I've never seen the Swan Nebula, M17 in Sagittarius, in such detailed, glowing 3-D gorgeousness. Nor the False Comet in the bottom of Scorpius looking so impressively like a naked-eye comet over the trees. Nor had I seen the mottled spiral arms in the Whirlpool Galaxy in just an 8-inch telescope — sporting their current extra bauble, the 13th-magnitude fading speck of Supernova 2011dh.
That's because rarely do I find myself under a sky so dark. I was roaming the public observing field under the wide Milky Way at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, amid dozens of amateur telescopes and the excited burble of hundreds of voices in the dark.
And that was just at night. In the daytime, when the magical starry telescope site devolved into a mere parking lot, a stroll over a nearby ridge led abruptly into the phantasmagoric rock hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, as unearthly in their own way as the cosmic sights above.
Nearly 400 dedicated amateurs — from some of the 274 astronomy clubs in the Astronomical League (AL) — gathered here for the 64th annual League convention, known as ALCon. Daylight hours featured talks on astro topics in hotel comfort. In front of a crowd of 200 I rattled on for nearly an hour, helped by audience interjections, on techniques to improve your eyes' deep-sky performance (based partly on this). The more outdoor-inclined could hike and sightsee in the canyons and forests at 8,000 feet. A big draw for many of us was meeting old friends and making new ones. Vendors displayed their telescopes and other wares. And the League leadership planned out business for the coming year.
For those who don't know (and you should), the Astronomical League is the largest umbrella organization for astronomy clubs in the US. The other is the Western Amateur Astronomers. The League's 14,000-plus members receive its quarterly magazine The Reflector, which has evolved over the years into a very substantial publication. The League runs programs to help new amateur astronomers find their footing, and it sponsors topical observing clubs (such as the Messier Club, Binocular Messier Club, the Herschel 400 Club, and the Carbon Star Club) offering goals, encouragement, and certificates of accomplishment. The League also provides practical resources to astronomy clubs, everything from printable outreach materials to help in obtaining liability insurance.
To toot our own horn a bit here, the League and Sky & Telescope go way back together — to the beginning of each. Our founding editor and publisher, Charlie Federer, was one of the League's most vigorous early activists back in the 1940s. He used S&T and the League to promote and build each other, and this synergistic strategy was crucial to the early success of both. One legacy of that early synergism is S&T's nearly 70-year policy of offering discounted group subscriptions to astronomy clubs. And let me continue in Charlie's footsteps right now by telling you to Go join! If you have no League-affiliated club nearby that you want to sign up with, you can be a member at large.
This year's ALCon was hosted by the Salt Lake Astronomical Society. Each night SLAS also ran its annual series of public star parties for visitors to Bryce Canyon in conjunction with the National Park Service. One of the most inspiring ALCon speakers for me was Tyler Nordgren, a professional astronomer who crossed over to work with the National Park Service and its Night Sky Team. The Park Service, Nordgren explained, is increasingly finding that in a country where 75% of people can no longer see the Milky Way, dark skies are becoming a major public draw for America's national parks.
"Along with mountains and canyons and waterfalls," explained Nordgren, "surveys of visitors show that they are coming to the national parks for the stars." And, he reported, the Park Service increasingly recognizes the night sky over its territories "as a resource to be recovered and preserved" as part of its mandate.
The Night Sky Team is working to locate and fix overlighting in parks and to switch fixtures to full-cutoff shielding: fixtures that keep glary waste light from spilling uselessly sideways and upward. Nordgren has published a book: Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks, which he smilingly promoted at a table in the vendor area.
Another speaker on the same topic, whom I unfortunately missed, was Bryce Canyon's legendary "dark sky ranger" Kevin Poe. Along with Nordgren, Poe has been a major force in convincing the Park Service to educate the public about dark skies, waste light, and the needlessness of most light pollution.
The other 15 speakers during the four days of ALCon included Arne Henden, director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), on the AAVSO's 100-year history and its citizen-science future. At the closing banquet Henden received the League's 2011 Leslie C. Peltier Award for lasting contributions to astronomy. Other speakers included Robert Arn on inexpensive astrophotography for beginners, Vern Raben on meteor observing with all-sky cameras, and Steve Edberg with lessons on observing everything from atmospheric phenomena to quasars. At the closing dinner, Carolyn Shoemaker (think Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9) gave a keynote address on impacts on Earth and throughout the solar system.
Too much to report! It was hard to leave on Sunday. But on this Fourth of July weekend, I come away with the impression that the League is doing well and is set to help amateur astronomy be a positive and vital part of American culture forever.