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Last Friday night at dusk, as a perfect summer balminess replaced the heat of the day, the Astronomical Society of Nevada set up a few telescopes at Sparks Marina for the public to look through.
A man dressed for hiking, with a baby on his back, stepped up to a Dobsonian telescope with a 20-inch mirror. He looked into the eyepiece for a few seconds, through which he could see Jupiter, the brightest dot in the sky and the first to appear. Through the telescope, the swirls of the gas giant planet were plain as day.
A man with a Chihuahua on a leash took a turn looking into the eyepiece and was mildly wowed. The men thanked the club members and went on their way. As the sky grew darker, club members and passersby looked through the telescopes—one of them trained on Saturn, making its rings clearly visible—and chatted about the night sky.
It’s not just the balmy nights that make August a good time to look up in Northern Nevada. With a solar eclipse, a meteor shower, a somewhat unusual triangular formation of celestial bodies, and a slew of opportunities to view them all, it’s a busy month in the heavens. RN&R checked in with a couple of local experts for viewing tips.Meteor outlook: mediocre
As comets go, Comet Swift-Tuttle is a reliable one. It passes by the Earth every 133 years, and its debris is visible every summer. A lot of that debris consists of particles about the size of grains of sand, and when they enter the Earth's atmosphere, they momentarily become blazing space dust—shooting stars. The entire event, which is called the Perseid meteor shower, started July 17 this year and lasts through Aug. 24. It will peak in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 12.
“A lot of people look forward to it,” said Dennis Jamison, president of the astronomy group. But, in 2017, there’s good news and bad news for people who like to spot meteors.
“You can see the meteors from almost anywhere,” said Jamison—anywhere away from city lights, where your view of the sky isn’t blocked too much by trees, that is.
“They’re visible across the entire sky,” he said. “They do radiate from one particular point in the sky, but that’s not the best place to look, because the streaks are shorter there. The best thing is to just look straight up.”
The bad news is that on Aug. 12, when the event peaks, a waning gibbous moon will be bright enough to obscure the meteors. The moon will rise at about 11 p.m. on Aug. 11 and set around noon on the 12th, so the meteor shower may not be visible enough to be worth staying awake for.
There’s also always the chance that cloud cover or wildfire smoke could obscure a meteor shower—or any celestial event—so astronomers tend to maintain a balance between hoping for the best views and bracing for disappointment.
Fleischmann Planetarium Director Dan Ruby’s takeaway regarding the 2017 Perseids is this: “On one hand, the moon’s not helping. On the other hand, it’s the best meteor shower of the year. If you are out, keep your eyes peeled for [meteors], but don’t make a point of going out for them.”
Jamison suggested aiming for a non-peak glimpse before that 11 p.m. moonrise.There goes the sun
The big astronomy event of the season will be a solar eclipse on Aug. 21, peaking at 10:20 a.m.
From Reno, said Jamison, “You’ll be able to see a deep, partial eclipse. The sun will look sort of like a crescent moon. At the peak, 86 percent of the sun’s diameter will be covered by the moon.”
A full eclipse will be visible from a path in Oregon and Idaho, in some spots as narrow as 60 miles.
“They’re expecting massive crowds,” said Jamison. “Literally millions of people will travel to see this eclipse. They’re expecting massive traffic. All the hotels are sold out. There are reports of price gouging.”
A May headline in the Oregonian read, “Oregon hotels unapologetic, silent about widespread eclipse cancellations,” and farmers outside Portland have taken camping reservations at their farms.
Portland news channel KGW reported in March, “Customers say they’ve been told hotel rooms are either no longer available or must be re-booked at a much higher rate—in one case, for $1,000 a night.” The Oregon Department of Justice has been investigating complaints against at least 12 hotels.
For Renoites who don’t plan to travel out of state to see the total eclipse, Jamison suggested Pyramid Lake as a good viewing spot for the partial eclipse—but not because you need to travel away from town to see it; it’ll do fine to just look up from wherever you are in the region. He was thinking on behalf of people who want to try to get a good photograph.
“The sun will be rather low, less than halfway up to its maximum height, so there’s an opportunity to get photographs with a foreground,” he said.
Wherever you decide to view the eclipse from, viewing equipment that protects your eyes from the sun is essential. The two best options are to make an eclipse viewer, which can be as simple as poking a pinhole in a piece of cardstock, or acquire eclipse viewing glasses, which allow you to look at the sun unharmed. They look like cardboard 3-D glasses and can be purchased from the Astronomical Society of Nevada at www.astronomynv.org, Amazon or several other online sources.
School will be in session by Aug. 21, and efforts are underway to distribute solar viewers to local classrooms and train teachers on their use. A NASA video details how to make your own tiny easy-to-make projector: eclipse2017.nasa.gov/how-make-solar-eclipse-sun-viewer.More events
Another sky event, called a “conjunction,” takes place Aug. 25. A conjunction is when two or more heavenly bodies appear together in the sky, and this time it will be three.
“Right after sunset, in the western sky, there will be a triangle of the moon, Jupiter and a bright star called Spica,” Jamison said. “It’ll be kind of pretty.” And practical. He mentioned that for anyone who’s never identified Jupiter before, this arrangement should make it easy.
Several events on the ground are planned for late summer as well. “It turns out the best thing about buying a telescope is that you get to share it,” Jamison said, and the astronomy society does just that during its star parties. They host one at the Sparks Marina the third Friday of each month, including one at 8 p.m. on Aug. 18. They’ll also host one at River Fork Ranch in Minden at 7 p.m. Aug. 25. These are free and open to the public. And there’s another notable event in August for campers. “It’s so hard to avoid puns, but the eclipse is eclipsing everything,” said planetarium director Ruby. He recommends the Lassen Dark Sky Festival, Aug. 11-13 at Lassen National Park.
“They are on the cutting edge of astronomy stuff, and their rangers are really well educated about space,” said Ruby.