Big Sky Star Festival




Astronomy Donors


View Facility

First Annual Big Sky Star Festival

A Celebration of the Night Sky at Montana’s Largest Public Use Observatory.
Star Fest is located at Montana Learning Center on Canyon Ferry Lake, where the dark night skies are perfect for viewing the wonder of the cosmos.

July 9 – 11, 2021

Star Fest Details

The inaugural Big Sky Star Festival will be held July 9, 10, 11 2021 at the Montana Learning Center at Canyon Ferry Lake, near Helena, Montana. Both serious and amateur astronomers and even casual stargazers will enjoy this unique astronomical opportunity. The Montana Learning Center boasts a picturesque setting with awe-inspiring views, beautiful skies, and low light pollution. The Center has the largest public-use observatory in Montana, making it the perfect setting for the Festival.

All events and meals will take place at the Montana Learning Center. Historic cottages built in the late 1940s will give Festival attendees spaces for meeting, learning, and sleeping during the Festival. The comfortable and peaceful setting accommodates approximately 100, with shared spaces and private rooms. On-site camping also is available. Helena, the state capital, with a wide variety of accommodations, dining options and other activities, is just twenty miles away.

Plan to join us for an experience you will never forget. Astronomy experts from around the country will be sharing their expertise and experiences with participants. The highlight of evening events will be viewing the night sky through the Montana Learning Center’s 25-inch telescope, the largest public-use telescope in Montana. The light of distant stars, planets, and galaxies will be brought to you in brilliant color.

Net proceeds from the Big Sky Festival will support the Montana Learning Center’s astronomy program and the MLC’s efforts to preserve the night sky for generations to come.


The Mysterious Sun

At first, the Sun might seem like a pretty boring object. However, it’s anything but that! Despite having more data about it than any other object in space, the Sun is highly dynamic and exhibits several phenomena we cannot fully explain yet. In this talk, Dr. Angela Des Jardins, a renowned solar physicist, will show you amazing images and videos of our vibrant Sun and speak about some of the solar mysteries plaguing scientists today.


The Stars from Mars

In the high desert country of Utah lies a remote complex of cylindrical and dome structures that you might think come from another world. And you would be half right: they’re from Earth, but they’re designed for another world. Welcome to the Mars Desert Research Station where people from around the world come to experience what it might be like to live on Mars. Peter Detterline, Observatory Director for the Mars Society, will walk you through what it takes to be a Martian Stargazer.

Discover solar storms on our closest star and galaxies that are literally far, far, away. Experience stellar evolution, with vast colorful clouds of gas suspended in the black velvet of space, and places where stars are born and where they die. Experience how modern astronomy is done, and how the Mars Desert Research Station will become the template for the first observatories on another planet.

Are you ready to witness what it takes to observe the heavens from a simulated Mars base? Then you don’t want to miss The Stars from Mars!


Solving the Mysteries of the Universe One Piece at a Time

Like a giant puzzle, astronomers from around the world are piecing together bit by bit what makes our Universe truly special. Join Derek Demeter, Director of the Emil Buehler Planetarium at Seminole State College of Florida, for an enriching journey exploring the amazing things we have learned about our Universe so far, and what new secrets may be revealed by future scientists in the years to come.


Cosmic Landscapes

This workshop merges the science of astronomy and the art of landscape photography to unveil our place in the Milky Way. In a world with disappearing dark skies, nightscapes play a valuable role in education and in our lives. In this workshop, Shane Mayer-Gawlik, an expert in nightscape photography, will discuss the philosophy behind his images and provide an overview of the basics of planning a successful nightscape photograph. Shane will provide you with basic workflow ideas and tips to help you get started taking your own nightscape photographs, including tracked and blended images.


Putting Pencil to the Universe  

You’ve done visual observing, and you’ve tried imaging. Are you ready to see what’s really out there? Can you make a dot on a piece of paper with a pencil? If you answered yes to these questions, then you’re ready to take your astronomical experience to the next level with sketching.

The art of sketching at the telescope begins with some basic rules that will help you see and understand your object much better than a glance through a telescope eyepiece or looking at an image. In this talk, Peter Detterline, the Observatory Director for the Mars Society, will discuss how to make accurate sketches of some of your favorite astronomical objects. No artistic talent is necessary; all you need is a willingness to try something different. Sketching at the telescope allows you to record your observations in a whole new way. Plan to join Peter and put pencil to paper to sketch the wonders of the universe.

Skywatching at the Montana Learning Center

Ryan Hannahoe, Executive Director of the Montana Learning Center at Canyon Ferry Lake, will discuss the Center’s astronomy program and how you can participate. The Center houses the largest public-use observatory in Montana. Ryan will discuss the Center’s onsite telescopes – a 25” visual telescope and a 14” deep-sky imaging telescope. He also will discuss the Center’s remote telescope, a 16” research-grade instrument, and the Center’s plans to build a third observatory at its Canyon Ferry Lake site. The new observatory will feature a state-of-the-art, 24” robotic telescope, the most advanced telescope in Montana!

Maximizing Astronomy Outreach

Justin Cirillo, a Planetarium Specialist at the Emil Buehler Planetarium at Seminole State College of Florida, will provide you with an overview of best practices to build your astronomy programs and enhance your outreach throughout your community. Plan to learn strategies to partner with local businesses and ways to host space and science events. Justin also will provide ideas on how to promote your community’s interest in astronomy.

How to Build a Backyard Observatory

There comes a point in every astronomer’s life where they dream of the ultimate observatory to house their equipment and expand their observing time for viewing the heavens.   It could be as simple as a concrete pad in the backyard with a pier, or a roll-off roof observatory housing several instruments, or the classic dome. There are other considerations that need to be looked at including storage, observing decks, and warm rooms. Workshop speaker Dean Bauer has been involved in the construction of observatories for over two decades, and will go through the planning on what it takes to create your own personal window to the stars.

View up close the wonders of the night sky


One adult: $30

Two adults or one adult and one child under age 18: $50

Two adults and one child under age 18 or one adult and two children under age 18: $75

Two adults and up to three children under age 18 or one adult and up to four children under age 18: $100

Children under age 18 are not permitted to attend the Festival unless accompanied by an adult.

Become a Supporter!

For $250, receive admission for two adults or one adult and one child under age 18 and make a $200 tax-deductible contribution to the Montana Learning Center’s astronomy program.


Admission tickets are non-refundable. If you are unable to attend, your ticket price will become a tax-deductible donation to the Montana Learning Center’s astronomy program.


Thanks to Our Sponsors:





Montana Learning Center Logo


Our Observatory Facility at Canyon Ferry

Stellar Speakers




Dr. Angela Des Jardins


Dr. Angela Des Jardins, a solar physicist by training, is an Assistant Research Professor of Physics at Montana State University. She also serves as the Director of the Montana Space Grant Consortium and Montana NASA EPSCoR. The Montana Space Grant Consortium and Montana NASA EPSCoR programs work to strengthen education and research in Montana in aerospace science and engineering. Angela is the creator of the NASA Eclipse Ballooning Project, which engaged 55 student teams from across the country in sending live video (a first!) from high altitude balloons to the NASA website and NASA TV on Eclipse Day 2017. Angela’s mission is to use the mysteries of space to ignite the human sense of wonder.

Peter Detterline

Peter Detterline
is an avid astronomer whose interests cover a wide range of the astronomical spectrum. As the Observatory Director for the Mars Society, Peter operates two telescopes, a solar observatory and a robotic observatory. For the thirty-five years before he joined the Mars Society, Peter was the Director of the Boyertown Planetarium, where he presented astronomical programs to over half a million people. This past year, he received the Thomas Brennan award from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific for exceptional achievement in teaching high school astronomy. He continues to teach astronomy at Montgomery County Community College and also teaches for the Montana Learning Center.

Derek Demeter

Derek Demeter began working at the Emil Buehler Planetarium at Seminole State College of Florida in 2003. In 2007, Mr. Demeter became the Planetarium Director and immediately began the process of writing and producing shows for the Planetarium. Since then, his passion for teaching people about the wonders of the universe has earned him many accolades and world-wide recognition. Derek recently served as president of the Southeastern Planetarium Association. Derek enjoys promoting science beyond the Planetarium with his work as an astrophotographer and has been featured in NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, Astronomy Magazine, and other publications.

Shane Mayer-Gawlik

Shane Mayer-Gawlik grew up under the dark skies of southwest Colorado. He received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Fort Lewis College and did his undergraduate research at the college’s off-site observatory on the eclipsing binary star known as Algol. His interest in night photography began while studying for his master’s degree in physics at Montana State University. His nightscapes focus on the blending of multiple images by using a tracker for long exposures, then adding long exposures of the foreground to help expose hidden details. He has used his imagery for educational outreach, dark-sky preservation, and astronomy instruction.

Ryan Hannahoe

Ryan Hannahoe
is the Executive Director of the Montana Learning Center at Canyon Ferry Lake and the Founder of the Mike & Lynn Rice Astronomical Park for Science and the Arts at the Learning Center. Ryan has been active in astronomy since an early age. In high school, he was part of developing the first fully remote controllable telescope for students and teachers to use. His work with the Student Telescope Network led him to the field of remote telescope hosting. Ryan worked at the New Mexico Skies Remote Observatories throughout college. He also worked as an intern for NASA on the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Ryan spent 7 years teaching science in public schools before becoming the full time Executive Director of the Learning Center. He now spends his time leading the Center’s programs, which include summer science learning camps for kids, science teacher training, the Center’s astronomy program and programs for NASA. His work has been featured in NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, the Smithsonian, and Astronomy Magazine.

Justin Cirillo

Justin Cirillo is a Planetarium Specialist at the Emil Buehler Planetarium at Seminole State College of Florida. Justin is actively involved in telescope viewing outreach and public astronomy events. Justin loves the Florida outdoors, and can regularly be found hiking and capturing Florida wildlife with his camera.

Dean Bauer

No stranger to the night sky, Dean Bauer has always had his mind contemplating the cosmos. An avid fan of science fiction, as well as NASA space exploration, he pursued this passion beginning in middle school as a planetarium assistant, and worked various telescopes at public star parties. He has traveled the globe observing three total solar eclipses, transits of both Mercury and Venus, and has contributed to meteor research. His talents lie not just in contemplating the wonders of the heavens, but working with his hands to make them more of a reality for others. With 22 years of solid experience in civil engineering and cad drawing, Dean has designed and helped to build unique backyard observatories for astronomers as well as the designs for two observatories used by the Mars Society.   Dean has started his own company, Bauer Custom Woodworking and Handyman, where he continues to bring high quality construction and products at reasonable prices to his customers. In his free time, he loves to travel and is an outdoorsman who enjoys hunting, fishing, hiking and kayaking.