Stargaze your way to our generation’s greatest astronomical event
It’s cold, -12 degrees Fahrenheit outside in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but inside the lobby of the Four Seasons there is a toasty fire and hot beverages in abundance. An SUV pulls up and a young man steps out and opens the door for the guests who pile in. About a seven-minute drive down the road to the gates of the Grand Teton National Park, the SUV parks and the bundled-up guests pop out to be greeted by a man and a telescope. “The skies are clear,” says astronomer Ryan Hennessy with a grin. “You are in for a treat!”
Said treat is the Four Seasons Jackson Hole’s astronomy program, which is a rarity and only one of a few run by any hotel in the world. The hotel is located on the Grand Teton National Park’s doorstep and has had a wildlife program for many years, which includes fly-fishing trips, family safaris and other excursions, but only recently started the astronomy program.
“Tenley Thompson, our previous director of wildlife program, always thought that stargazing could work in a similar way, but had no idea how to find an astronomer to run the programs,” Hennessy says. “She decided to simply put an ad in the local paper and was as shocked to hear from me as I was to see the ad. It’s an odd choice to spend years in school studying astronomy and then come out to a ski resort in Jackson Hole, but it worked out well.”
Hennessy has been with the Four Seasons for almost four years, but his journey in astronomy started many moons ago when he was 8 and his mother took him to a stargazing event at Palomar Mountain. “I have an immense optimism for the impact my tours can have, particularly with kids,” says Hennessy. He studied Physics at Carleton College in Minnesota and Cosmology at the University of Edinburgh, finishing his training at the University of Chicago. He also did doctoral research on the study of distant galaxy clusters using a telescope that his research group built in the Owens Valley in California. He also spent time at NASA in Huntsville, Alabama.
There are blankets, burritos and a thermos of hot coffee in the SUV for the guests along with chairs outside by the telescopes. The main telescope for this morning’s viewing is a Meade and Celestron 12-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain. It offers a great viewing experience for the tours and is easily transportable, featuring a tracking system for quick-spotting deep-sky objects that would otherwise be difficult to find. “These are perfect for our tours as we can star-hop around the sky, visiting various objects based on the interests of our guests,” says Hennessy.
When Hennessy isn’t taking tours from the Four Seasons, he is running programs from his own stargazing company, Teton Skies. “Stargazing is really starting to take off because it beautifully compliments what many people are already looking for when they come to Jackson Hole - an incredible experience of the natural world,” says Hennessy.
“The wildlife, the geysers of Yellowstone, the Tetons themselves in summer or winter; these are natural wonders that draw people from all over the world. Stargazing is the other side of the same coin. It is a unique, fun experience that can be family friendly, romantic, educational, adventurous and so on. Most people live in large cities where you can’t see anything at night. Part of enjoying wild places like Grand Teton National Park is to recapture the wonder of the night sky that is lost in cities. Increasingly, as our cities grow, I think our national parks will become great preserves not just of our endangered wildlife, but of our endangered dark skies.”
Stargazing is not limited to the winter months and is offered year round. The summer of 2017 will feature the “greatest astronomical event of our generation - the Total Solar Eclipse of 2017,” says Hennessy. “There is a narrow, 70-mile-wide band running from coast to coast where the eclipse will be visible August 21, 2017, and we happen to be directly in the path of it. We are very excited about this event and are hosting what the Four Seasons believes will be the best eclipse party in the nation on top of our ski mountain.”