Tag Archives: Goldendale Observatory State Park

Major changes in store at Goldendale Observatory

Big changes are in store at the Goldendale Observatory in Goldendale, Washington. The facility’s telescope, installed in 1973, has already been reconfigured and more improvements are planned. Most of the existing facility, save for the south dome that houses the telescope, will be demolished this winter and replaced with a bigger, more useful observatory that operators hope will be operational in time for the solar eclipse in August.

Troy Carpenter

Troy Carpenter, interpretive specialist at Goldendale Observatory State Park, spoke at a recent Rose City Astronomers meeting about plans for improvements at the observatory. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Troy Carpenter, interpretive specialist at the observatory, talked about the plans at the recent meeting of the Rose City Astronomers in Portland. He said that up until recently the telescope and facility had been virtually unchanged since they opened.

The telescope, originally a 24.5-inch classical Cassegrain built by amateur astronomers from Vancouver, Washington, was reconfigured this summer.

“It is still the same telescope, but it has become a Newtonian,” Carpenter said. “The primary reason this was converted from Cassegrain to Newtonian is because, frankly, a classical Cassegrain telescope is totally inappropriate in Goldendale, Washington.”

The original scope, with an effective focal ratio of f/14.5, had a focal length of more than 9,000 millimeters. For telescopes and cameras, that’s extremely long.

“I would even say excessively long because it means the telescope can only operate at very high orders of magnification,” Carpenter said. That was bad, because the telescope couldn’t really look at large, dim objects like the Andromeda galaxy or Orion nebula. Also the scope required good seeing conditions, and while it’s dark and clear in Goldendale, the seeing at the observatory isn’t typically great. On top of that, the secondary mirror was eight inches wide with a ten-inch baffle that blocked too much light, leading to poor contrast at the eyepiece.

“In short, what we had was a horribly over-magnified image with terrible contrast all the time, and as a result this very impressive-looking telescope became kind of infamous, and not so much famous, for being awful,” Carpenter said. “All of these issues contributed to the decision to convert it to a Newtonian.”

That work, and some other adjustments to the telescope, its mount, and adjustability, were completed in September. Back to a more appropriate 3,050-millimeter focal length, Carpenter said views through the telescope are much better now. An improvement yet to come is replacement of the primary mirror, which has deteriorated over 43 years of use. In addition, the mirror is five inches thick, weighs 200 pounds, and takes four hours to reach thermal equilibrium, which is essential to good viewing.

A replacement is being fashioned by a company in Pennsylvania that has done work for NASA. The new mirror, computer designed and fabricated from inexpensive materials, will be the same width but just two inches thick and will weigh only 35 pounds. It will take just 15 minutes to cool to ambient temperature. They hope to have it in Goldendale and installed within the next few months. Its price tag, with a generous educational discount, is $25,000, and while that may sound like a lot, Carpenter noted a similar-sized mirror made of fused quartz might go for ten times as much, a quarter million.

New observatory

Big changes are in store for the buildings at Goldendale Observatory State Park, too.

Observatory plans

Preliminary plans for the new facility at Goldendale Observatory.

“We’re tearing it down so that a much larger facility can be built in its place,” Carpenter said. Everything except the south dome that houses the telescope will go. The new facility will include a large auditorium for classes and lectures that will seat about 150, interpretive exhibit space, and a rooftop observation deck. The total cost of the improvements, which are being made in several phases, is $5 million, which is being covered by capital funds appropriated by the Washington State Legislature. Demolition is set for this winter and they hope to be operational with the new facility in time for the total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. While Goldendale won’t be within the path of totality as it was for the 1979 eclipse, the Sun will be about 98 percent obscured at the observatory that day, so it will still be something to look at.

One page detailing the planned improvements is above; you can see more of them in the latest newsletter from Friends of Goldendale Observatory.

Light pollution

While it’s pretty dark in Goldendale, many feel that light pollution has increased in town in recent years. Concerned folks this summer held a Gorge Night Sky Symposium to discuss the situation. (See our recap of the event.) Carpenter raised a few eyebrows in the room, mine included, with his take on the issue.

Goldendale Observatory

Goldendale Observatory. Everything but the dome on the right will be demolished to make way for improved facilities. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“I’m going to surprise you by not being the loudest opponent of the light pollution we have in Goldendale,” he said. He added that he grew up in New York and has lived in Philadelphia, so he knows light pollution.

“I’ve been to places where stars don’t exist,” he said. So while Goldendale has some light pollution, Carpenter noted that they still have great views of lots of faint fuzzies in the dark night sky.

“It’s low on my priority list because it’s a politically charged issue and it makes us very unpopular every time we bring it up,” Carpenter explained. “Our friends group, however, does care very much about light pollution and they do work hard.”

He noted that the town of Goldendale is working on an improved lighting code, and is converting to full cut-off, dimmable LED street light fixtures. Despite some light pollution, Carpenter said it’s still a great place for stargazing.

“You can see the Milky Way from horizon to horizon in Goldendale,” he said, “and that’s a wonderful thing.”

We look forward to a dark, clear future at Goldendale Observatory.

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Paul Bogard visit highlights week’s astronomy calendar

A couple of appearances by author and dark-sky advocate Paul Bogard highlight this week’s calendar of events.

Bogard, author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light (Little, Brown, 2013) will be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, August 17 in room A102 of the Physics Astronomy Building on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Bogard is a marvelous writer and a wonderful speaker. You can pick up his book at the link above or by clicking the photo to the left. Check out our review of his talk at Town Hall Seattle in 2013.

After speaking with SAS Bogard will head off to eastern Washington, where he will keynote the opening night of the Gorge Night Sky Symposium. Festivities begin at 5 p.m. Thursday, August 18 at the Goldendale Observatory State Park. Bogard will also speak during the symposium workshop, which begins at 8:30 a.m. Friday, August 19 at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles, Oregon.

The symposium is aimed at building support for protection of the outstanding dark night skies in Goldendale and throughout the Columbia River Gorge. Registration for both days of the symposium is $55 and can be done online. The symposium website has detailed agenda information, and you can also check out our preview post and podcast about the symposium.

Rose City Astronomers in Portland will get a primer on gravitational lensing at their meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, August 15 at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. The guest speaker will be Dr. Jes Ford, a data science postdoctoral fellow in the eScience Institute at the University of Washington.

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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:

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