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Long before recorded history, humans gazed at the night sky and marveled at its mystery, a fascination that has grown as technology improved humans' ability to penetrate the galaxies.
Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park is among the nation's premier sites for stargazing, thanks to its dark skies. Amateur and professional astronomers will flock there June 29 through July 2 for the annual Astronomical League Convention (ALCON), featuring workshops, lectures and a chance to check out the latest in telescopes and other gizmos.
"Our focus is going to be on visual astronomy," said Robert Taylor, a board member and spokesman for the Salt Lake Astronomical Club, an organization of mostly amateur astronomers that has more than 15,000 members nationwide and hosts the annual star event.
ALCON coincides with Bryce Canyon's annual Astronomy Festival, expected to draw several thousand visitors. Featured events include children's workshops devoted to rocket building and launches and a discussion by filmmaker Ian Cheney about his movie"The City Dark."
Taylor said ALCON will boast lots of celestial eye candy for amateurs.
"What we are going to be more focused on are things people can see like nebulas, [clouds of cosmic dust], galaxies and star clusters," said Taylor.
ALCON events for paying participants include a keynote lecture by Carolyn Shoemaker, the amateur astronomer who helped discover the Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet that collided with Jupiter in July 1994. But free star parties will offer opportunities for the public to peer through 70 telescopes after sunset.
Taylor said Bryce Canyon is an "excellent" locale for a star convention because it's far from light sources such as cities. And the park's high elevation, between 8,800 and 10,000 feet, means there is less atmosphere separating stargazers from the cosmos.
Bryce's dark skies are what attracted Carroll Iorg, president of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Astronomical League, to hold ALCON adjacent to the park at Bryce Canyon City. "Bryce Canyon has a tremendously dark nighttime sky. It's one of the two or three darkest in the country."
He said protecting such areas from light pollution is as important as keeping air and water pure. Preserving darkness, which Iorg maintains can easily be done by paying attention to lighting, will be a topic of the convention.
"Light should always be directed to the ground," he said. "We're not safer with all that light [angled upward]. We're just wasting a ton of dollars for nothing," he said.
Iorg said many of the amateur astronomers expected to attend the convention make valuable contributions to the field of astronomy.
After professional astronomers make a discovery, like an asteroid field, it is often up to amateurs to conduct follow-up observations. Amateurs have also made major discoveries while watching the sky.
Dan Ng, a spokesman for Bryce Canyon National Park, said in past years as many as 6,000 people have attended the park's festival.
Bryce rangers have taken advantage of the dark skies with programs offered three nights a week through October.
Even so, Ng said light pollution from St. George and Las Vegas is slowly eroding the darkness.
"It [light] is starting to encroach on the horizon and the darkness is not as good as it was 10 and 15 years ago," he said.
The Salt Lake Astronomical Society and the national Astronomical League are co-hosting a national convention at Bryce Canyon National Park from June 29 through July 2. For a detailed schedule and more information on astronomy, visit http://www.slas.us or alcon.astroleague.org.