‘What’s really out there?’ Dark Sky Festival seeks to explore the unknown

For Mike Couvrette, nothing beats looking up into the night sky and discovering worlds beyond our own.

Couvrette told Cabin Radio: “It’s just the wonder of all of it. You stand out there on a clear night, looking at the sky, going, ‘What’s really out there?’”

Scientists estimate only four percent of the visible universe has been discovered to date.


There’s still so much left to learn, Couvrette said.

“If you get a pair of binoculars or a telescope, you can see some of the other wonders like nebulae, the remnants of supernovas, and things like that,” he said. “It’s just like, ‘Wow, that’s really impressive.’”

Couvrette is a member of the Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society based in Fort Smith, a non-profit group that facilitates community programs and outreach activities surrounding astronomy.

The group’s annual Dark Sky Festival, a three-day family-friendly event, seeks to ignite the inner astronomer.

This year, the festival has gone online due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

From August 20-23, participants are tuning in to a host of scientific activities: live video streams of telescope viewings from the Dr Roberta Bondar Observatory in Fort Smith, for example, and presentations from scientists around the world.


The festival began in 2012 as a way to make astronomy fun and accessible to the community.

“We are targeting primarily novice astronomers, but we’ve had people come up from southern Alberta – people that are more serious astronomers,” said Couvrette, who has organized the festival for the past eight years.

While an entry point into the world of space science, the Dark Sky Festival is also a celebration of the NWT’s proximity to the world’s largest dark sky preserve.

Artificial light from cities and towns can make it difficult to see stars in the night sky, a phenomenon known as light pollution. A virtual atlas released in 2016 by Italian and American researchers showed that 80 percent of the world can no longer see the Milky Way galaxy, where our own solar system is situated.


Dark sky preserves are places where the sky is uninhibited by artificial light. There are 22 preserves across Canada. Wood Buffalo National Park, the country’s largest national park, doubles as the largest dark sky preserve in the world.

“In places like Toronto, London, and other places, people can barely make out some of the basic stars that we see and constellations like the Orion,” Couvrette said.

“So, what we have up here is really a spectacular opportunity to be able to go out and just look at thousands of stars in our night sky.

Festival participants get an amazing view of the Milky Way galaxy. Submitted photo.

“And we’re even more fortunate to get plenty of aurora to provide additional attraction.”

Alongside stargazing and astronomy, the festival offers model rocket-making workshops.

The new workshop was added to the roster last year when 15 rockets were assembled by families and launched from Pine Lake in front of a captive audience.

For the virtual iteration of the festival, families can pick up assembly kits at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre to bring home. Assembled rockets will then be launched on Saturday and captured with a live-stream Zoom conference.

A submitted photo from last year’s rocket launch.

Mark McGuire is facilitating this year’s rocket workshop. He said events such as this get young people interested and involved in the sciences and can open opportunities for future careers in the field.

“Kids can basically say, hey, that would be a cool thing to do, go into life later on as an aerospace engineer or space scientist and stuff like that,” he said.

It’s a good feeling to help them discover that passion, McGuire added.

Couvrette agreed.

“[It’s] the knowledge that you’ve opened the door to something spectacular,” Couvrette said. “Sending them off on a voyage of learning so much more.”

Excited kids look on at as they get ready to launch their rocket.