On Friday night, Dr Roberta Bondar – Canada’s first female astronaut – was shocked when the Thebacha and Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society (TAWBAS) renamed its observatory after her.

The observatory, located in the Fort Smith Star Park, will now officially be called the Dr Roberta Bondar Northern Observatory.

“It’s really nice to be alive [for the renaming],” she said. “Maybe it did make a difference, maybe the name will mean something really important that people can recognize.

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“It’s a huge honour.”

Bondar has frequently been a keynote speaker at the annual Dark Sky Festival in Fort Smith, which kicked off on Friday, and was instrumental in Wood Buffalo National Park being designated a dark sky preserve in 2013 by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

“The reason I come back – it’s a selfish motive for me – is I like to see the generations develop that have been to the Dark Sky and see what they’re doing now,” she explained, adding one of her favourite parts of the weekend is watching youth at the festival launch rockets and build robotics systems.

“I like coming up because it’s a nice part of the world. The space station doesn’t fly over it so it’s kind of an unknown thing for us.

“I like to see the sky,” continued Bondar. “I like very much when people are excited for these telescopes and for the first time for them to be able to see Mars or constellations.”

But it’s not just people she likes to see get excited about astronomy.

“I sometimes think about the whooping cranes and what they must think when they look at the stars,” she added.

Long-term dream

Mike Couvrette, the chairperson of TAWBAS, organizes the festival each year in conjunction with Parks Canada.

Couvrette told Cabin Radio the society chose to honour Bondar because of the important role she has played in the growth of the society.

The roll-off roof observatory, now named after the astronaut, has two telescopes for observing the sky.

“The intent of it is to give us a facility here in town to bring astronomy to the community. It allows us to have telescopes set up on a regular basis,” said Covrette, adding the equipment is high-enough quality to support professional-quality astrophotography.

“The other aspect is a long-term dream to make Fort Smith a centre of excellence for astronomy and science.

“Yellowknife has the aurora market pretty well sewn up. Now, we’ve got aurora as good, so we can attract people here with the aurora and say, ‘And, we can offer you an opportunity to look at deep sky objects.’”