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Natural Bridges Dark Sky Park

Dark Sky Places Traveling Fellowship Part 5

Thanks to the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, I have received a traveling fellowship to visit all of the International Dark Sky Places in North America between 22 August and 03 October 2011. This series of blog posts will detail my visit to each of these very dark places.

Natural Bridges National Monument, International Dark Sky Park

In 2006 the International Dark-skies Association designated this small park in Utah as the world’s first International Dark-sky Park, thereby setting the bar incredibly high for those parks that wanted to follow suit.

The skies above Natural Bridges are amongst the darkest in the USA, and the only skies that have been rated as Bortle Class 2.

Natural Bridges National Monument, International Dark Sky Park

And the park has been taking advantage of this unique status ever since. Astronomy forms a major focus of what the park now does, with a twice-weekly stargazing programme utilising an 11″ Schmidt-Cassegrain and a 24″ Dobsonian telescope, allowing visitors to gaze far into the depths of space.

The custom-built Dobsonian telescope

The astronomy programme is run my ranger Gordon Gower, a retired English and history teacher with a burning 50-year passion for astronomy. Graham described the programme to me; the laser tour of the constellations, the telescope viewing, the light pollution demos. These are all offered to the guests staying in the campground, and according to Gordon every Wednesday and Thursday night when the programme runs, the campground empties. “Many of the people that come to Natural Bridges National Monument don’t know about our dark sky status,” says Gordon, “but they are amazed at how clear and bright the Milky Way appears from here.”

The small visitors centre is decked with astronomy posters and books, and both of the park’s telescopes are on prominent display. There are even plans to build a small roll-off roof observatory on the site.

Naturally, the lights in the park are all exemplary, downlighting and adding no unwanted pollution to the park’s skies. For the past five years Natural Bridges has inspired parks around the world – including Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park in Scotland, which I helped set up in 2009 – and now there are eight such parks, and the number is growing every year.

Thanks to the National Park Service and Natural Bridges National Monument, areas of our planet are being protected against light pollution, and truly dark skies are being preserved for all to enjoy.

All-sky image of Natural Bridges National Monument

The image above was taken before the end of astronomical twilight, and so a small amount of sunlight is still present in the sky in the east (top left of the image), but it’s worth showing for the meteor that I managed to capture, which is on the right hand side of the image, crossing the longer aeroplane trail.

Using the Sky Quality Meter I was able to measure a sky brightness (after astronomical twilight) of 21.6. This is very dark indeed (need it be said?), but still higher than it should be, due to the Milky Way which was directly overhead when I took the reading, and adds its own light pollution!

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