Stellar Times at Bryce

Imagine you’re at 8,700 feet elevation. It’s the new moon, meaning no blazing orb to wash out delicate astronomical features. A small storm has swept through a few days ago, clearing the air of dust. That’s Rainbow Point, Bryce National Park, on Friday night-Monday morning.

It was the best astronomical viewing I’ve ever experienced.

The overlook, on the park’s Kane County side, hosted a dozen or two telescope observers and astrophotographers, part of the four-day ALCon, the Astronomical League’s yearly convention. The gathering was held from June 29 to July 2 at the park and at Ruby’s Inn just outside the park.

Stars blazed unblinking above towering pines, and the Milky Way — the side view of our own galaxy — was a broad bright slash tilting across nearly the entire sky. Its rifts and pockets were easy to see. These are the shapes that make up the “dark constellations” that Australian Aboriginal people know. Outside the gauzy sections, the heavens were inky black.

[View of the center of the vast Andromeda Galaxy that I took the morning of July 2, 2011, from Rainbow Point, during ALCon. The galaxy’s bright nucleus and a few of the nearby dust lanes show up against the glow of billions of stars]

I doubt many of the conference-goers, approximately 400 from across the United States, had reveled in such clear, still, beautiful skies before.
At times when my eyes were dark-adapted I had no trouble taking walks without using my flashlight, the starlight was that bright. Once, when I had been staring at the computer screen so long that I’d lost my night vision, I needed to use the restroom. I walked in the direction where I knew it was, but could not catch a glimpse. I asked nearby astronomers where it might be and they tried to help, such as calling that I should turn more to my left. Then someone said, “Follow Arcturus.” I walked straight toward that bright star and fetched up at the restroom. I had hitched my star to the john.
Accompanied by friends Aaron and Tanja London, I wasted hours struggling with my equipment. Before dark I had used a compass to find true north, accounting for magnetic declination and aiming my tripod accordingly. But when Polaris became visible, I wasn’t pointed north — why, I don’t know. I had to re-aim the heavy scope and level it again. Then, as usual, my robotic focusing device decided it needed retraining; I couldn’t bring it to focus until I went through that laborious, time-consuming routine — twice.

[Tanja London photographs during set-up at dusk. Photo by Cory Bauman]

Our friends left at 1 a.m. without getting to see an astro-image on my computer screen. One o’clock was when, event planners had decided, white light such as headlights could be turned on. (Otherwise, it was strictly red lights — even my flashlight is covered with a red photographic filter — so that our eyes remain dark-adapted. For some reason red light has a lesser effect on night vision.)
Five minutes after Tanja and Aaron left the focuser delivered sharp images. I made views of parts of two spectacular celestial objects, M8, the Lagoon Nebula in the constellation Sagittarius, and M31, the great galaxy in Andromeda. These bright masses are so extensive that, with my telescope’s long focal length, I could only image the central portion of each.
I spent the night happily imaging. That was one highlight of the convention.
***
Another highlight was the public star party on Wednesday night, in which I set up Baby, the telescope. During the set-up period, Bob Moore, vice president of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society — which helped host the conference — provided musical entertainment via didgeridoo.

[Bob Moore didgeri-does it. Photo by Cory Bauman]

An estimated 700 park visitors were on the field looking through the flock of scopes that night. Dozens of telescopes pointed upward from the park visitor center’s overflow parking lot.
English and multiple foreign languages floated through the warm night air. Several people, on looking at the sharply-etched image of Saturn through my scope, exclaimed that it looked like a sticker. I found they enjoyed looking at Arcturus, a fiercely blazing point in the eyepiece; they could look from the telescope up to the star high above.
We examined the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51), and visitors were delighted that they could see the features that give it the name. Albireo, twin stars with their vastly different colors of blue and yellow, was an eye-catcher. We looked at nebulas and double stars, each of which turned out to be doubles themselves. Conversations ran from locations of basic constellations to our sun’s fate five billion years in the future.
What surprised me was how patient and grateful they all were. I needed to sync on stars repeatedly because the telescope was thrown off alignment when I tried to twist the eyepiece holder around to accommodate shorter views, including many children; those in line never complained about the delay. Sometimes a visitor would peer for a long time without saying anything and I’d worry that the scope had lost the target. When I would ask if the subject was visible, the answer would come in a hushed voice, “…. Oh yeah!”
Globular clusters were some of the most popular objects. These are great conglomerations of ancient stars, many thousands packed into relatively close spaces. Through a telescope one looks like a woman’s diamond broach, a heavy cluster of stars with tendrils trailing into space. They always brought appreciative gasps from the person at the head of the line.

All four evenings were successful, with a reported 2,000 viewers Saturday night alone.

***
Globular clusters were the topic of a lecture Friday by Shane Larson, assistant professor of physics at Utah State University, Logan. Aptly titled “Stellar Fossils,” the talk pointed out that the clusters represent the oldest stars we can see. Most galaxies are thought to have halos of globular clusters orbiting them, and scientists have counted nearly 160 around the Milky Way Galaxy.
Globular clusters have long orbital periods: 250,000 years for those closer to the galaxy’s center, several billion years for those farther out, Larson said.
“Age estimates suggest that the globular clusters around the Milky Way are between 12 and 13 billion years old. They are the oldest structures we know about associated with the Milky Way.” Recently the age of the universe has been refined to about 13.7 billion years.
At least 50 globulars in our vicinity are yet to be discovered, astronomers believe. They are uncharted because they either are “obscured by the molecular clouds in the Milky Way” or hard to distinguish among the billions of stars in the region, he said. Unlike open clusters, which are irregular, consist of tens to hundreds of stars and are blue, globular clusters are “almost perfectly round” except for outlying streamers, contain “hundreds of thousands of stars” and their dominant color is red or orange.
They are so condensed that a globular seen without a telescope looks like a single star.
The closely-packed nature of globular clusters is shown by the fact that the nearest star to our sun is Proxima Centauri (also called Alpha Centauri C), which is 4.3 light-years away — and Larson said that inside a globular cluster, hundreds of ancient stars may coexist in volume just one light year on a side.
***
A rare treat at the awards banquet Saturday night was a talk about comet impacts presented by the greatest comet-hunter of them all, Caroline Shoemaker, credited with discovering 32 comets and more than 800 asteroids. She and her late husband, Gene, and their associate David Levy found Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which broke into pieces and slammed Jupiter in 1994.
Years ago I had met and interviewed the husband-and-wife team of astronomers, a delightful meeting, and she recalled their visiting Logan at that time. In the 1960s Gene was slated to be the first scientist on the moon, but a medical problem forced his replacement in the astronaut program. He died in an automobile accident in 1997, and two years later NASA delivered some of his ashes aboard the Lunar Prospector probe when the spacecraft was deliberately crashed into the moon.
Carolyn Shoemaker had the crowd focused intensely on her talk and the slides she projected. Tiny, walking with a cane, sharp-witted, the 82-year-old was astonishingly humble for one of such notable accomplishments.

[Seth Jarvis, right, director of Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City, chats with me while I set up Baby. Photo by Cory Bauman]

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