ALCON 2011 Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah June 29 - July 2, 2011

The 64th annual national convention of the Astronomical League was held “under the stars” at Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah.  Co-Chair Terry Mann was a driving force behind wanting ALCON at a very dark sky site and also at a National Park.  This ALCON was quite different from previous ALCONs as it was primarily focused on actual observing and enhancing one’s own personal viewing experiences.


Asked if they wanted to get involved with ALCON 2011 at Bryce Canyon, the Salt Lake Astronomical Society enthusiastically said yes!  Having orchestrated ALCON 2002 at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake club felt like their experience would be beneficial in the effort to work with the League to plan another successful convention.


Mother Nature certainly helped things along as the four nights of star gazing were to say the least, “breathtaking”.  The weather in the days just before ALCON and just after were filled with tropical moisture pumped up from the Gulf of Mexico creating typical thunderstorm activity.  ALCON attendees delighted in four nights of dark skies the National Park Service says is just about as dark as it gets anywhere with visual limiting magnitudes approaching 7.4.  The Milky Way was intense and almost seemed to cast shadows.


Ruby’s Inn Convention Center was the venue for the daytime lectures, swap meet, vendor displays and the Gala Awards Banquet.  Conveniently located just a few miles from the entrance to Bryce Canyon, Ruby’s Inn provided many fine amenities to help conference-goers relax during scheduled free time each day.


ALCON 2011 daytime lectures delved into an interesting foray of observational topics with titles such as:  (1) Ophiuchus and the Argonauts: Celestial Highlights of the Summer Sky  (2) More Than Meets The Eye: Improve Your Observing Techniques (3) Stellar Fossils: Globular Clusters as Probes of the Galaxy and (4) Astronomical Filters: Types, Uses and Advantages.  One interesting and unusual presentation was entitled “Parallax, Planets and Precession of the Patent Office: A Patent Attorney’s Personal Observations”. Other notable presentations included a pre-recorded question and answer session with John Dobson created especially for ALCON 2011.  Organizations with representatives providing interesting presentations included AAVSO, International Dark Sky Association, Sky & Telescope and Astronomy Magazines.  It was not uncommon to see close to 200 people at any given talk.  Salt Lake Astronomical Society President, Rodger Fry, was emcee for most of the daytime presentations.  Solar scopes were set up outside Ruby’s Inn on Wednesday as a follow up to the kick-off presentation about solar observing.  There was no double tracking of speakers with ample time to visit the vendor area.  To see more about the presentations and speakers,  plese visit the ALCON 2011 schedule  and click on the title of the talk or name of the speaker. 


The vendor area was open all four days of the convention with interesting and varied displays.  ALCON 2011’s principle sponsors, Celestron and Explore Scientific, were on hand with experts and equipment displays.  Other fine companies showcased everything from space artwork to varied astronomical equipment. Both the Astronomical League and Salt Lake Astronomical Society had fine displays representing the valuable contributions both organizations make to amateur astronomy.  There was even an embroidery center where you could buy pre-made astronomy themed items or have an article of clothing custom embroidered while you wait.


A silent auction was presented on Friday and Saturday with many fine items displayed.  Many door prizes were also provided by the vendors and contributors to ALCON 2011.  Drawings for the door prizes were set up in the vendor area on Saturday and the winners were announced that afternoon.  Two telescopes were generously given away at the Saturday Awards Banquet, one from Celestron and one from Explore Scientific.


Each of the four nights of the convention, the star, or rather stars of the show, were the fabulously dark skies of southern Utah.  At close to 8000 feet elevation, public star parties were held across the highway from the Park’s main Visitor’s Center.  Each night over 40 telescopes were on hand to showcase the night sky to an enthusiastic crowd, one night exceeding over a thousand Park visitors.  ALCON attendees along with Salt Lake and Ogden, Utah club members provided most of the telescopes.  For those wanting a more private viewing experience, a limited number of scopes were at Rainbow Point at the far end of the Park for personal viewing and photography/CCD imaging.  This site over 9000 feet in elevation offered unparalleled views of deep sky objects.


Two special programs were created specifically for ALCON 2011, the ALCON Observing Program or Bryce Canyon Sky Quest and the ALCON 2011 Astrophotography Contest.  Salt Lake club members David Bernson and Robyn J. Anderson compiled and edited a list of 50 objects to be sleuthed out that did not include any Messier objects.  As Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, it was decided to have Bronze, Silver, Gold and even Platinum award certificates depending upon how many of the 50 objects were found.  The goal was to challenge those participating to see celestial jewels perhaps less viewed and often overlooked.  Astronomy Magazine was the sponsor of the observing program and magazine editor David Eicher, handed out the award certificates at the Awards Banquet Saturday night.  The Astrophotography Contest had specific parameters to follow and all entries had to be taken during ALCON 2011.  The award winners were published previously in the August Reflector.


As a unique outreach activity, Scouting workshops were held each of the four days of the convention at the Bryce Canyon Lodge auditorium.  Information was presented that was intended to be useful for Boy Scouts working on their Astronomy Merit Badge and Girl Scouts working on their Sky Search Program.


A swap meet was held on Saturday morning for those bringing their varied treasures to buy and sell to others at ALCON.


Friday evening was the traditional Star-B-Que where good food was had by all at Ebenezer’s Barn and Grill.  This large hall across the street from Ruby’s Inn is used for various live entertainment and activities and ALCON attendees nearly filled the place up!  The western music and hospitality of the servers made for a very enjoyable time together.  After everyone’s bellies were full, it was time for the group photo.  Not all ALCON attendees were in the photo, yet the photo showed a pretty good crowd of amazing amateur astronomers!  After the photo session, there was plenty of time to relax and get ready for the night’s observing session.


The annual Gala Awards Banquet was Saturday evening at Ruby’s Inn where the League’s annual awards were presented followed by keynote speaker Carolyn Shoemaker.  Carolyn’s presentation highlighted her experiences as an observer and particularly her co-discovery of Comet Shoemaker-Levy.  Carolyn was a delight to have at ALCON 2011.  She participated in evening star parties and enjoyed attending many of the daytime lectures.  It was fortunate for all present to have her participate.


After the Saturday evening festivities, it was off to star gaze!!  In fact, many comments were made about just how quickly the banquet room cleared out after things wrapped up to get to the observing sites for one last night of pristine, dark skies.


Many thanks go to all those who made this convention a whopping success.  With almost 400 in attendance, this was a great ALCON in every way.  The speakers were varied and very interesting.  The vendors that participated were greatly appreciated.  The vendor room was a great gathering place to visit and swap stories.  Ruby’s Inn was a great venue with its rustic architecture.  The Ruby’s Inn staff and in particular Brad Cowen, helped keep things running smoothly.  Many thanks also go to Kevin Poe, the primary contact with Bryce Canyon National Park.  Kevin and many other “Dark Rangers” help promote and work very hard to preserve the night skies for ours and future generations to enjoy.  The entire Bryce Canyon organization was supportive and appreciated.  Many helping hands from The Salt Lake Astronomical Society and also the Ogden Astronomical Society worked the registration/information booth.  Vern Raben did an outstanding job as webmaster. He and his wife Vi were invaluable help on the ground all four days of the convention.  The event Co-Chairs were Terry Mann, most recent past League president and Lowell Lyon, Salt Lake club past-president and also ALCON 2002 Chair worked long and hard to make this a great success and a whole lot of fun for everyone.