In my last post, we hiked Mesa Arch at Canyonlands and enjoyed dinner and some beer at the Moab Brewery. We couldn’t linger long at the brewery though, because we had to meet our guide for our astronomy tour. I had seen it as a “thing to do” on TripAdvisor and it had received great reviews, so I signed us up. We were scheduled to meet the guide in a parking lot off the side of the main highway at 8 pm – while we were waiting Jon became convinced that we were going to be murdered and thrown into the canyon… His fears were allayed when four other cars showed up to wait with us.
Soon enough, Alex pulled up – gray haired with a long ponytail, Alex reminded me a lot of my favorite boss. We followed Alex out to the site – a viewpoint on state lands just outside of Canyonlands Nationals Park. As the sunlight was fading he told us the history of astronomy and the invention of telescopes while he set up the telescope we would be using. It was a dark night with only a crescent moon, and clear skies – perfect for stargazing.
The telescope we used was very powerful – it had a short barrel which combined a glass lens and multiple mirrors to create a telescope that is less susceptible to being damaged in transport than one with a longer barrel. We took turns looking at each of the astral bodies that he showed us: star clusters, nebulae (the plural of nebula), dead stars, galaxies, two galaxies colliding, and the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. They were small in the telescope, but it was easy to see what he was talking about. They were all fascinating!
Alex also explained how, due to the fact that these bodies are so very far away, and how long it takes light to travel all those many miles, we were seeing what happened there thousands, or perhaps millions of years ago. And if there is life on other planets looking back at us, they are seeing Earth at some point long, long ago as well. It was tough to wrap my mind around the concept of seeing something that happened thousands of years in the past.
Alex is a Native American from the Apache tribe, and he told some of the Native American stories and oral histories on the stars as well. He also explained that the Puebloan people in the Southwest have an oral tradition that tells the story of Supernova 1054, an exploding star that was first visible on July 4, 1054. The tradition holds that the supernova was visible in the daylight sky for several weeks.
After researching other historical accounts from China, Europe and the Arab world, researchers believe this supernova is what we now know as the Crab Nebula (there is some continued debate on this, however). I can only imagine what our ancestors thought of what was going on in the sky – surely it would have been a terrifying experience!
It was a very informative evening, Jon and I both loved it. Alex was patient and interesting and took the time to explain and answer questions. We were out staring at the night sky for several hours and loved seeing everything. My favorites were the galaxy, Jupiter and Saturn. The evening wrapped up about 11:20 pm and we headed back to the hotel tired but very happy.