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Ron Warner, Bryce Canyon National Park
The yearly Astrofest draws hundreds of visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park to enjoy the clear skies and learn about astronomy.

Taking advantage of southern Utah's clear, dark skies, Bryce Canyon National Park wants to build a $2 million public astronomical observatory.

It would be only the second observatory for the National Park Service — and a much grander type than the small facility at Chaco Canyon National Historical Park.

The idea, according to Chad Moore, program manager for the Park Service's Night Sky Team, is that the stunning views of the Milky Way and other wonders are part of Bryce's scenery.

"Parks protect scenery, and that's one of the things that's in our mandate," he said. Parks have set up overlooks to display terrestrial scenery like the haunting spires of hoodoo formations at Bryce; in the same spirit, he believes, the stunning night scenery at Bryce also should get attention.

Bryce personnel recently submitted a proposal to the Denver regional office to build the observatory. The regional office "then sent it on to Washington," said Angie Richman, astronomy volunteer coordinator at the park.

Under the plan, federal money would cover half the approximately $2 million cost, with private donations footing the rest of the bill. The park has not yet decided on a site and needs to study potential environmental issues.

The observatory would have a roll-off roof housing two or three telescopes, an imaging room that would be combined with a classroom, a deck for observing the sun with a telescope equipped with special filters, an "architectural sundial" and an amphitheater where as many as 500 people could experience lectures.

In addition, a separate facility with a dome would mount a small robotic imaging telescope. From 20 to 30 telescope pads would be established, with power supplies, where amateurs or school groups could set up their own 'scopes.

According to Moore, supporters hope the observatory would win preliminary approval from the Park Service by the end of this year.

Bryce is a good place for astronomy because its high altitude and its distance from the light pollution of large cities mean the sky is darker than most sites.

Since the late 1960s, the park near Rubys Inn, Garfield County, has hosted star parties and lectures for visitors; from late April to mid-October, two or three star parties are held every week, weather allowing. Its distance from large cities greatly reduces light pollution, though the park has generated some of its own.

The annual Astrofest gathering draws hundreds of visitors to use telescopes belonging to the park itself and to volunteers who help with the multiday festival. The event usually is held during June's new moon when no moon-glare interferes with subtler astronomical beauties.

"We had 8,000 visitor contacts last year" during Astrofest, said Moore. Many of the contacts were from people using a specially equipped telescope to view the sun, and others were contacts at workshops and the three simultaneous programs about astronomy. "So I'm sure we're counting some people more than once."

The Salt Lake Astronomical Society is the amateur club most closely allied with Bryce's program, he said. But other groups and individuals across the country send volunteers too.

Until now, star parties have been held in two stages, with ranger talks held indoors at the park's auditorium, then the viewing session in the visitor center parking lot. That requires a drive between the venues. And without a permanent observatory, the laborious effort of setting up, aligning and taking down telescopes must be carried out each time.

"Right now the park owns five telescopes," said Richman. The largest has an 11-inch diameter, an impressive amateur instrument. But the observatory could sport not only these but a bigger telescope, at least 25 inches in diameter.

"Park management here at Bryce is very supportive of it," she said. It has established an observatory committee to search for a location, and all of the feedback from higher levels of the service has been positive.

Astronomy at Bryce is has become "very, very popular," said Kevin Poe, acting chief of interpretation at the park. He cited the activities of Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador to Utah, as inspiring a renewed viewing program.

"Incredible idea!" Wiggins exclaimed. "I really like it. Bryce Canyon, of course, has been adjudged to be one of the last remaining holdouts of truly dark nighttime skies of the lower 48. Just with the eyeball it's glorious.

"But through telescopes, especially a big telescope like they're talking about down there right now, I can't imagine the wonders of the universe that people using the instrument will be treated to."

When would the observatory open?

"We'd love to get it for 2009; that's the International Astronomy Year," Poe said. "And it's also the 400th anniversary of the telescope" as used by Galileo.

E-mail: bau@desnews.com