Chaco prepares for first-ever Astronomy Festival

Lectures, programs and a night sky photography workshop are among the highlights of the four-day festival

Renee Lucero
Special to The Daily Times
Chaco Culture National Historical Park was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in August 2013. This week, the park is hosting its first-ever Astronomy Festival.
  • Chaco Culture National Historical Park's Astronomy Festival will run from Thursday through Sunday.
  • The park was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2013, making it the fourth National Park Service unit to earn the distinction.
  • Admission to the park will be free on Saturday, which is National Public Lands Day. Visitors that day can hear from two astronomy professionals.
  • The festival will close Sunday with a workshop from a professional photographer who specializes in night sky photography.

FARMINGTON — Chaco Culture National Historical Park is preparing to host its first-ever Astronomy Festival.

The event, which starts Thursday and continues through Sunday, will feature speakers from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines from across the country.

The festival is the brainchild of several park employees who share a passion for astronomy, according to Nathan Hatfield, chief of interpretation at Chaco. In 2013, the International Dark-Sky Association designated Chaco as an International Dark Sky Park, making it a prime location for stargazers.

Hatfield said park employees take pride in the designation and work to maintain it.

"We take everything into consideration to keep that dark sky title, including the parking lot light shields or not having soda machines with bright red, white and blue colors," he said. "We do what we can to minimize all the unnecessary light."

The International Dark-Sky Association determined more than 99 percent of the park was a "natural darkness zone" without any permanent outdoor lighting, according to the park's website. Chaco is the fourth unit within the National Park System to receive the designation, making it "one of the best places in the country to experience and enjoy natural darkness," according to the site.

"Because we are so far away from Farmington, Aztec and Albuquerque, our remote location provides truly pristine night skies," Hatfield said. "Occasionally, we can see some light from Farmington or some light in the distance from Albuquerque, but most of the time, you can just look up and see the Milky Way popping out at you, and you can’t get that view from urban areas."

A great house at Chaco Culture National Historical Park is pictured at night. The park's first-ever Astronomy Festival will continue through Sunday.

The start of the Astronomy Festival will coincide with the autumnal equinox, which marks the beginning of fall in the Northern Hemisphere.

The first 100 visitors at the gate before 6 a.m. Thursday will witness the sunrise alignment through the doorways of Casa Rinconada, one of the great kivas at the park. Solar telescopes for safe viewing of the sun will also be available all day.

Tours with safe sun-viewing practices will also be available Friday. That evening, there will be entertainment from Native American flute players and programs about the night sky.

Saturday is National Public Lands Day, so entrance fees to all national parks, including Chaco, will be waived.

During the day, two astronomy professionals will be on hand, including author Ron Sutcliffe, who will speak about his book "Moon Tracks: Lunar Horizon Patterns." In the evening, Li-Wei Hung, a night sky research scientist based in Fort Collins, Colo., will speak about research done by her division.

The National Park Services’ Night Skies Program measures light pollution at NPS units, and Hung will present the group’s findings and measurements. Hung will also speak about the group’s day-to-day work, using Chaco as a "case study."

Stars illuminate the sky on April 24, 2014, during a ceremony to celebrate Chaco Culture National Historical Park's designation as an International Dark Sky Park.

"We have studied the long-term trends, over the last 10 years, of light pollution," Hung said. "We measure light pollution using our imaging system and measure how dark the night sky is."

Hung will also point out the night-sky subjects that evening, including Mars and Saturn immediately after sunset, as well as bright stars and the Andromeda Galaxy, which is visible to the naked eye but pronounced with the dark skies and telescopes available at Chaco.

Author Tyler Nordgren speaks about the importance of maintaining dark nighttime skies during a ceremony April 24, 2014, to celebrate Chaco Culture National Historical Park's designation as an International Dark Sky Park.

The festival will close with a workshop from Stan Honda, a professional photographer who specializes in night sky photography. Honda has been an artist-in-resident at five NPS parks across the Southwest, including Chaco. Honda will host a discussion at 2 p.m. Sunday and a hands-on demonstration at 7 p.m. that day.

Honda has been a photographer for 34 years. He worked as a photojournalist before focusing on the fine art point-of-view, which he continues today.

"On the East Coast, it’s hard to get away from the light pollution," Honda said when reached by phone last week at his home in New York City. "In the Southwest, especially the Four Corners area, there is much less light pollution. And the parks, all of them, are so unique. They offer pueblo sites and ancient buildings built over 1,000 years ago. It’s amazing to see they have survived and they make for amazing photographs."

During his evening workshop, Honda will teach people how to shoot photos, including what camera settings to use, in the unique conditions provided by the night sky.

The park will also screen a documentary called "City Dark" throughout the weekend. The documentary about light pollution and was nominated for an Emmy in 2013.

Renee Lucero is a freelance reporter for The Daily Times.

Tim Miller, of Durango, Colo., looks at a map of dark sky areas during a ceremony April 24, 2014, to celebrate Chaco Culture National Historical Park's designation as an International Dark Sky Park.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park Astronomy Festival

Thursday: The first 100 visitors can see the sunrise alignment in Casa Rinconada at 6 p.m.

Friday: Native American flute performance and night sky programs with telescopes at 6 p.m.

Saturday: Admission is free for National Public Lands Day. Author Ron Sutcliffe lecture, astronaut food samples and Native American flute performance at 4 p.m. Keynote speaker Li-Wei Hung at 7 p.m.

Sunday: Photographer Stan Honda lecture at 2 p.m. Honda night sky photography workshop at 7 p.m.

How to get there: From Farmington, head south on U.S. Highway 550 and turn right on County Road 7900, which is 3 miles southeast of Nageezi. Follow the route, which includes 8 miles of paved road and 13 miles of unpaved dirt road.

More info: Go nps.gov/chcu.