Visitors look through a telescope during an astronomy program at the Dusty Star Observatory.

Glacier National Park is a special place for so many reasons: towering mountains, pristine waters, wondrous wildlife, and human history. But sitting in the parking lot of the Saint Mary Visitor Center is a discreet wonder that many visitors know nothing about; a remarkable display of science and technology hiding in plain sight. This tan dome set amongst the mountains and the prairies is the Dusty Star Observatory.

We had a chance to catch up with Ranger Dori Gorczyca, one of Glacier’s Lead Interpretive Rangers and the Coordinator for the Astronomy program, to talk about the Dusty Star Observatory and Glacier’s night sky.

Milky way over Hidden Lake

Milky Way and Bearhat Mountain by Jordan Lefler

Glacier Conservancy (GNPC): Can you tell us a little about the observatory?

Ranger Dori: The Dusty Star Observatory was built 2018-2019. It houses a 20 inch Planewave telescope, which sits on a robotic mount, allowing it to balance and track smoothly with the dome as it rotates.

The name “Dusty Star” has connections to western science, Blackfeet culture, and Glacier itself. First, western astronomers identify a ‘dusty star’ as a star obscured from sight by a cloud of thick gas and dust. In Blackfeet culture, a ‘dusty star’ refers to both meteors and puffball mushrooms (those puffball mushrooms represent where a meteor or falling star has landed). Finally, there is a prominent mountain at the head of the St. Mary valley named ‘Dusty Star’ too!

Spiral Whirlpool Galaxy

Spiral Whirlpool Galaxy M51 photographed by Dusty Star Observatory

GNPC: How is the Dusty Star Observatory utilized?

Ranger Dori: The Dusty Star Observatory is used during the summer months for public astronomy programs. The programs typically last two hours, with a presentation about dark skies and Glacier, a constellation tour, and then telescope viewing. Because we often get 100+ visitors to these programs we have a compatible camera attached to the telescope instead of a traditional eyepiece. This camera allows us to project the images to the two TVs attached to the outside of the observatory for all the visitors to ooh and awe at.

We’ve also had a few school groups that have come to the park to visit the observatory during the daytime, to learn about the program and see what an observatory and telescope that size look like. The plan is to continue to partner with the park’s education program and provide more astronomy educational outreach in the coming years.

The telescope within the observatory is a research-grade telescope and we do have some equipment that we can attach which allows us to collect and analyze data. That being said, we prioritize public programming – there are many other observatories that do research, but very few that were built and intended for sharing the beauty of Glacier National Park’s dark skies with visitors!

Dusty Star Observatory at night

Dusty Star Observatory just before moonrise by Hardin Walker

GNPC: Other than the observatory, what equipment does the astronomy program use?

Ranger Dori: Although the Dusty Star Observatory and the telescope it houses are the largest and “flashiest” equipment in the program’s inventory, the program is much more than just that. We have about a dozen other telescopes that we use for public programming as well. Some of these telescopes we use to support our solar viewing program. During the day, our volunteer astronomers will head out to a sunny spot and set up our solar scopes to help visitors (safely!) look at the sun and learn about our home star. Other telescopes are used at our night programs or when we travel up and do astronomy programs in Waterton. During the programs at the observatory, we’ll often set up a telescope where visitors can have the traditional eyepiece viewing experience too. Since we don’t have an observatory on the west side of the park, our volunteer astronomers use two to three telescopes as the core of that program.

Milky way over Grinnell Lake

Milky Way over Grinnell by Geoffrey Prior

GNPC: Why is Glacier’s astronomy program important?

Ranger Dori: Glacier provides a place for all of us to come and experience truly dark skies. The park serves as a reminder to us of what we can strive for and look forward to if we continue to preserve dark skies across the globe. It’s not just enough to have dark skies; if we don’t share the wonder and excitement with visitors (and remind them it’s worth staying up late to see the stars), we’re losing that connection.

This winter I had the chance to talk with some rangers at other parks with dark sky programs. One of the first things they all said was that Glacier’s astronomy program is known across the National Park Service as top-notch. We hear this again and again from visitors who have been to other sites and say that the programs we provide here are above and beyond. Because Glacier’s astronomy program is 100% funded by the Glacier Conservancy, without donations and people willing to support the work we do, not only would the park lose out on astronomy programming, but the NPS as a whole organization would lose a unique project.

If you can’t make it to one of the astronomy programs, don’t worry! We recommend you check out the “all-sky camera”. It snaps a 360-degree image every 60 seconds overnight, then compiles them in to a time-lapse image every morning. “It’s a great way to see Glacier’s dark skies whenever you can’t visit the park in person–or when it’s February and way too cold to go out and see the gorgeous winter night sky!” Dori says.

How can you help astronomy in Glacier?

This project and many other critical projects and programs would not be possible without your donations to the Glacier Conservancy.

Donate now to support important work like this in Glacier National Park!