Spring weather opens possibilities for stargazing

Originally published in the Tacoma News Tribune April 13, 2014

As the weather warms up and clouds roll away, Western Washingtonians will have the chance to reacquaint themselves with a natural phenomenon many haven’t seen since last summer: the stars.

Although stargazing this time of year is not as popular now as in summer, due to low nighttime temperatures, there will be opportunities in the next few weeks.

Astronomers are hoping for a clear night on Tuesday when a total lunar eclipse will take place. During a lunar eclipse, the moon passes into the Earth’s shadow. The moon will be above the horizon for North America all night, so South Sound residents should be able to watch if the weather cooperates. The eclipse will occur from 10:58 p.m.-2:33 a.m., with mid-eclipse falling at 12:46 a.m., according to skyandtelescope.com.

Another noteworthy event will be the Lyrids meteor shower, which will peak early on April 22, according to the American Meteor Society. Shooting stars — forecasters are expecting 10-20 meteors per hour — should be most visible in the early morning before dawn.

Technology makes it easier to predict which nights will be prime for stargazing. Websites such as cleardarksky.com make it easy to look up cloud cover and visibility in the near future, as well as offer light pollution maps to show which areas have the darkest skies at night.

While tall buildings and artificial lights make it difficult to see stars in urban areas, Pierce County offers vast expanses of open fields and rural land just a short drive away. Graham, Orting and Roy have plenty of remote country roads to park along and enjoy the nighttime display — just make sure you don’t wander onto private property when you stop.

For folks in the Olympia area, there are plenty of areas where wide, flat expanses of land located far away from city lights make stargazing a breeze. David Norberg of the Tacoma Astronomical Society recommends Fall Creek Campground in the middle of the Capitol State Forest. Although the trees don’t exactly make for a broad horizon, it’s one of the darkest places in Western Washington. Alternatively, there’s a great view of the southern horizon from the parking lot of the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area, located just off of Interstate 5 about a half hour south of the state capitol.

For those interested in a more guided approach, the Tacoma Astronomical Society hosts two free public viewings a month at the observatory at Pierce College’s Fort Steilacoom campus in Lakewood. If the weather is too cloudy for the Saturday night events, the organization still holds indoor lectures, demonstrations and workshops.

The next public night is April 19, with showings of “Space Exploration” at 7 and 9 p.m. For a complete schedule, visit tas-online.org.

Another indoor option is the Starry Hill Observatory and Planetarium in Eatonville. Mainly geared toward children, groups can schedule a time to come to learn about ways of looking at the universe through telescopes and astrophotos. A planetarium is also available for cloudy nights. Groups must make a reservation in advance. For more information or to schedule a session, visit starryhill.org.

Additionally, while it has no scheduled public openings this time of year, Pacific Lutheran University’s Weck Observatory is sometimes available for groups to use on request, free of charge. Contact resident instructor of physics Dana Rush at rushde@plu.edu to set up an appointment.


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