Voices are hushed as people from all across Arizona make their way through the darkness. Dim candles illuminate the path to the Star Party in Buffalo Park. Booths have been set up near the entrance with enthusiastic volunteers handing out pamphlets and flashlights to the crowd. “I am visiting from California and I just decided to volunteer tonight…I think it is fantastic. I could not be more enthusiastic,” said volunteer Phebe Craig. Without a cloud in the sky, this chilly Flagstaff evening was perfect for stargazing.
It was the second annual Star Party from Sept. 17 through Sept. 19 sponsored by the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition. The Star Party aims to share the wonders of the night sky with the public through telescope viewing. This free, three-night event attracted families and students alike who had an interest in astronomy or just wanted to enjoy the dazzling view of unobstructed night skies.
“I’m out here because I have a personal interest in shooting night photography, especially astrophotography. So I volunteered for The Lumberjack to do coverage of the star party tonight,” said junior photojournalism major Halie Chavez.
The first night of the three-day event showcased “Sunset and Shadow Circles” where Brian Skiff of Lowell Observatory gave a sunset talk followed by an orientation describing the transition from sunset to twilight. “A Walk Around Our Stellar Neighborhood” was then offered by Dr. Jeffrey Hall of Lowell Observatory who explained the difference between naked eye and nearby stars. On the second night, “How Do We Know Where We Are? Stars and Clocks!” presentation was given by Dr. Marc Murison of the U.S. Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station explaining celestial navigation. This was followed by a “Night Sky Photography Workshop with Stan Honda” where participants learned how to photograph the night sky alongside a successful photojournalist. Finally on the third night, the “Discovering New Worlds” presentation led by Dr. David Koerner of NAU discussed the billions of other planets in the Milky Way galaxy and plans to search for signs of life.
Many NAU students from the Phoenix area who attended the event said they had grown up without seeing stars due to light pollution in the Valley. They could now view the prominent stars and constellations thanks to Flagstaff’s clear skies. “I have a friend who told me about the star party and I thought it would be a lot of fun because I’m from Phoenix so there really aren’t many stargazing opportunities,” said junior speech mythology major Olivia Both.
Amateur as well as professional astronomers had various high powered telescopes set up along the path. People could stop and take in the breathtaking view of the moon or Saturn while the astronomers presented fun facts and history lessons of the universe. “I’m involved with astronomy have been for over 60 years…I teach astronomy at Coconino Community College and I’m also in the Coconino Astronomical Society and help at a Lowell on occasion,” said amateur astronomer Barry Malpas. “Meet the Constellations” guided tours began at 8 p.m. to showcase the center of the Milky Way galaxy along with constellations like Scorpius and Sagittarius.
Light pollution has always been a concern in this astronomy loving city once deemed “The Skylight City.” Back in 1958, Flagstaff adopted the first lighting ordinances for astronomical research to avoid further deterioration of the night sky. Then Flagstaff became the first international dark sky city in 2001 and many more cities across the nation are now following suit. This title was awarded by the International Dark-Sky Association after Flagstaff’s history of unique lighting controls. “Flagstaff was named the first international dark sky city. Sedona 38 miles down the canyon was named eighth international dark sky city just last summer and we’re working on two more communities in that area. We’re going to keep it as a natural resource,” said member of Astronomers of Verde Valley, Karen Maddy.
Raffle winners were announced for the Onesky Telescope as well as Galileoscope telescope kit and winning families squealed with joy. As this exciting event came to a close around 10 p.m., the public returned their flashlights to the volunteers and could purchase a glow in the dark T-shirt or sticker as a reminder.
Supporters and sponsors said they look forward to next year’s third annual Star Party and expect to attract an even larger, more diverse crowd. Flagstaff, Arizona citizens will continue their efforts to keep the city lights from banishing the sparkling stars from the public’s view.
Flagstaff’s astronomy sector is growing rapidly with more and more job opportunities at places like Lowell Observatory and the U.S. Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station. The Discovery Channel Telescope provides positive economic impact for Northern Arizona every year. Even more exciting, NAU recently added a PhD program in astronomy. For more information on the dark sky efforts and events in Flagstaff, visit the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition website at flagstaffdarkskies.org.