SEATTLE — Looking to embrace your inner Stephen Hawking? For all you aspiring stargazers, you’re in luck. Summer offers the region’s clearest night skies, making it the best season to explore the opportunities our local astronomy scene has to offer. Washington is blessed with three assets on that front: exceptional public access to telescopes, enthusiastic amateur astronomers eager to share their hobby and an abundance of nearby dark skies despite being home to a large metropolitan area.
The latter is arguably the most key ingredient. “Everything east of the Mississippi is so light polluted, good luck finding dark skies anywhere,” says David Ingram, vice president of education at the Seattle Astronomical Society. Ideal viewing conditions occur between the third quarter and first quarter moon, with the darkest skies around the new moon. Be warned: Last-minute clouds and rain can ruin the party.
Come prepared for a late night. The sky doesn’t truly get dark until after 10 p.m., which can make this otherwise family-friendly activity conflict with children’s bedtimes. To avoid any luminous faux pas, park facing away from the stargazing site, turn your phone to its lowest brightness setting and use the red light setting on your headlamp or flashlight. If possible, arrive before dark to get oriented at the site. After about 20 minutes in the dark, however, your eyes will adapt.
Summertime at this latitude brings out a celestial cornucopia. Gazing out at Sagittarius, the bigger Lagoon and smaller Trifid nebulae are both visible to the naked eye, but come to life through a telescope lens where you can see a star with 20 times the mass of our sun. The Scutum Constellation guards the Wild Duck Cluster, a collection of stars that resembles a flock of ducks. In the Hercules Constellation, look for the Great Globular Cluster. Comprising several hundred thousand stars, this night sky wonder is still revealing its secretsone of its stars was discovered just last year. A mere 2.5 million light-years away, the Andromeda Galaxy neighbors us over here in the Milky Way. As for planets, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn all come out to play.
If astronomy turns out to be love at first nebula, then pick up your own telescope at Cloud Break Optics in Ballard and check out destinations farther afield that score well on the Bortle Scale, a universal measurement of dark skies, like Harts Pass in the North Cascades or Sunrise in Mount Rainier National Park. Ingram’s favorite? The Wild Horse Monument along Interstate 90 in Grant County. Go after midnight on a July or August night. “The wind sweeps over you and the skies are dark,” he said. “It’s a thrilling experience.”
But before venturing out for your own encounter with dark sky awe, try these local observatories and astronomy clubs to start making sense of the heavens.
Theodor Jacobsen Observatory
Tucked away on campus is the University of Washington’s second-oldest building, handsomely clad in Tenino sandstone. The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory was built in 1895 and honors the Danish immigrant who quietly stewarded the astronomy programs at the UW and later the Burke Museum for much of the 20th century. The vintage 6-inch telescope dates from before widespread use of electricity, so it moves on gears and weights. While its in-city location, surrounding tree cover and small diameter limit the observatory’s stargazing power amid today’s technology, the proximity, not to mention the historical significance, can’t be beat.
The observatory hosts public sessions from 9-11 p.m. on first and third Tuesdays through Sept. 20. (The September schedule shifts to 8-10 p.m.) Sessions begin with a talk by a local astronomer, NASA ambassador or UW student, followed by viewing. Free tickets must be reserved by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. The classroom has a maximum capacity of 45 and the dome can hold 12 people at a time.
4324 Memorial Way N.E., Seattle; 206-543-2888
Seattle Astronomical Society
Emerald City amateur astronomers have found their people at the Seattle Astronomical Society since 1948. The general public can benefit from their combined knowledge about celestial bodies three times per month when members arrange telescopes and bring binoculars. Volunteers typically set up for these local star parties at 8 p.m. when there is still daylight. If you bring your own telescope, they can conduct a clinic for you before 9 p.m.
Full moon brightness does no favors for these stargazers, who wait until a half-moon (known as a quarter moon) or smaller. On the Saturday closest to the first quarter moon, they meet at Covington Community Park. The third quarter moon Saturday brings them to Paramount School Park in Shoreline. On the new moon Saturday, they make their monthly pilgrimage to Snoqualmie Point Park, which has arguably the best balance of dark skies and proximity to Seattle. The promontory offers panoramic views to the north and east. If the weather looks iffy, check their Twitter feed @SeattleAstroSoc for cancellations.
Covington Community Park: 17649 S.E. 240th St., Covington
Paramount School Park: 15300 Eighth Ave. N.E., Shoreline
Snoqualmie Point Park: 37580 Winery Road, Snoqualmie
Travel east of the Cascade Crest for wide-open vistas and dark skies with (hopefully) nary a cloud. While the Goldendale Observatory is likely too far for a same-evening return trip, this destination is worth the overnight journey because it belongs to all of us: the observatory is a state park. The vision of four amateur astronomers from Vancouver, the observatory opened on a 2,100-foot-high hilltop in 1973. The recently renovated facility, which won the 2020 Architecture MasterPrize in Recreational Architecture, hosts nighttime programming from Thursdays to Sundays through September.
1602 Observatory Drive, Goldendale, Klickitat County; 509-773-3141