Pilgrims to the Grand Canyon are mesmerized as they peer into the depths of the rocky chasm. But thanks to a legion of dedicated stargazers, they are beginning to realize that looking upward toward the heavens at night can be as rewarding as the daytime downward gaze.
In June, these amateur astronomers gathered on the ramparts of the big ditch for the Grand Canyon Star Party, a festive celebration of dark skies in which dozens of volunteers set up telescopes and share stories about the wonders of the night sky, inspiring and educating visitors to the park.
To be precise, this was the 26th annual Grand Canyon Star Party, an eight-day event with activities on both the North and South rims. Park Ranger Marker Marshall, whose job focuses on interpretation, worked with members of the amateur astronomy community in planning the event.
Marker says the star party is important because of how it supports the mission of the National Park Service, that is, …to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
“Today we consider ‘scenery’ to include lightscapes and soundscapes in addition to landscapes. In other words, we strive to preserve natural skies and natural quiet as essential park resources. And education has always been a big part of helping visitors conserve and enjoy the resource.”
In a typical year, the star party nets tens of thousands of astronomer-visitor contacts. In 2015, for instance, Marshall said her team recorded 75,886 such contacts. This year’s numbers may be lower, because of sporadically cloudy skies and smoke from fires south of the canyon that hindered viewing. However, Marshall still considers the event a success, not only because of positive visitor feedback but also because during the week of the star party, the International Dark Sky Association awarded Grand Canyon National Park provisional designation as an International Dark Sky Park.
Marshall said 129 volunteers set up telescopes throughout the week, the majority on the South Rim in a large parking area behind the visitor center. On any given night, about 60 telescopes were available for guests to look through. Some of the featured objects included a waxing crescent moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.
Besides telescope viewing, other events on the South Rim included slide shows in the visitor center and constellation tours. But as with any star party, the real highlight is telescope viewing. Jim O’Connor, of the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association, worked with Marshall in coordinating events. Like other amateur astronomers participating in the star party, he is a volunteer and his work is a labor of love managing 65 telescopes and 1,500 visitors a night.
“The experience at the North Rim is different because it’s on the veranda, right on the rim. They can only get 10 or so telescopes that fit there, and so have a more intimate experience,” said O’Connor. The much larger venue and number of participants on the South Rim resulted in what O’Connor calls “industrial strength outreach.”
Steve Dodder, of the Saguaro Astronomy Club in Phoenix, is the coordinator of events at the North Rim and also has been involved with the star party for years. He has attended it, either at the North or South Rim, for 19 years and spearheaded efforts at the South Rim for the past nine. These include telescope viewing in the veranda of the Grand Canyon Lodge, presentations inside the lodge’s auditorium and daytime telescope viewing.
Dodder said he and other astronomers had up to 11 telescopes set up on any given night, with a total of 8,865 astronomer-visitor contacts for the week.
The event is free to the public, with the $30 per vehicle park entrance fee. Costs associated with putting on the star party are covered by a grant from the Grand Canyon Association and The Orr Family Fund.
“I see my role as an interpretive ranger as helping visitors to make their own personal connections to park resources so they will safely enjoy and come to love this park, and want to protect it. If we can inspire some kids to pursue astronomy or to get excited about science in general, all the better,” said Marshall.
She hopes the darks skies experience will inspire homeowners to think about the outdoor lighting around their own property or community when they get home. FBN
By Kevin Schindler, FBN