Enthusiasts explore new galaxies at Dark Sky Festival

Like a nebula gathering particles and energy to form a new star, a flurry of activities and people came perfectly together for a fantastic third annual Dark Sky Festival.

From Aug. 21 to 25, Fort Smith and Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP) were the launchpads for a weekend of scientific exploration with Canada’s first female astronaut Roberta Bondar and space author and journalist Peter McMahon. The weekend was a collaborative effort, initiated by the Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Astronomy Society (TAWBAS), Parks Canada and Aurora College.

McMahon kicked things off on Thursday with a talk called “Space Tourism for Kids 9 to 99”, where he discussed the future of space travel and its relative affordability. McMahon has been coming to WBNP for about a year or so, and said that traveling to the dark sky preserve at Pine Lake has made a strong impression on him.

“There are 19 dark sky preserves in Canada; 40 in the world,” McMahon said. “I would say this is the coolest one. I would say that if I were to make a list of my five favourite astronomy experiences, my favourite one was being here for the first time last year and seeing the northern lights above the Salt Plains.

“I was fascinated by the fact that we were looking at this IMAX screen and we are literally seeing the sun touch the earth – that’s what anyone is looking at when they see the northern lights,” he continued. “You’re seeing our local star reaching out across 150 million kilometres of space and tickling the Earth’s atmosphere 100 km above.”

Roberta Bondar also gave a presentation on Friday evening.

“What I wanted to do, because it’s the Dark Sky Festival, was I wanted to talk about space flight and basically talk about how the sky belongs to everyone. Anyone can look up to look into the sky and we see it as really our entrance into the universe,” she said.

“There are very few of us in Canada who have flown to space, so to interact with the public to me is really a sacred responsibility, a sacred trust,” Bondar said. “It’s really enjoyable, this kind of day out here when you’ve got kids interacting with robots and doing all these kinds of fun things.”

Bondar started coming to WBNP before it was a dark sky preserve, and was even a part of the endeavour to turn WBNP into a UNESCO World Heritage site. An ambassador of the whooping cranes, she enjoys coming to Fort Smith and viewing the wildlife.

During the day Friday, youth attending the festival were treated to science experiment displays, one of which included creating a mini comet that hovered around -80 degrees celsius.

Kids were also given a Lego MindStorm EV3 kit to compete in the Aurora College-sponsored ARI Science academy competition, where they built robots that were required to complete a series of tasks.

The kids launched their machines on Saturday, demonstrating them in between mini-rocket launches, water games in the lake and space-themed crafts. Aurora College representatives were so pleased with the event they are currently planning an after-school program based on the idea of keeping kids playing and learning about science.

On Saturday night, McMahon gave a second presentation, where he took the audience on a celebrity tour of the sky. From “Futurama to Star Trek, Harry Potter to Star Wars”, McMahon listed off references to the night sky in the shows, showing where they were and weren’t realistic.

After the presentation, the crowds mosied over to a block of telescopes, set up to highlight nebulas and galaxies far, far away, to look for the constellations McMahon had mentioned in his presentation. The night was clear and the conditions were excellent for stargazing.

Kids were handed glowsticks before telling ghost stories around a campfire, eventually making their way to their campsites and heading to bed as the aurora glowed green overhead like the world’s biggest night light.

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