MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, Maine — Organizers do not yet have an official count, but they estimate that the premiere gathering at a stargazing festival last weekend attracted twice as many people as it did last year.
On Saturday night, when most people attended the Acadia Night Sky Festival, the skies were clear, the wind mild, and the moon had already set, according to Peter Lord, head of the Island Astronomy Institute.
“The night was fantastic,” said Lord, whose institute organized the annual event with Acadia National Park and the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “It was less windy than last year.”
This year’s festival, the second, consisted of stargazing and night sky-themed events on Mount Desert Island from Thursday night through Monday morning. The best-attended event was the star “party” Saturday night at the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia. The premiere gathering, which included 15 astronomers who lent their knowledge and telescopes to the event, attracted more than 1,000 people, according to Lord.
Lord said that in 2009, the first year the festival was held, maybe 500 people attended the Cadillac summit stargazing session. An estimated 2,000 people attended festival events in 2009, he said.
“We did half that, probably a little better, just on Cadillac [this year],” Lord said. “There’s nothing like this on the East Coast.”
The purpose of the festival, according to organizers, is to educate people about stars, planets and other objects beyond our solar system, and to help preserve the visibility of the night sky, which is good in eastern and northern Maine. In many urban areas, visibility of the night sky is obscured by bright outdoor lights along roads or outside homes or businesses.
The night sky over Acadia has been recognized formally by the National Park Service as a natural resource that should be protected.
Sonia Berger, a ranger at Acadia, said that despite rainy or cloudy weather, people still showed up in the park Thursday night at Sand Beach and Sunday night at Seawall for festival events. In all, probably 1,700 people attended festival events in the park this year, she said.
Sonia said the park holds stargazing events at Sand Beach every Tuesday and Thursday nights throughout the summer, but probably could hold the event every night. As it is, the event often draws 200 to 300 people twice a week.
“That tells us the audience is there,” she said. “We would still probably have huge crowds [seven nights a week].”
Other festival events held outside the park were well attended, according to organizers. Two night sky photography workshops and a nighttime boat cruise, which was moved from Thursday to Saturday because of weather, all sold out, according to Lord. Other festival events included a picnic among model planets and a screening of “E.T.’ Friday night on the Bar Harbor Village Green. There also were solar viewings with specialized telescopes at Sieur de Monts Springs, a panel discussion at College of the Atlantic on outdoor lighting measures, and a presentation at The Jackson Laboratory on how the daily light cycle affects biology. Other festival events were held at Bar Harbor’s Abbe Museum, and in Southwest Harbor at the Harbor House and at the Gilley Museum.
Next year’s event also will be held in September, with the dates yet to be set.
According to Berger, Acadia’s usual nighttime events will run through the end of this week. The Sand Beach stargazing program will be held at 8 p.m. Thursday, while there will be a moon viewing at Otter Cliffs from 8 to 9 p.m. Friday. Night sky viewing programs in Acadia will resume in mid-June 2011.
Berger said that most of the park is open 24 hours a day, and visitors are always welcome to view the night sky on their own.
“There’s so much to see, you don’t even need a telescope,” she said.