There will be some excellent sightseeing straight overhead this summer.
In addition to the constellations and planets, the night sky also offers viewers meteor showers with up to 100 shooting stars an hour at its peak, as well as chances to see the International Space Station and other satellites passing over.
And this year, a solar eclipse will be visible in the U.S., with Yakima-area viewers able to see most of the spectacle.
The best part is, the heavenly displays are mostly free, with either just the cost of gas to drive somewhere dark or the cost of some optional equipment.
Where to watch
While the skies in Yakima are relatively dark enough to see the basic outlines of the constellations with the naked eye, the best viewing is away from the city lights that make it difficult to see the Milky Way or other objects in the sky.
Bruce Perrault, who was a member of the now-defunct Yakima Astronomical Society, said some of the area’s best night-sky viewing locations are up in the mountains near White Pass and Chinook Pass. He also recommends going up the Yakima River Canyon or down to Satus Pass to get away from the glow of the Yakima area.
Naches Heights, where Perrault lives, also offers good views of the night sky.
Another option is to go to the Goldendale Observatory. Visitors can view stars, planets and other objects with the observatory’s 24.5-inch reflector telescope. The observatory is typically open Fridays through Sundays from 1 to 11:30 p.m., with a solar show at 4 p.m. and an evening show starting at 8:30 p.m.
However, the observatory is undergoing major renovations, so check the website or call 509-773-3141 to verify the schedule.
The observatory is free, but you need a Washington State Discover Pass to park.
What you need
Many sky objects can be seen with naked eyes, Perrault said, but a good pair of binoculars can make it easier to see things, such as details on the moon’s surface and Jupiter’s four largest moons.
But don’t run out and get a telescope if you’re just getting into stargazing, Perrault advised. There are multiple kinds available, and beginners are likely to get discouraged as they try to learn how to operate the telescope and figure out where things are in the sky, Perrault said.
He suggests starting out with binoculars for at least a year, until you feel comfortable with your new hobby and figure out what you want from a telescope.
Another accessory to get is a planisphere, a star map with an overlay that allows the user to dial it to a specific date and time and see what is in the sky at that time. There are websites where you can download the printouts to make one for free, or you can buy a pre-made one from anywhere between $14 to $40 online.
For the tech-savvy, there also are applications that use a cellphone or tablet’s camera to create an augmented reality image of the night sky, highlighting constellations, planets and other objects.
Perrault also recommends people get a flashlight with a red light or lens cover, which allows you to read charts and see things on the ground without destroying your night vision.
What to look for
In addition to the constellations, some of planets in the solar system are bright enough to stand out easily in the night sky. The moon also is popular to watch, with the best times being at twilight, when the glare from the moon’s surface is not that great.
If the sky’s dark enough, you can see the Milky Way.
The International Space Station also makes regular passes over the area, appearing as an unusually bright, fast-moving gold-colored object. There are apps for phones and tablets that will show where the station is and its next expected appearance.
NASA also can send you text messages when the station passes your location.
The Heavens Above website also will show you not just when the space station will pass over but also other satellites and Iridium flares, which occur when the sun reflects off Iridium communication satellites, briefly making them among the brightest objects in the night sky.
The Perseid meteor shower runs July 17 to Aug. 24, with peak viewing times Aug. 12-13, with anywhere from 60 to 100 meteors streaking across the sky each hour.
What about the eclipse?
On Aug. 21, a total eclipse of the sun will be visible from the U.S. The bad news is the closest place to Yakima to see the total eclipse will be east of Bend, Ore. But don’t worry: Yakima is expected to get 95 percent totality at 10:22 a.m., which means the sun will appear as a thin crescent as the moon passes in front of it, Perrault said.
But don’t even think about staring at it with naked eyes, Perrault said, as it can cause permanent damage, including blindness. He suggested using binoculars to project the sun’s image on to the ground, or buying special viewers that allow people to safely view the eclipse.