The darkest skies, the best telescopes and a real NASA astronaut are part of the eighth annual Bryce Canyon Astronomy Festival today through Saturday.

Given expected weather conditions and a keynote speech by Hubble space telescope repairman Story Musgrave, the amateur astronomers from the Salt Lake Astronomical Society are expecting "2008 to be the mother of all astronomy festivals," according to organizer Kevin Poe.

As a U.S. Marine, space shuttle astronaut and medical doctor, Musgrave has spent 1,280 hours in orbit. He says he spent most of his free time glued to a window savoring the beauty of Earth as viewed from space. Musgrave will describe and show photos of his voyages.

Musgrave is scheduled to speak from 8:30 to 9:45 p.m. today in the Triple-C Arena at 50 E. 900 North in Panguitch. Tickets are $2 per person, or $5 per family, and will be sold at the door.

Following the indoor presentation, free stargazing with telescopes will be provided outside the arena, courtesy of the astronomical society and the "Dark Rangers" of Bryce Canyon.

The festival also will feature afternoon workshops covering such topics as rocket building and launching, learning the night sky using planispheres, safe solar viewing, children's art contest exhibition and walks along a scale model of our solar system.

In the evenings, more than 50 telescopes will be available for viewing.

NASA's Solar System Ambassador, and arguably Utah's most famous sky watcher, Patrick Wiggins, said he has seen "zillions of these star parties and nobody does it like Bryce Canyon. Not only are their skies darker than anywhere you'll travel, but you don't have to be a rocket scientist or astronomy geek to have a blast."

Other than Musgrave's presentation, attendance to all festival programs is free. A park entrance fee of $25, which is good for seven days, will be charged.