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Jasper Planetarium to offer both virtual and in-person tours

The Pleiades star cluster is one of many incredible sights you may see during a new virtual stargazing tour through the Jasper Planetarium. (Jasper Planetarium photo)

By Joanne McQuarrie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/Jasper Fitzhugh

Looking up into the great expanse of the sky from your backyard can be amazing. But what about an even closer look at what’s out there – stars, meteors, auroras and more? 

That can happen when you register for either an in-person or virtual tour with the Jasper Planetarium, with virtual tours launching after the first week of February.

With the goal of providing a tour in these COVID times with social distancing and other protocols, four telescopes were added to the one already in place earlier this year, said general manager Peter McMahon.

“We always had the capability to showcase video-based views of the sky,” McMahon said in an email. “We’ve used this for summer, fall and winter 2020 and now 2021 to provide a touchless telescope experience for in-person guests.”

But the planetarium team wanted to go further.

“Because of a bunch of factors, we are facing a situation where we’ll have less ability to interact with customers, so we (considered) what other products (we could) create, purchase, if people can’t come here, because of health restrictions,” McMahon said.

The virtual tour was created to allow people who aren’t in Jasper to do stargazing from their living rooms, whether they’re in Alberta, Canada or somewhere else in the world.

“Unlike a lot of virtual tours, this is an actual live, face-to-face virtual experience,” McMahon said. “There seems to be a great spectrum of what’s considered a virtual tour. In some cases, you interact with the tour guide on camera or via text.”

In the case of the Jasper Planetarium, the tour starts with a version of the planetarium experience formatted for the device participants have at home.

“When (people) log in to participate in this tour, they’ll see… the planetarium formatted in a rectangle shape so it fills the whole screen,” McMahon said.

The tour is interactive. During the first part, which lasts about 20 minutes, staff will show a model of how the aurora works.

“We also have a collection of meteorites (including) a tiny chunk from an explosion over Russia in 2013,” McMahon said.

“We also have a moon rock and a rock from Mars. In person, you get to handle those. Online, you get to see these up close. All the while, you can ask questions via a text. There’ll be separate staff members to answer questions. Type your question and that staff member will answer it.”

The second part, which lasts about 20-25 minutes, is the actual telescope portion where the camera is on one of the staff members at a telescope. There’s another camera looking through the telescope with an eyepiece attached to it. 

“(That camera) slots into the tube and sees what you would see, with more clarity (because) the camera can absorb more light than your eye can,” McMahon said. “It’s like a live TV broadcast. You can also turn on your camera and speak face-to-face with a staff member.”

The planetarium team has done several test runs of the virtual tour with family and friends, and received great feedback. 

“Our nephew received excellent care at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton,” McMahon said. “Because we’re so grateful for that, we’re reaching out to the Stollery to offer these tours to patients and their families, this coming week. We did it already before Christmas for a child whose family contacted us.”

The young lad saw the Christmas Star alignment with Jupiter and Saturn, “one of the most moving nights we’ve had,” McMahon said. “That was the moment we realized we could do this live.”

More information about tours can be found at jasperplanetarium.com

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