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Stargazers delight: Summer of celestial wonder awaits

| Tuesday, May 31, 2016, 11:00 p.m.
Nate Smallwood | Trib Total Media
The view of the stars from Deer Lakes Park in Tarentum on May 30, 2016.
NASA
This view of Saturn looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 16 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Feb. 26, 2016, using a spectral filter that preferentially admits wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 752 nanometers.

Western Pennsylvanians can look forward to a summer of stargazing that requires little more than looking into the sky.

Telescopes are a common tool for viewing celestial events, but they won't be necessary this summer, said Charissa Sedor, Carnegie Science Center's Buhl Planetarium producer.

“There are a lot of cool things to see with just a pair of binoculars,” she said.

Among the special sights visible in the night sky are planets at their closest approach to Earth.

“There is a sky full of planets right now,” said Lou Coban, University of Pittsburgh's Allegheny Observatory manager.

Sedor said Mars passed opposition May 20. Opposition occurs when Earth is directly between a planet and the sun. Planets shine brightest during opposition because they're at their closest point to Earth.

“Mars is really bright right now,” she said. “Mars is very, very red to the naked eye.”

Saturn's opposition will stretch from Thursday evening into Friday morning, said James Lombardi Jr., associate professor of physics at Allegheny College in Meadville. He said to look for Saturn near Mars in the southeastern sky. Saturn will be bright and white, while Mars will be even brighter and red.

Lombardi explained that sky watchers will know that they're looking at planets because, unlike stars, they won't twinkle. Binoculars also reveal that planets look like small disks, not just points of light. Sky gazers could spot Saturn's largest moon, Titan, with binoculars if the sky is dark enough, he added. Titan is the only moon in the solar system with its own atmosphere. It will be visible as a small dot hovering over Saturn.

“Saturn's brightness depends on the tilt of its rings,” Sedor said. “When the rings are tilted toward us, they reflect light, which adds brightness.”

Saturn's rings will tilt toward Earth during opposition, she said, but they can be seen only with a telescope or a pair of binoculars. She added that Saturn's rings are about 175,000 miles wide, but extremely thin. She said if Saturn's rings were scaled down to the width of Heinz Field, they would be as thin as a piece of paper.

Coban said Mars and Saturn should be visible about 10 p.m., while Jupiter and its four moons should appear in the constellation Leo in the southern sky just after sunset. All three planets are visible to the human eye, but for a clearer view of the planets and their moons, binoculars or a telescope are needed.

The Perseid meteor shower takes place every August, Lombardi said, and it is expected to peak on the night of Aug. 11 to 12. This year, sky watchers can expect to see upwards of 90 shooting stars per hour as the Earth travels through debris in the wake of comet Swift-Tuttle; ideal viewing conditions start just after 1 a.m. in Western Pennsylvania.

Sedor finds the shower enchanting.

“It's like a car driving through a swarm of gnats, but it's in a beautiful cosmic fashion,” she said.

For an event like this, telescopes and binoculars are a hindrance, Sedor said.

“Just lie on your back and make sure you have the widest view of the sky possible,” she said. “The bigger the view, the better chance you'll have of seeing them all.”

For those interested in learning more about space, the Carnegie Science Center offers sky watching at the Buhl Planetarium. Visitors are welcome to use the planetarium's 16-inch Meade LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope to get a better view of Saturn's rings and other celestial objects. The event will take place from 8:30 to 10 p.m. June 25, July 16 and Aug. 27, rain or shine. For more information, visit www.carnegiesciencecenter.org.

Phillip Poupore is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7820 or ppoupore@tribweb.com.

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