Hundreds of thousands of people visit the Grand Canyon National Park every summer to marvel at the geology. But to an astronomer, the view gets even better after the sun goes down. The canyon’s first ever “astronomer-in-residence” is Tyler Nordgren. He spoke with KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny from the canyon about why he plans to spend the next month inspiring visitors to look up at the stars.
Tell me a bit about yourself and how you got interested in astronomy.
As a kid I was of that generation where I saw Carl Sagan on TV and got to learn about the wonders of the universe. I was smitten. It was the same time that spacecraft like Voyager was getting to Jupiter and Saturn. Growing up I used to send letters away to NASA asking how I could be an astronaut and over time astronaut became astronomer.
And you are also an artist as well?
I always had a passion for art.…. I was able to put the two together and now I’m able to do artwork for national parks about night skies.
What’s special about the night skies at the Grand Canyon?
It’s almost by accident, but the 100 years that we’ve had Grand Canyon as a national park, that we’ve had the national park service, the things they did to protect the landscape, to protect the canyon, to limit development and preserve this natural world, has accidently preserved the night sky above. Here in Northern Arizona because you don’t have major cities up here, you don’t have car dealerships on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, you can still see a fairly pristine night sky, the way everybody used to see this a couple hundred years ago.
I don’t think a lot of people who are planning a visit to the Grand Canyon really think about going there after the sun sets.
You’re absolutely right. When I did my sabbatical with the National Park Service back in 2007 I spent a year traveling through national parks. I could go out to the south rim, I could be at Arches National Park at Delicate Arch, and at sunset you’ll be shoulder to shoulder with photographers. But once the sun was down, I was by myself. But over the last ten, fifteen years, people have begun to realize the night sky is special and rare as the canyon out behind me.
What do you wish more people knew about the night sky?
I wish more people knew how rare it was. I was an astronomer at the Naval Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona back in ‘97 to 2000. You could stand at Route 66 down there, look up and see the Milky Way overhead. Folks in Flagstaff didn’t quite realize—maybe some did, maybe some didn’t—just how rare that was. It doesn’t happen by accident. There are light ordinances, people have to work hard to preserve the night sky. But if you live someplace where you do, you can see our galaxy, the Milky Way, the single biggest sign in the sky that we are part of some vastly larger structure in the universe. You can see the universe! I left Flagstaff in 2001 to go out to Southern California…and I swear I would go out at night and look up and I could count the number of stars in the sky, it was about twenty. That was a clear sky. In places like that, we have trained people to never even look up because they know there’s nothing interesting to see there. That is happening in more and more places…we are losing the stars everywhere. We are only going to keep them if we fight for them.
Tyler Nordgren, thank you so much for speaking with me.
It’s been a real pleasure.
The summer program is run by the National Park Service and Grand Canyon Conservancy. Applications are now open to astronomers, artists, writers and scientists for next year’s residency. More information here: https://www.nps.gov/grca/astronomer-in-residence.htm