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For two nights, the skies above a remote and nearly treeless campground in north-central Nebraska produced only disappointment for the 350 eager stargazers gathered there for the ninth annual Nebraska Star Party.
Sunday evening was socked in by clouds. And on Monday, a hopeful appearance by the planet Venus was soon smothered by clouds that rolled in from the south and boiled up a thunderstorm.
On the third day, however, the sun rose and restored our hope. It beamed relentlessly all day onto the parched hills southwest of Valentine, where we had assembled. Then the Earth turned, the sun set and the prairie sky faded to a pale, clear blue.
Soon Venus gleamed in the west, and by 9:25, stars began to pop into view -- first Vega, then Altair and Deneb, the bright stars of the "Summer Triangle."
Surely this night will bring the reward for our patience -- long, dark, balmy hours of first-class stargazing in one of the darkest places in the continental United States.
This meeting of amateur astronomers each summer has grown apace with worldwide interest in astronomy tourism -- a segment of ecotourism that promoters now refer to as astrotourism.
Remote communities like Valentine and pricey, specialized tour companies alike are profiting from the growing number of people willing to spend time and money traveling to witness rare celestial events, or simply to observe the heavens under truly dark skies.
"There's no question that it's grown a lot," says Rick Fienberg, editor in chief of Sky & Telescope magazine. "It used to be that a very small number of people -- die-hard enthusiasts -- would make a special arrangement to go on an eclipse tour," he says.
But travel is easier, and more comfortable, these days. After the first big commercial eclipse cruise in 1972, "suddenly the notion of combining luxury vacations with seeing an eclipse began to catch on," Fienberg says. Now, it is a multimillion-dollar industry, with a dozen or more tour operators in the United States, plenty of options beyond eclipse tours and a growing interest worldwide.
"Baby boomers are coming of age, and weeklong resort vacations are not necessarily what people in their 40s, 50s and 60s today are looking for," Fienberg says. Many astrotourists are well-educated professionals with money to spend, he adds, "and they're building their vacations around these types of celestial events."
When a total eclipse of the sun sent the moon's shadow racing across the Caribbean Sea in February 1998, as many as 20,000 tourists, according to one estimate, watched it from a flotilla of cruise ships strung out along the line of totality -- the predicted path of the moon's shadow. Perhaps 100,000 more watched from land.
A total solar eclipse Dec. 4 this year will be visible across southern Africa and Australia. One tour operator, TravelQuest, will have 50 people on a cruise ship in the Mozambique Channel off East Africa, 40 more on safari on the mainland, and 75 touring the Australian outback.
Jamie Bearse, of Arlington, Va., will be at Akeru Lodge in Timbavati, South Africa, with his wife, Caroline Powers. They're combining a business trip with a weeklong safari / eclipse tour that's setting them back about $2,000 each.
Bearse is no astronomer. But he's always been drawn to science stories in the media. When he realized his business trip to Cape Town was timed to coincide with the solar eclipse, he began digging and found game lodges offering eclipse / safari packages.
"We've never been to Africa, never been on safari, and we have that added element of being able to see an eclipse," he says. "This opportunity is going to be absolutely amazing."
Lew Whitaker, 68, a retired airline pilot from Tampa, Fla., and Joan Poultney, 59, a psychotherapist from Wilton, Conn., will intercept the moon's shadow in the Australian outback. They'll get barely 30 seconds of totality on their $4,500 per person TravelQuest expedition. Eclipse veterans, they have stood beneath the moon's shadow on tours to the Caribbean, eastern Turkey and Zambia.
"A total eclipse of the sun is an absolutely awesome experience," Poultney says. "The animals quiet down because it seems to them that night is coming. The temperature drops, so there is a stillness to the air as well. The light quality changes, rather like twilight but kind of slightly eerie. Awesome is just the best word."
The prices can be awesome, too. TravelQuest's selection starts at $1,200 for a week of dark-sky observing in Arizona, and soars to $41,000 for a November 2003 eclipse expedition to Antarctica. (That trip will land up to 30 people on the ice to watch a solar eclipse visible from nowhere else on the planet. Ticket holders will spend about $20,000 for each minute of totality they'll see.)
"Our products tend to be more on the upscale side," says TravelQuest president Aram Kaprielian. "What people pay us to do is not only to take care of accommodations, transportation and meals, but also to do the research" needed to assure a successful trip.
Many tours bring along scientists to help with the observations and to lecture on history, geology and astronomy. And, there are side trips. Next month's TravelQuest eclipse tour to Australia, for example, will include Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, the Cairns rain forest and a catamaran trip to the Great Barrier Reef.
Recognizing that the solar system offers only so many eclipses, the industry has been expanding its menu of options for astrotourists. They now include stargazing tours to dark-sky sites from Iceland to Chile for optimum views of nighttime spectacles from the stars and planets to meteor showers, comets and auroras.
Last year, Whitaker and Poultney took a TravelQuest tour to witness the Northern Lights in Alaska -- a trip he compared to moving from the back of a theater onto the stage, where the shimmering folds of the stage curtain are right overhead.
Dark, beautiful skies
Only those who have experienced the star-choked spectacle of a truly dark sky can appreciate how vibrant a presence the stars and planets were in the lives of our ancestors. From primitive camps and from the rooftops of our founding civilizations, a clear night sky blazed with beauty, myth and mystery.
Many people still seem to carry a gene that compels them to look up into the night sky -- to absorb the grandeur of a vista that remains essentially unchanged since our prehistory.
But for too many, that vista is inaccessible. In a vastly over-illuminated world, hundreds of millions of children grow up without ever seeing more than a few dozen stars and planets where there should be thousands.
An Italian study published last year concluded that only a third of the world's population, and barely 1 percent of people in the United States and Europe, live under skies dark enough to reveal the Milky Way -- our home galaxy, a giant pinwheel of 100 billion stars.
Fortunately, there are places where astrotourists of modest means can find plenty of stars. Communities such as the remote ranching town of Valentine (population 2,826), are capitalizing on a natural resource they never considered an asset until the stargazers came calling.
"It really just fell in our lap. They kind of found us," says Dean Jacobs, executive director of the Cherry County Visitor Promotion Board. "They've shown us the map of the night sky from up above, and you can plainly see we're in a dark spot."
There are scores of star parties across the country every year, most timed to coincide with the new moon so there's no moonlight to wash out the view. Coming events can be found listed each month in Sky & Telescope or Astronomy.
The weeklong Nebraska Star Party is organized by the Omaha Astronomy Society, and the Prairie Astronomy Club, in Lincoln. It has grown from about 80 people at its first gathering in 1994, to between 350 and 400 in recent years. Some rough it at the state campground at Merritt Reservoir, about 29 miles south of Valentine. The rest bunk at motels in town.
The nights are devoted to astronomy. Daytime hours are set aside for lectures and "field schools" -- a chance for beginners to sharpen their observing skills. Vendors attend to sell telescope accessories, books and T-shirts.
But there are also expert talks about the local wildlife or geology, plus picnics, ice cream socials, beach parties, kite-flying and model-rocket launches.
"We bill it as a whole-family vacation thing," says John Johnson, one of the organizers. "There's usually one person in the family who likes to observe, and others who are along for the ride."
With no stars to watch until nightfall, the astronomers and their families are always looking for things to do during the day. Cherry County is no Orlando. It's empty prairie, with 6,000 people on a landscape bigger than Con-necticut. But there are diversions.
Outfitters in Valentine are ready to send astronomers and their families tubing, kayaking or horseback riding down the Niobrara River canyon. The Rosebud Casino is 9 miles north of Valentine, on a Sioux Indian reservation just across the line in South Dakota. And the 13,400-acre Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge, with its free-roaming buffalo, deer and elk, is just east of town.
If partygoers opt to stick close to the Merritt Reservoir campground, no one is happier than Jon Davenport. He's the owner of the Merritt Trading Post Resort -- home base for the campground, and the star party.
"I'm the Lord Mayor of this area and its population, whether I want to be or not," he says.
We meet in his "conference room" -- an old golf cart parked behind his store. The Meadville, Pa., native bought the business in 1978 and built it up from "a mouse-infested trailer-house and two boats."
Today, his isolated little duchy provides cabins, a well-provisioned camp store and laundry. There is food and drink at the Waters Edge Restaurant and Dillon's -- the resort's downstairs lounge. While the astronomers are here, the bar's TV is always tuned to the Weather Channel.
Out back, there is a flotilla of boats to rent, and trophy muskie, pike, walleye and largemouth bass to hook in the reservoir. And the sugar-sand beaches are a perfect place to sleep off a long night of stargazing.
About half the star party crowd stays all week. "This is the largest group we have," Daven-port says. "They take over everything we have, and everything in Valentine almost."
The community goes out of its way to accommodate them, and to protect the dark skies that bring them back. When the group's organizers asked (and agreed to pay the cost), the resort and campground retrofitted all its outdoor lighting with shielded fixtures that direct all their illumination toward the ground instead of the stars.
When Cellular One began erecting a cell phone tower three miles from the observing site, star party representatives spoke up. The company shortened the tower by 100 feet, and replaced a white strobe light at the top with a red one that won't interfere with observations and astrophotography.
It's paid off with views of stars as dim as 8th magnitude -- about as good as it gets without magnification.
"We've seen some things here I've never seen before," says David Knisely, president of the Prairie Astronomy Club.
The state Department of Recreation and Parks helps, too, closing the star party's section of the campground to non- astronomers during the gathering. So, no one bumbles into the observing area with headlights on, or insists on lighting a campfire or a lantern. And the astronomers love the place.
"It would be nice to live out here," says Larry Baden, 60, as he works to set up his big, home-built Dobsonian telescope before the daylight fades. All around him, scattered across the dry grass, stargazers have staked out their spots, pitched their tents or parked their campers.
Many are assembling and fussing over their telescopes. There are plenty of stubby, expensive reflectors and slender refractors perched on tripods. But many campers have set up homemade Dobsonians like Baden's. These are cheap, simple reflectors descended from a design pioneered by "sidewalk" astronomer John Dobson, and promoted by him since the 1970s.
Astronomers who have completed their preparations stroll the hilly campsite, ogling the big, high-performance telescopes on "Dob Row." Like motorheads at an auto show, they pause to swap techno-babble with fellow partygoers.
Baden has driven west to the Nebraska Star Party each summer since 1996, when he retired from teaching high school English and history. He caught the backyard astronomy bug while growing up in the 1950s near Toledo.
"Back then it was really dark," he says. "You have to travel now to see a dark night sky."
Baden brought along his wife and 7-year-old granddaughter, though he concedes the little one is happier looking at prairie toads and grasshoppers than stars.
Dobsonians like Baden's are the simplest of telescopes -- just big buckets with big mirrors at the bottom for catching starlight, all set on a swivel.
They have no fancy motors or computer controls for finding and tracking stars across the sky. You point Dobsonians by shoving them.
The big ones are not very portable. (One partygoer lugged his 32-inch behemoth here in an old ambulance.) But they're relatively easy to build, and cheap -- some cost hundreds of dollars compared with store-bought instruments that cost thousands. And their big mirrors provide the sharpest views of the heavens.
Few telescopes here are as portable as Jim Sack's. Down the hill from Baden's campsite, Sack and his wife, Rhonda, from Bishop, Calif., greet a stream of the curious, drawn by the old, 22-foot Prowler trailer the Sacks have fitted with a swiveling observatory dome. Beneath it, their 10-inch reflector stands bolted to the floor between their beds, ready for nightfall.
Patiently, they answer questions, and invite anyone who asks to step inside and examine their rolling kitchen / bedroom / observatory. They're used to it. Jim, an electrical engineer with Hughes Aircraft, often hauls the thing to schools near his home, and he gives 15-minute talks on astronomy at state parks and campgrounds.
By 9:45 p.m., there is still a glow where the sun set. But the campground is eerily dark in the absence of fires or flashlights, and charged with anticipation. Overhead, the stars of the Big Dipper and the summer constellations have come out.
The night sky is as familiar to most here as the furniture in their darkened bedrooms at home. But for some, the deepening darkness is a revelation.
"This is so much different than Chicago," said Brian Clausen, 45, a Chicagoan here for the first time with his two sons, David, 16, and Matt, 12. They spent the afternoon together assembling Brian's 6-foot-tall, home-built Dobsonian for its first big outing.
Clausen describes himself as "an amateur's amateur" despite his big telescope. He was hooked on astronomy by a book he read about the theory of the big bang -- the explosive origin of the universe 13 billion years ago -- and a course he took in college. His wife skipped the Nebraska expedition.
"She's into getting rid of the boys for a week," Clausen says with a grin.
David and Matt aren't much into the stars either. They've never seen a truly dark sky or the Milky Way. "But tonight might change that," their dad says.
It's 10:15, and stars are emerging by the hundreds now. What appears at first as a knotty plume of smoke drifting clear across the charcoal sky is in fact the Milky Way -- the light of billions of distant stars merged into a sort of stellar haze. The uninitiated are astonished.
"I just have never seen anything like it," says young David.
Even more experienced star-gazers may be disoriented.
"A lot of people get lost when they come out here," says Knisely, one of the party's organizers. "They think they know the night sky." But the heavens here are so crowded with stars, they lose their stellar bearings.
Suddenly, the murmur of conversation across the campground erupts into shouts and cheers as a moving white dot emerges out of the Milky Way and brightens into a brilliant light -- brighter than anything else in the sky -- then fades just as quickly and disappears.
It is an Iridium flare -- a glint of sunlight reflecting off a shiny antenna on an Iridium satellite, one of a constellation of more than 60 launched to provide worldwide satellite telephone service.
As the minutes and hours roll by, we witness more satellites and pieces of space junk crossing the sky, some of them blinking as they tumble. Meteors zip and flash by (somehow always at the edge of our gaze), as sand and pebbles from space burn up in their plunge through the atmosphere.
It is almost totally dark now. With no moon and no artificial light, it is starlight alone that allows us to see our hands, and pick our way carefully around the campground.
At some point Bob McBroom emerges from the darkness offering to guide the Clausens in their stargazing.
A businessman and experienced amateur from Holton, Kan., McBroom, 52, is here without his own telescope. There's really no need for everyone to bring one. Most amateurs are eager to share the view, and the excitement, with beginners and nonastronomers alike.
With a practiced hand -- and little need for a star chart to guide him -- McBroom swings Clausen's Dobsonian around the galaxy. And one by one Bryan, Matt, David and other hangers-on climb a step-stool to peer through the eyepiece, gaping at objects we've only seen in photographs.
There are swirling galaxies and colorful double stars, and star clusters glittering like clutches of diamonds dropped onto black velvet.
One after the other, McBroom brings into focus a virtual gallery of nebulas -- remnants of exploding stars: the Dumbbell Nebula, Ring Nebula, Lagoon Nebula, Whirlpool Nebula and the Trifid Nebula. While we each wait our turn, more satellites pass overhead. More meteors streak across the Milky Way and more Iridium flares erupt in the inky dark.
This dark night on the empty prairie has become something magical.
David and Matt use a flashlight (its lens colored red to preserve everyone's night vision) to study star charts. They seem caught up by the unexpected majesty of the night sky, the heavens as they're supposed to look.
"It makes me want to learn more about it," David says. The brothers' conversation drifts to the paths their lives might take beyond their boyhood. With nothing but the universe overhead, we're all given over to thinking far beyond ourselves.
Soon we realize the stars have wheeled westward from the positions they held when darkness first fell. It is past 1 a.m.
The drive back to Valentine passes through empty range land, and the darkness is astonishing. The car's headlights reach a few yards ahead and startle the toads and mice and kangaroo rats that take possession of the night out here. Most scurry off the asphalt to the safety of the prairie grass.
I see no moving vehicles of any kind, in any direction, save my own. And until I reach the lights of town, there is no other illumination except the stars.
When you go
There are hundreds of star parties held around the country and around the world each year. Some offer darker skies than others, but most include informal lectures, beginners' workshops, vendors, swap meets and daytime recreation. Some charge small fees.
Here are some of the biggest and best for 2003:
Nebraska Star Party: July 27-Aug. 1, near Valentine, Neb.; www.nebraska starparty.org Texas Star Party: April 27-May 4 in Fort Davis, Texas. Limited admissions; books up early; www.metronet.com / ~tsp
Table Mountain Star Party: July 24-26, in Ellens-burg, Wash.; www.tmspa.com Starfest: Aug. 21-24, at Mount Forest, Ontario. Canada's largest star party, sponsored by the New York Astronomical Association; www.nyaa-starfest.com Oregon Star Party: Aug. 28-30, at Ochoco National Forest, one hour east of Prineville; www.oregon starparty.org Winter Star Party: Feb. 3-8, in the Florida Keys. A chance to see the Southern Cross and other objects inaccessible in more northern latitudes; www.scas.org / wsp.html
For more star party listings, see Sky & Telescope or Astronomy magazines, available at newsstands. Predictions for satellite observations and Iridium flares for any location can be found at www.heavens-above.com
Tour operators offering astronomy travel packages include:
TravelQuest International, in Prescott, Ariz.: 800-830-1998; www.tq-international.com Continental Capers Travel Center, of Gainesville, Fla.: 800-446-0705; www.flycapers.com Specialty Tours, of Clearwater, Fla.: 800-677-9412; www.a1specialty tours.com Carlson Wagonlit Travel, of Houston, Texas: 281-480-1988; www.futuretr.com Astronomical Tours, of Shawnee Mission, Kan.: 913-432-4636; www.astronomicaltours.net