Astro stars set to descend on NZ for starlight festival

Aoraki/Mount Cook Alpine Village. Image: Lee Cook

PRESS RELEASE: Aoraki/Mount Cook The Hermitage Hotel

New Zealand is set to welcome some of the most influential astrophysicists in the world, as part of the third Aoraki Mackenzie Starlight Festival, to be held at Aoraki/Mount Cook’s The Hermitage Hotel from Friday the 13th-15th October.

Headlining is NASA scientist Natalie Batalha, who has been leading NASA’s first mission capable of finding Earth-size planets.  The topic of her talk – A Planet for Goldilocks – is the search for “not too hot, not too cold” planets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way.

She is joined by South African Kevin Govender, who is director at the International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) in Cape Town.

He has extensive experience using astronomy for youth development via his work with the South African Astronomical Observatory, the Developing Astronomy Globally Cornerstone Project of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009) and the development of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Strategic Plan. He will talk about inspiring young people to reach their potential through science and education.

Also talking is Chinese Sze-leung Cheung, an International Astronomical Union International Outreach Coordinator who has been pivotal in coordinating and supporting worldwide astronomical communities. He will talk about issues of light pollution and stargazing.

Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park is in the centre of the 4367 sq km Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the southern hemisphere’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, recognized by the International Dark Sky Association. The reserve has a gold tier status, and is the world’s largest.

John Hearnshaw, Chair of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve Board, explains: “We have this status thanks to the pristine skies of the Mackenzie which are essentially completely free of light pollution. This means the sky above this part of the McKenzie is one of the best places in the world to view stars. About 200,000 people visit the area annually so we’re not the only ones that think so.

“The Festival will celebrate the area becoming the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, and help promote two key goals of ours – to protect dark skies from light pollution and to promote star gazing and astro-tourism.”

Another theme of the Starlight Festival is astro-photography, an art that has a very wide social media following. Award-winning photographer, time-lapse filmmaker and digital visual effects supervisor New Zealander Mark Gee will be holding a practical Astrophotography workshop.

As well as talks and workshops, there are documentaries, animated musical astrophotography concerts, sun-viewing through solar telescopes, planetarium shows, exhibitions and video presentations.

Another highlight is the opening of the new Stargazing Observatory at The Hermitage Hotel, where two BigSky stargazing shows will be operating during the festival.

Over and above tourists, astronomers, curiosity-seekers, lighting engineers, scientists and budding scientists, the Starlight Festival is about bringing the Reserve to the attention of the general public, says John.

“The goal of the Reserve board is to protect the dark night sky by educating the public about the importance of managing light pollution. Not only does light pollution threaten the ability to view our beautiful night skies but it negatively affects nocturnal species as well as our human health – light pollution affects melatonin, the chemical which has the important role of regulating our body clocks.

“It’s financially better for councils too. About 30% of the power costs of street lighting could be saved just by ensuring that lights only shine downwards, where the light is needed, and not upwards into the sky,” he explains.

To increase awareness of the work of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the board plan to launch the Aoraki Mackenzie Friends of the Dark Sky network, with membership open to anyone interested in supporting keeping skies dark.

Not only The Hermitage Hotel, but The Starlight Festival has had considerable support from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Canterbury, who operate Mt John Observatory at Lake Tekapo, as well as The Pukaki Observatory at Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat which is hosting an astro-photography event at the observatory on the Sunday evening.

Aoraki Mackenzie Starlight Festival details

Where: The Hermitage Hotel, Mt Cook Village (with some events at neighbouring venues, including Mt Cook airport and Lake Pukaki).
When: Friday 13 October to Sunday 15 October 2017.
What: The Festival will comprise a mix of scientific, educational and cultural events over three days, designed to attract school students, family groups and members of the public as well as local and overseas astro-tourists and stargazers who are interested in learning more about the stars, the night sky, the problems of light pollution and the appreciation of the environment and outer space.

www.phys.canterbury.ac.nz/starlightfestival

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