Night Skies: Volunteer Astronomers in the Parks

By Tom Pauly


Imagine viewing a night sky so dark that the glow of the Milky Way Galaxy is bright enough to cast your shadow onto the ground. Imagine seeing the glowing core of the distant Andromeda Galaxy, not using a telescope, but naked-eye. Are these possible from where you live? Probably not. So where might you go to experience these? For more and more people, the answer is one of our national parks.

For my family the first time we saw such sights was at Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii. Although our plan was to visit the park at night to get a great view of the flowing lava, the brilliant night sky kept diverting our attention upwards. We were starstruck!

Night Sky with Stars MORA

It should be no wonder to anyone who has seen a star-filled sky from one of our parks that the National Park Service has identified the night sky as a treasure to be protected and shared. The NPS Night Skies website states:

“National parks hold some of the last remaining harbors of darkness and provide an excellent opportunity for the public to experience this endangered resource. The NPS is dedicated to protecting and sharing this resource for the enjoyment of current and future generations.”

Tom and Gracie Pauly at Mount Rainier with their Telescope MORALong story short, after our trip to Volcanoes National Park, my wife and I became Astronomy Volunteers with the NPS Night Skies Program at Mount Rainier National Park, joining with other volunteers as well as college interns. Collectively, we have helped to put on hundreds of star shows for thousands of visitors.

At a Mount Rainier star party, there are multiple telescopes available for viewing the treasures of the night sky. There’s lots of science but there’s also storytelling of the rich star lore handed down to us from long ago. And for those who enjoy high-tech there’s also astrophotography. The photos we take together often end up on the Facebook pages of visitors. Go figure!

Why do so many people attend star parties at Mount Rainier? For some it is the thrill of connecting with the night sky. For others, it is to gain a better sense of our place in the universe. Whatever the reason, our goal is that all take with them a sense of the beauty, wonder and value of our night sky as something worth protecting and sharing for generations to come.

Come join us some evening outside the Jackson Visitor Center at Mount Rainier. Our season usually goes from around the Fourth of July to Labor Day with multiple shows each week. Wishing you clear, dark skies!

Stars above Mount Rainier MORA

WNPF is currently raising funds for the Night Sky Interpretation Program at Olympic National Park.

Tom and Gracie Pauly run Starry Hill Observatory & Planetarium in Eatonville, near Mount Rainier National Park. They are also National Park Service Night Sky Volunteers.

Photo credit for all astrophotos: Matt Dieterich, Mt. Rainier Nat’l Park Night Skies Intern 2015. All Rights Reserved