Saturday, September 14, 2013

Great Basin National Park 2013 Astronomy Festival

Last weekend was Great Basin National Park's Astronomy Festival. I was really looking forward to it (and it was a self-imposed deadline to get up some astronomy-related road art). 

On Thursday night we attended the ranger talent show. The ranger acts all had an astronomy theme.

Some kids I know opened the show with their rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. 
It was just a little bit cute. Okay, maybe a lot. Desert Girl made sure she was holding her star!

 Other talents showcased included beautiful singing, violin, guitars, trumpet, a reading, and a Star Wars skit with awesome costumes. It was a really enjoyable evening. (I had the wrong lens and no tripod so stopped trying to take photos as the sky got darker and darker.)

Then we headed over to the picnic area and looked through a variety of telescopes at the amazing night sky. It was a cloudless night and quite warm, ideal conditions. It was nice having the Astronomy Festival in the fall so we didn't have to stay up so late to see the night sky.

Desert Boy really wanted to get his Dark Sky Certificate because the prize was a Milky Way candy bar. In order to earn it, he had to look through telescopes and spot a binary star,  a galaxy, a star cluster, and a planetary nebula.

For the binary star, we looked to the oldest known one, in the handle of the Big Dipper. This has been a test for good eyesight for ages--can you see that the second star in the handle is not one star, but two? These are Mizar and Alcor (and recently discovered several more stars).

The galaxy we looked at was our nearest spiral galaxy neighbor: the Andromeda Galaxy. When you think about how big the Milky Way galaxy is and that we just see a portion of it, it's pretty amazing that we can see a whole other galaxy out there with its billions of stars. When I think of geologic time as being overwhelming, I just remind myself that it has nothing on astronomy, where a distance of 2.5 million light years to the Andromeda Galaxy is considered close. It certainly helps me put life in perspective--we really are little specks, and we might as well get along!

A star cluster is a bunch of stars close together, but much, much smaller in number than a galaxy. To put this in perspective, a star cluster may "only" have hundreds of thousands of stars in it. Or perhaps several million. But it's still not anywhere close to a galaxy. Oh, my. We looked at the best known star cluster in the northern hemisphere, M13, in the constellation Hercules.

Finally we looked at a planetary nebula. I thought it was rather difficult to be able to spot planets outside our solar system, so I asked what a planetary nebula was. The astronomer explained that the old-time astronomers, who didn't have such good telescopes, thought they were seeing planets forming. In fact, they were seeing dying stars. One day our sun will become a planetary nebula. These are relatively rare, with only 1500 known. And the one we saw, the Dumbbell Nebula, was gorgeous, my favorite sight of the night. In fact, it inspired me so much that I went home and looked up more information about planetary nebulas, started watching a BBC shown on astronomy called The Planets, and made me go back to the Astronomy Festival to learn even more.

 Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate. It was cloudy and stormy Friday night. And much of Saturday. But we decided to head to the ranger programs in the afternoon and learned about telescopes and how to use a planisphere. The kids' favorite activity was making a solar bracelet.

Ranger Aileen explained how the sun emits lots of different colors, and the kids identified the colors. She then told them how below the violet light is another kind of light, one we can't see, called ultra violet. It's the one that can make our skin tan (or sunburned).

She had some special beads that would turn color only in ultraviolet light. So inside a building the beads would be clear, but outside they would magically transform in color.
The kids loved the hands on activity. Even Desert Girl was able to make her own bracelet.

We had to wait a bit to get some good sunlight to make the beads their brightest. We sure were impressed with how much they changed color!

The astronomy festival was lots of fun despite some not-so-ideal weather conditions. One other thing I should mention is that Wally Pacholka was the keynote speaker. He gave up his day job as an accountant to take photos of the night skies. He had some photographs for sale, and I couldn't resist--they are stunning. Check out his website to see his remarkable work.

Great Basin National Park also released its Astronomy Ranger Minute, which has some amazing videography.

We're already looking forward to next year's Astronomy Festival! The date has been set for September 19-21, 2014.


jhami said...

Cool! Those singing pictures are precious!

Anonymous said...

Desert Girl is really a diva-in-training. She was born to be on stage :-) So great that you are able to get them involved in so many activities.


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