Shoot­ing Stars, Gleam­ing Plan­ets, Vivid Ne­bula

Gulf & Main - - Departments - BY ANN MARIE O’PHEL AN

Look up to the sky at night and you can of­ten see the moon, five plan­ets—Venus, Mer­cury, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter—and an ar­ray of stars, an oc­ca­sional shoot­ing star, pos­si­bly a comet or even a me­teor shower. How­ever, zoom in with a pair of binoc­u­lars, or, bet­ter yet, a te­le­scope, and the col­or­ful col­lage of deep-sky mag­nif­i­cence in­ten­si­fies. With a lit­tle more lens power, you can some­times spot things such as the in­ter­stel­lar cloud—Helix Ne­bula—and Nep­tune and Pluto.

Ron Madl, of North Fort My­ers, ed­its the news­let­ter for the South­west Florida As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety (SWFAS). It was formed in 1980 by am­a­teur as­tronomers in Lee County. Madl grew up on a Kansas farm and was al­ways in­ter­ested in what he could see in dark Kansas night skies.

Madl wound up as a fac­ulty mem­ber at Kansas State Univer­sity, whose physics depart­ment had an as­tron­omy club, which he later joined. The depart­ment had a te­le­scope avail­able for out­reach, to pro­vide ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams for or­ga­ni­za­tions and so­cial groups—for adults and chil­dren. He con­ducted many of the pro­grams and en­joyed teach­ing all ages that science can be in­ter­est­ing and en­ter­tain­ing. “I think it’s im­por­tant that peo­ple main­tain an aware­ness of the nat­u­ral world, how it works, and how we hu­mans can im­pact it,” Madl adds.

When he re­tired to Florida six years ago, Madl was thrilled to find out about SWFAS. It has a pro­gram that loans out tele­scopes to in­ter­ested in­di­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies. “I quickly took ad­van­tage of it, and bor­rowed a te­le­scope for my use to ex­plore the Florida night sky,” he says.

And there is al­ways some­thing dif­fer­ent to look at dur­ing each sea­son in South­west Florida. “This sum­mer and early

At top is the Milky Way, as seen from Ever­glades Na­tional Park. The South­west Florida skies of­fer the op­por­tu­nity to wit­ness a mag­nif­i­cent ar­ray of plan­ets, stars and other space ob­jects. Many can be ob­ser ved with the naked eye but oth­ers re­quire the use of binoc­u­lars or a te­le­scope.

I think it’s im­por­tant that peo­ple main­tain an aware­ness of the nat­u­ral world, how it works, and how we hu­mans can im­pact it.” —Ron Madl, edi­tor of The Eye­piece, South­west Florida As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety’s news­let­ter

fall will fea­ture bright Venus in the western sky at dusk, which will only be a thin cres­cent when viewed through a te­le­scope,” Madl ex­plains. “Mars will be clos­est to us in sum­mer and still vis­i­ble into the fall; Jupiter will still be in the western sky in fall; and Saturn, with its gor­geous rings, rounds out the ma­jor plan­ets to view this fall.”

Chuck Pavlick, of Cape Coral, has been a mem­ber of SWFAS since the mid-2000s. His in­ter­est in the skies also started young—at 12 years old as an am­a­teur as­tronomer. “Later on, I joined SWFAS to meet other as­tronomers in the area and share my ex­pe­ri­ences and knowl­edge,” Pavlick notes.

SWFAS does a lot of out­reach in the area, such as set­ting up tele­scopes for views of the night sky and—dur­ing the day—for views of the sun through spe­cial so­lar tele­scopes. “I never get tired of hear­ing the re­sponse from peo­ple when they see Saturn or the moon through a te­le­scope,” Pavlick adds.

SWFAS meets monthly at the Calusa Na­ture Cen­ter and Plan­e­tar­ium in Fort My­ers. Also monthly, sev­eral of the as­tronomers take their equip­ment to dark-sky spots in the area for view­ing ses­sions. These in­clude Caloosa­hatchee Regional Park, Sea­hawk Park and Faka­hatchee Strand Pre­serve State Park in Copeland, near Marco Is­land. The pub­lic is wel­come and the as­tronomers are happy to share their views—and their tele­scopes—to ex­plain and wit­ness the beauty of South­west Florida’s night­time skies.

Calusa Na­ture Cen­ter and Plan­e­tar­ium is the only plan­e­tar­ium south of Braden­ton, Florida, and west of Mi­ami. It of­fers three dif­fer­ent shows daily, which change monthly. Re­cent shows in­clude Bil­lion Suns and Spring Stargaz­ing. Au­di­ences are typ­i­cally given a live in­tro­duc­tion on what they can see in the lo­cal night sky be­tween dusk the evening of the show and the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

“We are one of only four places in the U.S. with per­ma­nent ex­hibits where a vis­i­tor can touch a me­te­orite that orig­i­nated from the planet Mars,” says plan­e­tar­ium direc­tor Heather Pre­ston. “Visi­tors can also touch a

Any time of the year is a great time to par­tic­i­pate in a South­west Florida As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety out­ing or take a trip to the plan­e­tar­ium.

126-pound iron-nickel me­te­orite that is part of an 800-t on body that br oke into more than 10 pieces as it en­tered Earth’s at­mos­phere 4,500 years ago, land­ing in north­ern Ar gen­tina in what is now called Campo del Cielo (or Field of the Sky).”

Any time of the year is a great time to par­tic­i­pate in a SWFAS out­ing or take a trip to the plan­e­tar­ium. And in the mean­time, just grab a pair of binoc­u­lars and see what you can spot!

Ann Marie O’Phe­lan is a South­west Florida res­i­dent and a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to TOTI Me­dia.

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