Liberty Bell and the Milky Way. Photo by Andy Porter Source:

Under the Stars: Astronomy at the Environmental Learning Center

This article was written by Graduate Student Gina Roberti. Enjoy reading about her work to restore our telescope and improve opportunities for viewing the night sky!
The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center is home to an extensive Natural History collection used for environmental programming located in the Sundew Classroom. Named after a carnivorous plant that looks like a monster’s toothy mouth, the Sundew Classroom serves as resource for staff, students, and guests to explore the North Cascades Ecosystem through tangible specimens and displays. The Natural History Collection includes biological and abiotic specimens including birds, mammals, plants, insects, fungi, lichen, rocks, fossils, skulls, and bones. Additionally, the collection includes equipment: microscopes, telescopes, and water and soil quality testing kits. These materials have accrued as teaching resources since the Institute was established in 1986. The majority of specimens were donated to the collection to benefit the educational mission of our organization by staff and friends of the North Cascades Institute.

In 2010, astronomy enthusiasts Jon Sayer and Abby Vincent visited the Environmental Learning Center as participants in our Base Camp Program and observed that the North Cascades Institute needed a better way to enjoy the spectacular night sky visible within North Cascades National Park. Shortly after their visit, the Vincents donated an Orion SkyQuest XT8 Classic Dobsonian Telescope to the Environmental Learning Center.
Orion Telescope.
When I first came across the telescope it was coated in a thick layer of dust. Since it arrived at the Environmental Learning Center its use was often dependent on the interest and knowledge of seasonal staff. As the Assistant Manager of the Natural History Collections, I decided that this piece of dusty equipment held the potential to deepen understanding and appreciation of the night sky and to inspire greater appreciation of this place. Upon sharing my discovery with a fellow night sky-enthusiast and co-worker Miles Feiji we made it a goal to get the telescope up and running.

Our first step was to take apart the telescope: we meticulously unscrewed each piece, dusting and cleaning the mirrors and lenses and putting all of the pieces back together. We re-calibrated the focus of the telescope through a process called “collimation” which aligns the primary and secondary mirrors. At the same time, I reached out to the company from which the telescope was purchased, Orion Telescopes, to see if they would be willing to support our efforts. My request was met with a donation of supplies for the telescope repair as well interpretive materials such as a detailed map of Deep Sky Objects which greatly improved our astronomy programming.

Cleaning the Telescope.
Miles cleaning the telescope.
In June 2018, the Environmental Learning Center hosted a conference of physics educators from Puget Sound region as part of Conferences and Retreats. Two participants, who had attended the conference year after year were especially excited to see that we had a telescope to use! It was an excited gathering when we met with the physicists on the boat dock for stargazing and to test the telescope. When collimnating the telescope we tested the focus on objects visible during the day: focusing in on the detail of fractures on Pyramid Peak across Diablo Lake. When we first brought out the telescope to observe stars and planets we were surprised to find that our view of the stars and other objects in the sky was distorted in a strange way: everything appeared to be triangular instead of round. “Ah, Saturn is a triangle?” one of the physicians laughed.
Fortunately, the physicists were more than happy to help us troubleshoot the problem. We discovered that when we had first taken the telescope apart to clean the mirrors, we tightened the three screws around the primary mirror too tightly, slightly warping the mirror. These three screws were the source of the triangular distortion. After relief that such a simple fix was found for a potentially complex problem, the physicists helped us further calibrate our scope so that we could obtain the best possible results from our night viewing.
Miles with the Orion.
Once the objects we observed looked circular (not triangular!), the telescope became a favorite addition to Base Camp summer programming. With my undergraduate degree in Geology and Miles’ knowledge of the night sky, we further honed our interest in astronomy and offered night sky programs to Base Camp participants at the Environmental Learning Center. Our favorite location for viewing stars was on the boat dock of Diablo Lake. Though this location occasionally bobbed slightly with the wind, it offered a expansive view of the southern sky, where the majority of objects of interest (planets, the Milky Way, zodiac constellations) are located.
During our summer night sky programs, I engaged participants with a discussion of why the stars and planets move about the sky as they do and what patterns can be observed over the course of thirty minutes. I encouraged people to observe patterns over the course of days, weeks and months at their own homes. With the setting of the sun, the planets show brightly: Jupiter, Mars and Saturn. We observed these planets with binoculars and used the telescope to take a closer look at Saturn’s rings, the four Galilean moons of Jupiter and (though we did not observe this) the polar ice caps on Mars.
Miles setting up the telescope on Diablo.

Miles mastered the use of the telescope in locating amidst the expanse of the night sky using a manual viewfinder and taught participants how to view objects through the telescope. We used a special lens that increased magnification by 48x. For participants willing to stay out late during the height of summer when the night sky finally reached maximum darkness, we observed many deep sky objects including the Andromeda galaxy, double and triple star systems, and globular and open clusters.

Photo by Brendan McGarry

With more of the world’s population living in chronically illuminated urban centers than ever before, dark skies are getting harder to find. According to a study in 2016 that mapped the extent of global light pollution, nearly 80% of people living in North America are unable to see the Milky Way from where they live. We were excited to share views of the Milky Way with every participant that attended our program! 

In the continental United States, National Parks are becoming increasingly important places to preserve the night sky experience and offer opportunities for people to gaze into the awe-inspiring depths of the universe above. It is unique that the North Cascades Institute operates environmental education programming within North Cascades National Park that speaks to the importance and wonder of dark skies.

With the dark sky above, and a great telescope to observe it, we look forward to offering more night sky viewing during our upcoming 2019 Base Camp season!

Make your reservation here.

Special thanks to Gina and Miles for their hard work last summer, to Jon and Abby for donating this great resource for learning, to Orion Telescopes for generously donating parts, and to all the fantastic staff, graduate students and participants who make our summer programs possible.

Leave a Comment