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Aurora science at heart of Yellowknife’s second Naka Festival


The technology of aurora research and the lessons of Dene astronomy are two pillars of this week’s Naka Festival, a celebration of the northern lights taking place across Yellowknife and Dettah.

The Naka Festival, launched for the first time last year as a partnership between the City of Yellowknife and Yellowknives Dene, began on Monday and runs until Saturday, March 7.

On Tuesday, leading Canadian space researcher Dr David Knudsen presents on the “frontiers of auroral science” in a free science evening at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre from 7pm.

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Chris Cannon, a PhD student who has worked with a range of Dene communities, joins Fred Sangris on Friday and Saturday to offer insights into traditional northern Dene astronomical knowledge.

An arts market runs Tuesday-Thursday from 11:30am till 5:30pm in Centre Square Mall’s upper level, while the festival culminates in an Indigenous cultural gala at Dettah’s Chief Drygeese Centre on Saturday evening.

More: Naka Festival schedule and ticket information

The festival, which also offers northern lights photography workshops and a rane of other cultural events, is designed to offer a new, week-long experience based on the aurora for residents and tourists alike.

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In his Tuesday evening presentation, Dr Knudsen will tell his audience there remain “some key links in the chain that are missing, scientifically,” when it comes to our understanding of how the aurora borealis works.

“We don’t know what’s causing the forms, the shapes, and what’s really providing the energy,” Knudsen, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, told Cabin Radio.

“Out in space, just a little ways beyond our atmosphere, something’s going on that we haven’t – even with dozens of satellite missions and space probes – been able to put together.

“There are hundreds of scientists, around the world, still working on that and related problems.”

Solar cycle meets social media

Knudsen said new instruments and missions are being developed, including one launching in 2021 that he believes will particularly push aurora science forward.

The Solar Wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer project – better known for its acronym, Smile – is expected to help scientists better understand how the solar wind affects space around the Earth. Knudsen will discuss the project in detail in Tuesday’s presentation.

Astronomy North, one of the partners bringing Knudsen to Yellowknife, said his presence in the city would “strengthen the connection between northern communities and Canadian universities.”

James Pugsley, Astronomy North’s president, said recent auroral discoveries – like the infamous Steve in 2018 and a new auroral form named The Dunes in Finland – were demonstrating the value of collaboration.

“These exciting discoveries were made thanks to new connections between space researchers and aurora photographers in Canada and Finland, something we hope will become an exciting trend in the years ahead,” said Pugsley.

The sun is entering its next 11-year solar cycle, meaning auroral activity in the night sky should begin to ramp up over the next few years.

“This will be just the second solar cycle in human history where the world is so connected via social media,” said Pugsley. “The potential for new discoveries and new research as a result of citizen science in Canada’s North is tremendous.”

On Friday, Cannon and Sangris will lead a free session on Dene astronomical knowledge from 3pm till 5pm at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (also Saturday 10:30am-12:30pm).

If the skies are clear later on Friday evening, Cannon will host an outdoor stargazing session in Dettah.

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