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AstroFest brings stargazers to southeast Utah

 A photo of the Lagoon Nebula, which was taken from a telescope at Canyonlands National Park during AstroFest.
Courtesy of Canyonlands National Park
A photo of the Lagoon Nebula, which was taken from a telescope at Canyonlands National Park during AstroFest.

AstroFest is an astronomy event held June 16-18 at three International Dark Sky Parks in Utah, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park.

 The public was invited to come out to the parks to learn about summertime constellations and take a peek at some supernovas and planets through the telescopes.

Austin Kelly, a ranger at Canyonlands National Park, says AstroFest is a way to get people out into the parks to experience the wonders of the stars.

"You know, a lot of people have not seen the Milky Way. This is their first experience here and having this event where they can come out, see a ranger program, see really unique telescope setups and just really unique things in the night sky was kind of the big thing," he said.

"We have a lot of folks who maybe don't realize that we're an international Dark Sky Park and we have partners like the city of Moab that's starting to become that. So just trying to raise that awareness is a really important resource, something we're actively protecting and something really cool and facilitating people seeing that."

Canyonlands is a special place for stargazing says Kelly, due to its geographic location.

"We're really fortunate that we have very little light pollution, so we're definitely one of the darker places in the lower 48 for sure. One of the darker places here in Utah," he said.

Kelly says it's important to preserve dark sky areas as light pollution is so pervasive in the US.

"About two thirds of people in the United States do not get these views," he said.

"They have live in light polluted skies where that light is going up, hitting little things of water, gas, and spreading out where they can't see the Milky Way. Sometimes they're only seeing the moon. But in Canyonlands, it's also really important for the cultural aspect and the history that's tied there."

The rangers feel that educating the public about the night skies is also a way to honor the area's connection to local tribes.

"We have 26 affiliated tribes here in Canyonlands, and them and the people that came before them, the Ancestral Puebloans as we know them today, they had really intimate connections with the night sky, whether it was for practical reasons like navigation, figuring out when you're planting or something like that, but even for cultural and spiritual things that even through a western kind of lens that we're looking through, we can even only just begin to understand," said Kelly.

"And all of those associated and affiliated tribes when we come to them, their interpretation of some of the structures and other things we have here is that they have those connections to the night sky."

As part of AstroFest 2023, a new supernova in the Pinwheel Galaxy had been spotted.

Kelly explains that a supernova is a star at the end of its life.

"We can see this really bright star that showed up May 19th. So it's really new, and it even ties back to some of those cultural connections where we have some petroglyphs and pictographs, not here, but in areas like Chaco National Historic Park, where they believe that that's from a nebula that the Ancestral Puebloans were seeing," said Kelly.

Rhodes Smartt, an Interpretive Park Ranger at Canyonlands National Park, says while the supernova is new to us, it actually happened around 21 million years ago.

"What was happening 20 million years ago when we looked at Moab? We actually get the carving of the canyons here at Canyonlands, and so the light has taken that long to travel and finally hits us. And, you know, it was happening at the same time that the canyons were forming. So here in Canyonlands, you can look at not only astronomical history, but geologic history at the same time," he said.

While speaking to the rangers, a shooting star with a bright green tail shot through the sky.

"I don't know the exact chemical, but oftentimes whatever is burning up in the atmosphere may have certain elements in it that will burn up and turn colors in the atmosphere," said Arches National Park Ranger Kyle Ackerman.

"Because it's all friction. I mean, it's rubbing against that and creating such heat that all of those elements are combusting. So I'm not sure what it was, but it was beautiful."

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations including KDNK in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

Emily Arntsen