Starfest 2003: Dark Skies and Aliens

Solar observing was the order of the day at Starfest. The gathering had record attendance this year and ranks as the largest star party in Canada.
Courtesy Andreas Gada and Tony Ward.
If you've never been in to a star party, I strongly recommend that you attend one. Even if it's cloudy, you are virtually guaranteed to come away with your astronomical batteries tremendously recharged. You meet old friends, make new ones, and make your observing experience so much richer.

So when Sky & Telescope asked me to visit Starfest in Ontario, Canada this year, I accepted with enthusiasm. Starfest has some of the most enthusiastic amateur astronomers I've ever seen. And when the sky is clear, as it was this year, they go wild. The event is organized and run by the North York Astronomical Association whose committee, led by Andreas Gada and Bonnie Bird, has been staging Starfest for 21 years.

Friday, August 22nd Amateurs across northeastern North America consider this annual meeting, the largest Canadian star party, as one of their best chances of the year for a clear, dark sky. Upon our arrival late on Friday afternoon, Peter Jedicke, the first national vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and my traveling partner for the trip to the River Place campground, remarked that "people are setting up camp almost to the front gate. That's a sign of a good attendance." He was right — this year's meeting drew some 1,200 attendees, a new record.

The campground, located about 90 miles northwest of Toronto, has handled Starfest since the event began. It is spacious, clean, and offers good horizons. As the Sun tipped the horizon this evening, we were all anxious to observe, so my talk began and ended precisely on schedule. As I walked toward the podium, I noticed several people from Montreal in the audience, specifically Constantine Papacosmas, Geoff Gaherty, and Jim Low — three amateur astronomers I used to attend meetings with in Montreal in the late 1960s. Each one is as passionate about his hobby as he was decades ago.

David Levy
S&T contributing editor David Levy took time to sign a few autographs at Starfest 2003.
Courtesy Andreas Gada and Tony Ward.
After my presentation I sat with a group of high-school- and college-age kids who had come from all across Canada. One young student told me how excited she was when Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter. She was only 7 years old then. It's always great to see so much enthusiasm from young people.

Finally I made my way back to my telescope. The sky was very clear despite a few high cirrus clouds and a brief auroral glow. The view to the south was diminished somewhat by the light pollution from nearby towns that grew in population with distance, culminating in the 3-million strong metropolis of Toronto. Notwithstanding, the glow to the south, Starfest is blessed with a very dark sky. On this Friday night, the crisp, plentiful stars were accented with a gorgeous performance of late Perseid meteors. There has been talk in recent years about possibly changing venues for this star party. But with the sky as dark as it was this year, it seems opponents to the River Place campground don't appear to be in any great hurry to change sites anymore.

A little after 1:00 a.m., I started a 3-hour comet sweep of the northeastern sky. After the crescent Moon rose, humidity caused considerable deterioration, and in the last hour before dawn, I stopped comet hunting altogether.

Saturday, August 23rd

Alien Encounter
There were many alien sightings at Starfest this year. Some of these beings were documented in this photograph.
Courtesy Andreas Gada and Tony Ward.
The next day was beautiful, clear, and dry — an absolutely perfect day for a star party. At 2:30 I gave my second talk, after which I met with another group of children. We returned to the large tent in the evening for the door prizes and for something very imaginative — a costume masquerade where people were asked to dress as their favorite alien. The young North York Astronomical Association members had decorated the stage all week as a Martian landscape. Bird and a newly shaven Gada emerged from a cascade of white vapor as two Vulcans. SkyNews editor Terence Dickinson slowly walked onstage, also bathed in white vapor, to begin his lecture about Mars.

Dickinson's talk was a highlight among several interesting presentations at Starfest. Doug Hallman from the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory explained his institution's solution for the problem of the "missing" neutrinos. Another exciting presentation came from McMaster University's Doug Welch, whose career in observing began as a young member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's Ottawa Center.

Dickinson's Mars talk ended the formal program, leaving us to our final night of observing. The sky to the north (away from the distant city glows) stayed pristine all evening long. By 1 a.m., even the clouds that were creeping in from the west at sunset had even retreated. We all enjoyed a beautiful, clear sky.

Sunday, August 24th By Sunday morning an exhausted, but happy, group of observers took down their tents and telescopes and headed home. It was amazing to see a field filled with so many telescopes of all sizes and types, from store-bought to homemade, all disappear in an hour or so. I headed south toward Pearson International Airport with Tom Glinos, one of Canada's best telescope makers. In the back was proof of his expertise, a beautiful homemade 20-inch Dobsonian that combined great wide-field views of deep sky objects with a excellent high-power images of Mars. The telescope featured quiet servo motors that also allowed it to track.

I always thought that star parties are meant to recharge one's observing batteries. I can say that mine are back to running at full capacity.