The astronomically growing hullabaloo about this month’s total solar eclipse is threatening to outshine one of our coolest annual celestial events: the Perseid meteor shower. The shower has actually been going on for a couple of weeks now, but will reach its peak this weekend. The best viewing of the shower is expected late Friday evening, August 11 through the wee hours of Saturday morning, and again on Saturday night and into Sunday morning.
The Perseids are so named because they seem to originate from the constellation Perseus. The meteors are specks of material left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle that burn up as they hit Earth’s atmosphere.
There’s good news and bad news about this year’s Perseids. The good is that it looks like we’ll be going through a particularly dense part of the comet’s debris tail, so we could get more meteors than usual. The bad news is that the waning gibbous Moon will be casting its bright light in the early morning hours, washing out some of the fainter meteors. But even with a bright Moon out, the most robust of the meteors can be spotted, even from city skies.
I’m often asked where to go to see the Perseids. In answer to that, I’ve created a Stargazing Sites page on Seattle Astronomy. The page features maps of stargazing spots in Seattle and around the Northwest. This has been up in “soft launch” mode for a while now, so this is our first public call-out. Check the maps for a site near you, and please feel free to ping me with your own favorites.
The short story for Perseid watching: get as far away from city lights as possible. I first saw them when I was about 12 years old and on a backpacking trip in the dark wilderness near Holden, west of Lake Chelan. The show in pitch-black skies was spectacular. I didn’t know there was such a thing as the Perseids; it was just luck being in the right place at the right time. If you have to stay in the city, find a spot away from street lights for the best prospects.
It’s a busy week for local astronomy clubs, which have meetings and star parties galore on the docket as we roll into October.
Olympic Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, October 3 in room Art 103 at Olympic College in Bremerton. Presentations will include a look back at the New Horizons mission and a recap of the club’s recent Camp Delaney Star Party.
Tacoma Astronomical Society plans its monthly meeting for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 4 in room 175 on the campus of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. Discussion topics had not been posted as of this writing.
The Spokane Astronomical Society will meet at 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 7 in the Planetarium at Spokane Falls Community College. Guest speaker Sukanta Bose, a member of the physics and astronomy faculty at Washington State University, will discuss the first direct detection of gravitational waves, and how the discovery is changing astronomy.
Astronomy night at MOF
The Museum of Flight will celebrate Astronomy Night as part of its free first Thursday event beginning at 5 p.m. October 6. The evening’s activities will include programs and family activities that tour the galaxies. Local science and astronomy clubs will be on hand to share their knowledge of the heavens and views through their telescopes. Celestial wonders will shine in the museum’s portable planetarium, and NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador Tony Gondola will give a special presentation at 7 pm.
There are three star parties on the calendar for this week. The Covington Community Park Star Party is set for Friday, October 7. It’s a cooperative venture between the Boeing Employees Astronomical Society, Seattle Astronomical Society, and Tacoma Astronomical Society. We note a little confusion about the start time, as the SAS website has it at 8 p.m. and BEAS lists 7 p.m.
Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold one of its free public nights at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, October 8 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor program will be the movie Cosmic Collisions. If the weather cooperates club members will have telescopes out for observing.
The Seattle Astronomical Society’s free public star parties are set for 7 p.m. Saturday, October 8 at two locations: Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline. Bad weather cancels these events so watch the club’s website or social media for updates.
Up in the sky
Watch for the Moon near Venus during twilight on Monday and near Saturn on Wednesday evening. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy have more observing highlights for the week.
A visit from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the final Jacobsen Observatory open house of the year, and a seasonal sunset watch are the highlights of this week’s calendar of astro-events in the Seattle area.
Join Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info at Solstice Park in West Seattle at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, September 22 to enjoy the first sunset of autumn. The equinox sunset watch will be Enevoldsen’s thirtieth such event, part of her NASA Solar System Ambassador service. The event is free, low-key, and always informative.
TJO wraps its season
The final open house of the year is set for 8 p.m. Wednesday, September 21 at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. The talk for the evening, reservations for which are already all spoken for, will be by student Anya Raj, who has been interning with NRAO-NM over the summer and who has built a dual-dipole radio telescope. Raj will talk about amateur radio astronomy and making your own radio telescope. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand in the observatory dome to conduct tours and, if the sky is clear, offer looks through its vintage telescope.
The popular open house series will be on hiatus for the fall and winter and will resume in April.
The Seattle Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 21 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Guest speaker Ethan Kruse, a graduate student in astronomy at the UW, will talk about Proxima Centauri b, the exoplanet recently found orbiting our nearest stellar neighbor. Kruse will discuss how much we know about the planet right now, and what we might learn in the coming years.
The Tacoma Astronomical Society plans one of its public nights for 9 p.m. Saturday, September 24 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. The indoor presentation will be about the reasons for the seasons as we shift into fall. Weather permitting, club members will have telescopes out for looking at the sky.
You can scout out future astronomy events on our calendar. New additions to the calendar this week include:
World Space Week events October 4–7 at the UW Planetarium
The BP Astro Kids November 12 look at the craters of the Moon
Up in the sky
The ice giants Uranus and Neptune are well-placed for observing this week. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offer additional observing highlights for the week.
The last installment of the Pacific Science Center’s Science Café series and an annual Moon viewing festival are the high points of this week’s astronomy events calendar.
Viewing the Moon
The popular annual Moon Viewing Festival at the Seattle Japanese Garden will be held beginning at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 17 at the garden, which is within the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle. The evening will include music, a haiku contest, and a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony. Volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will be on hand with telescopes to offer a great, close-up view of the Moon. Unfortunately, as of this writing the event is sold out.
Farewell to the science café
The Pacific Science Center is discontinuing its Science Café program after more than ten years at The Swiss Restaurant & Pub in Tacoma, Wilde Rover in Kirkland, and, up until a year or two ago, T.S. McHugh’s in Seattle. The center plans to have many of the same sorts of speakers and topics at its new, onsite Science in the City lectures.
One final astronomy-themed science café remains on the calendar and will be held at The Swiss at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 13. Josh Krissansen-Totton of the University of Washington Astrobiology Program and Department of Earth and Space Sciences will give a talk titled “The Search For Life Beyond Earth.” Krissansen-Totton will go beyond the headlines and explore how astronomers and astrobiologists are trying to detect life on exoplanets, and when they’re likely to be successful. Admission is free. Bring questions; there’s always plenty of time for Q-and-A.
September often offers great weather for stargazing as it’s still typically fairly warm in the evenings but the nights are getting longer. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy have observing highlights for the week.
Astronomy wags love to point out that things like comets and meteor showers don’t pay much attention to the predictions of experts. This does not dissuade said prognosticators from making their forecasts. This year astronomers say the annual Perseid meteor shower may well be even better than usual, thanks to geometry and a gravity assist from Jupiter.
Direction of the Perseids. Image: NASA.
“Forecasters are predicting a Perseid outburst this year with double normal rates on the night of August 11–12,” said Bill Cooke with NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama. “Under perfect conditions, rates could soar to 200 meteors per hour.”
Keep in mind that you won’t see that many if you stay in the city, where all but the brightest of the meteors will be washed out by light pollution. But you’ll still be able to enjoy some shooting stars in your own backyard. That’s where I usually watch for Perseids (my back yard, not yours!).
The predicted peak is in the early morning hours on Friday, August 12.
We’re often asked where the best places are to go to see meteors or other cosmic objects. I’ll break out the answer for in-city, and away.
Within the city
You’ve got to get at least 30 miles or so from the center of a city to get away from the effects of light pollution. But some areas in a city are better than others. As a general rule, find places away from direct light. You also want to be able to see as much of the sky as possible. Large city parks are often places where both of those things can happen. For example, the Seattle Astronomical Society holds monthly star parties at Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline, where the viewing is a little better than it is next door to an automobile dealership. Other sources cite Lincoln Park and Solstice Park in West Seattle, and Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill as good places to see the stars. Parks on the water can be good; water is flat and there aren’t as many lights out on a lake or harbor.
One thing to keep in mind about parks are the official hours. Green Lake is a 24-hour park, while Jefferson and Lincoln parks are listed as open from 4 a.m. until 11:30 p.m., as are most Seattle city parks. Paramount Park is open “dawn until dusk” according to the Shoreline website. Perhaps city officials can be persuaded to waive early closures for special circumstances like meteor showers.
Be careful when you’re out at night in the parks.
Outside the city
Get away from the city lights and your stargazing prospects improve. One of the closest spots to do this is on Bainbridge Island. The Battle Point Astronomical Association has set up its planetarium and observatory in Battle Point Park on the west side of the island. Shielded a bit from the city and in a large, open space, the skies there are pretty good, given the proximity to Seattle. As a bonus, you may well find BPAA members there when there’s a meteor shower.
National Parks are great places to find dark night skies. Two spots that are great for stargazing are Sunrise Point on the way to Sunrise in Mount Rainier National Park, and Hurricane Ridge south of Port Angeles in Olympic National Park. Area astronomy clubs often use Sunrise Point and the Olympic Astronomical Society holds regular events at the Ridge. Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info also recommends Staircase campground on Lake Cushman near Hoodsport on the southeast side of Olympic National Park, and Lake Ozette campground way up near the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. For that matter, most anyplace out on the coast will be good. The beach will offer good horizons and it’s pretty dark out there.
Head east. Going out I-90 and into the mountains, perhaps into Eastern Washington, can offer nice, dark skies and better weather. One of Enevoldsen’s favorites in the Lake Kachess campground just past Snoqualmie Pass. Take exit 62 from I-90. Last year Alan Boyle of Geekwire wrote an article about the Perseids and suggested Elk Heights Road off I-90 east of Cle Elum. That’s getting to be a bit of a haul for Seattle-area stargazers. If you’re really up for a drive, head to Goldendale. It’s super dark there, and the Seattle Astronomical Society holds star parties twice each year at Brooks Memorial State Park, just a bit north of town. While you’re out there visit the Goldendale Observatory State Park on a bluff above the city. There’s also a scenic overlook of the Columbia River on I-90 just a bit past Vantage with spectacular views and dark skies. One might find countless good spots along the Gorge between the last two.
Pack it in
My first experience with the Perseids was a memorable one. When I was 12 years old and on a backpacking trip with my father and Boy Scout troop, we slept out under the stars on a crystal-clear night in an open field just west of the village of Holden. We had no idea about the Perseids, but saw a constant stream of them through the night. It was a most memorable evening. This post from two years ago tells that story. So, while you might not be up for a hike to Holden, the wilderness offers most excellent viewing opportunities.
Wherever you go, find a lot of sky, look to the northeast after midnight, and enjoy the Perseids.
Here are some maps to selected stargazing sites. Have a suggestion? Email us and we’ll check it out!
Of all the places along the path of the total solar eclipse that will cross the United States next August, Columbia, South Carolina has some of the most interesting attractions for astronomy buffs. Beyond the spectacle of the eclipse itself, the South Carolina State Museum has a new planetarium due to a recent expansion, in addition to an observatory with a vintage telescope and a 4-D theater. Its exhibits also include telescopes and other artifacts from the collection of Robert B. Ariail, a University of South Carolina alumnus and longtime amateur astronomer and collector who donated his holdings of some 5,000 books and several hundred telescopes to the university and the museum.
“We have a really wonderful collection of antique instruments—six thousand square feet of historic telescopes—which I think will be great for some of that audience who will come to see this type of thing,” said Tom Falvey, director of education at the museum, which has declared itself solar eclipse headquarters for the August 21, 2017 event. Falvey said Ariail was particularly interested in American-made scopes, and the collection includes 11 Alvan Clark instruments and a couple of Henry Fitz telescopes, one of which dates to 1849 and is believed to be the oldest surviving American instrument made specifically for use in an observatory.
“It’s just a beautiful collection of American instruments totaling 26 telescopes,” Falvey said. In addition, the exhibit has a number of European scopes, including some by John Dollond, early Gregorian reflectors, and some rare Zeiss instruments.
“It’s a great collection, beautifully displayed,” Falvey said. “I think it would be really nice for folks who come with that specific type of interest.”
The museum is planning several days of events leading up to the eclipse, which is on a Monday. They’ll hold a Saturday-night gala, with a guest lecturer or entertainment not yet determined. They’ll be doing tours of the telescope collection and staying open late every day leading up to the eclipse.
“Being open late for us means we would have the observatory open every night; an opportunity for people to look through the big 12-inch Clark telescope and get excited by doing some observing beforehand,” Falvey said. The observatory’s telescope is a 1925 Clark instrument with Zeiss glass that was originally made for Columbia University. Ariail helped bring it to the museum back in the 1990s.
The museum is also the focal point of efforts to prepare others to see the eclipse, and has been working with city officials urging them to create city-wide events next August.
“Plans are truly under way for the next steps for the city to do something all-out to make sure that when folks come here they’ll really see how much fun the city can be and how many great resources we have and the types of things you can do here,” Falvey said.
He notes that Columbia has some beautiful downtown areas, thanks in part to a recent boom. He adds that it’s a great place if you like sun and heat, and that South Carolina barbecue can’t be beat. Finally, Falvey says that the people in Columbia are marvelous—and he says that as a New England transplant.
Nobody really knows how many visitors to expect, though Falvey thinks the city can handle the crowds. It has a fairgrounds and the University of South Carolina football stadium, which are right next to each other and can hold a lot of eclipse chasers. Columbia is the capitol city of South Carolina and has ample accommodations. Freeways can bring people into town from all directions, or help them get out if the weather turns bad on eclipse day.
That could be a bit of a problem. Columbia often experiences late-afternoon thunderstorms in the summer—the total eclipse will begin at about 2:43 p.m. there. The hour presents another challenge: school will have started in town, and that’s about when elementary students would typically be on the bus going home.
“(That) could be a real problem and a real shame if people were to miss a total eclipse,” Falvey said. “We are encouraging school districts to extend the school day so that teachers will be able to assist with all the viewing.”
South Carolina is that last state the total eclipse will touch before moving out east into the Atlantic Ocean. It could be a great choice, especially for folks on the east coast.
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.
John 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.
NASA 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.
Take 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.
The 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.
Later 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.