Professor Quark (aka Scott Lough) had a bucket of dry ice beside him, a gaggle of kids around him, honey, Windex and water on the table, and a bag of fruit waiting in the wings. He and his half-pint assistants were about to cook up a comet at the Thebacha & Wood Buffalo Dark Sky Festival.
This was one of the family activities at the annual three-day festival, which is organized by the Thebacha & Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society (www.tawbas.ca). It’s held in Fort Smith and Wood Buffalo National Park at the end of August, when the summer skies in the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve become dark enough to see the stars in the night sky.
After creating a comet, Professor Quark arranged different-sized fruits, from a grape for Earth to a watermelon-sized sun, to create planets. Then participants cut them up. “Don’t eat Neptune’s skin,” the professor told a child holding a kiwi. “What planet are you cutting?” I asked a little girl slicing up cantaloupe. “Saturn,” she replied without missing a beat. “Pass me Jupiter,” a man told his son seconds later. Once the task was completed, the kids spooned up the solar system fruit salad and ate it.
This year’s event kicked off with wilderness astronomer Peter McMahon’s (www.wildernessastronomy.com) keynote presentation about space tourism. He also delivered a session on celebrity references to the night sky. I dubbed him “Rocket McMahon” for firing off rockets at the Pine Lake dark sky observation site, to the delight of the crowd. Wood Buffalo National Park offered a tour of legends of the night sky inside their portable planetarium.
Stargazing took on new meaning with the appearance of Dr. Roberta Bondar, Canada’s first female astronaut. Her presentation included a highly entertaining description of how to use a toilet in space. All I will tell you is that it involves a camera. On a more serious note, Bondar also judged a youth science competition which was held in collaboration with the Aurora Research Institute. Each team used Lego Mindstorm to create a robot.
When the sun went down, the festival site turned into a colourful glow stick village. Even the legs of large telescopes were ringed with colours. That’s when the stars, galaxies and spectacular Aurora came out to play.