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Star party

Patti Carter reads science fiction but she’s not expecting to see any Little Green Men this summer. Instead, she’s excited about seeing features of the planet Mars, with just a bit of help from a telescope.

Everywhere, not just on Whidbey Island, people are seeing red — Martian red. This week Mars, the fabled Red Planet, comes closer to Earth than it has in human memory. This morning, Aug. 27, “only” about 34.6 million miles will separate the planets. It’s the closest Earth and Mars have been in 60,000 years.

“You can see Mars without a telescope — it’s so bright,” Carter said. “But I’m looking forward to seeing details through a scope.”

Rick Owens, president of Island County Astronomical Society, said Mars is one of the brightest objects in the sky.

The planet is visible to the naked eye. People need only look in the southwest sky for a dazzling light. Mars will be visible during September and rising higher in the sky. That means it will be farther away but can be seen earlier in the evening. No matter how high the planet rises, Owens said it will still be very bright.

“Only the sun and moon are brighter,” he said Monday evening. Club members were evaluating City Beach Park for a star party they will host Saturday, Aug. 30, beginning at dusk. While the city’s shoreline is well-lighted, with illumination coming from homes and businesses, parking lots and the RV park, Owens isn’t concerned about light pollution blocking views.

“Nothing but heavy clouds will keep us from looking at Mars,” he said, gesturing to the southwest sky. Monday’s cloud cover wasn’t exceptionally dense, but it was enough to blot out the heavens. Owens and other club members were looking forward to the crystal skies forecast for later in the week.

“Weather is supposed to be ideal,” Andy Nielsen of Coupeville said.

Friday night, the group will travel to Artists Point on Mount Baker for an even closer look at the heavens.

The extra elevation will reduce the amount of atmosphere between the scopes and the sky. That should make clear conditions “even better,” Owens said.

No one is expecting to spot remains of civilizations, three-fingered folks waving or even Elvis. It’s the Island County Astronomical Society, not Astrological Society. They focus on facts, like polar icecaps, not fantasy.

Several members will be taking digital photographs through their telescopes. And they welcome everyone to come out and get to see Mars and other heavenly objects.

Bob Woessner likes viewing planets but deep sky objects intrigue him.

“Stars and planets are navigational points for other interesting things like nebulas and star clusters” he said.

Woessner, Owens and other group members characterize themselves as “deep sky guys” who are captivated by what can be seen only from truly dark locations with powerful lenses and mirrors.

Dusk is coming earlier and earlier day by day. That excites them.

“In December, when there aren’t clouds, we can be in deep sky by 5 p.m.,” Owens said.

Winter constellations like the Orion nebula will provide them with hours of gazing heavenward as long as weather is clear and they are insulated against the elements.

“It’s neat to be out in December,” Carter said.

“Those clear nights can be rare, but wonderful,” Owens agreed as he peered into a cloudy August sky, hoping for a glimpse of Mars.

Star society

People interested in carpooling to Mount Baker should meet at Oak Harbor First United Methodist Church parking lot, 1050 SE Ireland St., at 4:45 p.m., Friday, Aug. 29. Dress for altitude; estimated return time is 3 a.m Saturday. Be prepared to help pay for gas and parking.

Set up for the Oak Harbor star party starts at dusk Saturday, Aug. 30. Numerous telescopes will be taking in the view from City Beach near the RV park. All ages are welcome to come take a look at Mars. The group will be out until about 2 a.m. Sunday.

For more information, call 675-2269; e-mail scrappy@whidbey.net.

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