Walmart greeter hosts moon-viewing party in unusual place

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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Under the twinkle of the Walmart parking lot lights and through the rumble of shopping carts and car engines, a small group gathered by the sliding doors to peer back in time.

"When you look at the moon you're looking back in time about 1 and 1/6 seconds," said Stan Seeberg, a Walmart greeter who organized the Monday moon-viewing party.

He hauled his Celestron telescope to the Walmart on Northeast 104th Avenue in east Vancouver and asked passersby if they wanted to check out the moon.

"Is something wrong with it?" someone asked. "Is it getting closer?" said another.

But it was neither. It was waxing, and 75 percent visible. And it was a moon-viewing party. Seeberg picked a night when the moon's features would be most prominent when viewed with a telescope.

Seeberg fell in love with the night sky at age 8, while watching a movie called "Destination Moon." After he pleaded with his parents, they gave him his first telescope. It cost $1.29.

Seeberg grew up an amateur astronomer, teaching an introductory astronomy class at Clark College and a few classes at OMSI about 25 years ago.

"They're like diamonds on black velvet," Seeberg said of the stars.

Walmart patrons came out of the store with their grocery bags and carts and stopped to get a glimpse of the lunar craters. The moon disappeared behind the clouds and reappeared, playing peek-a-boo with the onlookers.

Dan Petersen, 61, a member of the Vancouver Sidewalk Astronomers, brought his telescope. He made it in 1994 out of materials you could pick up at Home Depot, including PVC pipe. The tripod holding the telescope is mostly constructed of ash and maple, with a little bit of walnut. He built his first telescope when he was 6 years old and regularly does public demonstrations with his telescope and the night sky.

In urban environments, star gazers have to deal with the light pollution cast by the glow of city lights, although it has a negligible effect on views of the moon and the larger planets.

You can't see the sky as well in a grocery store parking lot as you would in an empty field or at the beach. The lights wash out deep sky objects such as nebulas and faraway galaxies. But sidewalk astronomers pique people's interest.

"You never know when an 8-year-old kid will look through the telescope and it changes his life," Petersen said.

That bright, white orb we call the moon isn't actually as bright as it appears. It's really dark gray in color but looks bright against the black night sky, Petersen said.

The moon regularly appears to change colors. On Sunday night, smoke from Central Washington wildfires made the moon look red.

At the end of this month, star-gazers should see the orange harvest moon.