I have a confession to make: My wife, Meryl Ibis, and I are total science nerds.
When we found out there was a university-owned research observatory — the University of Oregon's Pine Mountain Observatory — that was open to the public and less than an hour away from town, we jumped at the chance to make a trip out there. What sweetened the deal even more were the clear skies, cool temperatures and the Perseid meteor shower.
“There will probably be dozens of people in sleeping bags hanging out here in the middle of the night looking at the stars," said Kent Fairfield, an observatory volunteer who showed us around the facility right before one of its busiest nights.
Located about eight miles down a dirt road from the old Millican store on U.S. Highway 20 east of Bend, the Pine Mountain Observatory complex consists of three telescopes that gaze out at the stars from a 6,300-foot-high ridge in the Oregon Badlands.
It's open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights during the summer, while groups of up to 20 people can schedule a private tour on other nights.
When we arrived about 8 p.m., Fairfield was waiting for us on the front porch of the office used by the observatory's two paid staff members. The gift shop is to the left of the building, while its main parking lot and a U.S. Forest Service-maintained campground are located below it.
Fairfield said the observatory has been operational since 1968, when the university built its 24-inch-aperture reflecting telescope. This telescope is open to the public. Visitors, who sometimes stand in a line that stretches out the door, can use its eyepiece to gaze at interesting objects the telescope operator has located in the sky. The observatory's two other telescopes — boasting apertures of 14 inches and 32 inches — are used solely for research and send their digital signals directly to the university's physics department via a T-1 line.
The observatory also lets amateur astronomers set up their personal telescopes — many taller than their owners — in the courtyard near the facility's three major telescopes. A few of these folks were setting up their devices, which they let people peer through once it got dark, when Meryl and I continued our way up the hill to the ridge's crest so we could watch the sunset over the Badlands.
Fairfield reminded us of an important detail visitors should keep in mind: Because of its elevation, the ridge's crest is often hit with high winds that can reach speeds of 100 mph on a given day. This also means the observatory's grounds can get very cold, very quickly when the sun sets.
“Telescope domes are never heated," Fairfield said, explaining we would have no shelter from the cold temperatures during our stay.
He then told us we had picked a great weekend to visit because of the Perseids.
The night sky
Every 120 years, the Swift-Tuttle Comet runs an elliptical course that takes it close enough to the sun that its icy surface starts to sweat and leaves behind pieces of ice, rock and cosmic dust in its wake.
The Earth passes through this field of cosmic debris each year in mid-August — a magical time when that comet debris gets caught in the planet's gravitational pull, enters its atmosphere and burns up in a bright light that streaks across the sky.
Watching a meteor shower like the Perseids — it's called the Perseids because the closest constellation to the shower's apparent source in the night sky is Perseus — is definitely a treat, especially when you're in a location where there's very little light pollution and the sky is perfectly clear.
But it's even better when you're surrounded by dozens of other people who uniformly cheer when they see a meteor streak across the sky or stand in line so they can check out whatever ring-shaped galaxy or star cluster an amateur astronomer has found with a telescope.
Just make sure every flashlight or other light-emitting device you own is covered with special red cellophane handed out at the observatory's gift shop and at the end of its nightly program. This plastic protects people's eyes from being hurt once they've adjusted to the dark; a failure to use it can result in you getting scolded by the same group of people who “ooo" and “aww" every time they see a shooting star.
Don't forget to bring some warm clothing and a thermos of hot chocolate or coffee as well because the last thing you want while gazing up at the night sky is to be distracted by a certain chill you may have avoided had you packed accordingly. Finally, don't forget that even though the Perseid meteor shower has come and gone, the night sky has thousands of objects — stars, galaxies, etc. — worth looking at on a cloudless night.
At the end of our trip, I realized that hundreds, if not thousands, of people across the world are looking at these objects each night, trying to figure out why they do what they do. These people, some of whom may be on the other end of the T-1 line that leaves the observatory, are coming up with theories that seek to answer astronomical questions. They are testing their theories by spending more time looking at the sky.
Isn't science cool?
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, email@example.com