The REI Blog asked "Dark Ranger" Kevin Poe to discuss the origins and aspirations of the Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival, now celebrating its 10th anniversary. The festival, which includes nightly stargazing through an assortment of 50 telescopes along with other family-oriented events, runs through July 10.
Q: How did the Astronomy Festival get started?
A: A fellow by the name of Patrick Wiggins, who for the last 25 years has been driving down from SLC to give an astronomy presentation 1 night per month, introduced me to some key members of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society. We started the event together in 2000.
Q: What's the idea behind the festival?
The concept Patrick and I came up with together is very loosely modeled on astronomy club "star parties." Because Patrick and I wanted to combine the talent of hobby and professional astronomers with the educational skills of park rangers, we created a new kind of event -- amateur and professional astronomers sharing the universe, in meaningful ways, with the general public, all the while championing the cause of preserving natural darkness.
The Astronomy Festival is now the largest annual special event, of any kind, in the entire intermountain region of the National Park Service. That includes more than 150 national park service areas. Visitors like the personal, 1-on-1 attention and hands-on learning opportunities our event provides.
Q: What's your role?
A: In Incident Command speak, I'm both the "Planning Chief" and "Operations Chief" of this event. I much prefer the title "Head Dark Ranger." It reminds me that there's a dozen other Dark Rangers and dozens of volunteer Dark Rangers with whom to share the successes.
Q: When did astronomy first appeal to you?
A: My dad (also a ranger) got me interested when I was very young. Girls and cars distracted me in my high-school and college years. I attended Utah State University in the early 1990s, and Astro 101 was a weed-out class for casual students. That's because the department was building a good reputation with flying experiments on NASA missions; it did want to be gummed up with ungifted minds like mine. (Ha!) So I got degrees and minors in other sciences and arrived at Bryce as a geologist. Then Patrick Wiggins inspired me to become an astronomy ranger, a "Dark Ranger."
Q: What do you hope people will take away from the event?
A: Since you use the word HOPE I'm going to shoot for the moon: A love for darkness that transcends all irrational fears. In the words of the old astronomers, "We have loved the stars so fondly that we no longer fear the night." That and a global realization that light pollution "HELPS EVIL." To understand that pneumonic, check out my website.
Q: What makes the skies over Bryce a good location for this event? Has anyone scientifically determined, if that's possible, where the darkest skies in the lower 48 exist? Years ago I was impressed by the night skies over Big Bend National Park in Texas.
A: Big Bend is in the running -- perhaps 6.9 or 7.0 limiting magnitude (or lm, which is a measure of how faint of a star can be viewed by the naked eye). The NPS has sophisticated equipment that has set the scientific standard for measuring darkness. The top 3 in North America are all parks located in Utah. Natural Bridges National Monument is No. 1 at 7.6lm. Capitol Reef and Bryce alternate between second and third place at about 7.3-7.4lm.
Though it has not been scientifically measured I firmly believe that the middle of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area at the confluence of the Colorado and the San Juan River is even darker than Natural Bridges. The hypothetical limit of human vision is around 8.0lm, and that probably no longer exists anywhere on Earth, even Antarctica.
Neither Alaska nor Hawaii have anything that comes close to the darkness of Utah. Humidity and elevation have to be optimal for great viewing. Elevation improves viewing, but only to a point -- too high (above 10,000 feet) and the human eye-brain connection doesn't get enough oxygen. Too dry and you have too much dust. Too humid and you can't see through all of the water.
Q: Las Vegas and all its lights isn't all that far from Bryce. What sort of factor is light pollution at parks in general and at Bryce in particular?
A: Bryce's sky is intruded by (in decreasing order of severity):
• The I-15 corridor between Beaver and Cedar City, Utah (about 50 miles away). It's partly due to the communities, but the problem is mostly caused by the billboards along I-15.
• St. George, Utah (78 miles away).
• Bryce Canyon City, Utah -- now incorporated, but formerly known as Ruby's Inn (4 miles away).
• Page, Ariz. (61 miles away).
• Las Vegas, Nev. (192 miles away).
This illustrates the importance of distance -- the inverse squared law. Though Vegas is much brighter than Bryce Canyon City, with just 3 motel/hotels, 2 gas stations and some housing, it still has more of an impact on our sky than Vegas.
Q: What are the most impressive things people an see in the night sky during the festival dates (July 7-10)? How about in the summer that remains? Does one part of the country have an edge in seeing great things this year?
A: Saturn will be the show piece during the festival. But there are lots of impressive galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters that will completely overwhelm stargazers. In September a double conjunction of Mars with Venus and Jupiter with Uranus will be exciting.
Note: REI Adventures offers week-long hiking excursions to Zion and Bryce Canyon in the spring and fall.