As the sun was about to set, Ranger Joe drove up, out of uniform, and waved me over to his car. He had led our large group hike through the ruins, and he knew that we were rangers from Arches. Rolling down his window, he explained that he had talked our campground host (a former astronomy professor) into giving us a private viewing of Chaco’s night skies. We were speechless and grateful. It would make that long cold interval between sunset (7:46 pm) and bedtime more bearable.
Steve the Astronomer met us at the small observatory that had been donated to the park. It had the cool dome that revolves on a track, and a monster-ish 25″ telescope with tracking. Two workers from Zion NP were leaving the next day, and they joined us for a look into heretofore-unseen-by-us marvels of the spring sky in the southwest.
We saw planets. Saturn’s rings were edge-on, and various moons circled it; it looked like a glow-in-the-dark decal one would put on a child’s bedroom ceiling. Mars was a bright blob. We saw the cool M81 and M82 galaxies. We saw a few shooting stars while waiting to look at other things, and Pleiades and the Beehive Cluster through binoculars. My favorite, however, was the Orion Nebula; the uppermost ‘star’ in his dagger is a sight to behold! Gases exploding out in all directions — oh, I was riveted, and the others almost had to urge me down from the stepladder so they could get their turns.
We returned to our camp feeling like the tiniest specks. Very cold specks. And then we remembered that we were in a park with one of the notable archeoastronomy sites in the southwest: a pecked petroglyph spiral on a rock wall atop Fajada Butte, with three large rocks placed to direct daggers of light upon the spiral on the solstices and equinoxes. Look at these google images and be amazed. There is a long, long history of celestial study here.
P.S. Astronomy Picture of the Day makes a good home page. http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/