June 29, 2014

Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival

Sunday June 29

Hummingbird and Crescent Moon from Cedar Breaks
It's the morning after the final night of the Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival. I didn't get home till about 1:30 am, got to sleep about an hour later, and STILL I'm up at 7:30! Being a morning person has afforded me some wonderful sunrise experiences, but once in a while, I would love to just be able to sleep some extra hours. I shouldn't complain though, as I'm certain the Rangers got even less sleep last night than I.

The Festival was a crazy, hectic, and exhilarating experience. On Friday, our busiest night, we had well over 800 guests visit the observing field. I gave the first laser-guided constellation tour that night and had about 85 people listening in as I pointed out bright stars, traced prominent constellations, and told stories about the characters from Greek mythology. The night was phenomenally gorgeous as well. I don't think I'd ever seen the milky way as bright and defined. The deep-sky detail visible toward the galactic core in Sagittarius was mesmerizing. The Lagoon Nebula, Butterfly Cluster, Ptolemy's Cluster, Sagittarius Star Cloud, Pipe Nebula, and a whole fuzzy mess of Messier numbers were easily discernible within the glow of the Milky Way. The skies around our home galaxy were black and steady, and every so often I almost believed I could even see color in those billowing clouds.

I was given a fair bit of responsibility during the festival, leading two planisphere classes, several star-lab planetarium programs, guiding a 1 ½ hour “planet walk,” and providing two laser constellation tours. The rest of my time was spent at the VC desk, helping with odds and ends of set up, a few hours of solar astronomy, and ushering throngs of star gazers onto the observing field at night.

SLAS members set up scopes on the observing field
The funny thing is that other than gaping for hours at the rising Milky Way, I hardly did any observing myself. The telescope field was mostly manned by members of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society while all of us Bryce people helped more with crowd control. On Thursday I did get one TRULY spectacular view of Saturn in one of the SLAS scopes. Through a member's large refractor I saw the rings as big and crisp and clear as I've ever seen from ANY land-based-telescopic photograph. The Cassini division was obvious of course, but several other loops and shades were also distinctly apparent in the ring plane. The shadows and colors visible on the planet itself made what usually appears as a flat yellow disc pop into 3-D...it REALLY looked like a sphere! I was so distracted by the sight of the planet that I forgot to count how many little moons I could make out...definitely more than the 4 I typically see through my own scope.

It's been wonderful to catch up with some of my old friends from SLAS. It is truly because of their influence and support that I find myself here at Bryce today. When I first joined SLAS I could identify the Big Dipper, sometimes the Little Dipper, Orion, and the Pleiades....though I couldn't tell you when they'd be up in the sky. I loved the Pleiades and was always pleasantly surprised when I looked up and happened to see it, but its whereabouts during the rest of the year were a mystery. I think I assumed that I was just bad at finding things. I had no idea you could see planets with the unaided eye, and I supposed telescopes were only available to wealthy people who were also really good at math. In other words, I knew...nothing.

In a few minutes I'm going to a special pancake breakfast for festival staff where we'll all finally get our turn to see the keynote speaker from Friday night. An eminent astrophotographer, Alex Cherney will be regaling us with stories from the dark skies “down under” and talking about the unique relationship aboriginal Australians have with the Milky Way. Should be fun!

1 comment:

  1. Heaven! You're in heaven! It's wonderful to hear of your adventures and responsibilities.