The Darkest Skies ... A view from Darkest Wyoming

A small shed on a free range outside of Hulett Wyoming. This image was taken as the Sun was getting low in the West, the ‘swe
A small shed on a free range outside of Hulett Wyoming. This image was taken as the Sun was getting low in the West, the ‘sweet light’ time. Visible are the red Spearfish Formation sedimentary rock at bottom, the brown Stockade Beaver Shale above it, and finally the Hulett Sandstone at the top that is yellowish tan. The colors are dramatic especially at sunrise and sunset.

This past Sept 14-16 I received and invitation to speak at the first annual Devils Tower UFO Rendezvous. Richard Beckwith, Wyoming’s state director for the Mutual UFO Network asked if I was interested and I said sure. It seemed to be a great locale and looked to be a more scientifically based first time conference. As an astronomer, (we really DO exist), I wanted to talk on a topic that is pertinent to any conference about extraterrestrial life: Exoplanets. After all, other worlds around other stars could harbor life like us if they are in the right place and are the right atmospheric makeup. I also did a second progress report talk on the UFOTOG II project that I have been working on with Douglas Trumbull. The conference organizers, Laurie Tucker and Bob Olsen did a magnificent job for their first “rodeo” and the press attended each day including the UK Sun newspaper.

One thing I was really looking forward to was the absolute dark skies that Wyoming offers depending on where you go. In the town of Hulett, there are a few lights, security or otherwise for some of the facilities there (cattle and lumber being the main concerns), I brought the camera that I use with our SkyTour LiveStream YouTube channel we produce on clear nights from the John Zack Memorial Observatory in CT so that I could avail myself of the incredible sensitivity of that camera. I put a lens on the camera body and off I went. I was a bit nervous flying this expensive gear so it rode with me under the seat on the flights. I was not prepared for the landscapes however. Southwestern Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah were once part of a large group of lakes that formed sedimentary rock known as the Green River Formation. Laid down 55 million years ago, this formation is rich with fossils characterized by the tan colored rock matrix and dark fossil remains.

Green River Fish fossil that I acquired several years ago originating from a site in southwestern Wyoming. These fossils are
Green River Fish fossil that I acquired several years ago originating from a site in southwestern Wyoming. These fossils are particularly beautiful from this formation.

The Exoplanet talk on Friday afternoon was live streamed on my channel so if you want to see it you can go Here to the SkyTour LiveStream page and watch it. It is a lighthearted, sometimes funny look at the science behind the discovery of Exoplanets. Sunday I discussed progress on UFOTOG II which is the UFO detection system I am putting together with Douglas Trumbull (VFX genius, god, and UFO Hunter). At this point the John Zack Observatory is being used as a test site for instruments we come up with as well as a LiveStream site for the clear night tours of the sky with a moderate telescope. We can show ultra faint objects live and in real time thanks to the camera technology we employ.

On Sunday, a free day, I went to Devils Tower, the most memorable part of the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Interestingly, Doug Trumbull did the visual effects for the movie so it was cool to visit that site even though the time spent filming there was certainly not the lion’s share of the time. The movie took the crew all over the world, from Devil’s Tower, to India to dunes in California. The process that actually made the tower is in debate but the cause is not. It is very likely an igneous intrusion, where magma from underground pushes into overlying strata and then cools there. Even though the process that made the tower still debated, it is known that the only reason we SEE the tower at all is because the surrounding shales and softer rocks were eroded away over the last 50 million years. That is to say that Devils Tower which rises over 850 feet above the landscape NOW, was actually buried deep underground before it was exposed by the relentless erosion that took place since its formation. Overall the elevation of the tower above sea level is over 5000 feet.

Devils Tower rises 850+ above lounging Longhorns and Bison in this view taken Sunday 9-17-2017.
Devils Tower rises 850+ above lounging Longhorns and Bison in this view taken Sunday 9-17-2017.

The geology of the Tower is fascinating but the sheer beauty is breathtaking. Once at the Tower you are close to 5000 feet in elevation so looking at the surrounding terrain is amazing. Sweeping valleys and large conifer trees dot the landscape so it really does make you take pause. To see what that looked like check out the image below.

The sweeping valley below the Tower was breathtaking.
The sweeping valley below the Tower was breathtaking.

Just as a point of scale, check out the pictures below.

Devils Tower seen from the base. The many rocks and boulders, some house sized, form deep crevasses in which rattlesnakes and
Devils Tower seen from the base. The many rocks and boulders, some house sized, form deep crevasses in which rattlesnakes and other animals seek refuge from the hot Sun. At least one rattler was seen this day near this spot.

The crystallized igneous rocks that form the towers distinctive columnar structure are similar in appearance to the Devil’s Postpile in California but are a much larger diameter. Magma that cools slowly underground can crystallize into the characteristic hexagonal form. Devil’s Postpile was formed from a different type of lava than the Tower but on the outside it looks the same. A similar rock crystallization process occurs. The key item here is that the above picture doesnt give you an adequate sense of scale . Consider the picture below however!

The columnar lava forming the Tower is called Phonolite Porphyry which is a relatively rare type of lava. Note the CLIMBER ju
The columnar lava forming the Tower is called Phonolite Porphyry which is a relatively rare type of lava. Note the CLIMBER just right of center. NOW the scale of the Tower can be fully appreciated!

Can you see the climber just right of center? These lava columns are clearly among the largest, suggesting that the process that made Devils Tower encouraged such large crystal growth. These columns can break off and crash to the base of the tower as can be seen in the above photo as well... This makes climbing somewhat treacherous. I have NO desire to climb this decaying massif! For instance look at this photo below.

One of the columns that weighs several tons has broken off in this photo and is resting against the body of the Tower. Note t
One of the columns that weighs several tons has broken off in this photo and is resting against the body of the Tower. Note the climber ABOVE it straddling the single column.

The Tower is decaying slowly and will eventually erode to a small hill in the far future. For now it is an exciting tourist attraction.

While there I noticed a strong acrid odor that burned the eyes and made it hard to breathe. This was the smoke from existing forest fires in Montana that was drifting down to us. In fact if you went north in Wyoming this past weekend you would have another experience too: that of ash from the fires raining down on you coating everything with a gray layer. It was like a post apocalyptic scene from a movie. I didnt witness this personally but some people there had done so. I am glad I stayed in Hulett...

One of the things on my to do list was to photograph the night sky. It rained for the first couple of days which was disheartening until I realized that the smoke that was shrouding the Tower would be cleared out by the rain. Then Sunday it cleared impressively! I took a number of photos that night and the next. Devils Tower is actually open and accessible 24 hours so after dark I went up to the Tower and took photos of the Milky Way over the Tower and then farther away on the highway did a similar set of photos. First of all, Hulett itself, lights and all is still impressive . Note the image below showing the Dark Sky view around Hulett. It registers green on th light pollution scale which is fairly close to the darkest skies.

Hulett has a few lights around the center of town but even still, the Milky Way with quite a bit of complexity is easily seen
Hulett has a few lights around the center of town but even still, the Milky Way with quite a bit of complexity is easily seen even from the center of town...

Here is an example of what the night sky looks like in Hulett. You can see the lights, but you can also see the complex Milky Way. Its stunning.

Hulett with lights is still stunning!
Hulett with lights is still stunning!
Milky Way with some cloudy interlopers inHulett. Note that Devil’s Tower, 9 miles away is visible in the distance just above
Milky Way with some cloudy interlopers inHulett. Note that Devil’s Tower, 9 miles away is visible in the distance just above the front of the hood on the right hand truck.

After taking the pictures in Hulett and after seeing Devil’s Tower in the photos appearing in the distance I went to the Tower and on the way found a spot where the Milky Way was descending on the Tower. This below is that image. It looks like a scene out of Close Encounters.

Devil’s Tower rises like a silent sentinel above the surrounding Wyoming wilderness. The Milky Way descends through it...
Devil’s Tower rises like a silent sentinel above the surrounding Wyoming wilderness. The Milky Way descends through it...

And finally after arriving at the Tower at night I was able to capture the full majesty of the Tower. The sky wasnt quite dark enough to keep me from seeing my hand in front of my face but then I realized WHY. It was the STARLIGHT that was brightly illuminating the scene as there was no light pollution worth mentioning here. In the above image you are seeing the light dome (orange yellow light causing the tower to appear in silhouette) from the town of Gillete 100 miles away.

The Andromeda Galaxy can be seen just above center in this image of the northeastern Milky Way as seen from the base of Devil
The Andromeda Galaxy can be seen just above center in this image of the northeastern Milky Way as seen from the base of Devil’s Tower. The red glow on the right is due to an intrinsic characteristic of fast cameras called called amplifier glow. During final processing that color will be removed from the image.

Of course there was other fun too... Getting personal with an Elk...

Awwww what a warm fuzzy... face...
Awwww what a warm fuzzy... face...
Prairie Dogs were ever present. They are a scourge because cattle could fall into the holes and break their legs. Out here th
Prairie Dogs were ever present. They are a scourge because cattle could fall into the holes and break their legs. Out here these cute guys are varmints!

Well I hope you enjoyed coming along for the ride! If you have any questions let me know!

Thanks and see you next time!

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.