The celestial sphere is getting a lot more attention than usual this week, as Oregon and much of the rest of the United States prepare for Monday’s total solar eclipse.
Shortly after 10 in the morning, the new moon will pass between the Earth and the sun, plunging the planet into darkness for two minutes or longer — depending upon where an observer stands.
When one considers that darkness rules Oregon’s skies for about 3,000 nighttime hours during a single year, that seems a trifling amount of time to have one’s eyes turned to the heavens.
Any time of year can be a good one for amateur astronomers, especially in the more-often-than-not clear skies of Central Oregon. In fact, throughout the Pacific Northwest, observatories are welcoming stargazers. And several planetariums offer creative shows for those who want to imagine travel deeper into the universe.
The premier facility in this region is the University of Oregon’s Pine Mountain Observatory, an hour’s drive southeast of Bend (8 miles south of Millican) at a mountaintop elevation of 6,500 feet. While its primary function is astrophysics education and research, the observatory welcomes visitors on Friday and Saturday nights from late May through September, clear skies permitting.
Pine Mountain has three separate Cassegrain reflecting telescopes, each housed in its own domed building. Programs begin at sunset: Late summer visitors should arrive before 8 p.m. Tours begin with a presentation on basic astronomy and an explanation of how the 32-inch, 24-inch and 15-inch telescopes and attached digital cameras work. When the sun is down, visitors view the heavens through scopes and cameras as sky guides describe what they are seeing. “Dark sky” weekends, when the moon is new, are considered best for viewing.
More convenient for casual gazers is the Oregon Observatory at Sunriver. Adjoining the Sunriver Nature Center, it boasts the largest collection of telescopes for public use in the country, ranging in size from portable 8-inch scopes to a 30-inch Newtonian. As many as 10 rooftop telescopes may be offered for use; visitors sometimes share their own equipment for viewing in this community, which has strict light pollution control.
Daytime viewing is offered daily between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.; an evening program ($10 for adults, $8 for children) is presented between 9 and 11 p.m. every day but Monday through Labor Day weekend. Hours may be extended until 1 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays.
The region’s newest spot for stargazing is the Hopservatory, on the third floor at Worthy Brewing on Bend’s east side. In partnership with the Sunriver observatory, programs are offered at 9 and 10 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday, by reservation, to observe the skies through a 16-inch Ritchey-Chrétien telescope.
There’s also open viewing from 9 to 11 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. (Suggested donation is $5, and kids are welcome — but they can’t drink beer.) And on Saturday and Sunday, between 1 and 3 p.m., you can look at the sun through a Televue refracting telescope with a white-light Orion solar filter.
Other Northwest observatories
Goldendale is a small town about three hours’ drive north of Bend via U.S. Highway 97. The Goldendale Observatory, contained within a Washington state park on a hilltop at 2,100 feet elevation, was built in 1973 after a 24½-inch Cassegrain reflector was donated to the town. It is still used along with other scopes, including a new Lunt 152 Solar Telescope in a second dome.
Normally open year-round, the Goldendale Observatory is being renovated and modernized this year and next: An advanced learning center and interpretive exhibits are being installed, along with a rooftop observation deck. For now, it is open March through September between 1 and 11:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday at no charge. Solar shows (4 p.m. daily) include a lecture on surface features and inner workings of the sun, with live, high-resolution views of the star. Evening shows (8:30) include public viewing through the main scope with interpretation by the observatory staff.
The University of Washington’s Manastash Ridge Observatory, built west of Ellensburg in 1971-72 at an elevation of 3,930 feet, has a 30-inch Ritchey-Chrétien telescope that is used mainly for graduate and undergraduate instruction and research. The UW also operates the smaller, on-campus Theodor Jacobsen Observatory in Seattle, open to the public on every first and third Wednesday between March and November. Built of sandstone in 1895, it has a 6-inch refracting telescope within its dome.
On nearby Bainbridge Island, the Edwin E. Ritchie Observatory is operated by the amateur and nonprofit Battle Point Astronomical Association. It operates a 27½-inch reflector scope and a small, inflatable planetarium that welcomes school groups.
Across the state at Washington State University, the James Richard Jewett Observatory houses the largest refracting scope in the state, a 12-inch lens ground and polished between 1887 and 1889. WSU bought it at an auction and placed it in its dome in 1953. It is used mainly for undergraduate labs and training but is open to the public on monthly “star party” Saturday nights.
Also in Eastern Washington, Walla Walla’s Whitman College operates the Pacific Northwest Regional Observatory at Braden Farm near Wallula Gap on the Columbia River. Its 30-inch Cassegrain telescope was moved from the Battelle Observatory on Rattlesnake Mountain above Richland.
The College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls has an excellent science facility, the Herrett Center for Arts and Science, with both an observatory and a planetarium. The Centennial Observatory has a wheelchair-accessible scope (a 24-inch Ritchey-Chrétien reflector) with an elevator to an observation deck and an optical “periscope.” The Faulkner Planetarium offers between four and six shows a day, Tuesday through Saturday, under a 50-foot dome.
Planetarium shows have been around for centuries, inspiring generations of families with their images of planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies and other phenomena of the cosmos.
The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), which hosts more than 100,000 visitors a year, installed its first planetarium at its original Portland location in 1950. Its modern shows, in the Harry C. Kendall Planetarium, are 360-degree projections in a 52-foot domed theater with 200 concentric seats.
OMSI’s Digistar-3 projection system has a database of 2½ million stars. It is able to combine thousands of images and project them in full color on the inside of the dome, immersing viewers in the intricacies of space science. Digital surround-sound and real-time graphics may be integrated with other effects, making its daily shows (noon to 4 p.m.) audience favorites.
Among its current daily shows, most of which run 30 to 40 minutes, are “Starry Nights Live!,” an introduction to the heavens for backyard astronomers; “Perfect Little Planet,” which follows vacationers from another star system as they sail through the rings of Saturn and walk on the surface of Mars; and “Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity,” exploring some of the greatest mysteries of the universe.
There are two more fine planetariums in the Puget Sound area. In Seattle, the Pacific Science Center’s Willard Smith Planetarium also has a digitally advanced technology system to present multiple shows. These include “The Sky Tonight,” part of which describes celestial navigation; “Planets,” whose content includes information on new scientific discoveries and “Let’s Explore Light,” explaining wave lengths, spectra and rainbows.
A particularly interesting presentation, offered twice daily, is “The Skies of Ancient China.” Chinese astronomers have made detailed recordings of the stars, planets and moon for more than four millennia, and their observations on the likes of comets and eclipses are still carefully studied by 21st-century astronomers.
East of Lake Washington, the Astronomy Department of Bellevue College presents free public planetarium shows in its historic Willard Geer Planetarium on select Saturdays of each month. Reservations are now being taken for next Saturday night’s three showings of “New Horizons,” following a comet on a journey through the solar system. Another show focuses on the Hubble Space Telescope in “Wonders of the Universe.” “The Secret Lives of Stars” goes in depth on the nature of star material.
Western Washington University’s Spanel Planetarium offers public shows most Thursday afternoons. Originally built in 1959 and upgraded several times, the planetarium installed Digistar-5 technology in 2014, and now projects on a 24-foot dome roof. Current shows include “From Earth to the Universe” and “Dynamic Earth.”
Both Mount Hood Community College, in Gresham, and Chemeketa Community College, in Salem, have small planetariums that offer public shows. Mount Hood’s Planetarium Sky Theater will begin a new series on Oct. 3, with programs scheduled at 6 and 7:15 p.m. Tuesdays during the school year. Chemeketa’s shows, presented by the Salem Astronomy Club, will be held at 7:30 p.m. Fridays beginning with fall term.
The summer planetarium schedule at Eugene’s Science Factory features programming between 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. every day of the week.
In the western Canadian metropolis of Vancouver, a half-day’s drive north of Seattle, there’s an entire museum devoted to astronomy. The H.R. MacMillan Space Center in Vanier Park, on the south side of English Bay, was founded in 1968 as The Centennial Museum, then expanded and rebranded three decades later.
Live science shows in the Groundstation Canada Theatre demonstrate the latest in scientific discoveries, including studies on rocketry and life in space. Interactive exhibits in the Cosmic Courtyard Gallery teach visitors about climate change, light pollution and much more.
Eleven different shows are presented daily in the Planetarium Star Theatre, including “The Universe,” which in 45 minutes takes viewers beyond the confines of the Milky Way galaxy. And the adjacent Gordon M. Southam Observatory welcomes visitors between 8 p.m. and midnight Fridays and Saturdays.
In the provincial capital city of Victoria, on Vancouver Island, is the historic Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (DAO). Standing atop Observatory Hill in the Saanich neighborhood, it will celebrate its 100th birthday next year. When the observatory opened in May 1918, its 72-inch Plaskett telescope was among the largest scopes in the world. (The 100-inch Hooker scope atop California’s Mount Wilson had opened six months earlier.)
Into the 1960s, the DAO was considered one of the world’s leading astrophysical research centers, and a place that saw many discoveries about the nature of the galaxy. Its Centre of the Universe interpretive center welcomed summer visitors through 2013, when it was closed by its owner, the federal government, for financial reasons.
Two years later, a volunteer organization revived it. Today the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Victoria Centre, hosts free public “star parties” on most Saturday evenings through the autumn solstice (Sept. 23 this year). These include solar and nighttime viewing, lectures and exhibits. The events are so popular, though, that they have been limited to 250 guests per night. Reservations are essential.
— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.