March 2020 will be a sky-watcher's delight: An astronomer on where to catch the celestial events in Canada

Stargazers, you may want to head to these spots for March break!

Stargazers, you may want to head to these spots for March break!

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

The popularity of astrotourism has skyrocketed in recent years, and Canada is a particularly great place from which to gaze toward the cosmos. 

Our country is home to the world's largest dark-sky preserve, Wood Buffalo National Park — a stretch of land larger than some countries, running from northern Alberta into the Northwest Territories. Large swaths of Canada also sit beneath the northern auroral oval, a halo of light circling the geomagnetic North Pole (yes, there is more than one North Pole), where the Northern Lights are most visible.

"We're pretty lucky in that most Canadians can get out of the big city into a very dark area pretty easily, so we're in a really good area for naked-eye stargazing," says astronomer Michael Reid, an associate professor in the University of Toronto's department of astronomy and astrophysics. "We also have a hugely active amateur astronomy community relative to a lot of places in the world. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada operates chapters all over the country. That means there's a lot of programming available for people who are interested in having someone guide them in how to view the sky."

March 2020 will be an especially exciting month for stargazers, he says, with elusive planets shifting into view and aurora borealis activity potentially ramping up around the vernal equinox. 

While celestial observation may traditionally be associated with the summer months, Reid explains that cooler temperatures can actually make for improved viewing conditions. "You can have this cold, dry air that just sits there, and so it gives you very clear skies," he says. "You get these really crisp, clear nights that allow you to see everything." 

The following heavenly March events, recommended by Reid, are worth bundling up for. Here are the best places to view them, plus places to stay if you'd like to plan a well-rounded stargazing vacation. 

The Northern Lights – throughout March

"Canada is well known for being a great place to see the Northern Lights," says Reid. "The idea is that particles from the sun flow toward the Earth, and they get trapped in the Earth's magnetic field, funnelled toward the poles and smash into atmosphere and light it up." He explains that the odds of seeing Northern Lights are higher around the vernal or spring equinox, which will fall on March 19 or 20 for countries in the northern hemisphere, when aurora activity ramps up as the magnetic fields of the sun and Earth align.

For a great view head to: Northern British Columbia. The Northern Lights are such a big deal in this part of the world that there's an entire festival dedicated to celebrating them, which runs from March 12 to 21 in the community of Fort Nelson. Muncho Lake Provincial Park, situated at the northern tip of the Rocky Mountains, is a particularly special place to enjoy the aurora borealis. Just off the Alaska Highway, the secluded shores of this park's namesake lake beautifully showcase the Northern Lights dancing between limestone peaks.

Set your stargazing alarm for: The three hours before and after midnight. Reid recommends monitoring, which offers live aurora updates. 

Settle in at: Northern Rockies Lodge. This lovely family-owned property on the edge of Muncho Lake is the perfect place for an adventurous stargazing retreat. Enjoy some serious comfort food at the on-site restaurant, pop into the property's wood-fired sauna, then take an invigorating snow bath to prime yourself for a night of aurora-spotting. 

The evolution of Betelgeuse – throughout March

"There's this kind of neat thing going on with the star Betelgeuse," says Reid. "Orion is a constellation a lot of people know; it's got this famous belt, and I think it's probably the one most people know after the Big Dipper. [Orion has] got this great, big, bright red star in it that has been bright red for as long as anyone can remember, but not anymore." Reid explains that what was once one of the brightest stars in the sky rapidly started dimming in December 2019. This occurrence had many astronomers speculating that it might be on the verge of going supernova. However, instead of blowing up, Betelgeuse strangely started perking up at the end of February. 

For a great view head to: Central Ontario. While Betelgeuse is visible from nearly everywhere on Earth, Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve — made up of around 1,900 light pollution–free hectares of Crown land — is a particularly great place to study this fascinating star's transformation. Its Gravenhurst location also makes it easily accessible for Toronto-area sky-watchers.

Set your stargazing alarm for: Anytime after sundown.

Settle in at: JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka Resort & Spa. This cottage-country resort, located roughly 40 kilometres from Torrance Barrens, offers luxurious accommodations and stargazing excursions with local naturalist Robin Tapley. Tapley runs tours from the resort to both the dark-sky preserve and the Echo Valley Observatory in nearby Huntsville.

Saturn, Mars, Jupiter and the moon together – March 18

"Around March 18, roughly, the moon will be crescent, and Saturn, Jupiter and Mars will all be smack-dab together in the sky in the southeast … when there are three of them together in the sky [they're] much more obvious. They're bright — much brighter than most stars — and they're … a little bit more colourful," says Reid. "Mars is noticeably red, and Saturn and Jupiter are kind of more white-ish but sufficiently bright that you definitely notice that they are brighter than everything else around them." 

For a great view head to: Southern Quebec. "Mont-Mégantic National Park in Quebec [contains] probably the nation's best public-outreach telescope facility," says Reid. "It's [in] a beautiful location and it's got a ton of programming." The Mont-Mégantic International Dark Sky Reserve is the first international dark-sky reserve to be certified by the International Dark-Sky Association and has been called one of the best places on Earth to observe the night sky. 

Set your stargazing alarm for: Just before dawn (roughly 6 a.m.).

Settle in at: Auberge et Chalets sur le Lac. Located between 40 and 50 kilometres from Mont-Mégantic National Park, depending on which route you take, this charming lakeside property offers an Earth to the Stars package that includes a one-night stay and a ticket for an evening experience at the park's popular ASTROLab

Mercury's greatest elongation – March 24

"[It's] greatest elongation is when the angle between the planet and the sun is biggest," Reid explains. "It's usually quite difficult to see Mercury because it's so close to the sun … But if it's at its farthest extent away from the sun, then just after the sun dips below the horizon, Mercury will still be up and you can spot it before it also goes below the horizon, or the reverse in the morning — it will come up a little before the sun comes up."

For a great view head to: Coastal Nova Scotia. Reid recommends facing the sunrise and picking a spot with an unobstructed view. "Nice clear views to the east make it easier to see," he says.

Set your stargazing alarm for: Just before sunrise.

Settle in at: White Point Beach Resort. With beachfront cottages looking straight out into the Atlantic, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better vantage point for viewing the sky at sunrise. In addition to offering seaside bonfires and winter surf lessons, this year-round resort also has March Break programming, which includes an outdoor journey to explore the night skies hosted by a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Venus's greatest elongation – March 24

Compared to Mercury, Reid says Venus is quite easy to spot. "It's the sort of thing that makes people phone in UFO sightings a lot because it's so crazy bright. If you've never paid attention to it, you look at it and think, 'What on earth is that?' So it's completely unmistakable."

For a great view head to: Western Alberta. Venus will appear on the western horizon, and Jasper National Park's Dark-Sky Preserve — the second-largest dark-sky preserve in the world, measuring more than 11,000 square kilometres — is perfectly situated for observation of the shimmering refracted light of Earth's beautiful sister planet. 

Set your stargazing alarm for: Sunset.

Settle in at: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. With an on-site planetarium, dark sky–friendly lighting and regular astronomical programming, this luxury mountain resort is among Canada's premier stargazing destinations. Resort guests and planetarium visitors will have access to guided virtual tours of the galaxy by an astronomy expert.

"If you go to these parks, you'll get spectacular sights," says Reid. "One thing that's essentially impossible to see in the city is our galaxy. Most people have never seen the Milky Way, and it's glorious and wonderful. It's a huge band of light across the sky."

But Reid is quick to point out that all of the sights above, minus the Northern Lights, can be seen from just about anywhere in the country — if your view is unobstructed, you're in a sufficiently dark location and your timing is right — so staycation-ing stargazers need not be discouraged. For optimum viewing, he recommends packing binoculars on your trek, putting smartphones away, and giving your eyes at least 10 minutes to adjust to the darkness.

Jen O'Brien is an award-winning editor and freelance writer based in Toronto. Follow her @thejenobrien

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