If you live in North America, perhaps you were one of the lucky ones who traveled to witness the total solar eclipse in person, not on TV, like I did. My friend Alice went to Oregon to personally experience the complete eclipse. She said when she was in that physical space where the world went dark and she could see it with her own two eyes, she sobbed at the spectacle.
According to Wikipedia, there won’t be another total eclipse visible in North America until April 8, 2024. Fear not! Just about every day, there are lots of cool things in the clear sky that you can see with your own eyes – even better if you have a telescope. If you don’t have your own, there’s a WACO group in town that can help you out.
“WACO” is the Whatcom Association of Celestial Observers. This group has been in existence since 1988. I attended their first “Telescopes in the Parks” event for 2018 in May. They will do this once every month (when it’s not cloudy, on the first quarter moon from May through September), as they have done for the past ten or so years, according to long-time member Dennis Hoofnagle.
Telescopes, some owned by WACO members, were ready for viewing on the far end of Boulevard Park. Casual passers-by and intentional visitors patiently waited their turn to take a peek in the various telescopes. Owners answered questions while adjusting the scopes’ position after every few people. (You know planets are always moving, right? They’re like two-year-olds.) Astronomy buffs were happily chatting and sharing their knowledge.
Hoofnagle is the current Vice President of WACO and has called Whatcom County home since 1968. He confessed he has always been interested in the stars and planets. Years before he heard of WACO, he would buy copies of Astronomy Magazine at Fred Meyer’s. One day in the early 1980s, he discovered the back of the magazine had a listing of astronomy clubs around the country. He was pleased and surprised to learn there was a Bellingham club. He called them up and joined right away. “I have always been curious about a lot of things, but I didn’t have my own telescope until I joined the club,” he said.
His name might sound familiar if you were one of the 2,000 recipients of the free pairs of eclipse glasses he gave away for people who wanted to look at the recent total eclipse. Hoofnagle was one of many who made the trek to attend a large star party in Oregon to watch the total solar eclipse. He said a woman behind him was weeping. (It might have been Alice.)
Jeff Aspnes is a member of WACO who has been coming for a couple of years. His favorite part is this monthly gathering at the park. “It can change your life looking at the planets,” he said. That evening, Jeff had set up a special solar telescope pointed towards the setting sun, which happened to have a clearly visible mushroom-shaped solar flare. “It’s at ten o’clock,” he directed to a young man as he peered through the eyepiece. “It’s as big as the Earth.”
I was not the only person who wandered by that evening. On a regular event evening, anywhere from 25 to 75 people will stroll in, take a peek, maybe ask questions, have a short conversation and go on their way. A couple of intentional visitors included Kathy and Marcus, who recently moved to Bellingham. Marcus heard about this evening’s event through social media. Knowing his wife’s passion for space, he planned a date for dinner and stargazing. Another young woman turned from the telescope, and as she floated away, tears were falling. “It’s just so amazing. I don’t know why I’m so emotional about this,” she said.
“A lot of people have never seen the moon this close – it’s startling.” Hoofnagle said.
The monthly gathering goes until 9:30 p.m. The darker the sky, the more dramatic the moon views get and it’s a bit easier to see some of the brighter stars and planets.
Maia is 10 and is homeschooled. She has looked through telescopes before. She said the coolest part of looking at the sun at this event was “seeing the mushroom.” Maia invites other kids to come to “Telescope in the Park” events because “it’s cool to look at the sun and the planets.”
20-year-old WWU sophomores Megan and Walker told me they were at Boulevard to do homework and enjoy the sun. After looking through the telescopes, she added, “We got to enjoy the sun a different way.”
The next gathering is scheduled for 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. on June 14, when Jeff will present a slide show that he promises will take you on a journey through the universe. This event will be held in the front auditorium of the WECU building at 5659 Barrett Road in Ferndale. And don’t forget to wander by Boulevard Park during one of their Telescope in the Park nights. You can also contact WACO here for updates.