On Nov. 18 and 19 two unique events occurred: First, the Leonid meteor showers reached their peak, giving ample opportunity to view shooting stars. Second, a partial lunar eclipse turned the moon dark red for multiple hours. Unfortunately for students of Lewis & Clark, and for residents of Portland, there was not a significant break in the overcast skies during these two nights. This is a common struggle for the LC stargazer: nothing could be observed. What follows is a brief guide for the next nighttime break in the clouds.
The first thing to consider when stargazing is finding a location, and in that regard, LC students have it pretty good. Although the skies of South Portland are not as dark as the ones prehistoric humans would have gazed at, they are much darker than most cities on the West Coast. The simple act of looking up at the night sky to view stars, constellations, planets, meteors and comets has been practiced for eons, and a scenic location is absolutely crucial.
There are two additional factors to consider when finding spots to gaze on campus: tree coverage and light pollution. The former is fairly obvious, given that you want to stargaze in a spot with unobstructed views. As for light pollution, you should avoid views that face north toward downtown or east toward Southeast Portland. You will also want to avoid areas with bright lights on campus, such as the Manor House Gardens.
Considering all of these factors, two nearby locations stand out. The first is the lawn below Corbett House on the Graduate Campus. This useful location provides clear south-facing views of the sky. The second is the rose garden, which provides a secluded and dark sky, though it is somewhat more hidden by trees than the Corbett lawn. If you are feeling adventurous, Tryon Creek State Natural Area also provides good stargazing opportunities if you can find gaps in the trees, but any potential gazer should be familiar with the park in advance and be aware of the risks of entering the park at night.
Once you have decided on a location, it is important to come prepared, since you will need to stick around a while to get the most out of your experience. First, you should bring a blanket to lie on. Portland grass is usually wet, and having a blanket between yourself and the ground will keep you dry and comfortable. Second, you should wear warm clothes, specifically a jacket to counter the wind, since stargazing entails sitting in clearings with little tree coverage.
Finally, you will want to bring something to help pass the time while waiting on shooting stars or eclipses. Snacks, musical instruments and friends are all good options, preferably all at once. If you would like to, you can also bring star apps and identification charts, although it is generally better to experience the night sky unassisted and undistracted, with screens kept to a minimum.
With regard to upcoming astronomical attractions, the Leonid meteor showers will continue through next week and the Geminid meteor showers will grow in strength until their peak around Dec. 14. The cold winter air will provide crisp and clear viewing conditions, and the early sunsets should increase the number of hours that are dark enough for stargazing.
If you are feeling down on a long winter evening, need to de-stress during finals or simply feel the ancient human urge to look up, you should take advantage of the opportunity presented by clear weather conditions and a beautiful night sky by stargazing in Portland.