As telescopes were set up and our ceiling darkened, I and the other park volunteers watched as the lovely thin crescent moon hovered underneath a trio of planets: brilliant Venus flanked closely on the right by Saturn and on the left by Mars. The quartet followed the sun slowly down into a tree-framed dusk and as night gradually took over, the shadowed part of the moon was lit by earthshine to create an illusion of dim fullness.
There were 8 scopes set up last night and a few people there I had not previously met. I particularly enjoyed chatting with Meredith (yay! another female!) who had just completed her phd in astronomy and was off to start a postdoc position at UC Berkeley. She had decided to spend a month doing astronomy outreach at Bryce and seemed to have fallen in love with the Utah landscape in general. I wish I'd had more time to get to know her.
By the time the public arrived after having attended Patrick's presentation at the Lodge, the moon and three accompanying planets had gotten too low in the sky for any good views to be had, so instead the rest of us telescope operators were assigned (fought over) various dark-sky spectacles. There were simply so many people that it would have been impractical to do much moving around from object to object. I was happy to be given the ring nebula which was near zenith and in a perfect position for my scope to get a nice clear shot while simultaneously placing the eyepiece at an agreeable angle for any smaller visitors who came by. A few of my tall guests had to crouch down a bit, but I only had to pull out a step ladder once for a child...I think people feel much better when they don't have to climb stairs in the dark! Many of the other scopes were so big that viewers had no choice but to climb to the top of a ladder in order to reach the eyepiece. One of the volunteers had an excellent solution to this: he lined the steps of his ladder with glow-in-the-dark tape and then lit it all up with a UV flashlight!
The major event of the night was the Perseid meteor shower which was predicted to peak from midnight till 3:00 am. Even before the last light of the sun disappeared over the horizon we were treated to some incredible giant green perseids streaking across the sky...a couple that even left trains behind them that glowed an amazing green long after the meteor had burned itself out. Even though Patrick and I left before the shower's peak, I had personally never seen so many meteors in my life. Some were big and bright enough that they streaked across the the whole milky way from north to south, and I happened to catch an amazing little flurry of at least 3 quick streamers falling simultaneously right in front of the heart of Sagittarius!
With all the fireworks overhead, it was difficult at times to pay attention to the guests at my scope. It often seemed that just as I'd direct someone to the eyepiece and begin to explain what they were seeing, a giant "OooooAahhhh!!!" would erupt from the rest of the crowd as another green fireball shot across the sky. I missed a lot of good ones that way.
We had a great (and huge) crowd and ended up staying quite late. Patrick had initially wanted to leave early to try to make it back to Stansbury Park for the official SLAS meteor watch from 12 to 3 am, but even he ended up having so much fun that, though we were still the first of the volunteers to take off, we basically stuck around till most of the public had left. Personally, I was glad to stay and take full advantage of my last night at Bryce...though again I must add: my last night for a while...I certainly hope to be back again someday.
Before the stargazing programs began last night, Patrick and I had arrived at Bryce fairly early and both agreed it was a good opportunity to take a walk along the canyon rim just behind the lodge. It could not have been a more beautiful evening and as we strolled along the trail we passed through larger-than-typical crowds of other spectators who'd come to watch the last rays of the summer sun set the distant cliffs afire. I commented to Patrick that I hadn't heard anyone speaking English since we'd started walking...and it was a good 2 or 3 minutes more before either of us heard a familiar word. What an incredible opportunity it has been for me to work for a program where I've been able to interact so many different people from across the globe. Though I have often had issues with social anxiety, something happens when daylight disappears and I'm standing behind a telescope underneath a sky speckled with stars. Judgements evaporate, superficial barriers come down, and wonder takes over.