Sunday, July 21, 2024

Local astronomers explore the depths of the cosmos on the shores of Lake Wenatchee

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LAKE WENATCHEE—Lake Wenatchee State Park’s astronomy program is bringing the cosmos closer to the community by offering free, guided viewings throughout the summer.

“I believe this series has potential to grow our valley’s population of astronomers into a community, to help connect ourselves with our natural heritage, to learn more and appreciate the cosmos that surround us,” said Paul Thomas, Lake Wenatchee State Park Ranger and astronomy program founder.

The astronomy program holds a series of gatherings throughout the summer, with each night guided by either Thomas or another volunteer astronomer. Each event is subject to what is visible in the night sky on that given night, leading to a wide variety of possibilities. 

“If the moon is high and bright, we may have a lunar program and learn about our brilliant moon. Later in the summer, when the planets are above horizon at a decent hour we will take a glance at Jupiter and the Galilean Moons, or Saturn and its stunning rings,” said Thomas.

The presenters often choose which part of the topic they are most excited and passionate to talk about, which Thomas says is highly contagious amongst the viewers.

“The most gratifying moments are when visitors look through a telescope and exclaim loudly at what remarkable objects we can see. Children will think it's cool to see Saturn, but when adults see Saturn and its rings for the first time, they will often be breath taken. I have had multiple occasions where people want to hug me because they have lived their whole life up to this point without seeing Saturn, and it wasn’t until a camping trip at Lake Wenatchee where they finally did,” said Thomas.

Thomas created the program three years ago, out of his own growing passion for astronomy. He started with a laser, pointing out constellations and discussing how to navigate the celestial sphere for small gatherings. Now, the evenings attract anywhere from 40 to 80 people, with its largest gathering hosting over 100 viewers. The program has also moved beyond the laser pointer, acquiring a six-inch Cassegrain telescope with a solar filter and a 16-inch Dobsonian telescope. The Dobsonian telescope has a video camera placed in the eyepiece, which helps those who may have trouble viewing through a telescope, such as youth, elderly, or disabled viewers. 

“We can also dive deeper than ever with the new 16-inch telescope, say, into another galaxy cluster 50 million light years away, and start talking about the structure of our universe,” said Thomas. 

Some of Thomas’s favorite viewing moments have been viewing these galaxy clusters at such distances, such as the Virgo Cluster.

“Just think, those are galaxies 50 million light years away. The light that is reaching your eye in the telescope took 50 million years to get to Earth and meet your eye,” said Thomas.

Currently, the program takes place during the busy camping season at Lake Wenatchee, between the months of June and August. However, Thomas’s dream for the program would be to expand it beyond the season, and cater more specifically to the local community.

“I’d imagine this would have a more specific structure to the series where every series builds on each other. This program may be beyond the scope of my current position where I may not be able to provide the time. However, this may be perfectly suited for a local Astronomical Society to do,” said Thomas.

Lake Wenatchee State Park also offers the occasional Sidewalk Astronomy event, where volunteers wanting to practice with their telescope will put together an impromptu viewing experience. The park rangers have also expanded beyond the traditional visitor gatherings, offering youth astronomy programming to schools such as Beaver Valley Elementary, and viewing the sun’s sunspots at Leavenworth’s Earth Day fair.

“There is so much interest in the cosmos. Attending the Earth Day fair opened my eyes, and I was met with many people that have telescopes or are just interested to learn more, either about light pollution or astronomy. There just hasn’t been a place for people with such an interest to gather and grow, until now,” said Thomas.

The program will take place at the South Beach of Lake Wenatchee July 13 and July 27 from 10:30 to 11:30 p.m., Aug. 10 from 10 p.m to 11 p.m., and Aug 24 and Sept. 1 from 9:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. 

The program is free, but parking requires a Discover Pass. There is no cap on attendance, but the park requests visitors RSVP by calling the park office at (509) 763-3101. Visitors should arrive ten minutes before, avoid using white light, and avoid pointing headlights towards the beach while parking. Weather appropriate clothing and bug spray is also advised.

Thomas is also seeking more volunteer astronomers. Those interested can contact Thomas at paul.tomas@parks.wa.gov or (509) 630-8324. More information about the program can be found at https://parks.wa.gov/find-activity/event-calendar/astronomy-program.

Taylor Caldwell: 509-433-7276 or taylor@ward.media

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