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Observatory and planetarium keeps eyes on the skies

2:56 pm April 4th, 2013

Every night is star light, star bright at Starry Hill – weather permitting.
The observatory in the Eatonville area was built and is operated by Tom and Gracie Pauley as a non-profit, education-oriented organization for children and families to experience and learn about astronomy as the couple’s guests. “Star parties,” as they call them, are scheduled by appointment and free of charge. All participants need is a fascination with what they can see in the night sky and with the aid of telescopes.
The Pauleys are retired teachers – Tom from the Puyallup School District, where he taught earth science, and Gracie from the Tacoma School District, where she taught elementary students. The remote acreage they retired on and built a home that has a sweeping view of forested hillsides and Mount Rainier. At night, it has “dark skies,” free of manmade light that’s incompatible with the prime stargazing Starry Hill visitors get at the observatory that sits on a rise next to the Pauleys’ house.
They built the observatory and an adjoining planetarium for others as much or more than for themselves. The enthusiastic and gracious hosts are thrilled when they see kids awestruck by the assortment of heavenly bodies they see while peering through telescopes. often for the first time,
“We just enjoy it so much,” Gracie said.
She and Tom are also fond of saying that they aren’t the story in Starry Hill, that the place and its educational, fun-filled focus are what it’s all about. So here’s the story as they prefer it to be told:
• The planetarium and observatory can be scheduled by school teachers and other leaders of youth groups for star parties by going online at starryhill.org. Scheduling tip: Late-summer dates, when the sky is usually at its eye-popping clearest, are going fast.
• The planetarium has theater-style seating for between 24 and 32 adults and/or children for watching dazzling celestial images on the 20-foot, dome-shaped screen. The shows are similar to dome-style presentations of virtual universes that might be seen in commercial settings, but are customized for Starry Hill groups. The planetarium became a necessity because, as Tom notes, “the observatory wasn’t enough with all the overcast nights we have.”.
• Inside the observatory is an electric-operated, high-powered, camera-equipped telescope that points upward when the retractable dome is opened and snaps “astrophotos.” Outside, a viewing platform is where portable telescopes are set up for lessons in the daytime on how to use them. After darkness falls and the Milky Way emerges, budding astronomers search for Polaris (aka the North Star), galaxies and star clusters. They can have printed Starry Hill “passports” stamped for each specific star and galaxy they track down.
• Stargazing obstacles such as Earth’s rotation, the dimness of stellar objects and light pollution are part of the astronomy lessons.
• Celestial events on Starry Hill’s calendar, some of them viewable elsewhere as well, include the Lyrids meteor showe April 21-22, a lunar eclipse May 25, and the Perseids meteor shower Aug. 12-13.

Tom Pauley in the lobby of the planetarium of Starry Hill Observatory and Planetarium, which he and his wife, Gracie, operate near Eatonville. (Jim Bryant/The Dispatch)

Tom Pauley in the lobby of the planetarium of Starry Hill Observatory and Planetarium, which he and his wife, Gracie, operate near Eatonville. (Jim Bryant/The Dispatch)

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