RASNZ President’s Blog, 6 July 2015

Aoraki Mackenzie Starlight Festival

Twizel, South Canterbury, New Zealand

9 – 11 October 2015


Members of RASNZ will no doubt be interested in the Starlight Festival as an event with an astronomical theme that will take place in the South Canterbury town of Twizel in October. The Festival is being staged by the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve Board (AMIDSR Board), which is chaired by John Hearnshaw (I also happen to be your RASNZ President!).


The Second Aoraki Mackenzie Starlight Festival will take place 9-11 October 2015 in Twizel, and will celebrate the creation of the southern hemisphere’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, in the Mackenzie Basin and at Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park in the centre of New Zealand’s South Island.


The Festival will be a celebration of dark skies and astronomy, and include a mix of cultural, educational and scientific activities to engage the community at the level of families and young people. It will promote awareness of the stars and the dark sky above and a range of hands-on activities for everyone will be put on. The Festival will focus on education and learning about stars, space, light pollution and the environment.


The Second Starlight Festival will have two additional themes: The UN International Year of Light 2015 (IYL) and the cultural significance of the Mackenzie for Māori. The IYL2015 was declared by the UN with support from the European Physical Society and the International Astronomical Union and with UNESCO the nominated lead Agency. It will celebrate light, light-related technologies and cosmic light, which includes astronomy and star-gazing. Events to celebrate IYL2015 will be celebrated in many countries around the world, and a major international IYL exhibition called ‘Light: Beyond the Bulb’ will be on display.


The Mackenzie Basin played a significant role for Māori before European settlement, as it was on an overland route from the West Coast to the mouth of the Waitaki River used for the transport of pounamu (greenstone), which was processed at the Waitaha settlement of Huruhurumanu on the Waitaki. It is also well-known that the Māori used the stars for navigation and for synchronizing their calendar, through the dawn rising of Matariki (the Pleiades) in June.


Ngai Tahu and the Arowhenua runanga are supporting the Festival and the theme of the Maori knowledge of astronomy. A keynote speaker at the Festival will be Dame Anne Salmond, the distinguished New Zealand anthropologist and expert on Maori traditions and culture from the University of Auckland. She will give a lecture on the Maori knowledge of the stars.


The principal overseas speakers at the festival will be Professor Chris Lintott, who is Professor of Astronomy at the University of Oxford, UK and Dr Seth Shostak, from the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. Professor Lintott, as well as being an active researcher on the physics of star and galaxy formation, is the principal presenter of the BBC’s ‘Sky at Night’ programme in succession to the late Sir Patrick Moore. He has written two popular books on astronomy jointly with Patrick Moore and Dr Brian May (the astrophysicist in the band, Queen).


Dr Shostak is director of the Center for SETI Research at the SETI Institute and well known for his outstanding contributions to public outreach in astronomy and for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He has published four books, nearly 300 popular articles on astronomy, technology, film and television and gives frequent talks to both young and adult audiences.


As part of the Festival there will be a Starlight Essay and Poetry Competition for school students, which will commemorate the name of children’s writer, the late Margaret Mahy, who was also a keen amateur astronomer. The competition is being sponsored by Genesis Energy. Also a musical and dance event with the theme of ‘Starlight’ is being planned for one evening during the festival. This will be the UNESCO Starlight Concert, and is sponsored by the NZ National Commission for UNESCO. The music will be performed by the Woolston Brass Band and the concert will include a specially commissioned piece by New Zealand composer, Anthony Ritchie. The Silhouette Adagio dance duo will also perform at the concert.


There will be ample opportunity for starwatching at the Festival which will be conducted with the support of Bigsky Starwatching at the Mt Cook Hermitage with a starlight barbecue at the Twizel Airfield. Starwatching at Mt John Observatory at Tekapo will also be a part of the Festival.


The Festival organizers are grateful to the Institute for Strategic Leadership in Auckland for funding Galileoscopes which will be offered to Festival participants for stargazing. A workshop to assemble the Galileoscopes is being organized in conjunction with Science Alive, Christchurch. Science Alive is also staging an astronomical art workshop at the Festival for school students.


A photographic exhibition featuring works by some of New Zealand’s most prominent astro-photographers is planned. This will have nightscape astro-images, and also landscapes of the Mackenzie Basin. The exhibited works will be for sale.


The Starlight Festival is being organized by the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve Board, in partnership with the University of Canterbury.


The Twizel Events Centre will be the main venue for the festival, but some events will be at other venues, including the Hillary Alpine Centre (Mt Cook village) and Mt John University Observatory (Lake Tekapo).


The programme for the Aoraki Mackenzie Starlight Festival is advertised on the Festival website at www.starlightfestival.org.nz . We are looking at a mix of scientific, educational and cultural events on the general theme of starlight.


We are expecting wide community support for the Starlight Festival from throughout the Canterbury region, including from Christchurch and Timaru, with additional participants coming from throughout New Zealand. For more information contact: Sharlene Mullen at the University of Canterbury (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) or John Hearnshaw. We look forward to seeing many of the Society’s members at the Festival in October. Be sure to book your accommodation in Twizel early.


Participation at the Festival will be by tickets, and the tickets for the numerous events will go on sale on-line from the Festival website by mid-July at very reasonable prices – given that most of the cost of staging the Festival is coming from our sponsors.


John Hearnshaw

July 2015