In Arizona, It’s an All-Night Party for the Stars

On the rim of the Grand Canyon, by the light of a setting June sun, 30 telescopes, some homemade, some with mirrors as large as 18 inches, surround amateur astronomers and curious tourists. Star party organizer Dean Ketelsen, by day an optics engineer, hands out star charts. All wait to begin peeking at the cosmic wonders emerging slowly overhead.

For many folks like these star party attendees, amateur astronomy is far from a solitary pursuit, and Arizona is leading the way in bringing stargazers together. Blessed with altitude, dry weather and clear, dark skies, the state is rapidly becoming the first choice for astronomical tourists looking for the next hot star party.

Such interest in Arizona is nothing new. Six hundred years ago, the Indians of the area structured their lives around the phases of the sun and moon. Today, a century after Percival Lowell began his search for life on Mars from his Flagstaff observatory, more than a billion dollars of equipment and infrastructure resides in the state's six major centers of professional astronomical activity.

But for every professional astronomer, there are at least 20 amateurs searching the night skies for stars, comets and other phenomena. For all, the search is as wondrous as the discoveries themselves. After studying Polaris, the north star, at a star party sponsored by the Smithsonian's Whipple Observatory in southern Arizona, a young boy hinted to his father, "I think I would like to have a telescope, Papa."

"So would I," his father replied with wonder. "So would I."

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