Stargazers can take in winter wonders at Deer Lakes Park

This image of the Orion Nebula was taken by Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh member Fred Klein. Submitted in February 2013. Courtesy of Fred Klein
This image of the Orion Nebula was taken by Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh member Fred Klein. Submitted in February 2013. Courtesy of Fred Klein
Photo by Fred Klein
| Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Among the heavenly highlights of Wagman Winterfest are sunspots, moon craters and stars — literally — being born.

The 20th anniversary of the annual Winterfest and the only winter star party offered by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh, the event promises to share a glimpse of winter wonders sure to delight stargazers of all ages.

The star party is open to the public and begins at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park in Frazer.

Admission is free.

“Visitors will be able to see winter constellations such as Orion, Sirius and Gemini,” says Terry Trees of the association.

Lunar craters and mountains will be visible, too, as will galaxies in Ursa Major, the planets Mercury and Jupiter and Jupiter's moons.

Sirius — the brightest star in the night sky — and Rigel, the blue double star of the constellation Orion, will be observed.

“Many star clusters and nebulae will also be visible through the observatory's telescopes and telescopes provided by many of the club's members.”

“However,” Trees says, “the highlight of the evening is the Great Nebula of Orion, a stellar nursery where dust clouds are giving birth to new stars.”

That, he says, is his favorite, with its “complex dust clouds and young, bright blue stars.”

The star party gives guests a chance to see an area of the sky that spring, summer and star parties can't offer, says Tom Reiland, the observatory's director.

“There are more bright stars during the winter than any other season,” he says.

In the summer, according to Reiland, 20 or more of the stars visible at this time of year are on the other side of the sun and so, at that time, can't be seen.

A glimpse of brighter stars won't be all that one can see Saturday.

The timing of the star party offers a unique opportunity to see our sun, up close and personal. To take advantage of Winterfest's early start time — star parties in other seasons begin after the sun goes down — members will set up a special filter on telescopes so that star party goers can view the sun and sunspots.

“It's different because most people don't understand that the sun does not look the same all the time, and it's constantly changing,” Reiland says. “Sunspots are basically darker because those are areas that are actually cooler than other areas of the sun. They may be a few thousand degrees cooler, but they're still extremely hot, they just (appear) darker.”

Wagman's telescopes, the Brashear 11-inch refractor and the Manka Memorial telescope, are attractions in their own right.

“At the observatory, we have two fantastic telescopes,” association president John Holtz says. “One is a 21-inch reflector, so it gathers a lot of light, which is good for these faint objects like the Orion nebulae and other nebulae visible in the winter skies.”

The Brashear, he adds, has “exquisite refraction.”

“So, looking at something like Jupiter can take your breath away.”

Those going to the party are reminded that events are held weather permitting. They are also cautioned to dress for temperatures at least 10 degrees colder than the actual weather.

Guests are encouraged to bring their telescopes, too, if they have them. Members of the association will be on hand to demonstrate with their personal equipment to help the public learn how to hone in on the heavens.

“People attend AAAP star parties for both entertainment and educational reasons,” Trees says.

“One can not only learn about the structure of the universe by actually seeing it, one can easily appreciate its fantastic beauty.”

Julie Martin is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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