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Silent Nights, Starry Nights Uniquely Rural

“Kids from rural areas will more likely know the skies.”

– JaCQUes boUrGeois

or centuries, songs, prayers and incantations surrounding the main Christian holiday have mentioned

a star.

What exactly was this Star of Wonder

spoken of in just a few, fragmentary lines of scripture, and for which early astronomers left no record?

The question is raised during a talk on winter constellations held at Oak Hammock Marsh in mid-December, an event marking 2009 International Year of Astronomy.

“We can’t absolutely rule out that it was a bright new shining star in the sky,” replies Gerry Smerchanski, a Teulonbased amateur astronomer and member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) (Winnipeg Centre) hosting the talk.

But even though star gazing is noted as the earliest science and had become a sophisticated field of study in many cultures at the time of King Herod’s reign, astronomers or “wise men” left no record of Novas, or exploding stars.


One prominent theory is that the Star of Bethlehem was not actually a single, bright star, but an exceedingly rare conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Venus. Early astronomers did not distinguish planets

from stars. So these two planets, which are among the brightest objects of the sky would have been interpreted as stars, says Smerchanski.

Powerful planetarium software that literally turns back time to show positions of planets thousands of years ago has reinforced the planet theory.

It depicts how, on mid-June 10, 2 BC, over the course of just a few hours, there does appear to have been the extraordinary event of Jupiter and Venus coming close together to the point where they appeared to overlap in the sky.

No doubt, the sight of this would have transfixed ancient astronomers, says Smerchanski. Modern astronomers would pursue better vantage points if this were happening now.

“This kind of alignment of planets doesn’t happen for tens of thousands of years. Anyone who was interested in the sky at that time would have been supremely impressed with this because they’d never have seen anything like it. And we haven’t seen anything like it since.”


But we moderns have seen other stunning celestial sights. The studies of those


International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009) is a global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to society and culture. IYA events have been stimulating worldwide interest, especially among young people, in astronomy and science under the central theme “The Universe, Yours to Discover.”

mission of the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is to preserve and protect the nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies through environmentally responsible outdoor lighting.

Based on a numerical weather model, the Clear Sky Charts found on this site are perhaps the most accurate and the most usable forecasters of astronomical observing conditions for over 1,900 observatories and observing sites in North America.

On January 21, 2010 at 7 p. m. another Astronomy Night will be held at Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre. For more information contact (204) 467-3300.

“wise men from the East” and astronomers from all parts of the world eventually enabled explorers to navigate not just in daylight, but also by the stars, thanks to the painstakingly detailed maps of the sky they prepared over the centuries.

Today, with the help of those maps, even a first-timer turning eyes heavenward can identify the ever-changing seasonal constellations above. In winter, these include the Winter Octagon, Gemini and Orion.

Power ful telescopes and other technology developed for peering into space allow us jaw-dropping glimpses of the heavens unimaginable to our predecessors – such as planets and faraway galaxies, massive exploding super stars and clusters of newborn baby stars alike. Astronomers call the latter “stellar nurseries.” In Orion, they’ve detected stars younger than the span of human’s time on earth, notes Smerchanski.


International Year of Astronomy 2009 coincides with the 400th anniversary of the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei’s first peek at the heavens through a telescope, and the astounding revelations that followed.

Throughout the year, professional and amateur astronomers globally have hosted public talks and star-gazing events, opening up the opportunity for tens of thousands to have their own “Galileo Moment” – that first awe-inspiring glimpse at something so much bigger than themselves.

Yet, even as professional and amateur astronomers share their heavenly hobby with delighted audiences, they’re also sounding an alarm.

Dark skies are disappearing. More accurately, our ability to see them is becoming impaired.

The light of the world humanity now lives amidst is anything but the scriptural kind.


It is light pollution, emanating from ever-expanding city lights across the entire planet. In many places on earth, night never grows dark anymore. Starry skies are obscured. Sights like the arc of the Milky Way are invisible. Millions born and raised in cities never see it in their lifetime.

The disappearing night sky has troubled astronomers for decades, and not just for the loss of scientific and esthetic resources. Mounting evidence now shows artificially lit skies have detrimental global impacts, from knocking migratory species off course, to impairing the health of humans.

Exposure to bright light at night has been shown to disrupt human’s biological rhythms causing depression and poor cognition. Scientists say too much light is impairing the nighttime navigational capacities of many species of birds and other migratory creatures.


The International Dark-Sky Association is a worldwide, non-profit member organization teaching others how to preserve the night sky. It has international collaborators working to establish special protection areas for natural night skies around the world, including Canada.

Potential protected areas can be places wherever exceptional starry night skies arch overhead – communities and parks and even private lands.

The initiative even classifies sky quality by its degree of darkness – gold for near-natural conditions, silver for exemplary night skies, bronze if the Milky Way is still visible.

It would appear many rural Manitobans are still fortunate to live beneath gold and silver skies – at least for now.

Web resources like c l e a rda rk s k,whi c h forecasts astronomical observing conditions, show a dome of light over places like Winnipeg; the further away from cities, the darker and blacker night skies become.


Places such as the Parklands and around Riding Mountain National Park and in the southwestern and southeastern corners of Manitoba still grow dark at night.

Jacques Bourgeois, an events and marketing co-ordinator at Oak Hammock Marsh and lifetime sky watcher, says children’s sky awareness often tells him whether they’re from city or country.

“It really shows in the (Oak Hammock) school programs,” Bourgeois says. “I’ll ask, ‘can you point out the north star?’ or, ‘where is the Big Dipper?’ Kids from rural areas will more likely know the skies,” he says. Not so, for the majority of those growing up where it never grows dark.

It’s pause for thought. Ancient people, humble and learned alike, looked to the night sky 2,000 years ago and knew a rare celestial sight when they saw one.

Would we? [email protected]

About the author


Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.



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