The public will get its first glimpse of the newly renovated Goldendale Observatory this weekend, just in time to catch a celestial phenomenon that won’t happen again until 2032.
The state-run observatory, which closed in April 2018 for a $5.6 million renovation that’s nearly complete, will celebrate a soft reopening Friday so visitors can see the planet Mercury pass in front of the sun, a rare occurrence known as a “transit of Mercury.” The chance to see that is a bonus, but folks in Goldendale — as well as astronomy buffs everywhere — are mostly just excited to see the facility’s doors open again.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from local people and a lot of it coming from other places in the state and the country and even overseas,” Goldendale Mayor Mike Canon said.
The observatory is unique in that it gives the public access to its 24.5-inch reflector telescope in an area known for its dark skies. That telescope, built in the 1960s by four amateur astronomers from Vancouver and donated to the city of Goldendale, which raised donations to build the observatory, is among the items improved in the renovation. It’s gotten a new mirror and is expected to offer clearer views.
“We’ll see essentially the same objects, but very dark objects will look brighter and detailed objects will look sharper,” said facility administrator Troy Carpenter. “We’ll see the clouds of Saturn, the shadow of Saturn’s rings, the shadow of Saturn on the rings.”
But the telescopic images are hardly the only improvement guests will notice. The observatory opened in 1973 and had never had a significant upgrade. Much of it was demolished last year, and the building that replaced it has significantly more lobby and auditorium space, as well as new exhibits and an expanded parking lot.
“A lot has changed,” said state Parks and Recreation Commission spokeswoman Anna Gill. “The overall customer experience is going to be a lot better than it was in the past.”
Its reopening means people will once again have access to glimpses of space the public rarely gets to see directly, said Central Washington University physics and astronomy professor Bruce Palmquist.
“It’s definitely exciting,” he said. “The telescope there is not a telescope for research; it’s a telescope to get the public interested. Twenty-four inches is pretty big, and most people don’t have access to that.”
Having taken students to the observatory over the years, Palmquist has seen the “astronomy carnival” atmosphere at the place during big astronomical events. People will bring their own telescopes and congregate there, celebrating science while pondering existence. Space, after all, remains mysterious to even those who know it best, he said.
“And the Goldendale Observatory is a go-between, or a translator, for us here on the Earth’s surface to connect with that,” Palmquist said.
Canon, who said he hopes the renovated facility will drive tourism to his city and provide a resource for students, believes the observatory could well inspire a whole new group of scientists. It’s hard to look through the main telescope there and not be moved, he said.
“You just get a whole different perspective on life,” he said. “The universe is so enormous and you realize you’re a part of it all — though a smaller part than you thought when you walked in.”
That sensation, along with educational presentations by Carpenter that help contextualize it, is rare for a public observatory, Canon said. And Carpenter agreed.
“It is unusual to get to go to a place with such a big telescope and such dark skies and get some education,” he said.
The state park lost its International Dark-Sky Association certification in 2016, but groups in Goldendale are working to win it back, said Dana Peck, director of the Goldendale Chamber of Commerce. John Barentine with the dark-sky group said he’s aware of those efforts and welcomes them.
“There would be no prejudice against them,” he said.
Besides that initiative, Carpenter said he plans to continue pushing for state funding for a ramp to a rooftop observation deck. That could happen within the next two years, he said.
The current work should be done in time for a wider grand opening this spring. If you’d like to see the observatory before then, it’s open to the public 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. this Friday through Sunday and 6:30-10:30 a.m. Monday for the Mercury transit viewing. It will also be open 2-4 p.m. and 6-9 p.m. Nov. 30 through Dec. 1 and Dec. 27 through Dec. 29.