Tonight is the first night in the new moon’s cycle, which means the moon is almost completely dark.
That’s great news if you want to look at the night sky through a telescope.
”Full moons are really disastrous for observing because they light up all the atmosphere, they’re very bright. It’s one of the worst light polluters,” said Jonathan Fay.
About a decade ago Fay built a place solely dedicated to looking up at the night sky in his backyard. I went out to visit his house in unincorporated King County outside of Woodinville a couple of weeks ago.
Around a half-dozen people were standing in Fay’s backyard.
“It’s a beautiful night, and I think the planets are out, and hopefully with this telescope we’ll get a look at some planets and deep-sky objects and nebula and things,” said one of the guests, Curtis Wong.
He – and most of Fay’s other guests – work on a space mapping program for Microsoft. So they know a lot about astronomy and astrophysics. They point at the sky and talk about things like globular clusters.
The party were standing in front of a small building resembling a toolshed with a white dome rising out of the top.
The dome would look right at home in a “Star Wars” movie as a gunner station for a Storm Trooper. But it’s no space station, it’s the Bear Creek Observatory.
Fay and his wife first moved out here from Woodinville about 14 years ago. “I just wanted to see the sky. I loved to see the sky,” Fay said.
Fay has had loved to see the sky since he was a kid. He even used to make up stories about the sky to tell his little brother; stories with characters like the “Mars Monster.”
As an adult, though, Fay wasn’t sold on the idea of owning a telescope. He could never buy a telescope that would produce the crisp, colorful images like the ones from the Hubble space telescope.
But his mind began to change when he looked through a friend’s telescope and saw the images.
“What you’re seeing through the eyepiece of the telescope is an honest connection with the universe. You’re not looking at a picture everyone else will see,” Fay said. “It’s just this one-on-one connection: Here I am looking at something that the light traveled 25 million light years to get into my eye right now.”
After that experience, Fay bought a telescope and set it up in a little nook outside his bedroom.
“I would tell my wife, ‘Don’t walk in our bedroom because the vibrations to the telescope will make the images all fuzzy!’ And after a while she said, you know, this isn’t going to work long term. And I decided I needed a permanent solution.”
That’s when Jonathan came up with the idea of putting an observatory in his backyard. He designed it himself using materials he could get at Home Depot and Radio Shack.
Fay wanted his observatory dome to be easily recognizable to other lovers of astronomy, so he designed it to look like a miniature version of the Mt. Wilson observatory in Los Angeles.
“Jonathan never ceases to amaze me in the things that he can put together, including telescopes and things like that,” said Ron Gilchrist, another of Fay’s guests.
Once it got dark enough to really start seeing things through the telescope, Fay climbed into the observatory and asked, “So who has never looked through a telescope before?”
I’m the only one to raise my hand, and he invited me to climb into the dome by way of an aluminum ladder – no small feat while holding a shotgun microphone.
Fay moved the telescope to a point in the sky and told me to look through the eyepiece – at two fuzzy dots. It wasn’t that exciting until Fay explained what I was looking at.
“Those are two galaxies 25 million light years away, so the photons you’re seeing, the light entering your eyes through that telescope left 25 million years ago,” he said. “So that’s like, not far enough to get back to the dinosaurs, but pretty far!”
When Fay first got his telescope, he thought he was buying it for himself. But over the last decade, he’s found he enjoys it most when he’s doing stuff like this – showing other people the stars in a way they’ve never seen them before.
“It’s always new seeing them through someone else’s eyes, and to have them have their reaction the first time they get to see it, because it reminds me of that wonder the first time I looked through a telescope,” he said.
And his observatory has become more than just a place to look at the night sky.
“It’s like a symbol, like a church steeple. There’s something in the community to care for people and meet their religious needs. When you see an observatory you see something that says this is looking up too, but to the stars and the sky. And so I think it adds that sense of a beacon that says come here and let’s talk about the sky,” Fay said.