Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival

BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK – An hour before astronomical dusk ended, the point at which daylight fully surrenders, Rodger Fry had focused his 10-inch Meade telescope on Saturn. Venus, flaring in the west, was easy to spot but Saturn had been a challenge. He explained how he had aligned his telescope north and south, sought out Venus, and then had it automatically slew to the Saturn vicinity.

Because it wasn’t yet fully aligned, the scope had pointed only generally Saturn-ward. It took careful peering to at last pick out the pale planet from the bright background in his finder scope, and then he centered it. When he synced on Saturn, the telescope was properly aligned. Through the eyepiece on the larger instrument the planet was a yellowish apparition in the light sky, its edge-on rings a sliver through the disk.

This was Thursday, July 8, the second night of the four-day Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival. Fry and most of the rest of the dozens of volunteer presenters were members of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, many of whom are from the Salt Lake vicinity, 275 miles away. “Dark Rangers” of the national park also had their telescopes, including a vast Dobsonian one of them had built.

[A view from Inspiration Point, Bryce Canyon National Park. In addition to stunning scenery, from July 7-10 the park offered visitors the chance to observe planets, stars, nebulas, galaxies and other wonders during the 10th annual Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival. Lectures, model rocket building and viewing the sun through safe solar telescopes were all part of the festivities. Photo by Cory Bauman]

We had set up telescopes Wednesday evening as well, but that night the park’s famous dark sky wasn’t much in evidence between the clouds. It took me a long time to get aligned because I started out pointing almost 24 degrees to the east (I had misread my compass declination) and couldn’t see the North Star behind a cloud bank. I felt like a real fool when a friendly young physicist from the University of Utah pointed out the Big Dipper and I realized how far I was off. Once I got the telescope aligned, the clouds usually were so annoying that I was reduced to showing visitors bright stars like Vega and Antares, and telling the story of the constellation Scorpius (the scorpion). Once, we were viewing the whirlpool galaxy, M51, and it disappeared before our eyes as the cloud cover thickened.

[Volunteers set up telescopes Thursday night. Photo by Cory Bauman]

But Thursday was much better. Though the night started unpromisingly, the sky cleared as the first of hundreds of visitors were pouring onto the North Campground parking lot. Volunteers were busy with their telescopes, many still aligning the instruments. Siegfried Jachmann, a past president of the club, had his big Clark refractor aimed at Saturn, and the towering instrument drew an immediate crowd. Others clustered around and lined up by a variety of scopes, from modest to sophisticated. You could hear exotic languages.

The Milky Way grew more dramatic as the evening progressed and sunlight faded away. Gigantic Scorpius made his threatening gesture partly behind a pine tree. The teapot asterism of Sagittarius steamed out a star cloud at the bottom of the Milky Way, above a distant tree line.

A ranger with a megaphone shouted that a new constellation tour was beginning at one end of the field. There, scores of visitors listened as another ranger used a green laser to point out features of the starry patterns, and she explained how the night sky can serve as a clock and a compass.

Dave Bernson, the SLAS president, was attending his second Bryce festival; this was the event’s tenth annual iteration. He said he enjoyed the camaraderie and interacting with the public, “the idea of bringing people to the sky and the sky to the people.”

This was the fifth festival that Nate Goodman had attended. He had his four-inch refractor aimed at Venus, and it offered “a really good view of Venus,” he said. He also worked with a 12-inch Dobsonian reflector the club owns.

Showing the public the dark sky and instructing about the importance of combating light pollution “is a wonderful thing the Park Service and the staff of Bryce Canyon are doing,” Goodman added.

[Nate Goodman with a 12-inch Dobsonian telescope belonging to the Salt Lake Astronomical Society. Photo by Cory Bauman]

Lowell Lyon said what keeps drawing him to the festival include “the dark skies, of course.

“And Bryce Canyon’s just a fine place to go and hang out – fresh air, get away from the hubbub of Salt Lake, and socialize with amateurs you don’t see all the time, like Jerry Foote.”

[Don Colton and Jerry Foote check the mount of one of the telescopes at the festival. Photo by Cory Bauman]

Jerry Foote and his wife, Cindy, have built their own observatories near Kanab. She is renowned for helping discover exoplanets while he measures variable stars. Recently an asteroid was named in his honor for his variable star research. They operate ScopeCraft Inc., which builds research-grade telescopes and specialized mounts. Jerry Foote was already at Bryce and Cindy Foote was to join him later during the festival.

Shouts, and then a green laser, drew attention to a bright light gliding above the trees. It was the International Space Station, right on schedule.

[Bill Cowles adjusts his telescope. Photo by Cory Bauman]

Twelve-year-old Max Hyatt of Mount Pleasant, Sanpete County, had been viewing nighttime splendors through several of the telescopes. “I like it all, personally,” he said. “But probably the best thing I’ve seen is M5 [a globular cluster of many stars]. I like clusters – my favorites.” He finds it amazing that so many stars are close together.

His father, Kim Hyatt, was using his telescope to display one of the showpieces of the Milky Way, a dark nebula of gas and dust, close to a brilliant star cluster. On Wednesday night, Hyatt, a member of the astronomy society, had spoken with people from Israel, the Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain and Switzerland.

“Last year I got a chance to speak to people from South Africa,” he said. Also in 2009, “I got a chance to speak to people from Italy who didn’t speak a word of English.” He had learned Italian for a Mormon mission he served in Italy, and he translated facts about the astronomical views for them. Helping at the festival over the years, “I’ve talked to people from every continent except Antarctica.”

Kathy Hogan of La Quinta, CA, liked the objects she saw through telescopes but was impressed with something the watchers saw just by looking up: “It was exciting to see the space station.”

Also she liked seeing the Ring Nebula, M57, what the Dark Rangers call a ghost star. It’s like a smoke ring, puffed off at the end of the life of a normal star like our sun. “That was something I’d never seen before.”

Her husband, Mike, said the nebula looked like “a jellyfish in the sky.”

Speaking of the festival, Kathy Hogan said, “I’m just so grateful that they do that.”

[As darkness falls, visitors wait to look at Saturn through Siegfried Jachmann’s telescope. Photo by Cory Bauman]

WEATHER UPDATE: Cory and I were able to attend only through Friday morning and I did not know how the remaining two nights of the festival went when I wrote the above. But after SLAS members returned to Salt Lake City, I asked Rodger Fry about any weather problems that occurred while we weren’t there. He emailed this reply:

“On Friday evening at the Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival, the star viewing was going well with clouds moving out and clear skies prevailing. Then about 11:30 PM, Richard Blake, one of the Dark Rangers called out on his megaphone that lightning had been striking within five miles and according to National Park guidelines all visitors looking through the telescopes were to leave and the volunteers were to dismantle their equipment. Heavy rain struck about 30 minutes later but by that time most volunteers had the essential equipment put away and protected and only a few people had anything get wet.”

I am glad we left earlier and did not set up Friday night. I’ve never been able to disassemble my telescope and pack my gear in half an hour.

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