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I had the great fortune to be in Utah for a conference and took a long weekend to head to the south of the state in search of dark skies. Unfortunately, my plans for ‘serious’ observing were wrecked when Air France lost my case which contained (or rather contains, somewhere, presumably) my mount and tripod. So it was a matter of making do with holding a 77mm refractor and balancing on a variety of objects with a wide-power eyepiece. Not great, but the best in the circumstances.

I headed off the for Natural Bridges National Monument (a small national park) not far from the borders with Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. The main attraction of the park for ‘normal’ people are the three huge natural arches (you can make one out in the centre in this shot). Descending the 400ft drop to the canyon floor is a potentially hair-raising experience via wooden ladders and hand rails over precipices (great for kids!).

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The nearest town (and bars, petrol etc) must be a good 40 miles away. This park was the first to be awarded International Dark Sky status, and has a Bortle scale value of 2 according to the ranger (I spotted a very small light dome in the south). The park is really astronomer-friendly and puts on regular outreach with their 16” f3.7 Dob. I was able to park up at the place shown in the photo and could spend the entire night observing in principle. In practice I observed between clouds up to around 1.30 when the moon came up.

Here is a single unprocessed 20s raw image (reduced in size but otherwise straight from the camera) from a Canon 1100d with the standard cheapo zoom lens wide open, white balance set to tungsten, balanced on the car roof, and taken using the self-timer -- not my original planned setup! Excuse the suboptimal focus etc. It was just to get some kind of reminder to take away.

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Naked eye, I was really disorientated at first. Even the good old plough was difficult to spot due to the quantity of stars. Mars and Jupiter were like car headlights in their intensity. I live in a village in Spain that gets to SQM 20.6 at best, but the difference from this site (presumably approaching SQM 22) is like night and day. On the southern horizon were stars I’d never seen before. They turned out to be parts of Lupus and Centaurus and in spite of being no more than 10 degrees above the horizon were bright and seemingly undimmed by extinction. Looking above my head I spotted a cloud of stars that I didn’t recognise. I worked out that they must have been the Melotte cluster in Coma Borealis, more spread out but as dominant to the naked eye as the Pleiades. 

What can I say? I took in as many objects as I could with and without the scope, mainly looking to the south. Everything was so much easier than in my previous experience. I was able to see Omega Centauri some 5 degrees or so above the horizon as a clear oval, and just a few degrees north Centaurus A showed a large diffuse shape. I wouldn’t swear to seeing its dust lane, but that is because keeping the scope still was a nightmare; with a mount it would have been obvious, I’m sure. Ptolemy’s Cluster (M7) was a sparkling nugget of bright stars. The highlight was the Sagittarius Star Cloud: just amazing. I could see plenty of dark nebula just roving the scope around due to the density of stars in this region. Globular clusters were everywhere.

Utah is a beautiful part of the world and I’d highly recommend it as a destination for its own sake. The variety of geological formations is incredible, and in the north of the state are high green mountains still with plenty of snow. There are any number of great bases for stargazing (I also took in Capitol Reef). Moab further east looks promising too. I’d love to return, but maybe just with a simple pair of binoculars in carry-on next time ....

Martin

 

 

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Excellent dark site.
Change the WB to daylight and your colours will be correct.

That canyon would have looked fantastic at dawn, the light is quite harsh during the day.

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Utah is one of my favourite places.  Stuffed full of national parks featuring all sorts of geology.  If you like natural arches then take a pee at 'Arches National Park just outside of Moab -  they have over 2000 of them there.

 

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Couldn't agree more Martin - what a great region and a great trip, with the exception of Air France!

My wife and I are both geologists and recently returned from a tour of Arizona + Southern Utah; I may be a little biased but you don't have to be a geologist to appreciate the amazing scenery, rocks and night skies.  I took my Vixen Polarie and had high hopes of getting some really good nightscape images but was largely defeated by the moon, which they unfortunately also have in the SW USA! Nonetheless, there's much else to see including some unique places of astronomical interest.  Here's my write up: https://watchthisspaceman.wordpress.com/2016/04/22/the-skys-the-limit/

Hope you get your gear back OK soon Martin.

   

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That's an excellent location!!  Lovely set of targets chosen, and a shame your tripod went AWOL. But the naked eye scene must have been stunning. Thanks for the great write up!

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Thanks everyone.

Mike, I was going on what I read in the book "Photography: night sky" by Wu and Martin (Mountaineering Books, 2014) that I found over here. They suggest setting as close to 3600 K as possible, which in the humble 1100D is tungsten. But I'll have a go with the daylight setting. 

I can imagine a geologist with astro interests wouldn't sleep over here! My prior expectation was along the lines of "i'm sure it is very impressive but once you've seen one canyon/butte you've seen them all" but nothing could be further from the truth. My favourite was Factory Butte near Hanksville, apparently so called because it reminded early settlers of a cotton mill. Certainly it is dark and somewhat satanic.

I also managed, against expectations, to find some really decent beer in Salt Lake City (place called the Beer Hive) ;-)

Martin

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For big sky nightscape shots, 3030K gives the sky a nice blue tint. For correct star colours, daylight would be your best bet. The reason for setting 'tungsten' is to counter the dreaded orange urban sky glow. Shooting under dark skies, daylight should be fine unless you want a deep blue sky to contrast with the foreground rocks.

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4 hours ago, Martin Meredith said:

I also managed, against expectations, to find some really decent beer in Salt Lake City (place called the Beer Hive) ;-)

I can recommend this if you ever get back and can get to Flagstaff (home of the Lowell Observatory and nearby Meteor Crater), it's excellent:

 

http://www.lumberyardbrewingcompany.com/

 

 

 

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Thanks Alan. I too have good skies but it is only after seeing truly excellent skies that I can put mine into perspective.

BTW Glad to report that the case turned up (as suspected, it had never left Paris). Air France, never again. It took me actually visiting the airport (luckily I had a long stopover on the return journey) and insisting on seeing the cases to find it. They are absolutely hopeless and frankly not bothered about keeping people informed of the situation, nor are they able to put two and two together. For example: they'd opened the case and listed the contents, which included key words such as Berlebach and Skywatcher, but didn't bother to cross-reference these to my description of the contents which contained the same words. In this era of easy search, this is inexcusable.

Martin

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Very nice pics! When i lived in America I really appreciated the magical night sky of that country but that was in the suburbs! As beautiful as that pic is i bet it didn't capture(nor can any picture) the magic of the night sky you must have experienced.

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  • 3 months later...
On 29 May 2016 at 21:22, groberts said:

I can recommend this if you ever get back and can get to Flagstaff (home of the Lowell Observatory and nearby Meteor Crater), it's excellent:

 

http://www.lumberyardbrewingcompany.com/

 

 

 

I was fortunate enough to be back in that part of the States a few weeks ago and indeed did make the trip to Flagstaff and stopped off at that pub for some grub. As you say, excellent! 

I also visited the meteor crater and the Lowell Observatory, taking a couple of peeks through the 24" Alvan Clark refractor (M15 and Albireo). The Lowell Observatory museum is really interesting too, especially seeing some of the kit that Vester Slipher used in his seminal work on redshifts.

But what I didn't know beforehand is that Flagstaff is the world's first dark sky city. It was quite an experience walking around at night with an obvious major reduction in light pollution. The milky way is easily visible a mile or so from the centre of the city. Flagstaff is at a sufficient elevation that it is very green (for Arizona) and embedded in an extensive pine forest. I can heartily recommend it to any astronomer in that part of the world as a place to spend a week. We originally planned to stay for 1 night and that turned into 3, which wasn't really enough. Flagstaff is built on the side of a volcano and there are some very impressive volcano fields to visit close by. It is interesting to be able to visit an impact crater and a volcanic crater on the same day!

Martin

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Great report sounds like a really good place but too far for me to go from here. Air France lost my cases twice and I only travelled with them 3 times, still they didn't beat Lufhansa and my friends woe, 12 flights 11 times cases missing, now thats is hard to beat.

Alan

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