Starfest: Deep Space Shrine

By Ned Morgan

Grey County’s Starfest – North York Astronomical Association’s annual astronomy conference – ranks as one of the world’s top-ten “dark sky” events.

Photo courtesy NYAA/Malcolm Park.
Photo courtesy NYAA/Malcolm Park.

Though full of booths, talks, activities and workshops, it is as much a camp-out as a conference; River Place Park, the campground taken over for one long weekend every August by the NYAA, boasts a shining multitude of RVs and tents and a massed army of astronomical hardware pointed skyward. This is a dark-sky star party where white lights are banned and star-gazers, astronomers and astro-photographers congregate during one of the optimum times of year to observe deep space.

NYAA President Malcolm Park waxes eloquent on why this time of year is ideal (apart from the obvious warm-weather advantage for camping out under the stars). “If you look to the south,” he says, “that’s where the most deep-sky objects are found. You can see the thickness and depth in the Milky Way – if you imagine our galaxy as a massive spiral with a central core, that would be it. So we’re in an outer arm looking in towards the centre. The constellation Sagittarius almost looks like a teapot, with the Milky Way rising like steam out of the teapot. And there are nebulae, globular clusters, and multi-coloured stars that abound there that we can take pictures of – only at this time of year.”

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The Milky Way above the Starfest campground. Photo courtesy NYAA/Malcolm Park.
The Milky Way above the Starfest campground. Photo courtesy NYAA/Malcolm Park.


Timelapse video of last year’s Starfest by Malcolm Park.

Before nightfall, the multitudes milling around the main tent between presentations talk about plenty of matters astronomical but also about the enemy, the great spoiler in the sky: clouds. There could be cloud cover coming from the west after midnight, says a weather report. It’s almost dark; high time to hunker down for some no-nonsense observing and imaging.

Rosette Nebula. Photo by David A. Dev at Starfest, 2011. Courtesy Starfest Facebook page.
Rosette Nebula. Photo by David A. Dev at Starfest, 2011. Courtesy Starfest Facebook page.

Jim Kendrick from Toronto waits for dusk to gather surrounded by a gleaming arsenal of expensive-looking telescopic apparatuses. He says he’ll be shooting the globular cluster M13 tonight, which is in the constellation Hercules. As Kendrick explains, most of the people observing and taking photos here tonight are using optics that not so long ago only NASA had access to.

Jim Kendrick's hardware. MATTHEW ROSS PHOTO.
Jim Kendrick’s hardware. MATTHEW ROSS PHOTO.

As darkness falls we catch a short chat with Malcolm Park before he retreats into his observation tent. Park’s day job is at a bank in Toronto. “My interest in astronomy was rekindled in my forties,” he says. “I was looking for a hobby and I bought a small, inexpensive telescope. And it evolved into astrophotography …. What we’re taking pictures of tonight will be the same things you’d see on NASA websites, in the Hubble Image Gallery. The difference is that the Hubble [Space Telescope] is in a better place and is a higher-tech instrument, but at the end of the day, we can see the same things.”

Park plans to observe and shoot the so-called Cigar Galaxy tonight, as well as the Dumbbell and Veil Nebulae. Park adds that anyone can observe deep space objects with mere binoculars. “In the Orion constellation there are three stars in the belt and a sword hanging below. The middle star of the sword is not a star – it’s a nebula. If you get a pair of good binoculars, when Orion comes up – which tonight would be about 4:30 in the morning – you’ll find there’s this diffuse, gassy, black and white smudginess all around it, and that’s a nebula.”

Mosaic of the Orion Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Mosaic of the Orion Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Light pollution is a growing problem for events such as Starfest that lie relatively close to major urban centres. “Light pollution is an issue that needs to be addressed as much as air pollution or noise pollution,” says Park. “It’s so easy to deal with light pollution, if people were just educated on what they’re missing. Unfortunately, over time people have forgotten.” Full-cutoff lighting – where a shade forces the beams of outdoor lights down so they don’t pollute upward – is a regulation that Park and others we spoke to at Starfest argued passionately for. Starfest is not inside a dark sky preserve with outdoor lighting bylaws, though there’s one not too far away near Lion’s Head, and at Torrance Barrens in Muskoka and Gordon’s Park on Manitoulin Island. “These places have recognized the tourism value of dark-sky places,” says Park. “Look around: there are 800 people here, simply marveling at the universe.”

Starfest happens August 8-11. Speakers at this year’s Starfest include NASA Scientist Emeritus Fred Espenak. Starfest is a camping weekend; day trippers are discouraged. Overall attendance fee is not reduced for short stays. Walk-ups are fine, and people can register onsite. Membership in NYAA is not required. Serviced camping sites are usually all taken by July, but tent sites are available. During nighttime observing and imaging, white lights are banned. Astronomers use dark-sky-friendly faint red lights to move around. The program attends to the needs of all levels, including beginners.

Check out Grey County’s Summer bucket list here.

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