Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 19, 2008

HEAVENS|Meteor shower headed to a sky near you

For Chris Collins, the sky has been the limit for five or six years now. He says it can be for anyone.

The Vicksburg optometrist has always had an interest in telescopes and astronomy and says anyone can get into it. Just look up.

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“Right now, if you go outside right before dark and look due south in the sky, the brightest thing up there is going to be Jupiter,” Collins said. Venus is also visible now, just before sunset, in the west. Both planets look like bright stars to the unaided eye. “Don’t wait too long, though, because they will set fairly early.”

Keeping an eye on our nearest space neighbors is one of the easiest ways to get hooked on sky watching, Collins said. “The planets are always good to look at, and the moon is an easy target. You can very easily learn the moon, too — all the names of the craters and its other features.”

With a small telescope or a pair of binoculars, he added, “You can see the moons of Jupiter — sometimes see them go across the face of Jupiter. And you can see the rings of Saturn.”

Upcoming star-gazing events

• The Great World Wide Star Count, Monday to Nov. 3 — Find the constellation Cygnus, the Northern Cross, and count, measure and report the brightness of the visible stars in the group. Details and instructions are at www.windows.ucar.edu/citizen_science/starcount/

• Orionid Meteor Shower, Midnight to sunrise, now through Oct. 29, with peak activity expected in the early morning hours Monday through Wednesday — Look toward the southeast to see this show of “shooting stars.”

• Deep South Regional Star Gaze, Oct. 26 to Nov. 2 — Camp Ruth Lee in Clinton, La.; details and registration form at www.stargazing.net/DSRSG/.

• For day-by-day sky viewing suggestions and tips, plus other links for novice and experienced amateur astronomers, visit “This Week’s Sky at a Glance” at www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/ataglance.

For those willing to stay up late or get up early, this week’s Orionid Meteor Shower is supposed to be at its peak this week. “For a meteor shower, you don’t need a telescope,” Collins said. “You can see them just fine with the naked eye. Just get your lawn chair, lean back and watch the show.”

Beyond the moon, planets and shooting stars, with just a bit of simple equipment it’s easy to jump into warp drive and go beyond the Solar System.

“The Milky Way looks like a cloud to the naked eye on a moonless clear night,” Collins said, “and I love pointing it out to newbies and asking, ‘Do you see that cloud up there?’ They say yes, then I hand them my binoculars and ask them to look at it. I usually get something like the famous quote from “2001: A Space Odyssey”: ‘My God, it’s full of stars!’”

Collins has built what began as a casual interest in astronomy into a hobby that has seen him publish two of his photographs in a national magazine, Sky & Telescope.

He uses two telescopes, one on top of the other. He attaches a digital camera to the larger, bottom telescope, and a tracking mechanism, to prevent star streaks in his photos, to the upper scope. The whole apparatus is tied in to a laptop computer.

For the beginner and average amateur, the Web site associated with the magazine, skyandtelescope.com, has a link called “This Week’s Sky at a Glance,” a day-by-day listing of sky-watch targets visible with the unaided eye and with binoculars and modest telescopes, advice and viewing tips and links to many other amateur astronomy resources.

Anyone needing a specific reason to get started can join in the Great World Wide Star Count, an international “citizen science” project that gets underway Monday and runs until Nov. 3. The event is intended to foster interest in amateur astronomy as well as raise awareness about light pollution and the night sky. No equipment is necessary, just a willingness to look skyward, locate a particular constellation — Cygnus, also known as the Northern Cross — and report on the brightness of its component stars.

More than 19,000 people in 64 countries on all seven continents and in all 50 states participated in the first World Wide Star Count last year. They submitted 6,624 observations, contributing valuable data for world and regional maps and environmental studies. This year’s goal is 12,000 observations.

The event is just one of many projects initiated by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a consortium of schools that grant doctoral degrees in fields involving the atmospheric sciences. UCAR, headquartered in Boulder, Colo., manages the National Center for Atmospheric Research and works to advance understanding of the atmosphere and Earth through research and teaching.

“Citizen science allows all interested individuals to learn more about environmental matters while at the same time contributing to a better understanding of them,” UCAR’s Web site states. “Projects (like this) are generally designed to connect researchers with interested members of the public who collect data or perform other scientific tasks following defined protocols.”

Another Warren County amateur astronomer, Charles Bell, has been tracking and photographing comets, stars and other space bodies for several years, submitting the images and data he collects to the Minor Planet Center of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. Like Collins, Bell’s interest in astronomy goes back to his childhood.

“I had a Sears telescope when I was in junior high school,” Bell laughed. “It was really terrible. I couldn’t see anything with it.”

Around 1995, he became interested in Comet Hale-Bopp and bought a good pair of binoculars, which he said served him well as a casual sky watcher until he got more serious about it in 2002 and bought a good telescope. Now his setup includes a digital camera and is sophisticated enough to track comets and submit data to the Minor Planet Center.

Collins said he started out as a kid using his brother’s “little Jason telescope.” He was interested enough to take an elective class in astronomy when he was a student at Mississippi State University, but his passion for many years was auto racing. When his children reached college age, however, he went back to astronomy as a less expensive hobby.

“I don’t know exactly what sparked my interest in it,” he said. “My guess is that it was probably Mars, since every two years Earth will closely approach Mars. I’m sure I was thinking something like, ‘How can I do this cheaply?’”

Given the long multiple exposures necessary to get his star portraits, Collins says that digital photography is probably the single best invention that allows people to get into astrophotography without breaking the bank.

He’s been known to spend weeks honing an image, which can involve multiple shots and manipulation to eliminate what he calls “electronic noise.” His images differ from Bell’s. “Charles is more into scientific photographs. I’m more into art,” Collins said.

Sky & Telescope magazine would seem to agree. His photo of the International Space Station racing across the face of the moon was published in August, and another photo of the Andromeda Galaxy appeared in the June 2006 issue.

For those who simply want to look at the stars and enjoy, this month’s Orionid Meteor Shower is expected to be at its height during the midnight to dawn hours Monday through Wednesday, but can be seen as late as Oct. 29. The show is expected to be less than spectacular this year, however, because a fairly bright moon, waxing from full phase to new over the period, will lighten the late-night sky.

The Orionids are actually caused by debris left behind by perhaps the most famous of the comets, Halley’s. As the Earth passes through this debris field, pieces of it burn up as they enter the atmosphere, creating what looks like shooting stars. Earth goes through the dust trail left by Halley’s comet twice a year, in May and October. Since meteor showers take their names from the constellations they appear to emanate from, the fall shower is named for the constellation Orion.

A good meteor shower show will have perhaps one “shooting star” per minute, Collins said. An average view will have one every two to three minutes.

For those willing to travel and who want to mingle with other star watchers, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze will be at Camp Ruth Lee in Clinton, La., from Oct. 26 to Nov. 2. The event usually draws more than 100 people who camp out and stay up late stargazing. Collins, who will not attend this year but has gone in the past, said it’s considered “a fairly dark site,” and therefore a great place to photograph or just gaze up at the stars.

“Some of us stay up all night,” he said. “If you’re photographing it, you want all you can get.”

And, when the sky is the limit, “all you can get” is boundless.