Where can you find a winged horse, a dragon, a warrior and a swan, all on the same evening? Just look up! Stargazing in Central Oregon, where dark skies are easy to find, offers the perfect opportunity for families to connect to nature and expand their horizons – literally!
As autumn approaches, daylight hours grow shorter, but there is a bright side. Longer, darker evenings allow constellations, planets, and meteor showers to become visible earlier, making stargazing accessible to kids with early bedtimes.
Navigating the Night Sky
The Earth's orbit tilts us toward different parts of the sky throughout the year, so the stars we see change by season. Budding astronomers love autumn skies for viewing celestial sights, including...
• The center of the galaxy
The Milky Way streaks across the night sky through mid-autumn, giving us a unique perspective on this disc of stars that makes up our galaxy. Each of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way is a sun, many of them with orbiting planets. The bright center of the galaxy is seen at the southern end of the Milky Way, near the Teapot constellation.
• Stars that tell stories Long before books were printed, people told stories about the same stars we see today. There's Draco the dragon, just above Hercules the warrior and Pegasus the magical winged horse. Cygnus the swan flies overhead, and each August, meteors shoot from the Perseus constellation, named for the Greek god who took off Medusa's head (this year the shooting stars will be less visible, because of light from the full moon).
• Lunar craters and planet features How can you tell a star from a planet? Planets don't twinkle – they reflect the sun's steady light, and that makes them easy to spot. Both Jupiter and Saturn are visible in the southeast sky, but only a telescope picks up details like Jupiter's giant red spot, or Saturn's icy rings. Telescopes also get up close and personal with the moon's craters, domes, and valleys.
Plan a Family Stargazing Night
The best stargazing happens under dark, clear skies, away from urban lights and roads. In Central Oregon, escaping light pollution is easy, and a short drive out of town can lead to wide-open panorama views.
Head east for the darkest skies: the Oregon Badlands Wilderness area offers an easy destination to take in the constellations. Or continue down the road for a visit to the Pine Mountain Observatory, which neighbors a rustic campground where the stargazing can continue through the night.
Southwest of Bend, the Cascade Lakes Highway heads into the dark zone just past the open meadows of Sparks Lake. At these high altitudes, be sure to bring warm jackets, blankets and hot cocoa to keep everyone cozy, because temperatures can drop close to freezing, even after the warmest fall days.
Other items to pack include binoculars and headlamps with a red light feature. Regular white light changes our ability to see in the dark, but red light keeps our eyes adapted to see more stars. Covering a flashlight with red plastic works too! Before you go, download smartphone apps like SkyWeek, SkyView or Star Chart to help identify constellations and planets.
The Oregon Observatory, located at the Sunriver Nature Center, is open Wednesdays and Saturday evenings in the fall months. With a variety of telescopes and interpreters to help navigate the skies, guests gain a deep understanding of the cosmos. Local families can borrow a free pass from the Deschutes Library system (library card required). The observatory also has an inflatable planetarium available for group presentations and field trips.
The "Hopservatory" at Worthy Brewing, on Bend's east side, has a large telescope for planetary viewing and a small telescope perfect for lunar features. Evening viewing times happen throughout the year for families at the brewery, and school groups can arrange field trips for solar viewing. Grant Tandy, Hopservatory astronomer, enjoys helping kids learn about space. "Astronomy is a gateway science. It captures their imagination, and hooks them into critical thinking," he said. There is no fee for viewing, but donations help keep the program going.
Pine Mountain Observatory, located 34 miles east of Bend, is a working research observatory for University of Oregon astronomers. It opens to the public on Friday and Saturday nights through mid-September, and is best for families with kids in elementary school and older, who are ready to for a more advanced dive into astronomy.
A Parent's Guide to Space Trivia: Five fun facts guaranteed to impress your kids!
• What planet is visible every day of the year, even in daytime?
To find the answer, look down! Planet Earth is the third from the sun in our solar system, and the only planet known to support life.
• Why does the moon always show the same face?
Our moon rotates on its axis while it orbits the Earth, so we always see the same regions of craters and valleys. Making the dark side of the moon very mysterious, just like the Pink Floyd album.
• Is Polaris (the North Star) the brightest star in the sky?
Polaris is not a bright star, but it stays fixed above our north pole, so it's good for navigation. The brightest star in the sky is Sirius, in the Canis Major (Big Dog) constellation. Also known as Harry Potter's godfather.
• How far is a light year?
A light year measures the distance light travels in a year. For example, the nearest galaxy outside of the Milky Way is 2.5 million light years away. That means the light we see left that galaxy 2.5 million years ago! It's like looking backwards in time.
• Can you name all the planets in our solar system, in order from the sun?
Sure! Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and...Pluto??? Actually, Pluto is now considered a dwarf planet. Astronomers are on the hunt for the true ninth planet, expected to be much larger and farther than Pluto.