A two-stage rocket departs for space on a clear day in Churchill. Photo by Ken Pilon.
By Tamika Reid, Volunteer Researcher, and Roland Sawatzky, Curator of History, Manitoba Museum
Churchill, Manitoba is well known for its scenic arctic landscape, polar bears, and vibrant northern lights, but did you know that Churchill was once home to the most active rocket range in Canada?
While the Churchill Rocket Range was in regular operation, between 1957 and 1985, Churchill hosted an international array of scientists, technicians, students, contractors, and military personnel. Through their pioneering studies, Manitoba has a permanent place in the history of early rocket development, and research into the mysteries of the upper atmosphere and aurora borealis. This work enriched humanity’s understanding of the thin layer surrounding our fragile planet.
Ken Pilon worked at the Churchill Rocket Range in the early 1980s as a meteorologist, supporting winter launches by providing crucial wind and temperature information. The northern climate made blizzards and high surface wind speeds a concern for launch trajectory. Pilon worked with a team of up to 60 people. “The hours and working conditions were extreme at times, but I never heard a single complaint from any of them,” said Pilon.
A recent episode of [email protected], a bi-weekly virtual program hosted by Planetarium Astronomer, Scott Young, featured Pilon’s artifacts and images. In response, a viewer from Colorado, Dr. Ron Estler, contacted the Museum and shared his experience as a graduate student at the Churchill Rocket Range, along with more photographs.
For six weeks in 1975, Estler was part of an Aerobee 150 rocket launch funded by NASA, through John Hopkins University. Studying Chemical Physics, Estler was tasked with overseeing electron spectrometers to be launched with the Aerobee, for analyzing the energy of electrons.
Having visited Churchill last March for the first time since working there as a student, Estler is already planning another trip north. On the way, he plans to visit the Manitoba Museum. “It will remind me that I played a very small role in something much bigger and fundamentally important to the knowledge of our own planet,” said Estler.
The Manitoba Museum is planning a future exhibit on the Churchill Rocket Range to highlight stories like these, and the role of the Rocket Range in space and science research. You can see a Black Brant V, a type of rocket also used at the Churchill Rocket Range, in the Science Gallery at the Manitoba Museum.
Tyndall Stone contains many beautiful fossil corals. (MM-I-3407)
By Dr. Graham Young, Curator of Geology and Paleontology, Manitoba Museum
When you hear the word “fossil”, you probably think of giant dinosaurs, or perhaps marine reptiles such as Morden’s “Bruce”, but fossils actually include all evidence of past life. Fossils may be the remains of plants or animals, such as leaves or bones, and they also can be tracks or traces made by animals. Fossils tell us about the evolution of life, the age of rocks, and the environments of the distant past.
The Ordovician seafloor diorama depicts sea life in the Winnipeg area about 450 million years ago.Manitoba is a big place, a bit bigger than France, and much of it is still poorly known. Fossil-rich rocks occur in many parts of Manitoba, and new discoveries are made every year, by both professional and amateur paleontologists.
For many Manitobans, the most familiar fossils are those in our beautiful limestones. On almost any block in Winnipeg you can see Tyndall Stone walls packed with fossils! Our limestones document the rise and fall of a series of warm, salty inland seas. Rocks from the Ordovician, Silurian, and Devonian periods of geological time, about 450 to 380 million years old, hold varied remains: corals, brachiopods (lamp shells), cephalopods (relatives of squids), trilobites (relatives of crustaceans), and other groups. These can be seen near Manitoba’s Great Lakes, in the Grand Rapids Uplands, and across the Hudson Bay Lowland.
Part of the skull of a Devonian age fossil fish (about 390 million years old), as it was in the field (left) and after preparation at the Manitoba Museum (right). (MM-V-3184)Anyone searching for fossils should know that Manitoba’s heritage laws protect fossils and archaeological artifacts. If you plan to do serious collecting, you should apply for a provincial Heritage Permit. If you find a significant fossil in bedrock, and you do not have a permit, please consider taking a photo, recording location information (such as latitude and longitude), and sharing that information with the Manitoba Museum or the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre, or with Manitoba Historic Resources.
To walk across private land to look for fossils, ask permission from the landowner. Fossil hunters should also take basic precautions – tell others where you are going, wear appropriate clothing, and carry water and food.
Manitoba Museum staff collecting fossils from a site near Churchill that has yielded some of the world’s oldest horseshoe crabs.
Dr. Graham Young, who has worked at the Manitoba Museum since 1993, recently received a significant honour. The trilobite species Glossopleura youngi, newly discovered in rocks in the Northwest Territories, was named for Dr. Young in a scientific publication by former student Neal Handkamer.
Discover more about fossils from Manitoba and beyond in the Museum Galleries and at Ultimate Dinosaurs! Open daily from 11 am to 5 pm.
Asteroids pass close to the Earth quite often, but most are small. A large asteroid approaching Earth is cause for concern. Image: NASA
By Scott Young, Planetarium Astronomer
At the Manitoba Museum, we know that just about everyone loves dinosaurs. It’s easy to understand why. Dinosaurs grew to enormous sizes, existed all over the planet, and ruled the Earth for about 165 million years. Then, they disappeared –all at once– about 66 million years ago.
We also know that everyone, deep down, feels a sense of awe when confronted with a night sky full of stars. Space is also huge, mind-blowing, and out of reach yet visible every clear night.
The story of dinosaurs is told in fossils that we find in the rocks here on planet Earth, but the ending was written out in space. The most obvious connection between dinosaurs and space occurred when the dinosaurs went extinct. The prevailing theory is that an asteroid crashed into the Earth, setting off a chain reaction of worldwide forest fires, ash clouds that caused rapid climate change, and a collapse of the ecosystem. Dinosaurs, and 75% of all other life on Earth, died out in only a year or so – just a blink in geological time.
How do we know that? Science!
Science has shown that new layers of rock are formed as the Earth ages, creating a timeline of the Earth’s geologic past. All over the world, there is a layer of rocks about 66 million years old that is rich in a rare element called iridium and has no dinosaur fossils above it. Something happened 66 million years ago, and dinosaurs coincidentally went extinct at precisely the same time.
The most likely source of iridium is an asteroid impact. Iridium is rare on Earth but quite common in asteroids. The 66-million-year-old rock layer is the “smoking gun” that proves the theory.
But what about the dinosaurs that DIDN’T go extinct?
By the time the asteroid hit, some dinosaurs were already evolving features like feathers. Even the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex might have had primitive feathers in spots. By the latter part of the age of dinosaurs, flying reptiles were common.
That’s right, every bird we see today has evolved from dinosaurs, and many bear a striking family resemblance to raptors. So, a chicken is basically a super-evolved dinosaur.
The Planetarium’s latest show for all ages, Dinosaurs: A Story of Survival, introduces a young girl who loves dinosaurs. She travels back to the age of dinosaurs and discovers what they were like, what happened to them, and how dinosaur descendants are still with us. We see flirting T. rexes, thundering sauropods, and the exploits of other dinosaurs. We also witness the asteroid impact that marked the end of 150 million years of dinosaur dominance over the planet.
There’s something powerful about seeing a real dinosaur fossil or a starry sky from a dark location. There’s a sense of wonder and a connection to where we came from. It’s also a reminder that everything changes.
The dinosaurs didn’t see change coming. Luckily, humans have access to technology that allows us to monitor our planet’s vital signs and see the whole world from space to understand how everything is interconnected. We can forecast change and maybe even intervene to prevent disasters before they occur. Space technology is one of the tools we have to help ensure that humans don’t also go the way of the dinosaurs.
See giants like Giganotosaurus and other rarely seen dinosaurs from the other side of the world.
By Dr. Graham Young, Curator of Geology & Paleontology
Several years ago, as a part of my efforts to keep in touch with other evolutionary scientists, I attended a paleontology conference at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. During that conference, I visited a new exhibition developed by ROM scientists, showing dinosaurs that lived on southern continents during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods of geological time. This region is now Africa, Madagascar, and South America, and the dinosaurs we saw were much less familiar than our North American Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops.
The scientific work was first rate, and new interpretive approaches made the Ultimate Dinosaurs immersive, informative, and exciting. When I returned to Winnipeg, I told people that it was the best dinosaur exhibition I had seen anywhere. I hoped that, some day, we would be able to show similar exhibits at the Manitoba Museum.
That “some day” has now arrived! Ultimate Dinosaurs will fill the Manitoba Museum’s Alloway Hall from May 21 to September 5. I am really looking forward to seeing those dinosaurs again: the long-necked Rapetosaurus, huge carnivorous Carnotaurus, likely fish-eater Suchomimus, and many other full-size dinosaur skeletons.
These giants are accompanied by displays and activities to engage visitors of all ages. There are animations and games explaining how continents moved through geological time, interactives that allow visitors to search for tiny microfossils, and touchable bronze casts. Other exhibit features include a couple that were favourites when I saw Ultimate Dinosaurs in Toronto. First, there are “augmented reality skin viewers” – tablets on stands that, when pointed at a dinosaur skeleton, allow the viewer to see the animal as it was in life, with explanation of the skin and muscles! The second is a “reactive wall” – video screens that show a forest environment during the time of dinosaurs. As you walk up to the wall, it seems as though there is little happening, but then you realize that animals are moving in their environment, reacting to your presence. I hope everyone will visit the Manitoba Museum to see Ultimate Dinosaurs, the most exciting and informative dinosaur exhibition we have had in all my years here!
Celebrate, investigate, and initiate change.
From April 22 – 24, the Manitoba Museum is offering three days of special programming to celebrate Earth Days 2022. Visitors are encouraged to investigate the effects of climate change and initiate change to protect the Earth.
Special Planetarium shows, a Green Energy Workshop in the Science Gallery, and the Earth Days Trail through the Museum Galleries reveal how water provides for and challenges Manitoba’s peoples, plants, and animals.
10 ways to learn about the Earth at the Manitoba Museum:
Are you curious about Earth Day? Are you inspired by nature? Are you concerned about climate change?
- Discover how much Manitoba has changed since the last Ice Age by watching the huge video projection in the Welcome Gallery.
- See the remarkable variety of now-extinct marine reptiles that once lived in the Cretaceous seas in the Earth History Gallery.
- Explore creatures found in and around Hudson Bay, including a polar bear in the Arctic and Subarctic Gallery.
- Examine insects, Earth’s most abundant creatures, and discover the fungi, nature’s recyclers, in the Boreal Forest Gallery.
- Learn about extinct animals, identify Manitoba’s diverse flowers, and hear the calls of wetland animals in the Parklands Gallery.
- Search for some of Manitoba’s burrowing animals, find out why the Passenger Pigeon is now extinct, and learn about prairie conservation in the new Prairies Gallery.
- Use an award-winning simulator to try to improve the health of Lake Winnipeg in the Science Gallery.
- Also in the Science Gallery, see a real rocket designed to study our atmosphere and models of other spacecraft that gather information about Earth.
- Catch the Planetarium show, Legends of the Northern Sky, and learn how the Indigenous peoples of the plains see the
sky as a tapestry of stories that reminds us of our relationship with the Earth.
- Watch the Ice Worlds Planetarium show and explore the many places in the solar system where ice exists and learn how it relates to life.
By Dr. Diana Bizecki Robson, Curator of Botany
During the pandemic, many people have experienced increased stress levels due to illness, work difficulties, and isolation. But many of us have discovered there is solace to be had in the natural world. In 1984, biologist E.O. Wilson noted that “biophilia”, or a “love of nature”, is a normal part of human psychology. We don’t just love nature; we need it for optimal health. A growing body of research has found that spending time outdoors, bringing nature indoors, and even experiencing it virtually improves health. It reduces chronic stress and accelerates healing. Even now, in the midst of winter, there are ways that we can de-stress by enjoying nature.
Spend time outside
Visiting a local park or natural area can improve your mood and boost immunity. Urban parks, such as Assiniboine Forest and Living Prairie Museum, are easy to get to by car or bus. If you can travel further abroad, skiing, snowshoeing, and winter hiking are ways to enjoy the province’s forests and prairies. And, even though our world is covered in snow, some plants can still be identified. Evergreen trees and shrubs retain their cones and don’t lose their leaves. Even deciduous woody plants can be identified by closely examining the leaf scars (places where leaves grew) on the stems. Relaxing post-hike activities might include sketching or painting (take pictures to help you remember what you saw) and writing about your experience in a nature journal.
Bring nature indoors
Growing houseplants is a great way to beautify your home and create a Zen-like space to relax in. In addition to their beauty, houseplants are known to remove organic air pollutants, like benzene and formaldehyde, released from carpeting and furniture.
Before getting any houseplants, assess your home’s light and humidity conditions. Note especially what direction your windows are facing. North- or east-facing windows are suitable for plants that need low or filtered light, such as Christmas Cactus (Schlumbergera spp.) or Weeping Fig (Ficus spp.) trees. West- or south-facing windows are good for succulents like Aloe (Aloe vera) and Burro’s Tail (Sedum morganianum). Some tropical plants, like
Staghorn Ferns (Platycerium spp.), need to be situated near a humidifier or misted regularly to do well.
Remember to buy only greenhouse-grown plants, not poached from the wild, as this behaviour is causing the endangerment of rare species, like orchids and cacti. Raising cuttings from your friends’ houseplants or participating in plant swaps are great ways to grow your collection sustainably, and it can save you lots of money, too!
Enjoy virtual nature
Psychological benefits can be obtained even from “virtual” nature. Viewing paintings of natural landscapes, nature documentaries, and Virtual Reality (VR) programs can induce feelings of peacefulness similar to being outside. For a more three-dimensional experience, consider a stroll through the Manitoba Museum’s galleries, where time is “frozen” in life-like dioramas that depict some of Manitoba’s most beautiful landscapes. The new Prairies Gallery also features a realistic wall projection depicting the four seasons on a pristine grassland.
Learn more about wild plants
Greater health benefits can be achieved by connecting with nature more deeply and using multiple senses. What do the plants feel like? Are the leaves smooth or covered with fuzzy or stiff hairs? What do they smell like? What sorts of animals interact with them? You can learn more about the characteristics of wild plants by studying field guides or checking out websites such as iNaturalist or the Manitoba Museum’s Prairie Pollination virtual
exhibit (PrairiePollination.ca). When you are ready to go hiking again, you’ll know which species you’re seeing and which are safe to touch or taste.
Taking the time to disconnect from our gadgets, and reconnect with the natural world, can be a highly beneficial addition to our self-care routines.
By Scott D. Young, Planetarium Astronomer
Why are people fascinated by the stars? Perhaps because we see ourselves reflected in them. The rotation of the Earth defines our days with the rising and setting of the Sun. Every culture throughout history has drawn its hopes and dreams in the night sky, developing its own constellations to help track the seasons. These cycles have defined the human experience throughout time, and the sight of a dark, starry sky still evokes wonder and awe.
The Manitoba Museum Planetarium is a space theatre, but really, it’s a starting point, a gateway to a life-long enjoyment of the natural world around us, with encouraging and enthusiastic guides to help you along the way. Planetarium visitors begin a friendship with the stars, which leads to a better understanding and appreciation of their place in the universe.
The Planetarium helps make science accessible and immersive, something you can do instead of something you hear about online. Manitoba Museum Planetarium visitors have gone on to win international science fairs, make astronomical discoveries, and even become Canadian astronauts. It’s not really about learning to find the Big Dipper – it’s about learning that the universe is predictable through the tools that science gives us. The Planetarium reminds us all that we can be active explorers of an amazing universe that is all around us and that we all have a role to play in its preservation.
Throughout history, people worldwide have looked at the same stars we see tonight, seeing the same Moon, the same planets. The sky truly is universal in its appeal. The stars bring people together. Across Manitoba and around the world, when pandemic restrictions shut down most events, the pastime of stargazing exploded in popularity. People were outside in socially-distanced groups or their household “bubbles,” looking at the constellations, tracking down the planets, watching for meteors and northern lights.
Pictured, right: [email protected] fans, Sébastien and Geneviève, learned how to explore the sky from their own backyard.
The Planetarium experienced a temporary closure early in the pandemic but quickly developed a way to bring our content online. Virtual field trips to the Planetarium started just three weeks after the closure, with schools connecting remotely to our DIGISTAR planetarium system. Our weekly astronomy show, [email protected], began in January 2021 and still runs live Thursday evenings. [email protected] provided families in isolation a way to explore together and be under the same stars at the same time.
Now the Planetarium has re-opened its domed theatre, eager to see the enthusiastic faces of visitors! The Planetarium will launch a brand-new feature show beginning December 26, Magic Globe. This full-dome experience will take you on a journey to explore the seasons as you never have before.
When you purchase tickets to the Planetarium, you’re not only embarking on an out-of-this-world experience, you’re also supporting the educational programming, events, and experiences that have been engaging Manitobans and making memories since 1968.
To really feel the vastness of the universe, sometimes all you have to do is look up. You can see some amazing sights from your backyard, but to get the best views you may need to travel a little. At Expedia.ca, we love getting lost in the beauty of the cosmos. When we learned that The Manitoba Museum’s Planetarium offers tours of the night sky in the planetarium show, “Live with the Stars,” we were inspired to find the best places and ways in Manitoba to witness the galaxy at its most glorious.
Stargazing is the greatest perk of visiting the great outdoors after the sun sets. Winnipeg has many wonderful parks in which to spend time after dark. Assiniboine Park is open 24 hours a day, and offers large light-free fields for great sky viewing. Other city parks close for at least part of the night, but provide a good view of the early evening sky.
Even better views are available farther from the bright lights of the city. Spruce Woods Provincial Park offers camping areas, so you can pitch your tent and stay all night. A spring-fed pond rests in a grove of spruce, providing a perfect canvas of reflected starlight. Nicknamed the Devil’s Punchbowl, it’s ironically the ideal spot to view the heavens.
At Beaudry Park, you may have unexpected fellow viewers. Owls, beaver, fox, and white-tailed deer are abundant in this forested prairie. Bring a canoe and paddle the Assiniboine River. Listen to the gentle water currents as the universe slowly spins overhead.
Feel like you’re within reaching distance at Birds Hill Park, where the viewing tower on Griffiths Hill will get you just that much closer to the sky. Ideal if you plan to bring a crowd, fully serviced campsites for groups of over 50 are on hand. Bundle up, settle in, and let the starry spectacle take your breath away.
Northern Astronomy in Churchill
Churchill enjoys some of the best views of the aurora borealis, or northern lights, on the planet. Vivid and intense, the northern lights are on serious display in this part of the country, which is located directly under the auroral oval. Because of this, the town is well equipped to offer premium viewing. Spectators can find heated viewing pods, observation platforms, and panoramic windows. Independent travelers can go it alone, but there are also guided tours for a deeper learning experience.
With aurora activity occurring more than 300 nights a year, there are plenty of opportunities to witness this fantastic spectacle. The perfect combination of a clear night, solar activity, and a prime viewing spot will leave you with the most brilliant display of vibrant purples, yellows, and greens.
Making Wishes in the Wilderness
There’s one big rule when trying to spot meteors: the darker the better. Get out of the city to cut light pollution for the clearest possible view. The liveliest showers are the Perseids during August, and the Geminids in December. While on dark nights you should be able to see at least a few meteors any time of year, these active showers provide more opportunities to wish upon a falling star. In the early evening, you generally see fewer meteors but they often stretch across the whole sky. After midnight and in the pre-dawn hours, the number of visible meteors increases, usually peaking just before dawn. A clear, moonless night from a dark location will offer the best views.
Whether you’re out for casual stargazing or on a mission to see aurora borealis, Manitoba has it down to a science. To prepare for your stargazing adventure, don’t forget to head to The Manitoba Museum to learn about what makes it all possible.