You might miss the summer, but long winter nights mean there is more time to stargaze. And faraway galaxies, planets, stars and nebula are all visible from the middle of our light-drenched city if you've got the right equipment.
On Fridays from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., the Maryland Science Center invites people to look at the sky from the Crosby Ramsey Memorial Observatory. On a clear night, visitors can see the rings of Saturn, land features on the moon, the red storm on Jupiter.
"I think that what is really special is that people are using a real scientific instrument to observe," said Jim O'Leary, a senior director at the Maryland Science Center. Since it was renovated in 1998, roughly 30,000 people have visited.
"Saturn is a favorite," said O'Leary. "People know what it looks like. Through the telescope, it looks just like a picture from a book."
The view is so crisp that visitors often believe they are looking at a photograph. "They can't believe it is the real thing; it's amazing," O'Leary said.
The observatory is on the roof of the Science Center. Visitors take an elevator to the fourth floor and walk outside onto a cement terrace. Admission to the observatory is free.
On evenings when the cosmos is producing a particularly big event (an eclipse or an unusually close planet or star), the staff also sets out field telescopes on tripods.
But, most evenings, people just line up to view through the 77-year-old main telescope, which is housed in a white-domed observatory.
The telescope has been set up in various locations around the city, including the roof of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
It is a 10-foot-long tube that has been fitted with two additional telescopes -- a finder scope that takes in a larger portion of the night sky, and a Ranger scope that can provide a full view of the sun or moon (the main scope is so powerful that it will show only a portion of those two bodies.)
To view a particular section of the night sky, a member of the Science Center staff punches coordinates into a computer, and the scope swings to the correct point.
On nights when there is a full moon, the observatory will focus on planets and nearby stars. But, "On darker nights, we'll concentrate on deep space, clouds and nebulae," said O'Leary. Late this month, there should be good views of Mercury and Saturn.
However, night is not the only time for stargazing. The Science Center telescopes can be fitted with a filter that allows people to look directly at the sun. "You get a reddish sun," explained O'Leary, noting that observers will see surface detail. "It almost looks like a pot of boiling water."
People can view the sun from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
In addition to seeing the sun through the scope, the staff hands out heavy-duty black plastic masks with a piece of dark welder's glass over the eye slit. When visitors hold the mask to their faces, they can look directly at the sun -- and in some cases they can even see tiny sun spots. This, of course, should not be done at home.
The Maryland Science Center is at 601 Light St. Call 410-685-5225 or visit www.mdsci.org.