Utah Stargazing: Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival Travelogue


Utah Stargazing: Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival Travelogue
By Calla Cofield, Space.com Staff Writer | June 2, 2016 01:51am ET
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Space.com staff writer Calla Cofield is heading to the annual Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival in Utah this week.

The park is one of the best skywatching locations in the U.S.

Read her dispatches about her trip here.


June 1: The sky at night


BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Utah — There’s a phenomenon called “celestial vaulting” which is where a person feels as though they are going to fall into the night sky. This “only happens under the darkest skies,” according to Kelly Ricks, a ranger at Bryce Canyon National Park. An hour before the actual stargazing began, Ricks delivered a talk about what visitors can expect to see and experience when they look skyward while visiting the park, which she described as “one of the world’s most pristine dark skies.”

There are approximately 7,500 stars are visible to the naked eye at Bryce Canyon National Park, Ricks said. The park is ideal for stargazing because of its geographic isolation from major sources of light pollution (it’s over 200 miles to the nearest mid-sized city). Other factors that make it ideal are the low number of days with cloud cover (an average of 60 per year), its altitude (up to 9,000 feet or 2,743 meters above sea level) and its low humidity. The Earth’s atmosphere blurs the view of the stars, so higher elevation means less atmosphere, and low humidity means less “stuff” (water vapor) in the atmosphere obscuring the view, Ricks said.

Besides the number of objects in the sky, one of the most striking things I noticed at Bryce were the colors of the celestial objects — Mars was so red it looked like a berry on a holly bush, as opposed to the washed out, orange-white I’m used to seeing in the city.


Amateur astronomers setting up telescopes at the Bryce Canyon National Park. Volunteers with the Salt Lake Astronomical Society brought the telescopes to the festival.
Credit: Calla Cofield/Space.com





About 25 telescopes were set up at the stargazing location just outside the park entrance, right on the rim of Bryce Canyon. The scopes were all owned by volunteers from the Salt Lake Astronomical Society (SLAS). Members of the public were welcome to walk up and look through each lens to see planets, galaxies and nebula. Through a 7-inch (177 millimeter) refractor telescope I saw stripes on Jupiter (once again the color was amazing) and four of its moons. (If you’re looking for tips to pick the right telescope for you, take a look at our Best Telescopes for the Money guide.)

The day had been hot, but the nighttime temperatures soon dropped into the low 50s Fahrenheit (around 10 degrees Celsius). I craned my neck to get a full view of the sky, waiting to see if I felt like I was falling.