Astronomical aspirations

Visiting the state's two public observatories.

PLEASE DON'T VISIT the University of Washington's public observatory. Even if you know where it is (and you've probably driven by it on the UW campus, hiding just off a parking lot behind a large clump of bushes and trees), the university's not sure it wants you around the century-old building and its antique telescope.

But some folks persist, and they turn up at this unobserved observatory Monday and Thursday evenings when it's clear. The skies roll by and the telescope is a sensitive beast; Mary, its operator, is up and down the ladder a dozen times an hour tweaking the settings and bringing Jupiter and its moons back into focus for visitors milling around the tiny tower and its unnervingly narrow staircase. The lights from cars on 45th Street reflect off the inside of the darkened dome.

On a planet where light pollution spreads like cancer, it has never been so difficult to see the stars. Professional astronomers are squeezed into ever more remote parts of the earth—Mauna Kea, the plains of South America, Manastash Ridge (where UW grad students and undergrads do research). Conversely, you'd think from the University's attitude that hosting a public observatory is a nuisance irrelevant to True Scientific Endeavor and more trouble than it's worth. But on a clear night you can find Seattleites in backyards and parking lots looking up, seeking all manner of celestial objects.

Amateur astronomers are amateur in the for-love-of-the-game sense. Nonprofessional stargazers regularly make discoveries such as the Hale-Bopp comet and the Shoemaker-Levy comet that whomped into Jupiter in 1994 (a defining moment for the then-young Web). People watch and chart the stars everywhere—even in the cloud-bound Puget Sound region, where Karl Schroeder jokes that "the definition of an optimist is an amateur astronomer in Seattle."

Schroeder is president of the 250-member Seattle Astronomical Society (SAS). Though they share an interest in what's above, not everyone's looking at the same thing; some folks focus on the moon, some the planets, some on the DFOs (dim fuzzy objects) of deep-space astronomy, some the swoosh of oncoming comets. And some members rarely go out at all, preferring their celestia in books.

The UW telescope, with its six-inch aperture, is a beautiful thing—its gears and tubes are shiny brass, and until last year it glided to and fro on ball bearings made from actual Civil War cannonballs—but it's not indispensable to the stargazer (though SAS members have periodically discussed ways of taking it over or working with the University to tend it in its declining years). The telescopes at the SAS's monthly star parties (held in parks in Greenlake and Shoreline) vary in power and cost, and you can do much with even less. Schroeder says that "a person with a pair of binoculars and a dark sky [has access to] more things than he is capable of seeing in a lifetime."

IF ASTRONOMY IS still in large part an amateur's game, Stephen Stout wins some sort of prize: He makes a living at it. Stout is the Washington State Parks Department's one-and-only interpretive stargazer, the sole paid employee of the only state-operated public observatory, in Goldendale.

"Paid" is a relative term. The state pays for Stout's services at a rate somewhere below that of truck drivers and confidential secretaries, and values Goldendale Observatory so little that the facility nearly closed last year. A write-in blizzard from supporters saved Stout and the park, which hosts an estimated 30 to 40 thousand visitors yearly. Stout moved from Seattle to manage the observatory just before the State purchased it from the city in 1981.

Stout is a physicist, not an astronomer, by trade, which suits Goldendale's history and mandate. The main telescope was until not long ago the largest amateur-built telescope in the world, with a 24.5-inch aperture and 180x magnification (it also includes two smaller scopes that provide magnifications of 10x and 50x). And it's for amateurs only; the donation of the telescope by the four men who built it included a provision that keeps the it free of researchers' restrictions.

There are two tours Saturday and one Sunday afternoon, since some of the telescopes are set for solar observation. A recent clear weekend brought about 80 visitors, including a home-school group from Woodinville, an assortment of families from around the region, and a geologist eager to catch a glimpse of Saturn ("the most beautiful thing I've ever seen"). Stout manages the crowd with the help of—what else?—volunteers.

Between the crowds and the uncommonly clear sky, Stout keeps the facility open until 11pm—two hours later than usual—and he's willing to field questions long after that. Though we are all eager to take a turn at the telescope, and though many of us have forgotten the absolutely necessary coat, scarf, and gloves, no one grumbles or fidgets—not even the school group. The lights dim, and we stand in two concentric circles around the telescope. Stout and his volunteers are animated, the crowd is hushed and expectant and happy, the stars and planets are just where they're supposed to be. No trouble at all.

External Links:

UW Observatory

Goldendale Observatory

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