Chasing the 2017 total solar eclipse in Jackson, Wyoming

Jackson, Wyoming is cooking up a five-day festival to celebrate the total solar eclipse that will pass through town in August 2017. The nonprofit organization Wyoming Stargazing is at the center of the preparations. Its founder and executive director, Samuel Singer, says they’ll be doing several private viewing events, plus a big public party at the Jackson Center for the Arts. The center will also host a science and arts festival with events for several days before and after the eclipse.

WyomingStargazingLogoSinger said the weather prospects for eclipse viewing in Jackson are good. While they often have afternoon thunderstorms, last summer they only had to cancel a small handful of their stargazing events.

“Typically we don’t have any cloud cover in the late morning/early afternoon, so there’s a good possibility that it’s going to be clear that morning for the eclipse,” Singer said, “but you just never know.”

In the event of bad weather they have a fail-safe option. Wyoming Stargazing is working with Teton Gravity Research, a company that makes extreme films of skiing and snowboarding. Their helicopter has a camera that will capture the eclipse.

“If it is cloudy, they’ll have the capability of projecting a real-time image down to the ground on a really big screen at the Center for the Arts,” Singer said.

Samuel Singer

Saumel Singer is founder and executive director of Wyoming Stargazing, which is coordinating plans for viewing the August 2017 total solar eclipse from Jackson, Wyoming. Wyoming Stargazing photo.

“A lot of people are planning their driving routes out of the valley the night before if it looks like it’s going to be cloudy that morning,” he noted, “but Wyoming Stargazing is going to stick it out and we’re going to make the most of whatever happens.”

Jackson is a major tourist area, attracting around 10,000 visitors on the average summer day. Singer said that figure may double, or more, for eclipse week.

“It may end up being the single biggest tourism day in Jackson Hole history,” he said. Given that, lodging may be a challenge. Many rooms are already taken, but a lot of hotels are holding out for bookings with large organizations, while others don’t take reservations for more than a year in advance.

“Housing is going to be tricky,” Singer said. “I think that it’s definitely going to be one of the limiting factors on how many people can actually stay here for the week of the eclipse.” He added that there are likely to be lodging opportunities in the communities within an hour or two of Jackson.

Singer admits to a little bias, but he thinks Jackson will be one of the best places to see the eclipse.

“Jackson is probably one of the most beautiful places in the entire country,” he said, noting its spectacular mountains, undeveloped areas, and teeming wildlife. “There are no other places in the country that you can go to, see the eclipse, and probably see bison, moose, elk, black bears, grizzly bears, bald eagles, osprey, maybe some prong-horn antelope, and big-horn sheep.”

In other words, there’s a lot more to do than just watch the Sun disappear for a couple of minutes.

“There are lots of people who are traveling thousands and thousands of miles for those two minutes; in Jackson they can have a much bigger experience for their money,” Singer said.

Wyoming Stargazing is just three years old, but already is putting on about 200 observing events each year at resorts, schools, parks, and other venues. Conservation is also part of the organization’s mission.

“We’re working on preseving the dark night skies we have here in Jackson,” Singer said. “We’re really trying to provide some education for the community to help them understand why dark skies are important and what the adverse effects are of light pollution.”

They’re working with the public and the local city and county governments in trying to get good, dark-sky friendly lighting ordinances enacted.

“The long-term goal is to get Jackson recognized as a dark-sky community by the International Dark-sky Association, as well as to get Grand Teton National Park recognized as a dark-sky preserve,” Singer said. “The night skies are just the national parks above our heads, they’re part of the whole deal. It’s just another natural resource that needs to be protected. In Jackson, that’s kind of an easy sell because we have spent so much time and energy preserving the natural landscape, the views, the wildlife—and the dark night skies are just another part of what makes Grand Teton National Park so grand.”

Wyoming Stargazing also has big plans to build a state-of-the-art planetarium and observatory, which will house a one-meter telescope.

“I think it will be one of the largest instruments dedicated to public outreach anywhere,” Singer said. He hopes the project will be finished by the time of the eclipse, but expects it will probably take a little longer.

Singer has Northwest roots. He was bitten by the astronomy bug as a junior at Stadium High School in Tacoma, where he took an astronomy course from Mr. Jay Eastley. During his senior year the teacher encouraged Singer to build a Dobsonian telescope, and he was hooked.

Podcast of our interview with Samuel Singer of Wyoming Stargazing:


Astro Biz: Space Dust IPA

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

Elysian-Space-Dust-IPAThis week’s Astro Biz is Space Dust IPA, an India pale ale brewed by Elysian Brewing Company which has four restaurants and a brewery in Seattle. We’re most likely to be spotted at the Capitol Hill location.

Readers of these pages will recognize that we’ve been mixing beer and astronomy quite a bit of late—it’s a good combination—and we reckon a nice IPA is our favorite brew these days. The Space Dust is delicious! Elysian calls it a “totally nebular IPA” with a “bright and galactic Milky Way hue.” With hopping that is “pure starglow energy… Space Dust is out of this world.”

More info:

Do you have a favorite Astro Biz? Send us a photo and a brief description, and you may be featured in a future Astro Biz!

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Edible optics and fun science for BPAstro Kids

Astronomy club members are sometimes heard lamenting the graying of the hobby; young kids today are too interested in their electronic gizmos to look up at the night sky. Erica Saint Clair and the Battle Point Astronomical Association (BPAA) have embarked on a new effort to hook the kids while they’re young. The association has recently started BPAstro Kids, a program for younger children that precedes its monthly planetarium shows in the John Rudolph Planetarium at its Edwin Ritchie Observatory on Bainbridge Island.

Erica Saint Clair

Erica Saint Clair presents BPAstro Kids programs for the Battle Point Astronomical Association.

Though education and the planetarium have been part of the BPAA’s mission since its formation in 1993, the program for kids came about recently as something of an accident. Saint Clair took her youngest daughter to story time at the local library, and met another mom there whose husband makes regular presentations at the association’s events. She was recruited to do a talk about Mars rovers.

“I have no background in astronomy—zero,” Saint Clair said. “I have a Ph.D. in physics, which apparently qualified me.”

She did the talk, which took a lot of time to prepare and bored her five-year-old terribly. Saint Clair also has a two-year-old, and decided that she would prefer to make presentations for younger children.

“My passion is for teaching kids science, and making it fun, and making them want to do it and beg me to do it,” Saint Clair said. “It helps to have a five-year-old who is really into and really excited about everything we do in science.”

BPAstro-kidsThus BPAstro Kids was born, presented by “Dr. Erica,” who figured if she was already creating science activities for her own daughters, she might as well share with others. The sessions feature short talks followed by hands-on activities. The kids have built edible optics, Valentine’s “love bots,” and marble particle accelerators. This Saturday they’ll make real, working telescopes they can take home. They started with one session before the monthly planetarium show, but so many people brought their kids they’re doing two now.

“I feel like we’re snowballing, and that’s fantastic,” Saint Clair said. She’s working on turning her presentations into a science-education business. She’s founded Rosie Research, with the aim of engaging kids in new types of science labs. They may eventually make tools such as telescope-making kits available for purchase. In the meantime Saint Clair goes about the business of inspiring youngsters.

“My goal is to get kids interested in all types of science, and I think space science is kind of the go-to for kids,” she said. “Every kid wants to go to the Moon, every kid wants to see what Mars is going to be like.”

Saint Clair is encoraged by the interest in BPAstro Kids and said she feels we are beginning to value “smart” again.

“I think we are as a culture shifting towards ‘science is cool and it’s sexy and it’s fun,’” she said.

Kids can build telescopes at BPAstro Kids at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. this Saturday, April 9 at the Edwin Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island. Suggested donation is $5 to help cover costs. A presentation about space telescopes will follow at 7:30. BPAstro Kids has received financial support from BPAA, the Awesome Foundation, and Rotary International of Bainbridge Island.

More info:

Podcast of our interview with Erica Saint Clair: 


Jacobsen Observatory open houses resume

The blooming of the daffodils and the return of the robin may be time-honored signs of the beginning of spring, but our favorite harbinger is the resumption of semimonthly open houses at the University of Washington’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory. The first one of the spring will be held beginning at 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 6 at the observatory.

Theodor Jacobsen Observatory

The Theodor Jacobsen Observatory is the second oldest building on the campus of the University of Washington in Seattle. Twice-monthly open houses at the observatory resume April 6. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Each open house features astronomy talks by undergraduate students, tours of the observatory, and, if the weather permits, views through its vintage 1890s telescope operated by volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society.

The open houses have become one of Seattle’s hottest tickets. The classroom in which they’re held is small, and so advance reservations are a must for the free talks. Dr. Ana Larson, the observatory director, said that there’s often a lengthy waiting list.

Larson said the open houses started around 2002 and were staffed by students who volunteered to give talks. Now the speakers are students from Larson’s course ASTR 270—Public Outreach in Astronomy.

“We started this class a few years after that to actually give the undergraduates who were spending all of that volunteer time credit for doing it,” Larson said. About a third of the students in the course are science majors, but a wide range of different majors are involved. Students learn how to give effective scientific presentations, how to develop and present educational programs to school-age groups, and how to communicate knowledge of astronomy to others. They give talks at the observatory and at the university’s planetarium.

“We’re looking at a pretty good season,” Larson said, noting that she’s still piecing together the schedule for talks. The course is an elective, so students enrolled in it are enthusiastic about the opportunity.

“They’re doing something they enjoy and keeping with it,” Larson said. “That, as you know, is why astronomy is such a cool science; anybody can do it.”

“You don’t need to be Neil deGrasse Tyson,” she added, “but you need to be able to express [the science] in understandable terms.”

You can make reservations for Wednesday’s talk online. Student Lev Marcus will talk about Jupiter’s moons, with a focus on the Galilean moons and current research about them.

Club news

The Tacoma Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 5 in room 175 of Thompson Hall on the campus of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. They’ll be viewing a video about nucleosynthesis.

The Battle Point Astronomical Association will hold its monthly planetarium shows and observing this Saturday, April 9 at the John Rudolph Planetarium and Edwin Ritchie Observatory at Battle Point Park on Bainbridge Island. Kids can make their own telescopes at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. BPAstro Kids presentations, then at 7:30 p.m. the program will be “NASA’s Other Great Observatories.” Everyone knows about Hubble; this program will take a look at NASA’s other three great observatories: the Spitzer, the Chandra, and the Compton. Suggested donation $2, $5 for families, free for BPAA members.

Up in the sky

Jupiter is just past opposition and Mars is growing brighter by the day. Both are great observing targets. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope offer other observing highlights for the week.


AoT Seattle celebrates 1st birthday, announces move to larger venue

Astronomy on Tap Seattle last month celebrated its first year of of bringing the latest astronomical research and good beer to interested space geeks. The party was a little bittersweet, as they also announced that the series will be leaving Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company for the larger Hilliard’s Beer Taproom, another Ballard watering hole.

AOT at Bad Jimmy's

Astronomy on Tap Seattle packed in the crowds in its first year at Bad Jimmy’s. The series is moving to the larger Hilliard’s Taproom in Ballard. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

The move does not come entirely as a surprise. The early Astronomy on Tap events last spring were well attended, and they’ve grown in popularity to the point where nearly 140 people were sardined into Bad Jimmy’s for the monthly gatherings. Brett Morris, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Washington who is the emcee and one of the co-founders of Astronomy on Tap Seattle, hinted at a move in an interview we posted before the birthday event.

“It’s been a wild ride growing from our initially small size to something that we almost can’t handle,” said Morris. “We’re going to try our best to keep up with it as it grows through our second year.”

Kristin Garofali, another co-founder of AoT Seattle, thanked Bad Jimmy’s for their support over the first year, noting that they even let participants vote to name their imperial Scotch ale (The Big Sipper) and at the birthday party served up a delicious version of it that was aged for several months in rum barrels.

“To see how this has grown has been super amazing,” Garofali said. She added that they hope to keep doing smaller events at Bad Jimmy’s.

We recently attended one of the Pacific Science Center’s PubSci events at Hilliard’s, which probably has four times the floor space of Bad Jimmy’s.

Supernova impostor

Breanna Binder gave an interesting talk at the March 23 birthday event, about a supernova impostor that turned out to be an x-ray binary system. An amateur astronomer spotted what looked like a supernova in 2010, but it kept churning out x-rays long after it faded visually. Binder said that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

“Supernova 2010da, not only is it not a true supernova, it may be the youngest possible x-ray binary,” Binder said, noting that it theoretically takes between four and five million years before an x-ray binary begins emissions. They’d seen none prior to 2010. “The 2010 eruption might have been the birth of a brand new x-ray binary, which is something that we had never witnessed before.”

The story was featured on the popular website IFLScience. Binder will give a talk about the supernova impostor at the UW Astronomy Colloquium at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 5 in room A102 of the Physics/Astronomy Building on the UW campus in Seattle.

Planet 9

One of the other more interesting mini-talks of the evening was made by Dave Fleming, who took a look at the possible Planet 9. Astronomers have recently speculated that there’s a ninth planet in our solar system, a so-called super-earth that is somewhere between Earth and Neptune in mass and about 700 astronomical units out. Fleming noted that a fair chunk of the exoplanets discovered so far are in that mass range.

“If there is one of these guys lurking in the solar system, if we could actually detect it with a telescope and send a probe to it, it would give us a huge insight into the planet-formation process,” Fleming said. “If this ninth planet does exist, maybe it’s some relic of the planet-formation process that got scattered out by Jupiter.”

Former planet 9, and more

Morris showed a large number of photos that New Horizons shot at Pluto. He had given a talk back in July, on the day of the mission’s fly-by, and shared the very first pictures it beamed back to Earth. Though it will continue transmitting data for quite some time, we already have a sizable collection of pics from the system. Among the most interesting discoveries from the new batch: a large canyon around the equator of Pluto’s moon Charon that may indicate an underground ocean.

Other talks at the birthday event covered supermassive black holes, fast gamma-ray bursts, how to find a Tatooine, and funky, planet-shaped megastructures.

The next Astronomy on Tap Seattle event is planned for April 27 at Hilliard’s. The program has not yet been published.


Astro Biz: Nix Nation-wide Recycled Auto Parts

NixMany 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 Nix Nation-wide Auto Parts in Ballard. We feature Nix through a marvelous bit of serendipity. Last week we attended the birthday party for Astronomy on Tap Seattle, which included an update on the latest photos and information about Pluto from the New Horizons mission. As we headed home from the event at Bad Jimmy’s Brewing Company in Ballard, we happened upon Nix, which, in addition to being an auto-wrecking business, is one of Pluto’s smaller moons. We doubt that Nix (the wrecker) was actually named for Pluto’s moon. Nix claims to have been serving the auto repair industry since 1938, while Nix the moon was not discovered until 2005.

Watch for our recap of the Astronomy on Tap Seattle event soon.

Do you have a favorite Astro Biz? Send us a photo and a brief description, and you may be featured in a future Astro Biz!

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Light pollution measure expected to win governor’s approval

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign a supplemental state transportation budget tomorrow that includes what may well be the first ever mention of light pollution to make it into state code. The transportation budget may seem an odd place for such policy matters to be considered, but state Rep. Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle) found an opportunity there.

Rep. Jessyn Farrell

Rep. Jessyn Farrell

“The Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over a lot of facilities with a lot of light across the state, has some federal dollars to do a study on the impacts of light to night driving and vision,” Farrell told Seattle Astronomy. “I thought as long as they’re looking at the impacts of light on vision, why don’t we also look at the impacts on light pollution?”

Farrell had that directive inserted into the budget as a proviso—see our story from Tuesday for the exact language—and the governor has told her he will sign it.

(UPDATE: Gov. Inslee did, in fact, sign the bill, including the light-pollution language, on March 25, 2016.)

“A huge thank-you to Gov. Inslee,” Farrell said. “He is, as we all know, a great environmentalist. He cares a lot about the night sky and said that specifically when we spoke about this proviso. I’m very pleased that he’s going to sign the supplemental budget with this proviso in it.”

“I care about a visible night sky, so this is important,” she said.

As a proviso in the supplemental budget, it will only be in effect for about a year. Farrell said she plans to work next year on getting the department to make an on-going commitment to considering light pollution in its planning and operations. She said it might not even take legislation, but that the department could be convinced to make such considerations of its own accord.

Gov. Jay Inslee

Gov. Jay Inslee

“It seems like a straight-forward thing, and I’m surprised they don’t already have policies around light pollution,” she said, “but my hope is that ultimately this will allow them to start making different decisions around how they light their road facilities across the state.”

Farrell sponsored a bill this year to have the state Department of Ecology do a comprehensive study of the effects of light pollution and to make policy recommendations for reducing it. While the bill received a hearing, it did not win approval from the House Environment Committee. Farrell said cost was the main hangup. The legislature has been ruled in contempt of court over education funding, and is still in special session trying to wrap up the operating budget, which is under a great deal of strain.

“There was a great concern in doing anything that was perceived as extra in the general operating budget this session,” she said. She saw the DOT funding as a way to make some progress without making it a budget issue.

Farrell said she has long been interested in the night sky, and remembers not having to go very far to see things like the Perseid meteor shower.

“It is really a lot harder to see even really visible events like that, and I think that what’s interesting about light pollution is that its really something that we can address,” she said. She credited the amateur astronomy community for stepping up, noting that it was a constituent, David Dorais, who raised the issue at a community forum and spurred her to action.

“A lot of people care about this issue, so to be present at community forums and raise it and help educate the public that there are things that can be done, I think that’s really important,” Farrell said. “As we work through the various political processes at the different levels of government, having you present really matters.”

“This is only a first step,” she said. “There’s so much work that we can continue to do and I look forward to working with you.”