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Fort Smith to get new 'urban star park'
Enclosure will give Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society a sheltered area to set up telescopes all year round

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Saturday, August 8, 2015

With the Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society's Dark Sky Festival fast approaching, the society is releasing information about its proposed new observatory.

NNSL photo/graphic

Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society chair Mike Couvrette poses with a telescope in 2014. Couvrette has identified a piece of land for the society to build a new, all-weather observatory which he refers to as an "urban star park." - NNSL file photo

It is planned to be built on land they society hopes to lease near the upper air station at the Fort Smith Airport. The new building is expected to cost about $25,000 with funding coming from the territorial government's Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment as well as local fundraising efforts.

Mike Couvrette is chair of the society and is heading up the project.

"We're referring to the new observatory and the land around it as an urban star park. We're hoping to get it recognized by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada," Couvrette said. "It has already recognized Wood Buffalo National Park as a dark sky preserve and we're confident that our new park will meet those standards."

Couvrette said that the observatory will make things a lot easier for star-gazers.

"Right now we just go out and set up in a field or a yard," he said.

Wood Buffalo received the dark sky preserve designation in 2013 due to its large population of bats, night hawks and owls as well as providing excellent opportunities for visitors to experience the aurora borealis and crystal clear views of the Northern sky. It is the largest dark sky preserve in the world, according to Parks Canada.

Couvrette said that they will try to keep the ambient light at the observatory to a minimum to enhance the night sky viewing experience.

"We want it as dark as possible, realizing Fort Smith - the community itself - is within two kilometres of the site, there is light glow, light pollution generated by the community. But if you look at a (night time) satellite photograph, taken 22,000 kilometres about the earth, Fort Smith only shows up as a dot. Yellowknife on the other hand is a relatively big dot," Couvrette said.

The observatory would be made up of two rooms, one for the observatory with a roll-up roof and an adjoining warming room. The observatory room would be 12 feet by 16 feet.

It is hoped that the structure can be built by October so that it can be used this winter, Couvrette said.

"Once it's 20 C below outside you really don't want to be standing around out in the open with a telescope whereas the observatory would have six-foot walls around you to keep you out of the wind and hopefully you can spend more time using the telescope," Couvrette said.

The observatory would allow for two telescopes at a time to be used.

"We also have some equipment that would allow us to attach a special camera to the telescope and it will project an image onto a monitor," Couvrette said.

The observatory would be used by society members but the general public would also have access to it for a small admission fee, Couvrette said.

The fourth annual Dark Sky Festival takes place in Fort Smith from August 21 to 24.

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