Out of this world Stargazing: The sky's the limit for amateur or would-be astronomers. A dark summer night or a planetarium can get you off to a good start

Up Front

Starry nights: Perseids, planets and planetariums offer out-of-this-world fun.

August 06, 1998|By Young Chang | Young Chang,SUN STAFF

Spend a summer evening on the moon, on Jupiter, in the sprays of a meteor shower, anywhere but Earth. With recent afternoon temperatures reaching the highest summer's yet seen, it makes sense to stay indoors during the day and venture out at night.

Go out with a telescope, or out to an environment simulating night, such as a planetarium, or out to an observatory. Local stargazing clubs offer opportunities to talk stars, and locations such as the Maryland Science Center, the Harford County Observatory and the Goddard Space Flight Center have plenty of astronomical fun.

At the Maryland Science Center's Davis Planetarium, for example, the effect is almost three-dimensional. A flaming red Mars comes hurtling toward you and stops just as you begin to shrink back. The camera seems to be on the launch pad, showing even the surrounding ramp, and offers a 360-degree panoramic view. It's you on the landing site, on the planet Mars, stepping out onto a dry, ruddy planet. According to Jim O'Leary, director of the Davis Planetarium, it's "sort of an immersive environment" where even the rocks are scaled to our perspective.

With a star projector in the center and more than 300 additional projectors in the planetarium, visitors can experience, while indoors, the sensation of space as they see images both still and moving.

But once outdoors, there's not as much excitement and action in space as there was 11 years ago when he first began, says Herman Heyn, the street-corner astronomer spotted in Fells Point, the Inner Harbor and the Rotunda (711 W. 40th St.). The double stars and clusters have kept him entertained, but as much as "people sorta like it . . . they don't remember that like they remember Jupiter, Saturn or the moon."

What a relief, then, that Jupiter and Saturn will make appearances later this month into the next. About 11:30 p.m., Heyn can now spot Jupiter entering the night sky, with Saturn closely following by a little over two hours. Every week, Jupiter arrives a half-hour earlier, and in the year 2000, Jupiter and Saturn will appear in conjunction.

The annual Perseid meteor shower will occur on the evening of Aug. 11 into the early morning of Aug. 12, according to Heyn, and meteors from the constellation Perseid as well as debris from the Comet Temple-Tuttle will clutter the now-tame sky.

For space-watchers on the East Coast, a more optimal viewing time might be the evening of Aug. 12 into the morning of Aug. 13. Though a third-quarter moon will be competing with the meteors, leading some experts to conclude that its light will wash out the meteors' display, "Pundits are advising that there could be enough bright meteors in the sky this year," says Heyn.

A harvest moon is expected in early September, as is a "very, very vague [lunar] eclipse," Heyn says, that will probably not be detectable from North America. But on the night of Sept. 6, Baltimore stargazers will be able to witness the moon passing just below Jupiter, the fourth brightest thing in the sky.

Experts are hoping for a spectacular Leonid meteor shower in November, says Heyn, when thousands of meteors a minute should burn up in the atmosphere. The Leonids occur every year, but usually become much more active every 33 years, when Earth passes through especially heavy dust in the path of Comet Tempel-Tuttle.

The catch is, you can't see these things from the city. "Gotta go someplace dark," says Heyn.

So there are two options: You can drive for hours, approach state borders, and camp out in a pitch-black spot with your department-store telescope, or you can go to a local observatory.

Summer is the Davis Planetarium's busy season, says Wendy Ackerman, producer for the planetarium, which is located in the Maryland Science Center. Various programs run on a back-to-back schedule. Until the opening of the center's newly refurbished observatory on Sept. 3, visitors can enjoy Discover Mars, the 20-minute theater presentation in the Davis Planetarium, which is already running and will extend into fall. Another space feature at the Maryland Science Center is the Hubble Space Telescope Exhibit. Images both new and old, a Space Telescope Mission Control station and exhibits of rotating planet models keep visitors fascinated in the darkened, cool area of the museum's second floor.

The Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt offers presentations, tours, cinema features, even model-rocket-launching sessions. Starting this October, stargazers will be invited to "Goddard at Night" every second Saturday to watch the skies and enjoy films and presentations. Activities for specific age groups are available as well, and tours through the Hubble Space Telescope Operations Control Center are open to fourth-graders and up.

Sept. 27 is Goddard Community Day, celebrating NASA's 40th anniversary. The Goddard Space Flight Center and the Goddard Visitor Center will hold tours, space-suit demonstrations, presentations and more from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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