WHEN I ARRIVE at Green Lake Park at dusk on a Saturday night for a Seattle Astronomical Society “star party,” I know I’m in the right place for sure when a young woman with a NASA shirt turns up carrying a box of some kind of equipment.
She’s Ula Jones, a high-school student who has been helping the SAS describe the wonders of astronomy to a troop of Girl Scouts whose members are, at the moment, cavorting around us on the lawn. Jones says she’s specifically interested in cosmology. “That’s the really big stuff,” I say, evincing my very basic knowledge. She smiles, indulging me. “Yes, the really big stuff.”
She’s brought a telescope she just discovered in her basement. “A stellar find,” she says.
The SAS is a volunteer-run group of amateur astronomers eager to share their knowledge, and their telescopes, with the general public. They host frequent star parties, many of them open to anyone willing to show up at sundown with a curious mind.
At members-only events, they get to focus on their own stargazing. On a recent night, they brought their telescopes to public lands near Snoqualmie. David Ingram, SAS vice president of education, recalls a moment when they moved to an area where so many stars were so bright that they were impossible to pick out individually. “That’s when we just put the telescopes down and looked. That’s when you know you’re in touch with nature,” Ingram says.
Mike Dole sets up a telescope, putting pieces together and adjusting. It sits low to the ground, which proves convenient for the many kids — Girl Scouts and others, here with their parents — who want to look through it. Once his is ready, he spends a lot of time helping Jones figure out what is and isn’t working on hers. It’s clear that generosity with time is a hallmark of the group.
I learn that Jupiter is due to appear on the eastern horizon and that it’s “nearly at opposition,” opposite the sun in relation to the Earth. That means it will be at its brightest and most visible.
The moon is already up, a crescent (a waxing crescent, that is) with about a third of its Earth-facing surface visible. I take a peek through a telescope. The white orb fills my field of vision, and the most familiar thing in our night sky looks very different with its craters clearly outlined.
As the sky darkens, more visitors drop by. The SAS volunteers describe what we’re seeing: the “seas” on the Moon’s surface, the stars Vega and Arcturus. Finally, I spot Jupiter.
Ingram’s enthusiasm is obvious as he points his telescope at Jupiter and invites kids to take a look. “See what looks like a marble, and then the little light spots to either side of it? That’s Jupiter and its moons,” he says. To remember the moons’ names, he says, remember the phrase “I eat green caterpillars.” (That’s for Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.)
I’d never seen Jupiter through a telescope before. And even though it looks pretty small through these portable scopes, I’m thrilled when I see that marble and, very clearly, the moons around it.
A little girl approaches Dole and asks whether she can look through his telescope. “Sure!” he says. “Is this Jupiter?” she asks. When he says yes, she murmurs a long, “Oooh.” My sentiments exactly.