Astronomers say sky has shaped cultures worldwide

Chaco Culture National Historical Park hosts programs throughout the summer to educate visitors on how the ancestral Puebloans viewed the night sky

Hannah Grover
Great Bear Cornucopia, an interpretive ranger at Chaco Culture National Historic Park, talks during a presentation about the night sky at the park.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series that highlights popular outdoor activities that anyone — from a novice to an expert — can try out. Stories will publish on the last Thursday of each month this year.

CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK — Jennifer Frost hopes beginner astronomers expand their horizons.

The interpretive ranger and park astronomer at Chaco Culture National Historical Park suggests people learn about "all of the stories in the night sky," not just the popular ones.

Every culture has looked at the stars and crafted stories about them. But while many people are familiar with Roman and Greek constellation myths, the stories of other cultures are often forgotten or ignored.

Frost's job involves learning about how the ancestral Puebloans who inhabited Chaco Canyon viewed the sky. On Friday night, she was among the rangers at the park who set up three large telescopes in the sky pointed at Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

During the summer, the park hosts night sky programs three times a week. The program starts with a presentation about the history of astronomy in the park over the past millennium.

Stars illuminate the sky around Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Without written records left behind, archaeoastronomers can only speculate about the meaning behind the sun, moon and stars in Chacoan society, according to Great Bear Cornucopia, an interpretive ranger at Chaco Canyon.

"We get our concept of time from the sky," he said.

Watching the sky has helped cultures predict when to plant crops and shaped cultural ceremonies.

Even modern civilizations have incorporated references to astronomy in their culture. For example, San Juan College's planetarium will host a program called "The Astronomy of Harry Potter" on July 8. The popular Harry Potter book series includes characters named after astronomical objects, such as Sirius, the brightest star in the sky that is located inside the constellation Canis Major.

Great Bear Cornucopia, an interpretive ranger at Chaco Culture National Historic Park, 
gives a presentation on Friday about the night sky at the park.

While everyone looks at the same night sky, ceremonies and interpretations of astronomy differ from culture to culture.

Archaeologists believe the ancestral Puebloan people who inhabited Chaco Canyon about 1,000 years ago built their structures based on astronomical events, such as summer and winter solstices.

During Friday's night sky program, Cornucopia told visitors the ancestral Puebloans who lived in the canyon witnessed astronomical events, such as lunar and solar eclipses, a comet in 1066 A.D. and a supernova in 1054 A.D.

"They were seeing things in the sky that must have been awe-inspiring," he said.

Visitors to Chaco Culture National Historic Park look through a telescope on Friday at the park.

While the ancestral Puebloans viewed the night sky without light pollution, a glow on the horizon Friday night indicated the presence of nearby cities. Light pollution cuts down on what the visibility of stars, making it so many people can no longer see the Milky Way from their houses, Cornucopia said.

When he asked those who attended Friday's program how many of them had seen the Milky Way, only a handful raised their hands.

While waiting to look through a telescope at Saturn, Robin Bowers, of Denver, said she is fortunate to live outside the city, where she see the stars. But, she said, there are very few visible stars from within city limits.

Bowers first visited Chaco in September hoping to attend a night sky program, but rain canceled the event.

"We came back down in hopes that we could see some stars," she said.

Chaco Canyon's remote location has helped preserve the night sky, and, in 2013, the park was designated an International Dark Sky Park.

Cornucopia said it is important for people to have places they can visit to develop their "relationship with the darkness." He encouraged people at least once a month to find a place where they can observe the night sky for an hour.

He said people can also access star charts and journals online to learn about the night sky.

"Just keep at it and then you’ll be an astronomer," he said.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.

Don Emerson of Austin looks through a telescope during a night sky program at Chaco Culture National Historic Park.


Astronomy doesn't have to be an expensive hobby, said Great Bear Cornucopia, a park astronomer at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. 

While telescopes can be pricey, Cornucopia said a pair of strong binoculars on a tripod can be used as a less costly option. He encourages people to decide what aspect of astronomy fascinates them. For example, some may be more interested in constellations, while others prefer the lunar cycle or planets. 

After deciding what they are interested in viewing, Cornucopia said beginners should talk to other astronomers about what telescopes work best to view that object before they purchase a telescope.

"Choose carefully and buy a good scope," he said.

He also suggested finding star charts and journals online to learn about the night sky. 

Tips for beginners

"Learn the constellations and be with the sky." — Great Bear Cornucopia, park ranger

 "Make time to do it and find places where you can go where you can see it." — Robin Bower, Denver, Colo.

 "The more you learn, the more fun it is." — Shannon Weigel, Denver, Colo.

"Go to a star party. It’s a great way to get kind of a sampler platter of all the telescopes." — Jennifer Frost, park ranger

Places to view the stars

San Juan College Planetarium:  The planetarium includes a dome in which the college hosts events like AstroFriday that introduces people to astronomy. The college is located at 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park: The park is one of several International Dark Sky Parks in the Four Corners. To get there, take U.S. Highway 550 south from Bloomfield and turn right at County Road 7900. Follow signs to the park. 

Hovenweep National Monument: Located outside of Cortez, Colo., the national monument is an International Dark Sky Park and features a variety of ancestral Puebloan sites. To get there, take County Road G, located south of Cortez on U.S. Highway 491. 

If you go

What: Night sky programs

When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays

Where: Chaco Culture National Historical Park

More info: 505-786-7014

What: The Astronomy of Harry Potter

When: 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. July 8

Where: San Juan College Planetarium, 4601 College Blvd.

More info: Call David Mayeux at 505-566-3361