The Tetons as a backdrop make for amazing pictures, however the mountains impact the weather and can create unreliable stargazing opportunities. (click to enlarge – Photos used with permission from Mike Cavorac at Free Roaming Photography)

Night Vision: A Jackson Hole astronomer wants to build an observatory and planetarium

by Kelsey Dayton
— April 8, 2014
Kelsey Dayton

Samuel Singer doesn’t remember what he thought when, at 6 or 7 years old, he sat with his father and watched a lunar eclipse, or when, a few years later, they watched the Hale-Bopp comet from arm chairs.

He does remember what he thought in 2005 when he moved to Jackson and looked up at the dark, clear skies.

“I had never seen stars like I saw in Jackson before,” he said.

Singer, 32, who grew up in Nevada and came to Jackson to attend the graduate program at Teton Science School, wants to share the night sky with others. He formed Wyoming Stargazing, a nonprofit working to build a planetarium and observatory in Jackson. He estimates it will cost about $6 million, and his plans include a telescope with a 50-inch mirror. He hopes to open in August 2017 to coincide with a solar eclipse on Aug. 17. He thinks it will be self-sustaining.

Samuel Singer

Mountain ranges like the Tetons can make weather unpredictable. A planetarium will allow people to learn about the sky when the weather doesn’t cooperate. He also wants to create a lab where people can observe and even help build telescopes. Few amateur stargazers get to see the sky through big telescopes, especially the size Singer would like to have in Jackson.

“It’s like seeing a rainbow for the first time, or seeing the ocean for the first time, or seeing the Tetons for the first time,” he said. “There’s this majesty. There’s this immensity that is mind blowing. There’s no way to describe it until you actually see it. It’s a powerful experience.”

Singer really got into astronomy in a high school elective class. He built his own telescope and studied physics and astronomy in college. While at the Teton Science School, he built an observatory on the Kelly campus and performed stargazing programs for students. He left the area to finish his doctorate at the University of Wyoming in science education and returned in August with plans to build the observatory.

Weekly stargazing in Jackson

Every clear night in Jackson Samuel Singer with Wyoming Stargazing offers stargazing at the Stilson parking lot on Highway 22 outside Jackson. Arrive half an hour after sunset.

Wyoming is almost perfect for viewing the night sky because it’s so dark, said Ron Canterna, a retired University of Wyoming professor of physics and astronomy.

He offered these stargazing tips.

  • Think remote. You want to get out of town away from light.
  • Get out of the wind. Not only does it make stargazing less pleasant, wind can impact viewing conditions.
  • Do some research. Most communities have amateur astronomers or local clubs. Most astronomers are eager to share what they know about the best areas for viewing and what you can see.
  • Bring binoculars. If you don’t have access to a telescope and aren’t ready to invest in one, bring your binoculars and a good star map, like this one. Binoculars allow viewers to see the satellites of Jupiter and even Jupiter’s red spot. Infrared binoculars are especially good for stargazing. “The galaxy just comes blazing out,” Canterna said. When using binoculars lean beside a tree or find a way to stabilize your hands.
  • Check the calendar. You can see things like meteor showers without telescopes or binoculars. Try this astronomy calendar from Sea and Sky.

The sky seemed like an incredible natural resource, like Jackson’s lakes and wildlife, that wasn’t being promoted. Jackson’s high elevation and cold atmosphere enhance viewing.

Singer, who is also program coordinator with the Jackson Hole Astronomy Club, started organizing weekly stargazing outings in Jackson which he’ll continue through the summer. Wyoming Stargazing is also going to offer free events in Grand Teton National Park this summer, including stargazing at night and solar astronomy talks during the day. Times and places haven’t yet been confirmed, he said.

Singer would love to have the facility at Snow King or Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, though he hasn’t yet talked with either ski area.  He’d like to market the uniqueness of a ski community with a planetarium, and the top of a mountain is an ideal spot for an observatory.

Singer might not remember his thoughts as a kid looking at the sky, but its enormity fascinates him as an adult. He wants to share that fascination with generations of future stargazers.

“The size scales and the distances of everything out there in the rest of the universe are so grandiose, and there’s so much we still don’t know about it,” he said. “It really is one of the natural wonders of the world.”

Where to watch

* Laramie: Happy Jack because it’s so dark and Vedauwoo because it provides an interesting backdrop to see the night sky.
-Samuel Singer with Wyoming Stargazing

* Jackson: Antelope Flats Road where you are away from town and the light pollution, and you can see the Tetons. Stilson parking lot on Highway 22 is dark but also easily accessible from town.
-Samuel Singer with Wyoming Stargazing

* Casper: The south side of Casper Mountain allows viewing of the southern constellations in the summer. You also can see the center of the Milky Way.
-Casper Planetarium Staff

* Cheyenne: Head out of town on Interstate 25 and drive north. Pick a remote exit and pull over.
-Cheyenne Astronomical Society

Share your favorite spot to stargaze in the comments below.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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