Pine Mountain Observatory: Exploring the Cosmos

Welcome to Pine Mountain Observatory, nestled in the serene landscapes of Oregon about 34 miles southeast of Bend. In this episode, we unveil the highlights of the night sky with our guest, “astro monk” Alton Luke, Head of Operations at Pine Mountain Observatory and a key figure in the University of Oregon’s Physics Department. Today we get to peer through the lens of Alton’s perspectives as he takes us on an astronomical exploration to share more about the observatory, how to prepare for visits, and what kinds of celestial events to look out for.  If you want to peer through the lens of some telescopes too, jump off the bike during the ⁠Dark Skies route⁠ and keep an eye out for a clear weekend with no moon.


Alton Luke 0:20
It’s a real astro party pooper. We’re not a big I’m not a big fan fan of the moon though, you know, it does have its, its essential effects on our planet.

Dirty Freehub 0:46
So Joining us today is Astro Monk, Alton Lukin, who is part of the University of Oregon Physics Department, which involves being the head of operations at the Pine Mountain Observatory. Our Astro Monk today shares about night sky watching and how you can become a little astronomer for a night at the Pine Mountain Observatory. Alton, thank you so much for joining us today. So today we’re going to talk a little bit about all of the night skies, but we want to know a little bit about what exactly the Pine Mountain Observatory is, as well as where it’s located and all of those details.

Alton Luke 1:06
Well, to start off. Pine Mountain Observatory is owned and operated by the University of Oregon in Eugene and specifically the physics department. I’m the operations manager, the only employee on the mountain, sort of the astral monk, so to speak. I, maintain the facility on behalf of our director, Dr. Scott Fisher, who is the Ph.D. astrophysicist and outreach specialist for the for the University and Pine Observatory is 36 miles or so southwest of of been it’s always safe for everything from a camper to a Prius. You know, we can talk about that a little bit about how moon phases affect the observatory and why we choose dates the way we do a Let’s talk a little bit about preparation for our guests, meaning the public. you go to our website, you say, oh, they’re open this Friday and Saturday. And remember, it’s only Fridays and Saturdays, And when you plan your trip, you could be in sandals and shorts and a tank top and it’s just roasting down there in the valley. Yet you stay dressed the same way. Come up to PPMO, it’s 6500 feet, the sun goes down and all of a sudden it’s like, Oh, you’re freezing. Do not underestimate how cold the nights can get. They can be nice, but you can’t guarantee that. And bring your coat. You can leave it in the car. You can leave it. Leave it in your panniers if you biked up, just have it, just because it’ll it’ll really limits your time if you’re, if you’re chattering your teeth.

Dirty Freehub 2:47
That is actually a great reminder that happens a lot around here when the sun goes down.

Alton Luke 2:52
Yeah. So And also red light, we greatly encourage that. You use no light at all. Now I put quite a few red light garden pathway lights all along the walkways that makes everything really safe It’s tempting to click on the bright light because you know you can’t see that well. But if you just give it a chance and let your eyes adapt dark adapt, which is really important to have a great time with looking at the objects. it takes about 30 minutes for them to reopen again. like a timid Venus flytrap reopening after SNAP closed. you want your your pupils to be like big saucers as you look up at that magnificent Milky Way and and get that feeling how how we’re inside, and we’re looking out at all the wonderful things that surround us

Dirty Freehub 3:41
Yeah. It’s so mesmerizing. You mentioned a little bit about the moon phases. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Alton Luke 3:47
We don’t like the moon. I don’t mean to be a moon snob. We do like a little bit of the moon. In other words, new moon is kind of a misleading. New moon means no moon. You know, the entire night you don’t see the moon at all. That’s called New Moon. And then after you move out a new moon progressing, day by day you get a what’s called a waxing crescent, a little sliver of a moon. we run during those slivers of a moon on weekends. The moon is really cool to look at in our big telescopes. In any telescope, actually, when it’s not full, you see, the full moon is so bright and so flatly lit, you don’t get the three dimensional texture. You don’t see the mountains and canyons and the peaks in the middle of the craters. All that is lost of a full moon. So we do not run when the moon is is beyond gibbous. Now gibbous is another buzzy word simply means the moon is past half full and getting brighter and brighter and more hostile to the night sky. Also, a full moon absolutely wipes out the Milky Way. That beautiful band of countless billions of stars are, you know, all washed out, you know, for the most part. So that’s why we work around the moon.

Dirty Freehub 5:05
I am kind of with you on that. Aside from doing the adventures When is a good time to watch all these astronomical events?

Alton Luke 5:12
Well, you know, celestial events, astronomical events, those are those things. events do not care what phase the moon is in. if you really want to see things like meteor showers, that’s an event. you want to pick nights where there is little or no moon because the meteors are not that bright. And a full moon can wash out a vast majority of the meteors they have in numerical value of they predict how many meteors per hour, you’ll see. And those that goes down really fast when the moon is big and bright and nasty. So. as far as, learning the constellations, which is fun to do, And there’s there’s apps for your phone and I have them and I use them a lot. However, the best thing is what’s called the planet sphere. It’s basically a cardboard disk. and you turn the wheel to the month and the date, and it’ll show you the starfield, you and you flip it over the southern view of the starfield and you can play, match the dots and, build your knowledge of the constellations, which is something it’s always good to do and fun, you Plus the planet sphere doesn’t blind you like a cell phone does nor does it run out of batteries if you drop it it doesn’t break screen. You know it’s really simple and very effective. So I highly recommend plan of spheres

Dirty Freehub 6:35
That’s the nice thing about them, too, because they’re a tangible item as well as they get you away from the electronics.

Alton Luke 6:41
Yeah. Throw it in your backpack you know or your panniers on your bike and off you go in your set.

Dirty Freehub 6:49
Yeah, definitely. I know you were mentioning the moon can have an effect on things, but what about whether in terms of being able to go up to the observatory?

Alton Luke 6:57
Whether it breaks down into quite a complex, soup of activities, obviously you have clouds, and we don’t like clouds. Nobody does you know. And then you move on to you can see stars, but they’re all dialed down because the sky is real milky. We call that poor transparency, So I know it’s going to sound like a whole bunch of things have to align for a good night of stargazing. But in many ways it does. you have to be a bit of a weather person, and watch a weather forecast. and when you have a clear night, of good transparency, you know, where it’s not is not milky and hazy and it’s a good time to go stargazing. And then of course, that pesky moon, make sure it’s either tiny and going away shortly, in the early part of the evening or later on in what’s called the waning phase of the moon. The moon will rise like at three in the morning, four in the morning, and it will be just a sliver called a waning crescent. And by that time you’re probably tired anyway. And you say, Up, the moon’s up, party’s over, Now, the planets, you know, they’re they’re a little bit moon proofed. The planets, they’re so bright, meaning the big ones like Jupiter and Saturn. And you’d be surprised sized how much astronomy or stargazing that you can accomplish with a good pair of binoculars. Never underestimate binoculars, even small ones will resolve things far better than your own eyes. sets in the winter, taking a good pair of binoculars and look at the Orion Nebula in the constellation Orion, just below the three belt stars. And a lot of folks learn to identify. You can see quite a bit of that, massive star birthing region, a great expanse of many light years across that are cooking up new stars.

Dirty Freehub 8:49
I’m definitely going to bring a pair of binoculars next time to.

Alton Luke 8:52
please do. You’ll be you’ll be pleasantly surprised. They’re easy to pack, or even I’m not going to a spotting scope. A little spotting scope.

Dirty Freehub 8:59
Oh, yeah. Those are very good too. What is actually one of your favorite events to watch in the night sky?

Alton Luke 9:05
in regards to solar system events. lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, occultations. That’s when the moon passes in front of a distant star and makes it disappear. There’s one particular star that has a propensity to do that quite often, and that is Regulus. It’s the primary star in the constellation Leo the Lion. And that constellation is going to be in full view starting around. that’s a spring constellation, that one bright star and again your little planet sphere or an even or even your phone you can hold it up and say, Oh yeah, there’s Regulus. The moon likes to pass in front of that. And if you can catch one of those events, there is a website called Heavens Above, and you can Google that and it’ll show you what events. those are the fun things. of course, the meteor showers I have my favorite objects. I love globular clusters. Those are giant balls of stars like sparkling ball of stars. Binoculars really don’t do well because they’re kind of low magnification. and globular clusters are kind of small, but they come up and look through our telescope on private public nights or even, you know, somebody’s small little, humble but mighty telescope. You can see that they’re little balls, they’re a little star ball. And in big telescopes such as our 24 or our portable 20, they’re magnificent. Just, 200,000 stars all packed into a a ball that could be easily as much as 100 light years across or more.

Dirty Freehub 10:36
Is it actually like the shape of a bowl?

Alton Luke 10:38
You see it as at a sort of a two dimensional object, you know, But if you could snatch it out of the sky and hold it, it would be a spherical ball of stars. gravity makes things into spheres, that’s how planets become spheres and how little asteroids or potato shape they’re not big enough to form into a sphere. Gravity is well, we all like to gravity pretty much our existence. So. So yeah, all hail, gravity.

Dirty Freehub 11:07
And what were these called again?

Alton Luke 11:08
globular clusters.

Dirty Freehub 11:10
Globular clusters.

Alton Luke 11:12
Think of them as big snowballs made out of stars. They’re beautiful. They’re absolutely gorgeous. And then probably secondly would be nebulas, vast hydrogen gas clouds in space that glow, from various reasons that we don’t have to get into. But the point is that they glow and some of them are so detailed, they look like the clouds on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Italy. they are just beautifully detailed structures of with tendrils. And they’re just amazing to look at.

Dirty Freehub 11:47
I know you can see a bit of these events from everywhere, but are there places that are better? Or better spots to see some of these things?

Alton Luke 11:55
Oh, yeah. In general. Or looking towards the center of our galaxy, there is quite a few, and that’s towards the constellation Sagittarius. we call it the Sage Cloud. And down in the Sagittarius cloud is what we call a star. Sagittarius a star. And that’s the center of the galaxy. Now at our latitude here in Central Oregon, we’re quite a bit north. So to look at the center of the galaxy. Kind of puts us looking really low in the south in the summer and that kind of works against us a bit, you know. you have to understand that when you look at something, you’re have to look through this chunk of atmosphere. that we breathe and protects us. And when you look straight up, you’re looking at one atmospheric thickness. But as you start to look down towards the horizon, you look diagonally through more and more air. And we call that ever increasing air masses. And that detracts, if you go to Hawaii, where our director was a staff scientist at the Gemini telescope in Monaco, they were placed far better to see that center of the galaxy. But, you know, we get what we can, of course, we get the northern, the circumpolar earth, the stars go round and round the North Pole, remember that the Polaris, the North Star, is not very bright. It’s not a bright star. Some people would think it’s, oh, the North Star is supposed to be the brightest star. That’s not true.

Dirty Freehub 13:27
if someone is interested in getting into something like this, you know, identifying constellations or finding out about some sort of these events. What would you recommend for people to get started?

Alton Luke 13:38
you could start off by first coming up to our our little observatory or even the Oregon Observatory at Sun River. But it’s best is to go out and look through different kinds of telescopes. bigger telescopes give grander views. The bigger telescopes are more of a chore to lug around the big of the telescope. Quite often the least it’s used because it’s like, Oh, get out the big telescope. It’s so much work. I don’t want to, that plays in if you’re a casual observer, you want a telescope. That’s what we call a grab and go. just grab it and get out there. And I, I highly recommend those, and again, you can see those smaller to look through those smaller telescopes at places like our observatory in Sun Rivers, and I’ll teach you a lot about just what can you see in the various grades of telescope.

Dirty Freehub 14:26
Yeah. That’s really wonderful. Well, thank you so much. I appreciate you taking the time to do this today.

Alton Luke 14:32
Yeah, my pleasure.

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