OB­SER­VA­TORY TAKES AD­VEN­TURE TO NEW HEIGHTS AT GLACIER NA­TIONAL PARK

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - BY EVE BY­RON

Viewing the or­ange, turquoise and blue ghostly halo of the Ring Nebula was pretty cool for the group at­tend­ing the re­cent cel­e­bra­tion of the new astro­nom­i­cal ob­ser­va­tory at the St. Mary Vis­i­tor Cen­ter in Glacier Na­tional Park.

Zoom­ing in on the Dumb­bell Nebula to view its ap­ple-core out­line, com­plete with a red skin, also drew some gasps.

But the piece de resistance came to­ward the end of the evening, when the grace­ful, sweep­ing arms of the Whirlpool Gal­axy ap­peared on the two 55inch mon­i­tors on the ex­te­rior of the newly named “Dusty Star Ob­ser­va­tory.” The long arms ac­tu­ally are lanes of stars and gas laced with dust and are star-for­ma­tion fac­to­ries, ac­cord­ing to NASA.

“That was one of the coolest things at the end of the ded­i­ca­tion,” said Lee Rade­maker, the lead park ranger in­ter­preter and as­tron­omy co­or­di­na­tor at the park.

“It’s a spi­ral gal­axy and look­ing down from the top you can see the sep­a­rate arms,” Rade­maker said. “At the edge of that gal­axy, another was brush­ing by as it moved past and you could see the spi­ral arms in­ter­act­ing. That’s not some­thing you can nor­mally see with a tele­scope. Peo­ple were re­ally ex­cited when it came on the screen.”

That view wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble in Glacier be­fore Au­gust’s open­ing of the ob­ser­va­tory, the Mis­sou­lian re­ported. Pre­vi­ously, park staff put tele­scopes in the St. Mary park­ing lot or groups met at Lo­gan Pass, and peo­ple looked through a sin­gle-lens eye piece. Be­tween the typ­i­cal blow­ing winds and squint­ing through the eye piece, the view of the stars was some­what lim­ited.

But to­day, with the new PlaneWave 20-inch Cor­rected Dall Kirkham tele­scope – which lists for around $35,000 – more of the night sky un­folds be­fore park vis­i­tors. The tele­scope is among the largest in Mon­tana.

“This new tele­scope is some­thing we couldn’t do with­out the ob­ser­va­tory. It needs to be in­side a struc­ture,” Rade­maker said. “We were sur­prised at the amount of color and amount of light in some of those deep sky ob­jects; tra­di­tion­ally with the eye pieces you can’t see the color. You can only see the light.”

The project is part of the first-in-the-world In­ter­na­tional Dark Sky Park, which is a part­ner­ship with Water­ton Lakes Na­tional Park across the border in Canada. The Glacier Na­tional Park Con­ser­vancy, the non­profit fundrais­ing arm of the park, con­trib­uted more than $200,000 for the In­ter­na­tional Dark Sky project, in­clud­ing fund­ing for the ob­ser­va­tory and tele­scope.

“It goes back a cou­ple years to an idea by the Big Sky As­tron­omy Club,” re­called Doug Mitchell with the Con­ser­vancy. “Along with (former ranger) Mark Wag­ner, they put to­gether star par­ties with a bunch of tele­scopes at Ap­gar and Lo­gan Pass. It was wildly pop­u­lar.”

More than 30,000 vis­i­tors at­tend as­tron­omy ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams each year in Glacier, in­clud­ing the Lo­gan Pass star par­ties.

As in­ter­est grew in stargaz­ing, the Glacier/Water­ton col­lab­o­ra­tion re­sulted in the In­ter­na­tional Dark Sky Park des­ig­na­tion in 2017. Of­fi­cials note that na­tional parks have some of the darkest skies due to the lack of de­vel­op­ment, and they “pro­vide vis­i­tors with a win­dow into some of the big­gest questions we ask as hu­man be­ings.”

“It’s re­ally cool to think about how far we have come in a short pe­riod of time by a group of peo­ple that care about this,” Mitchell said, adding that as part of the Dark Sky des­ig­na­tion, staff at Glacier in­ven­to­ried the lights in the park and are re­plac­ing those that shine into the night sky. “This ended up as some­thing no one in their wildest dreams would have thought of three years ago.”

Rade­maker said they did a num­ber of pro­grams dur­ing the sum­mer us­ing the new ob­ser­va­tory, but it took un­til this month to work the bugs out and host the ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­mony. The ob­ser­va­tory won’t be open to the pub­lic again un­til next June, with as­tron­omy pro­grams be­gin­ning in July. Mean­while, he ex­pects to do some “fine tun­ing” to im­prove the op­tics.

Be­cause of the sen­si­tive na­ture of the equip­ment, vis­i­tors won’t be al­lowed in­side the ob­ser­va­tory. But they can watch the skies on the ex­te­rior high­res­o­lu­tion mon­i­tors.

Ob­ser­va­tions also are recorded as videos, and can be sent to class­rooms or other sci­en­tists. Mitchell said that be­cause the tele­scope is com­puter op­er­ated, with the abil­ity to lock onto an ob­ject in deep space and ro­tate to fol­low it, the tele­scope could be used re­motely by sci­en­tists.

“The Glacier Na­tional Park tele­scope can be a resource for sci­en­tists all over the world,” Mitchell said. “You could be in Bhopal, In­dia or New York, New York – the power and ex­tent of that is fas­ci­nat­ing to think about. It makes pos­si­ble so many things that weren’t pos­si­ble with a tele­scope on a tri­pod on Lo­gan Pass.”

BEN AL­LAN SMITH The Mis­sou­lian via AP

The Dusty Skies Ob­ser­va­tory has opened on the eastern bound­ary of Glacier Na­tional Park near the St. Mary Vis­i­tor Cen­ter in St. Mary, Mont. The project is part of the first-in-the-world In­ter­na­tional Dark Sky Park.

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