote a choice of science- and technology-related careers later in life, Zsohar says.
“Pupils who engage in astronomy-related educational activities at a primary or secondary school are more likely to pursue careers in science and technology.”
The Chadburn Lake observatory and centre is only the first stage in YAS’s plans for bringing the universe to the Yukon.
“The development of an observatory at the Takhini Hot Springs will be our next stage of our growth,” Zsohar says. “Later, our hopes will be to develop the Grey Mountain Observatory along with the Chadburn Lake Park project. Both observatories will run simultaneously offering both Yukoners and tourists a variety of experiences and activities.”
The project is in its early planning phase. The society is a non-profit organization and is looking to partner with local businesses, funding agencies and other organizations such as Yukonstruct to move the plan forward and bring it to life. The development of the observatory and centre is expected to take three to five years from the time the Chadburn Lake Park project is approved.
Even without the observatory, YAS is actively teaching others about astronomy and nurturing the community’s love for the stars. With its 38 members, YAS holds bi-weekly astronomy workshops at the Yukon College every Monday between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
YAS offers programming to local organizations and has conducted public astronomical outreaches, such as the 2016 Mercury Transit event during the International Astronomy Week at Shipyards Park, the live broadcasting of the Juno spacecraft's Orbital Insertion from the Yukon College and guest speakers including a planetary scientist and orbital dynamicist from the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics on Exoplanets.
The membership fee for the Society is $90 per year and comes with free access to all of YAS’s workshops, observation sessions and events, as well as publications.
To learn more about the society, follow it on Twitter @YukonAstronomy and Facebook: Yukon Astronomical Society, or check out their website at www.YukonAstronomicalSociety.com.