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Saturn's ready for its closeup

Look to the stars Saturday for International Astronomy Day

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Saturday, May 10, 2014 06:00 am

ASTRONOMY DAY – Saturday is International Astronomy Day, a day when many telescopes will be trained on the sky.
ASTRONOMY DAY – Saturday is International Astronomy Day, a day when many telescopes will be trained on the sky.
FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

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Astronomy Day

May 10 is International Astronomy Day. Many sites in Edmonton will have free telescopes that people can use to look at the night sky.
Sites include the Telus World of Science and the promenade overlooking Victoria Park.
Visit edmontonrasc.com for details.

Local stargazers should expect a flurry of fireballs later this month as their planet passes through a rare meteor storm.

May 10 is International Astronomy Day, and astronomers across the region are prepping their telescopes for a busy astrological season.

Astronomy Day started back in California in 1973 as a way to promote astronomy by setting up telescopes on sidewalks, says Frank Florian, vice-president of science at the Edmonton Telus World of Science. It’s now so popular that it’s celebrated twice a year – once in the spring and once in the fall (since northern nations have longer nights in the fall).

St. Albert held its Astronomy Day back in April to take advantage of the earlier sunset, says local astronomer Murray Paulson. Still, there will be plenty of public telescopes out on sidewalks in Edmonton Saturday at the promenade overlooking Victoria Park.

“There’s something special about taking a look and seeing that planet with your own eye in real time,” Paulson says.

“It’s a real touching experience.”

The Telus World of Science observatory will be open for visitors from 1 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 11 p.m. Saturday for some free stargazing, Florian says. The facility will also have a telescope workshop from noon to 4 p.m.

“This year we have three planets that are well-placed in our evening sky,” Florian notes.

Saturn and Mars will be at and just past opposition on May 10 (respectively), meaning they’re about as close as they can get to Earth in their orbits, Florian says. Saturn’s rings are also at a 22-degree angle to us right now, giving us a great view of them. Jupiter should also be easy to spot.

Saturn and Mars should look really big in a telescope’s eyepiece on Saturday night, Paulson says – you might even see the Martian ice caps or five of Saturn’s moons.

If you want to learn more about Saturn, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Edmonton branch) is hosting a free talk by NASA’s Carolyn Porco Monday at the University of Alberta, Paulson says.

Porco is the lead imaging scientist with the Cassini space probe, which is currently in orbit around Saturn.

That probe has brought back many dazzling images of Saturn over the last few years and taught us much about the planet, Paulson says. Its sub-probe, Huygens, landed on the moon Titan and discovered that it has lakes and rains of liquid methane.

“It’s been one of the most productive space probes in quite some time.”

The talk starts at 7:30 p.m. in Room 1-430 of the U of A’s Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science.

Star shower

If you miss Astronomy Day, keep an eye on the skies around May 23 and 24 – there might be a huge meteor shower.

Earth is scheduled to pass through the debris trail of Comet 209P/LINEAR at about this time, Florian says. Unlike other comets, such as Swift-Tuttle (source of the annual Perseid shower), this comet has a very long orbit, and it will be many years before we run into its trail again.

“It’s a one-off kind of meteor shower.”

The debris trail will contain scores of tiny comet particles that will burn up on contact with the Earth’s atmosphere, producing fireballs and streaks of light. Research suggests that this particular debris trail was laid down sometime in the 1800s, reports Earthsky.org.

“It just so happens we’re at the best location in the world here in North America,” Florian says, as the fireballs will be coming right at us high in the sky from the constellation Camelopardalis (The Giraffe, located between the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia).

Peak activity should take place at about 1:30 a.m. local time on May 24.

Florian says researchers are predicting up to 1,000 meteors an hour, making this the strongest meteor shower of the year.

“It could put on an incredible show.”


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