Symposium to tackle dark-sky issues in Columbia River Gorge

It’s still really dark at night in Goldendale, Washington. Goldendale Observatory State Park has been designated as an international dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association, and the area sits at the northern end of what is arguably the best stretch of good, dark, night sky left in the United States, running south through eastern Oregon and even into northern Nevada and California.

“We’re really blessed with dark skies,” said Jonathan Lewis, a board member of the Goldendale Chamber of Commerce who heads up the renewable energy division for Hire Electric in The Dalles, Oregon. “People buy property out here so they can see the Milky Way.”

“We’re close enough to Seattle and Portland that it makes it practical for people to come out here just to enjoy the night sky,” Lewis added.

That sky needs some maintenance.

Threats to the night sky

Goldendale Observatory

The Goldendale Observatory State Park sits on a bluff above the city and has a spectacular view of Mt. Hood. A symposium aimed at preserving dark skies in the Columbia Gorge will be held in Goldendale and The Dalles Aug. 18-19. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“We’re realizing that the night sky, even in our rural communities, is in danger with the rapid deployment of LED technology, primarily,” Lewis noted. “It’s just getting cheaper and cheaper to do brighter and brighter lights.”

Brighter is not better. The City of Goldendale is in the process of revamping its lighting ordinance, and will soon be upgrading its street lighting. As discussions occurred, Lewis sensed that the lighting people and the lovers of dark night skies were not always on the same page.

“Out of all of that, this idea for a symposium to get the lighting industry professionals and the astronomy folks together in the same place to talk about challenges and ways to make this all happen came about,” Lewis said.

The Gorge Night Sky Symposium

The Goldendale Area Chamber of Commerce, Friends of Goldendale Observatory, and the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District are organizing the Gorge Night Sky Symposium, which will be held August 18-19, 2016, at the Goldendale Observatory State Park and at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles. The event has also received a significant sponsorship grant from Google, which operates a data center in The Dalles, as well as from a variety of other supporters.

The symposium session Thursday, August 18 at the observatory will feature food and drink as well as a keynote talk from Paul Bogard, dark-sky activist and author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light (Little, Brown, 2013). (Catch our review of Bogard’s talk at Town Hall Seattle from 2013.) The Friday sessions at the Discovery Center will include a presentation by David Ingram, chair of Dark Skies Northwest, the regional chapter of the IDA. There will also be talks about how bad lighting effects wildlife. The afternoon will include working groups about lighting technology, ordinance making, and lighting incentive programs and how to make them work to encourage people to choose dark-sky compliant fixtures.

The symposium has already attracted a pretty thorough list of decision makers, operators of major businesses in the Gorge, and energy services staff from area utilities. Lewis figures this gives them a good chance to reach their goals for the symposium:

“To heighten the awareness, so that when people are out talking in their community or encouraging people to upgrade in their lighting, they add the dark-sky piece to it,” he said, and, “To make it hard for people to buy non-dark-sky-compliant lighting in the Gorge.”

Lighting history in Goldendale

There’s a bit of irony in the notion that this effort has to happen in Goldendale. Amateur astronomers from Vancouver, Washington built the observatory’s primary telescope, a 24 1/2-inch instrument, in the early 1970s. They donated it to the city under the stipulation that it enact a lighting ordinance.

“Goldendale really had one of the first lighting ordinances” in the state, said Lewis, but it’s a bit out of date. “It was based on high-pressure sodium, full shielding, very different technologies.”

On top of that, enforcement of the existing code has been inconsistent at best.

“The lighting has gone sideways a little bit,” Lewis said. “Now, as people are looking to retrofit, we’d like to get a handle on that.”

A good dark sky at night is important to Goldendale, because astronomy tourism has become significant for the local economy. Upwards of 20,000 visitors stop in at the observatory each year, and many astronomy clubs hold observing events in the area.

“The key piece for the Goldendale Chamber of Commerce in our tourism strategy is to get more people to this observatory,” Lewis said. “It’s very important.”

Improvements at the observatory

Goldendale Observatory

Wind power turbines line the horizon as seen from Goldendale Observatory State Park. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Lewis noted that there have been positive changes at the observatory of late. Recently hired staff have been an improvement, and the state will invest about $6 million in the park over the next four years. That will pay for refurbishing the main telescope, one of the largest public scopes in operation. The work will essentially bring it up to research grade. They’ll also remodel the facility to include a bigger meeting room and auditorium.

“It’s very exciting what the state parks are doing with this observatory,” Lewis said.

If you would like to attend the symposium, you can register online through the Mid Columbia Economic Development District. The fee for the full symposium is just $55, and there are one-day sessions available as well.

Podcast of our interview with Jonathan Lewis:

More information:


Astro Biz: Sunkist

IMG_1930Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Sunkist citrus fruit. Sunkist sells more than 40 varieties of citrus fruits, including oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, tangelos, and mandarins. Sunkist fruits are grown on family farms in California and Arizona. They license the Sunkist brand to scores of companies creating fruit products around the world.

We chose Sunkist because we’re continuing our fruit kick; in fact, we spotted this box in the same Coast Starlight train car in which we found the Tropic Moon that we featured last week.

More info:


Pluto in retrospect, and club events this week

It has been just over a year since the New Horizons flyby of Pluto, and there are a couple of opportunities this week to look back at the mission and what we’ve learned so far about the former ninth planet.

Rose City AstronomersJohn Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado will give a talk about New Horizons at the monthly meeting of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland. Spencer, a member of the New Horizons science team, studies the moons and other small bodies of the outer solar system using ground-based telescopes, the Hubble Space Telescope, and close-up spacecraft observations. He was a science team member on the Galileo Jupiter orbiter and continues to work on the science team of the Cassini Saturn orbiter. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 18 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

moflogoNASA JPL Solar System Ambassador and Museum of Flight Educator Tony Gondola will give a talk about New Horizons at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 23 in the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at the museum. Gondola will talk about new Plutopian perspectives and the planetoid’s dynamic system of moons. He’ll also look at what’s on the horizon as the spacecraft heads out into the Kuiper Belt and the extreme reaches of the solar system.

Science Café

Pacific Science CenterTake a look at the future of space exploration at a Pacific Science Center Science Café at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 19 at Wilde Rover Irish Pub in Kirkland. Alan Boyle, aerospace and science editor at Geekwire, will discuss “The Next Frontiers for Space Exploration” given the rapidly advancing private space industry, its implications for exploration, and the diplomatic and economic questions it raises.

Wednesday at PacSci’s Boeing IMAX® Theater Trekkers can enjoy a Star Trek movie marathon that includes the latest film in the franchise. The marathon begins with Star Trek (2D) at 4:30 p.m. July 20, followed by Star Trek Into Darkness (3D) at 7 p.m. and the premiere of Star Trek Beyond: An IMAX 3D Experience at 10 p.m. Tickets are $40, with discounts for members, seniors, youth, and children.

Wednesday at UW

Seattle Astronomical SocietyThe Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 20 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. The program will be a show-and-tell by SAS members and includes recent astrophotography efforts as well as a talk from Seattle Astronomy about some of our recent activities.

Theodor Jacobsen ObservatoryLater that evening at 9 p.m. the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory will hold one of its twice-monthly open houses. The astronomy talks for the evening are completely filled, but you may still be able to get a tour of the observatory dome and a look through the vintage telescope operated by Seattle Astronomical Society volunteers. Visit the observatory website to make reservations for future events, which happen on the first and third Wednesday of the month through September.

Up in the sky

Jupiter is getting lower and lower in the west these days as dusk falls, but Mars and Saturn are still well-placed for evening observing. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing highlights for the week.


Astro Biz: Tropic Moon grapefruit

Tropic MoonMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Tropic Moon Grapefruit. Tropic Moon fruits are produced by the Edinburg Citrus Association based in Edinburg, Texas, which is in the very southern tip of the state near Brownsville. The “Rio Star” grapefruit is known for its red fruit. Tropic Moon also produces oranges.

We don’t want you to get the wrong impression, as though Seattle Astronomy is turning over a new leaf. After all, last week’s Astro Biz was a produce stand, but don’t be fooled into thinking we’ve adopted an excessively healthy lifestyle. Truth be told, we don’t much care for grapefruit, and spotted this box while sipping an adult beverage in the parlor car on a recent Amtrak Coast Starlight train trip. We’re always on the lookout for the next Astro Biz!

More info:


Catching the 2017 total solar eclipse on the Great Plains

Nebraska is the state to be in on the Great Plains for the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse. The path of totality sweeps across the Cornhusker State from northwest to southeast, catching just a small northeastern corner of Kansas as it sweeps on toward the Atlantic Ocean. The Great American Eclipse website has listed the Nebraska sandhills among the best spots along the path of totality for viewing the eclipse.

In Stapleton, a town of 300 people about 30 miles north of North Platte, they’re billing the event as the “Eclipse on the Range.” They’ve determined that the centerline of the eclipse path crosses the Augusta Wind Golf Course about a mile south of town. In fact, it goes right over an outhouse that sits between the number 4 and number 7 tee boxes on the nine-hole course.

“We would consider that the most prime viewing spot,” said Gary Johnsen, a retired science teacher who is the eclipse coordinator in Stapleton. We agreed it would be a shame to be stuck inside the outhouse during the two minutes and 33 seconds of totality that will happen in Stapleton. The town’s other main viewing site will be the Logan County Fairgrounds on the east end of town.

Cattle tanking in the Nebraska sandhills

Cattle tanking in the Nebraska sandhills. These tanks are usually filled with water for cattle on ranches, but they make fine vessels as well. Photo courtesy Gary Johnsen.

Despite its small size, Stapleton is going all out. The Logan County Rodeo, usually at the end of August, has been moved up to the week before the eclipse to take advantage of the expected up-tick in visitors. In addition to the rodeo, other events in the works for pre-eclipse week include a breakfast and barbecue, wild horse racing, a street dance, beer garden, and a working ranch rodeo. They’re also offering cattle tank rides on the South Loup River. Sunday before the eclipse there will be on open-air, non-denominational church service at the fairgrounds, and in the evening local resident Derryl Barr, who has seen quite a number of total solar eclipses, will make a presentation about what to expect.

Visitor crunch

Stapleton isn’t sure how many visitors will show up. Johnsen said they’ve heard guesses for anywhere between 1,000 and 10,000.

“If we get the upper number, the 10,000, we would probably be scrambling really, really hard to find places for people to stay,” Johnsen said. There are no motels in the town, but it is working on increasing the number of RV hookups available. Some residents may rent out rooms in their homes, or offer use of their own RVs or campers. They’re also working with the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau to identify lodging opportunities in the area.

Johnsen said the golf course site features unobstructed 360-degree views, and the projection is for a 75 percent chance of clear skies that time of year.

“We have a very, very good viewing site, a very high probability of being able to view it,” he said. “Plus we’re on highway 83 which runs basically from Canada to Mexico, and we have access roads that run east of us, so if for some reason we would be cloudy (eclipse chasers) would be able go east very easily.”

Other Nebraska events

Muriel Clark at the visitors bureau noted that a number of other communities have plans as well. The city of Alliance is planning a major celebration at CarHenge, and yes, that’s just what it sounds like; a model of Stonehenge made with cars. It’s an astronomical theme! Scottsbluff and Gering will be hosting an event, likely at Scotts Bluff National Monument. The community of Kearney is partnering with the village of Ravenna for viewing festivities. Grand Island will host an event at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. York is partnering with Wessels Living History Farm, Lincoln will seek to fill the University of Nebraska Cornhusker’s Memorial Stadium to view the eclipse, and the city of Beatrice is partnering with Homestead National Monument for the  Darkness on the Prairie viewing event.

Eclipse in Kansas

ASKCOnly a small corner of Kansas gets totality, including part of the city of Kansas City, which is half within the path and half out. Jackie Beucher, an officer of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City (ASKC) as well as the Mid-States Region of the Astronomical League, has led eclipse excursions all over the world, and is delighted that this time she won’t have to brave rough seas, remote areas, and language challenges. The ASKC will be involved with Michael Bakich of Astronomy magazine and Front Page Science at an eclipse-day event at Rosecrans Memorial Airport in St. Joseph, Missouri. Front Page has leased the whole airport for eclipse day and will host free public viewing, complete with astronomy experts and lots of solar telescopes for viewing the Sun before and after totality.

“We expect huge crowds,” Beucher said.

The ASKC is working with area schools and libraries to educate people about the eclipse, and is busy with its own outreach, too.

“We’ve already started giving eclipse programs at our observatories every night they’re open,” Beucher said.

Planning ahead is important, Beucher said. The down side for the great access to this total solar eclipse is that a lot of places, expecially in more rural areas, may not be ready for the crunch.

“These little municipalities along the path of the eclipse, they’re just going to be just slammed with people,” Beucher said. “There are 200 million people that live within 80 miles on each side of the eclipse across the country,” she pointed out, raising the possibility of huge traffic jams and a scramble for accommodations. A little advance work will be well worth it, she said.

“The experience is incredible, it is mind changing, mind lifting like you wouldn’t believe,” said Beucher of total solar eclipses. “I have goose bumps right now just talking about it.”

Podcast of our interviews with Beucher and Johnsen:


Answering What If? Friday in Bremerton

Planetarium events and a handful of astronomy club functions highlight the astronomy calendar for this week.

Pacific Planetarium in Bremerton plans shows titled “What If?” this Friday, July 15 at 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 7 p.m. The sessions will take on some of the queries posed in the book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) by Randall Munroe, the former NASA scientist turned cartoonist and creator of the comic xkcd. Admission to the programs is $5.

For those traveling to the planetarium from the east side of the sound, it is less than a mile from the Bremerton ferry terminal. Save the car fare and walk on!

Pacific Science CenterThe Willard Smith Planetarium at Pacific Science Center features daily programs on a variety of topics, and they have offerings suitable for all ages. Check our calendar, or theirs, for the schedule.

Astronomy club events

Olympic Astronomical SocietyThe Olympic Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 11 in room Art 103 at Olympic College in Bremerton. Talks on the agenda will cover the summer night sky, explosions in space, and core collapse super novae.

beaslogo_300The Boeing Employees Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting Thursday, July 14 in the Boeing “Oxbow” Recreation Center, Building 9-150, Room 201. The program will be “Juno to Jupiter: Piercing the Veil,” a presentation by solar system ambassador Ron Hobbs about the Juno mission, which arrived at Jupiter last week. A social half hour begins at 6:30 p.m. with the program slated for 7 p.m. All Boeing employees, friends and family are invited. Non-Boeing guests must be escorted, so please RSVP to BEAS president David Ingram.

You can get a preview of the program by reading our recent article with Hobbs or listening to the podcast directly below.

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its free public nights for 9 p.m. Saturday, July 16 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The all-weather program will cover constellations and star-hopping. If the skies are clear club members will be on hand with telescopes for observing.

Up in the sky

Mercury and Venus will be very close together while Saturn and the Moon do a little dance on Friday. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance by Sky & Telescope have more observing highlights for the week.




Infinity Box pushing for science fluency through theater

Seattle Astronomy has occasionally explored the relationships and intersections of science with art and faith. Recently we had an enjoyable experience helping to use theater to explain science when we participated in an event called Centrifuge with the Infinity Box Theatre Project.

CentrifugeCentrifuge was billed as “science news meets science fiction.” The event paired five science writers with five playwrights on a Monday evening. By Wednesday each playwright had written a one-act play about a randomly drawn theme, incorporating recent scientific developments brought to the table by the science writers. On Wednesday the cast and directors were paired at random. They had a couple of days to rehearse, and then Friday and Saturday evenings the new plays were performed, preceded by five-minute talks by the writers explaining the science that would appear in the play. It’s a pattern familiar to those who have seen the 14/48 Projects World’s Quickest Theater Festival.

Greg Scheiderer at Centrifuge

Your correspondent explained asteroid 2016 HO3 and Planet 9 before a performance of the Jennifer Dice play “Asteroids of Love” at Centrifuge. Infinity Box photo by Omar Willey.

We brought the news of Earth’s newly found quasi-satellite, 2016 HO3, plus recent computer modeling for the possible existence of Planet 9, to the table. Playwright Jennifer Dice came up with the hilarious play Asteroids of Love. Catherine Blake Smith directed actors Marianna de Fazio and Corey Spruill in the play, a sort of space noir about star-crossed lovers Sybil and Chet headed to Planet 9 to start a new life—and ditch the intergalactic mob. The evening also included plays that incorporated new discoveries in frog mating, human evolution, climate change, and memory loss.

David Mills and Catherine Kettrick created Infinity Box about eight years ago with the intent to create exactly this sort of mash-up between science and theater.

“The idea of Infinity Box is really thinking of a theater as a think tank, and what happens if you look at theater as basically the way that society has always done its collective thinking,” Mills said. He noted that science and technology are advancing rapidly and giving us a lot that we need to consider.

“A lot of the questions are so complex that a story is really the only way to really ask the question, let alone try to answer it,” Mills said.

Kettrick added that this gives scientists new ways to think and talk about their work and an effective means of connecting with people.

“When an audience is able to look at a play on stage and see the issue of the science embodied in the characters and see the characters reacting to this issue, to this situation, that’s a much more real experience than reading an article in the newspaper or even going to a town hall talk,” she said. “It’s human beings up there, there’s an empathetic connection.”

It even worked on Kettrick, who knows all about climate change and does what she can to reduce her own carbon footprint. But the play Chasm by Bret Fetzer and directed by Jon Lutyens spoke to her. It was about climate change from the perspective of two penguins stranded on an iceberg and vulnerable to predators.

“Seeing those two penguins just brought it home to me, on a very personal level, in a way that doesn’t happen when you read the statistics,” she said.

We had a similar experience when, the day after Centrifuge, this post from one of the actors involved appeared on its Facebook event page:

Astronomy education happened

Mission accomplished! Astronomy outreach and education.

Infinity Box is the title of a short story and story collection written in the 1970s by Kate Wilhelm, and it inspired the name for the theater project because what we now know as think tanks were originally called brain boxes.

“Your brain or a theater stage or a radio are all places that are small, but anything is possible,” Mills said.

The next event for Infinity Box is its annual Thought Experiments on the Question of Being Human, which this year will take on the topics of memory and identity. Earlier this year they paired up four scientists and four playwrights.

“They work up a play typically 20 to 30 minutes long exploring the human consequences of what’s happening now or soon probably will be in that area, and what might that mean for the question of what it means to be human,” Mills explained. Staged readings of the plays will be held October 14, 15, and 16 at the Ethnic Cultural Theatre in the University District in Seattle. After the readings the scientists will kick off audience discussions about the shows.

“What the scientists have been getting out of that is a really different sort of conversation about their work,” Mills said.

Mills is hopeful that some day Infinity Box will be funded as a think tank.

“Having ways of doing all of what we’ve done so far and then capturing those insights and doing some analysis on them and feeding them back in to see what happens would fascinating and useful data,” he said. Ultimately, he’d like to move society beyond science literacy to science fluency.

“We’re looking at enhancing the status of discussion of science in society,” Mills said.

Podcast of our interview with Mills and Kettrick:

Some of our other articles about science mixing with art or faith: