Tonight: Martian Views in Manatee County

Astronomy

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY JUL 20, 2018

Turn off the television and tune into the night sky, as the cosmos put on a show tonight, providing not only continued views of Saturn, which local astronomers enjoyed last month, but also one of the best views of Mars ever. Marking the occasion—and lending a telescope or two or twenty—the Local Group of Deep Sky Observers (LGDSO) will be out in force at Robinson Preserve this evening for a special summertime Sidewalk Astronomy event from 10pm until midnight, and all are welcome.

Assembled at Robinson Preserve in Manatee County, after sunset and away from the city lights, the local astronomers of LGDSO break out telescopes of all shapes and sizes, creating a little impromptu observatory for anyone who cares to take a look. And this weekend should prove to be a show, says Jonathan Sabin, founder of LGDSO. Saturn remains “very well placed,” he says, and anyone who missed last month’s Sidewalk Astronomy will get an eyeful of the ringed beauty, but Mars will be the real star. And for tonight’s stellar view of the red planet, a few important things had to align—not necessarily all the stars, but at least one, and a couple of its orbiting buddies.

Currently in opposition, Mars rises in the eastern sky as the sun sets in the west, which is called an “opposition event” and places the planet Earth between the two celestial bodies for optimal viewing of solar light reflecting off the Martian surface. This happens roughly every two years. But, even then, not every opposition alignment actually works out for terrestrial viewers, says Sabin. But, he says, every 18 years or so, it’s really good.

In 2003, astronomers hit the celestial jackpot when Mars came into opposition as Earth was at its farthest point from the Sun and Mars was at its closest point, resulting in sights humans will not see for another 60,000 years, according to Sabin. But tonight will come close. “This opposition is the best since 2003,” says Sabin, citing a negligible size difference of around 3% and a comparable amount of dimness.

An event for seasoned astronomers and newcomers alike, LGDSO members are as free with their knowledge as they are their telescopes, answering whatever questions they can. It’s all about sharing the passion, says Sabin, who caught the bug when he was five, on a trip to Hayden Planetarium in New York City. With LGDSO, he passes that on, and he’s seen children young as two years old pulling back from the telescope, eyes wide at what they’ve seen even as their mouths fail to form the words. Because sometimes science is magical, and so are the memories, like a children’s astronomy book from the planetarium gift shop that starts a lifelong journey. “That was 52 years ago, and I still have it,” says Sabin. “And I treasure that book.”

The LGDSO Sidewalk Astronomy viewing event begins tonight at 10pm at Robinson Preserve and runs until midnight, free and open to the public. In the event of inclement weather, the event will move to Saturday.

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