On the road: ALCON 2011, Day 2

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, July 05, 2011

This year the Astronomical League’s annual convention, ALCON, took place from June 29–July 2, at the spectacular Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah. On Saturday, July 2, I was privileged to spend my second full day there and enjoyed meeting and talking to dozens of amateur astronomers. The attendance was very impressive, with at least 250 people there at any moment (and 400 registered overall) over the weekend for talks, socializing, and of course dark-sky observing like some had never seen before.

The co-chairman of ALCON 2011, Lowell Lyon of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, was a tireless organizer of this year's event. Photo credit: David J. Eicher
Telescopic targets ranged from Saturn to bright deep-sky objects like the nebulae along the Sagittarius Milky Way to challenging objects like distant galaxies and quasars. Several star parties occurred each night along the length of the park and even outside its boundaries. Because of the staunch support of the National Park Service, a public star party occurred each night at the park’s entrance and Visitor Center, attracting upwards of 1,000 people each evening. Many telescopes were lined up at this event.

At the other end of the park, a “private” star party took place that attracted many amateurs, some of whom wanted stricter light regulations so they could capture images of sky objects. And other star parties in and around the park popped up wherever it was convenient to drive without a long journey through the park’s twisting roads at night, where drivers had to watch for wildlife.

The schedule on Saturday morning included only a League business meeting, allowing many guests to explore the park’s trails. Hiking was strenuous as suddenly you realized, scaling up steep slopes, that you were at 9,000 feet and breathing a little less oxygen than normal! But it was great fun and the scenic rock formations, stained with iron oxide, were spectacular.

Saturday afternoon brought two talks by remarkable teenage astronomers. Benjamin Clark of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, presented a paper that would have impressed attendees of some professional meetings. He spoke about his project of studying radial velocities of M dwarf stars from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey data set, hoping to gain insight on star formation. This young man’s research was most impressive and netted him the Astronomical League’s National Young Astronomer Award. He will begin classes at Caltech this coming fall. Astronomy outreach popularizer Courtney Flonta of the Back Bay Amateur Astronomers in Virginia Beach, Virginia, won the League’s Jack Horkheimer/Smith Award for outstanding astronomy outreach and popularization. Courtney is vice president of her club and energetically spreads interest in astronomy wherever she can.

Carolyn Shoemaker, the world's leading discoverer of comets and a celebrated figure in astronomy, delivered the keynote banquet address, describing the planetary science work of her career along with her late husband Gene Shoemaker. Photo credit: David J. Eicher
At midafternoon, Alan MacRobert, senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine, presented a talk on “Secrets of Deep-Sky Observing,” in which he described many observing techniques and the ideas behind them. I followed Alan with my talk on “How to Sketch Deep-Sky Objects,” describing techniques and showing results of drawing clusters, nebulae, and galaxies at the eyepiece. These talks were paired well and the audience appreciated the coverage of deep-sky objects they could go out and see under a pristine, ultra-dark sky later that night.

ALCON concluded on Saturday night with a magnificent banquet. The room was packed with attendees and all had a great time. Lowell Lyon, the Salt Lake Astronomical Society driving force who did so much to make this meeting happen, and League past president Terry Mann, who had the idea of a great meeting at a national park like Bryce, both spoke and thanked everyone for their efforts. League president Carroll Iorg and Vice President John Goss each had much to say with regard to the organization’s many outstanding activities. I had the pleasure of handing out many certificates for the ALCON Observing Program, which Astronomy magazine sponsored. A great list of 50 challenging objects drawn up by deep-sky observer Dave Bernson of the Salt Lake Astronomical Society offered quite a range of challenges for observers. About 20 people rose to the occasion and received certificates for observing the objects. In addition to the awards for the young astronomers, the League presented its prestigious Leslie C. Peltier Award to Arne Henden, director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers. It also awarded the G. R. Wright Award for service to amateur astronomy to Lowell Lyon.

Following the awards, one of my great heros in the world of astronomy delivered a sensational talk. Carolyn Shoemaker, the world’s leading discoverer of comets, described her career in planetary science and her work with husband Gene Shoemaker, the planetary science pioneer who tragically died in an auto accident in 1997. The presentation described the discovery of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which famously crashed into Jupiter in 1994, the activities of the NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft, and many other interesting topics. With the conclusion of Carolyn’s talk, the observing commenced again and ALCON was over — until it occurs again next year in Chicago.

Be sure to check out all my photos from ALCON 2011 in Astronomy.com's Online Reader Gallery.

Related blog: On the road: ALCON 2011, Day 1

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