May 21, 2010

Too Much Light in the Darkness

I'm home today feeling spoiled after being able to sleep in all morning! Patrick and I got back from Bryce at 3:30 am and though for a brief moment I entertained the idea of just sucking it up and going to work, that moment remained brief indeed and I drove home from the park & ride for a few hours of luxuriously uninterrupted sleep.

The trip yesterday followed a predictable plan. Patrick has been doing this program at Bryce for over 20 years and has the schedule mapped out to the nearest minute and mile marker. As usual, I met him at the 7200 south park & ride at around 2:45, we stopped to fill the tank in--appropriately--Fillmore, ordered Subway sandwiches by phone 10 minutes prior to arriving in Beaver, and from there made a straight shot into the park to arrive 45 minutes before the scheduled start time of his NASA presentation.

During most of our drive the skies were completely overcast and though we started to see little spots of blue the further south we got, it looked as though we'd be most likely be clouded out. By the time we got to Panguitch, we did notice that the clouds were thinning into the wispy kind that sometimes disappear with darkfall, but we were then additionally confronted by a large cloud of smoke blanketing the sky from a nearby controlled burn.

Look at the contrast between the bright red rocks in the foreground of this photo compared with the washed out looking formation in the not-too-distant background. Imagine the same blurring haze applied to the night sky and it's a good illustration of how smoke and pollution can affect conditions for star gazing...specifically "transparency".

Bryce normally has incredibly dark skies as it is almost entirely unaffected by light pollution. At times, the milky way appears so bright, it almost seems to cast a shadow. In skies like that you can see the Andromeda Galaxy easily without a pair of binoculars, many open and globular clusters appear as tantalizing smudges against the black background, and so many stars are visible, it can at first be confusing to pick out the typically simple constellations.

I arrived to set up with 5 other volunteers and their scopes in the parking lot behind the ranger station at the front entrance of the park. Patrick ran off to do his show at the lodge (which, by the way is really entertaining--he's a great public presenter), and I got my scope all aligned, chit chatted with the other volunteers (who were all VASTLY more experienced than I...and who's telescopes looked like giant cannons next to my orange toy squirt gun--far right of photo), and did some last minute studying of my astronomy book to make sure I had interesting things to say to visitors.

The skies did end up clearing out at darkfall, but at that point we were all dealing with a different sort of pollution. As beautiful as a first- quarter moon can be in a telescope, before it sets it ruins the sharpness of almost every other astronomical object one might choose to view. To many amatuers and pros alike, any moon larger than a thin crescent is nothing more than an annoyance. Last night it did cause some trouble, but also treated us to a great view of the Sea of Tranquility (the Mare in which the most famous moon landings took place), the Alpine Valley (a startlingly straight valley possibly formed by either an ancient fault or a meteor leaving a string of debris as is hit at a sharp angle), and a satisfying display of craters at the terminator. One woman remarked to me "Wow! It looks so real!"

As the night wore on we each tried to find new objects for the crowd to view, but it became increasingly clear that the moon was corrupting the "typical" Bryce Canyon astro-viewing experience. It was so bright, we might as well have set up in the parking lot at Harmons (as we often do in SLAS as the grocery is our #1 sponsor).

Fortunately, the crowd was huge and generally interested and appreciative. Visitors to Bryce come from all over the world and I answered questions posed to me in a variety of accents. I primarily stayed on the moon as the other volunteers seemed more interested in showing Saturn at first and then, despite the lit up sky, went after some star clusters and even a few faint fuzzies. I eventually zoomed in on the Ring Nebula and the Hercules Cluster and people did seem to enjoy them even with the lack of great definition. Patrick told me later that it had been an experiment to do the star party on a first-quarter experiment not likely to be repeated I gather.

We packed up and hit the road again around 11:30. Mercifully, I slept nearly the whole way home.

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