The Aoraki Mackenzie Starlight Festival

The second Starlight Festival ( took place in Twizel over three days 9-11 October at the Twizel Events Centre. Judging by the numerous emails giving feedback from those who participated, it was an outstanding success. The Festival was organized to celebrate the dark skies of the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, which is now over three years old, and is the world’s largest International Dark Sky Reserve and the first to be accorded gold tier status.

A starlight festival celebrates the stars through  education programmes for the public and especially for young people and families, as well as delivering  scientific and cultural goals. The joys of stargazing and astronomy under a truly dark and pristine sky are what a dark sky reserve is about, but this is an activity that embraces both science and aesthetics. Our festival accordingly recognized the need for an overall event that promoted dark skies with a very broad brush and a wide range of activities. The Festival also marked 2015 as the International Year of Light, and two events at the Festival (an exhibition entitled Light Beyond the Bulb and the video of  Skylight – a Global Science Opera) explicitly recognized IYL2015, which has been declared by the UN.

The Festival took place over the last three days of the school holidays which also coincided with new moon, the best time for stargazing. Our committee of John Hearnshaw (chair), Margaret Austin (treasurer), Sharlene Wilson (website and ticket sales) and Neil Blanchfield (event manager) worked hard for most of the last year to put on the festival, and very hard for the two months from early August. Stargazing got off to a good start with a clear night at Mt John on the Friday.

We had a total of 30 events on the programme, 14 of them free and the remainder with ticket sales, the ticket prices being pitched to raise about 7 per cent of the net cost of running the whole festival. Sponsorship provided the rest, and we are very grateful to eleven financial sponsors who contributed to the funding needed, and to a further seven who provided goods or services in kind.

The events comprised exhibitions, workshops, public lectures, a concert, a schools’ essay and poetry competition, videos and documentaries, stargazing and planetarium shows. For this writer the UNESCO Starlight Concert featuring the Woolston Brass Band and a specially commissioned work by composer Anthony Ritchie was one of the highlights.  A line-up of four international-class speakers all gave outstanding talks which had everyone enthralled and the Twizel Events Centre theatre packed. They were Dame Anne Salmond (Auckland) on Maori navigation by the stars, Takerei Norton (Ngai Tahu) on cultural sites for the Maori in the Mackenzie Basin, Te Manahuna, Professor Chris Lintott (Oxford) on ‘Is the Milky Way special?’ (the answer is mainly no,  though there are some unusual features dissimilar to many other galaxies) and Dr Seth Shostak (SETI Institute, California) on ‘Is ET out there?’  (the answer is most positively yes, and we will find him (her?) in the next 24 years!) We thank Air NZ for flying in the international speakers by business class.

Another very impressive event was Steve Chadwick’s ‘Son et Lumière’, based on his amazing astrophotography and set to live music. He had the audience enthralled. In order to engage young people in astronomy, the stars and the issues of light pollution, we ran a competition for school students from throughout New Zealand to write essays or poems about light, stargazing or darkness.  A total of 345 entries were received and the four judges chose the best ten, who were invited (along with a parent) to Twizel for the whole Festival, with travel and accommodation paid by one of our sponsors, Genesis Energy.

Staff from Science Alive! ran two workshops at the Festival, the first on astronomical art, using either paint or computers, and the second on assembly of Galileoscopes (which were donated by the Institute of Strategic Leadership). It was good to have young students assemble 56 Galileoscopes under expert guidance at this second workshop, and then they had a chance to use them under mainly clear skies on the Saturday evening’s Starlight Barbecue.

New Zealand has some very talented astro-photographers, and seven of these were invited to contribute works for a photographic exhibition.   Another five contributed landscapes of the Mackenzie Basin. About 150 works in all were on sale. The whole exhibition was curated by Dunedin artist Elizabeth Jenkins, who reported brisk sales of many of the exhibited works.

The Festival closed with an open afternoon on Mt John, when members of the public could come and see the telescopes and the view and talk to astronomers. It was windy but a successful event. Overall we were lucky with the weather, with continuous sun most days. About 300 people learnt about our beautiful night skies of the Mackenzie, our famous International Dark Sky Reserve, and they were inspired by astronomy and the romantic culture of stargazing.

A third Starlight festival is already being planned for October 2017, the probable dates being 13, 14 and 15 October. The venue will be the Hermitage Hotel and Hillary Alpine Centre and Planetarium at Mt Cook. RASNZ members, especially those with young families who are keen to be introduced to astronomy, are encouraged to come.

John Hearnshaw
President, RASNZ