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Helping people reach for the stars
Wood Buffalo National Park buys portable planetarium

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, January 27, 2014

THEBACHA/FORT SMITH
Things at Wood Buffalo National Park are again looking up, literally.

As a follow-up to the park being declared a dark-sky preserve last year, it has now bought itself a portable planetarium.

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Two staff members at Wood Buffalo National Park interpretation co-ordinator Helen Panter, left, and visitor experience manager Janna Jaque stand inside the park's new portable planetarium, which arrived on Jan. 20. - photo courtesy of Wood Buffalo National Park

"We acquired it because we're the world's largest dark-sky preserve and we felt it would really enhance our capability to deliver astronomy-related programming for the public," said Tim Gauthier, a communications officer at the park headquarters in Fort Smith.

Gauthier also noted the portable planetarium, which arrived on Jan. 20 from Vancouver, is a first for both the NWT and the Parks Canada system, which features a number of other parks designated as dark-sky preserves.

"We are the only ones to have this," he said.

"As an agency, we've really embraced the whole dark-sky concept for ecological, educational and visitor experience purposes."

The portable planetarium consists of an inflatable fabric dome and computerized projector that allows images and videos to be viewed in a 360-degree circle on the inside of the dome.

"What we have now is a spectacular digital projector that is simply jaw-dropping," said Gauthier.

It's breathtaking to see the cosmos projected all around, he added.

"It's as though you're in space."

The portable planetarium will allow people to experience, among other things, two galaxies colliding, an asteroid striking a planet and the creation of the moon.

"It's all around you," Gauthier said.

"You are captivated by the cosmic ballet."

Aside from the wonders of space, the planetarium can also be used to show dramatic and educational scenes from Wood Buffalo itself - the northern lights, a flyover tour of the park and wildfires.

The dome is about 18 feet across and about 10 feet high at its peak. It can accommodate about 15 adults and 20 to 25 children, depending on their ages.

The planetarium is also very mobile.

Gauthier said it can be set up by one person, although it is a much easier task with two.

When deflated, the dome fits into a duffel bag. The fan system and the projector go into separate boxes.

"We can have it up and running really within 10 minutes," Gauthier said.

"It really, really is easy to use."

Mike Couvrette, chair of the Thebacha Wood Buffalo Astronomical Society, had a sneak peek at the portable planetarium on Jan. 21 and declared it to be "pretty awesome."

His sneak peek involved one of a couple of videos that came with the unit. It featured the story of telescopes, and how astronomers interpret light to gather information about objects in space.

Couvrette called the unit state of the art.

"It will allow us to do some really neat educational outreach," he said, noting 360-degree educational videos can be purchased and local programming can also be created.

"We will be able to do actual projections of what the night sky would look like here in Fort Smith or Hay River."

Gauthier said the portable planetarium will be used for park programming and will also travel to communities in Wood Buffalo's service region, including Hay River, Yellowknife and Fort McMurray, Alta.

Plus, if groups are having an event, they can pay a rental fee and parks staff would run various shows.

The park was inspired to buy the portable planetarium after renting a similar unit this past summer from the Telus World of Science in Edmonton, and putting on shows in Fort Smith and Hay River.

"The response from the public was extremely positive," said Gauthier.

"It really generated interested in the park as a dark-sky preserve. So we wanted to build on that interest."

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