Ellen Thompson of the Whatcom Association of Celestial Observers (WACO) recalls one special night at Artist Point. “We were up there with the telescope, when a small car arrived after midnight,” she says. “Five young people got out. We showed them Saturn. One of them thought we were fooling them and had put a cartoon drawing of a planet at the end of the telescope.”
Thompson loves to share her telescope with others, educating them on the stars and galaxies visible from Whatcom County.
“My current favorite pursuit is understanding and trying to visualize the movement of our planet, the solar system, the galaxy and the rest of the universe,” says Thompson. “There is so much to see, understand and experience.”
Thompson recommends running an experiment; simply watch a constellation and check its location at different times throughout the evening. Use a landmark to judge its movement. She prefers using Orion, as the change in its location shows the rotation of the earth. The earth is the one moving, stars are fixed.
It’s easy to get caught up in the frantic pace of work and busy lives and forget about the universe above us. That’s where WACO comes in. This group of amateur astronomers reminds us of the amazing galaxies that are visible from our doorsteps. You might have seen them at Boulevard Park on summer evenings sharing their massive telescopes with park visitors.
The sheer number of stars visible with a naked eye is amazing. Andromeda is a galaxy you can see from Whatcom County all year long in dark skies, without the use of a telescope.
The winter is a great time to stargaze. Cold, crisp nights and unobstructed views from deciduous trees can lead to phenomenal sightings.
“Orion is the biggest and the best of the winter constellations,” says Thompson. “It’s very easy to identify, and it contains many bright stars that show up even in light-polluted or moonlit skies.”
There’s nothing like an evening under the stars to give you a fresh perspective.
“Some stars are always visible regardless of the season, like the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia,” says Thompson. “Many other constellations rise and set each day just like the Sun and Moon.”
Learning about constellations is fascinating. “Just above Orion in the early evening sky is what looks like a small cloud,” says Thompson. “But it’s a star cluster known as the Pleiades. In darker skies, you can see individual stars within the nebulosity of the cluster. This constellation is also known as the Seven Sisters or Seven Brothers.”
The orientation of the stars changes during the winter and summer months, and also during different times of the evening. Sometimes the Big Dipper can be upside down or standing perpendicular with the horizon.
Taurus the Bull was one of “the earliest recognized constellations of prehistory,” says Thompson.
It’s not necessary to go far to see the stars, “My favorite location for stargazing is everywhere,” says Thompson. “There’s always something to see; meteors, the Space Station, a planet, a constellation, the Moon… My favorite and most used site for observing is my own front yard.”
If you’re up for exploring, this light pollution map shows where to go to find the darkest skies. On a clear evening in dark sky areas, you’ll see nebulas and galaxies even without a telescope.
Artist Point on Mount Baker highway is a fabulous spot to stargaze. “I’ve seen [the] aurora from up there and meteor showers and sunsets and you can really see how the constellations move across the sky,” says Thompson.
Deming and Chuckanut drive are also great stargazing spots, along with Mount Baker Highway and Samish Overlook at Larrabee State Park. During the winter you’re more likely to have a parking lot overlook to yourself without headlights from parked cars.
During long winter evenings, the moonlight often seems brighter and sharper. “The full Moon’s path across the winter sky is higher than the full Moon in summer; hitting the Earth at a steeper angle just like summer sunlight,” Thompson says. “So, we get more of it and at a higher intensity.” This gives the moon a brighter appearance during the winter months.
This Week’s Sky at a Glance is a great resource showing exactly which stars and constellations are visible during any given week.
WWU’s planetarium is open to the public and offers several shows consisting of presentations, question and answers from the audience, and videos, all open to the public on the Western Washington University campus.
“WACO is a good place to start if you’re interested in getting started in amateur astronomy,” says Thompson. Come out to a monthly WACO star party where you can meet other astronomy lovers and learn about the galaxy.