[AZ-Observing] Weekend Astronomy At The Grand Canyon

  • From: Skylook123@xxxxxxx
  • To: az-observing@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Wed, 23 May 2012 00:55:11 -0400 (EDT)

I thought I'd throw in my $.02 worth about the weekend.  Hope you  enjoy it.
Grand Canyon Solar Eclipse Weekend - June 18-21 2012 - A Fantastic  
Location: Grand Canyon Visitor Center, South Rim of Grand  Canyon, AZ, 
about 340 miles north of home in Tucson, about 7000 ft  elevation

Weather: 70-80s at Noon, 60-70 at sunset. Completely clear  skies all 

Seeing and Transparency: Very dry weather brought with  it very good 
seeing, but we lost some transparency on Saturday night and had  some visible 
on Sunday night, most likely due to the Crown King and  Gladiator fires to 
the south.

10" Meade SCT on Atlas EQ-G  mount, full aperture Thousand Oaks glass white 
light filter
60mm Lunt  LS60THa/B600 H-Alpha solar telescope

As a prologue, Marker Marshall, our  Interpretive Ranger contact for the 
event, and I have been working steadily  since last year to make this happen. 
And Marker and the staff did a tremendous  job of planning and physically 
setting this up.

This was quite an  experience in crowd management for a unique event. The 
night before the big show  we set up a private star party at the usual GCSP 
location, and invited members  of the Grand Canyon Association to join us as 
a thanks for all they have done  behind the scenes to make GCSP work. It 
just happened that the annual members  gathering was occurring in conjunction 
with the eclipse, so we took this  opportunity to invite them out to join us. 
We had about 25 telescopes, and about  30 to 40 of the GCA members joined 
in. Quite different from our usual 800  visitor night at GCSP!

This was somewhat of an experimental weekend to  see what the true, useful, 
setup work we would need to do for next month's GCSP.  On the light 
reduction side of things, through changes in electrical  configuration and 
modifications, we only needed to block three exterior  lights with rubylith; 
my long time observing partner from TAAA, John Anderson,  and I took about 20 
minutes to cover the lights, and done. The park was also  trying a new way 
of counting the visitors, with electronic counting possible at  the entry 
points to the observing area. There were other simplifications we  tried, and 
all seemed to minimize the setup and takedown load for GCSP. We need  to 
digest the results and see how we might revise some of our procedures  for the 

As if such a special event as an eclipse wasn't enough  excitement, 
Saturday was the annual GCNP Celebrate Wildlife Day. The overlap  with the GCA 
members' gathering required moving the live animal displays to the  Visitor 
Center. I think this was the most striking live animal exhibit I have  ever 
seen. Out in front of the visitor center, a Game and Fish handler was  walking 
around with a huge Golden Eagle who, it seemed to me, was well fed.  Then, 
entering the visitor center itself, several other predator birds were on  
perches along the east side of the lobby behind an information counter. At 
 I thought it was a mounted display, until I saw the heads moving, 
surveying the  crowd. 

On Saturday afternoon, the Rangers began checking in the  astronomers for 
the star party. We had 26 amateurs who had registered with me,  and 11 NASA 
lunar specialists and amateur astronomers who set up with us and  would be 
helping on Sunday with the eclipse. My wife Susan and I had built four  Baader 
solar filters for Ranger telescopes going out to remote locations, using  
email dimensions, and each fit like a glove. Huge sigh of relief. Oh, and at  
least half a dozen more unexpected amateurs showed up as well.

Since we  had two hours to sundown I set up both scopes for tomorrow's 
event to check  things out, and all seemed well. Our Saturday cadre was filing 
in and setting up  for our personal star party and our invited guests. We had 
constellation tours  set up for 9, 9:30, and 10 PM, and our lead Ranger 
asked if I'd like to give one  or more of the tours; I felt quite honored to be 
asked, so I said sure.  With an hour of dark before the visitors were 
showing up, I took down the solar  scope and did a full alignment of the SCT 
headed down to the end of the lot.  

When I do these tours at schools and public events, I try to do it a bit  
differently, not only pointing out the physicality of the sky, but how other  
cultures have used what was visible to them to relate the sky to their 
needs,  each culture seeing the sky in a different way. But usually, I have to 
do it at  sundown, with only a few night lights popping out. This was full 
sky contact  touring. 

Humans seem to have a need to understand their place in the  universe, and 
how to make their journey sometimes for the betterment of  themselves, 
sometimes for their culture. And sometimes the stories serve to keep  imaginary 
tigers away. This time of year is perfect for these tours, especially  here 
in Arizona, with a useful progression of the Zodiac on the western horizon,  
and a late Milky Way rising in the east. The sun has just set, and the first 
 structure in the sky is the zodiac to the west. We walked through Gemini,  
Cancer, Leo, Virgo, stopping with Venus, Mars, and Saturn along the way. We 
 could just see Scorpius rising. From there, I jumped to the anchor point 
of the  sky, Polaris and precession of the earth's axis due to the earth 
spinning down  like a top, showing Thuban in Draco where the north facing 
hallway of the  pyramids pointed to the north pole star 4500 years ago. Not 
pharohs were  buried this way; this alignment was a core part of the Egyptian 
culture of 4500  years ago, so there are many lost spirits wandering around 
out there.

I  did the whole walk around and story telling, forgetting to bring 
physicality  like the zodiacal light, galactic core, and galactic pole into the 
presentation.  Marker saved me by adding those points in. After that save, the 
rest went  well.

Some of my key points were Mizar, a visible double star (and our  sun being 
somewhat unusal by being alone) as the Horse and Rider for some Native  
Americans, or a test for leadership several millenia ago. The story fits the  
cultural need. Then the Arcturus/Spica connection and Bootes with his dogs 
Canes  and Venatici keeping the bears and the sky aligned and the sun in Virgo 
for  harvest using Alkaid to Arcturus as The Rudder, the legend of Queen 
Berenice and  her hair near the north galactic pole, placed there by Zeus in 
honor of her  sacrifice of her hair to Venus for her husband Ptolemy III's s
afe return from  battle. Now we call it the Coma Berenices Open Cluster, or 
Mel 111, near our  galaxy's pole. We did have a brightening Milky Way and all 
the many approaches  cultures take to what they see, but Sagittarius was 
still out of view so we just  talked about our galactic core. For the last two 
tours we had pretty good Cygnus  and Lyra, so we could work in the Eye of 
God or Orph eus' lost harp, equally  valid for us.

So now we have our North Celestial Pole, our North Galactic  Pole, our 
galactic center, galactic plane (or is that the campfires of all the  elders 
have come before us?), our Zodiac, and it is up to each of us what we  take 
from the knowledge of how other cultures might look at what they, and we,  
have seen. We might think of the stars as just bright lights, or they might 
be  the Cherokee sky spirits who may someday come to earth and may have 
lived here  before and have returned to the sky, or they might be the eyes of 
animals we  have killed without need or reason, every culture will fit the 
stories to the  needs. And if we are missing a constellation for our zodiac, 
lets just cut the  claws off of Scorpius (Zubenelshemali, Zubenelgenubi, left 
and right claw) and  make it Libra and satisfy the astrologers. We also 
touched on the rising Summer  triangle, with only Lyra (and the legend of 
Mercury and Orpheus for the Greeks,  or the Eye of God for eastern 
and Cygnus visible. A 20 minute  journey around many cultures' history and 
beliefs, with a little science thrown  in.

After the last tour, the visitors had departed and I was pretty tired  so I 
packed up for the night with only about five visitors at the scope, but the 
 big lift from the tours.

For the eclipse, we headed over to the Visitor  Center lot around 2:30 PM 
to have plenty of time to set up, and try my version  of the video setup one 
more time. Nope, too much fuss. Meanwhile, our NASA crew  was doing talks 
and other presentations in the theater, with visitors coming  back saying 
Brian Day's work was awesome. 

Since I had two scopes, and  Susan was going to be taking pictures, John 
did not have a solar instrument so  he agreed to run the 10" white light while 
I used the Lunt. Around 4 PM we had  around 31 or more telescopes set up, 
since at least another five or six  astronomers who had not pre-registered 
show up, neatly filling in for over a  half dozen who had move to one of the 
remote locations. And the visitors started  coming. And coming. And coming. 
Based on our usual 800 or so Grand Canyon Star  Party nights, there had to be 
about 1400 people at our location, a parking lot  north of the Visitor 
Center. And you couldn't ask for better crowd control at  our location, nor a 
better crowd. We later heard that some print media had said  Lipan Point would 
have the best viewing, so law enforcement had to finally close  off entry 
to stop the growing hostility with the crush at that  point.

Susan decided to set up with us instead of one of the rim  locations. We 
used Baader material over the lens of her Canon T3i, and the show  was 
rolling. It was quite an entertaining circus, with a huge line near one of  the 
video displays, while John usually had around 10 or so in line at the 10",  and 
I had a half dozen or so at mine. Both scopes had the rich collection of  
sunspots, while the Lunt showed a strong filament and fairly monstrous facula 
 around the biggest group, with prominences all over the place. WOW seems 
to have  a universal meaning. Susan had brought six spare pairs of eclipse 
glasses we  were loaning out to protect against any bad events. When First 
Contact was  announced it was like the team coming out at Homecoming football. 
The crowd  roared, and everyone was getting a view either rotating through 
telescopes,  watching the video displays or Marker's reverse projection, or 
using eclipse  glasses. As the sun walked across the disk, the excitement 
stayed high until  second contact, then the cheering started again. I can't 
recall all of the  wonderous reactions as folks would look through the scope at 
the sun in H-Alpha,  the same with the huge image in John's 10".

People in our area were  borrowing Susan's spare eclipse glasses to take 
pictures with every variety of  cell phone and camera imaginable, and many 
were taking pictures through the  eyepieces unaided as well. Around each group 
of three or four telescopes or  cameras there would be a migrating crowd of 
about 20 to 30 visitors orbiting,  switching between telescope views and 
eclipse glasses, solar cards, or Optical  Density 14 welder's glass. About 15 
minutes after third contact the crowd  started evaporating. Just as the sun 
hit the top of a treeline on the far  horizon, with about six more minutes to 
sunset, the four D cells in the Lunt's  mount died so I packed it up to get 
ready for the night show. LOTS of thanks  from all of the visitors, and 
LOTS of successful photography. One astronomer  near me got a serendipitous 
shot with a flash of Bailey's Beads. I heard some  folks with between six and 
eleven hundred images taken. In the Lunt, the Ring of  Fire showing the 
prominences was incredibly striking. A student at a school  event a few months 
ago during a rather active afternoon on the limb said it  looked like when his 
brother shaved their cat. Yep, that's it. 

During  the event there were many, many interesting conversations with 
crowd members. I  talked with an author of a book about to be published on 
Albert Einstein, so we  talked about the attempts to disprove relativity 
eclipses and features  of his life. You just can't buy these experiences. 
Like many of the children  looking in the Lunt agreeing that it looked like a 
cookie with a ghost taking  bites out of it.

We had over an hour until the public star party was to  start, so some of 
the volunteers took off for a bite to eat, some just left, and  I set up for 
the night event. After sunset I was doing an alignment and ended up  on 
Regulus as the final star, and was asked to do the 9 PM tour. Only two or  
people were at my scope watching me align it so I said sure. And followed  
with the 9:30 and 10 PM tours. And absolutely nailed each one. This time,  
instead of five or ten in each group, I had 50, 40, and 30 and it was a 
blast.  Got great questions about the colors of stars, zodiacal constellation 
locations,  Summer Triangle, structure of the Milky Way, even about the change 
in apparent  size and elevation of the moon. Back to the scope at 10:30, 
Regulus still in the  eyepiece, crowd wisely departed after an afternoon of 
being fried. Me, higher  than a kite with the constellation tour excitement. 
Packed up, done until Venus  transit June 5, but that'll be close to home at 
Biosphere II.

It is such  a pleasure working with Marker and the other Rangers.  We know 
whatever we  have to do, it'll get done right.
Jim  O'Connor
South Rim Coordinator
Grand Canyon Star  Party

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