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Annual festival looking up
Fort Smith dark sky event celebrates astronomy and science

Elaine Anselmi
Northern News Services
Friday, August 14, 2015

Four years in, the Fort Smith Dark Sky Festival is looking to another celebration of astronomical appreciation.

NNSL photo/graphic

Professor Quark, centre, works on a science experiment with children at the Circus of Science during the 2014 festival. - photo courtesy of Bill Braden

The festival is held by the Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society, in partnership with Wood Buffalo National Park. The park that straddles the border between the Northwest Territories and Alberta was designated the world's largest dark sky reserve in 2013 by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Since 2011, the society has hosted its annual dark sky celebration at Pine Lake.

"Originally, the idea was there was a few of us that were fairly avid astronomers and we were looking at having a bunch of us going out together and doing a weekend of observing," said Mike Couvrette, chair of the society, adding that these sort of events are generally referred to as "star parties" across Canada.

"We thought, well, we have a proper astronomical society here and at the time we were also working with Wood Buffalo National Park on having Wood Buffalo National Park designated as a dark sky preserve. We knew it was sort of pretty well going to happen, so we thought let's do a little bit of a celebration and get a party going and see how many people from the community are interested in participating."

In its first year, the festival drew approximately 20 people, Couvrette said, which doubled to between 40 and 45 people in its second year, and doubled again in the third. This year, he said they are aiming to have just more than 100 people and Tim Gauthier, partnering, engagement and communications officer with Parks Canada said in an e-mail that registrants were coming from across western Canada.

"Highlighting the dark sky viewing opportunities is something that is special about Wood Buffalo and a great way to experience the park," Gauthier wrote. "We work with partners to offer programming related to astronomy, sky observation, aboriginal cultural stories of the night sky and shows in our planetarium."

Seeing success in the initial festival, the society expanding programming to include an in-town component for those looking to take part but not up for a weekend of camping at Pine Lake, said Couvrette. This included the Circus of Science for children and a science academy for older youth.

This year, two speakers will be a part of the event, Michelle Nichols - a liaison for NASA out of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago - and Yuichi Takasaka, celebrated astro-photographer who will speak about his work and host a workshop on night photography.

The festival is a major event for the park, Gauthier said, and new features are in the works on his end as well.

"This year, we will feature our new Sky Circle, which we built in the park at our Dark Sky Observation Site at Pine Lake," said Gauthier. "This special structure looks like a hexagonal stage with a central cement section for placing telescopes and special seating all around the edge for people to look up at the night sky."

Engaging the community is one of the major focuses for both organizers of the festival. "We refer to ourselves as sidewalk astronomers," said Couvrette. "We want people to actually come out and use telescopes. We're doing a large focus on public outreach."

With major sponsorship from Northwestern Air and the Northwest Territories Power Corporation, as well as some local businesses, the festival will run from Aug. 21 to 24 and Couvrette emphasized the importance of registering early.

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