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Planetarium manager says ‘good-bye glaciers, and hello heat waves’

Peter McMahon has discovered a new horizon.
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Peter McMahon will always have his eyes to the skies, but a part of his heart will stay in Jasper even after his move to the U.S. | Supplied / Peter McMahon

The man who ran the Jasper Planetarium for nearly nine years and helped create the Jasper Dark Sky Festival has accepted the position of manager of Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center near Tucson, Arizona.

“While I'm going to miss the pristine night skies here in Jasper, I'm excited about this new adventure,” McMahon said.

Opened in 1958, Kitt Peak is a federally funded research centre that also allowed public tours and stargazing opportunities. It has more than 20 optical and two radio telescopes, making it one of the largest gatherings of astronomical instruments in the northern hemisphere.

One of the largest research scopes on the mountain is the size of the Statue of Liberty. It has been decommissioned and added to the suite of four observatories that the Kitt Peak Visitor Center gets to use for public tours.

“I'll be overseeing those four huge telescopes as well as the science center displays of the Visitor Center and its staff,” McMahon said.

He will never forget how his success in Jasper started. He was on his way to cover the Vancouver Olympics for CTV News online when he met Gloria Keyes-Brady from Parks Canada at The Whistle Stop.

Their discussion turned to dark sky preserves, and he commented how Jasper was dark enough that it could qualify as an “astronomy park,” but some changes would be needed.

Six months later, he was helping take sky quality meter readings from the Athabasca Glacier to backcountry sites while he was writing a cover story for Canadian Geographic on Jasper's dark sky aspirations. Within the year of that conversation, the Royal Astronomical Society in Canada designated Jasper National Park as the world's largest dark sky preserve.

The Jasper Dark Sky Festival has just finished another record year, it’s 13th annual celebration.

McMahon remembered the many special guests and events held as part of the festival. In particular, he recalled the comments made by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield who he had met a few times before when he was writing scripts for the YouTube videos that Hadfield did in orbit.

After Hadfield was announced as the headline speaker for the Jasper Dark Sky Festival, he made a promotional video for his appearance. Talking about the things he hoped to do in Jasper, he said, “Maybe I'll get the chance to see some great views of the sky, and maybe I'll even run into Dark Sky Guy Peter McMahon.”

“At the time, that part sounded so random, but I've since realized he was acknowledging that this was happening in no small part because of initiatives I took,” McMahon said.

The festival ended up being the catalyst for creating the Jasper Planetarium, and McMahon was brought in to “stick-handle” the creation of a dome space theatre in 2015.

“Eventually, after local input, it turned into something that was exclusive to Jasper that tens of thousands of people a year now enjoy. One of the tour directors who gave feedback on early versions of the planetarium experience I created said, ‘I can see a planetarium show anywhere, but this is the story of Jasper in a planetarium’.”

He expressed his gratitude to the planetarium’s main host, Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, for these past wonderful years.

No one has approached him about being a festival guest himself – at least not yet – but he does have ideas worth exploring. He said that he'd love to come back in a future October, adding that he will always hold Jasper, the planetarium and the festival all dearly in his heart and thoughts.

“The chances of seeing an aurora there are effectively zero, so if I ever start missing the Northern Lights, I'll have to come back to Jasper for a visit.”