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Malibu star-gazers focus on affects of light pollution
Clouds got in the way of star watching at the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area’s annual Summer Star Festival, but the cloud cover didn’t prevent 700 visitors from enjoying the night at Paramount Ranch on Aug. 2.
The free event featured music, children’s activities, and a presentation on what is visible in the summer night sky when the weather cooperates.
Participants were also treated to a spectacular sunset and many had a glimpse of the crescent moon through a gap in the clouds.
“We were pleased with the turnout,” SMMNRA Public Affairs Officer Kate Kuykendall told the Malibu Surfside News. “We weren’t sure what to expect because of the weather.”
“Despite the cloudy skies, it’s super cool to be here together to watch the bats come out, and the sun set behind these magnificent oak trees,” NPS Ranger Anthony Bevilacqua said at the event. “I encourage everyone to go out and look at the sky. My favorite time to come out to the parks is at sunset and dusk.”
Even though no stars were visible that night, Bevilacqua praised Paramount Ranch and the west end of the Santa Monica Mountains for their dark sky environment that makes star gazing rewarding.
“We are really lucky to have a lot of open space, but we have lost a lot of our night sky to light pollution,” he said. “All of our ancestors saw the night sky. As recently as WWII, pilots used the stars for navigation. For wildlife [light pollution] has a major impact. If we don’t take action it will get worse. We need to start at home. Put hoods on outdoor lights, change the color of the lights, ask if every light is a necessity. We are losing our connection to the cosmos.”
“Light pollution doesn’t just impact astronomy, it destroys it,” said Moorpark College astronomy instructor Hal Jandorf, who is president of the Ventura County Astronomical Society.
Jandorf shared images of the summer sky with the audience and gave advice on what to look for on clear nights, including Scorpius, the most conspicuous constellation in the summer night sky, and the Summer Triangle, which is comprised of the bright stars Vega, Deneb and Altair. The Milky Way — an edge-on view of our home galaxy — appears to run through the triangle of stars.
“During the summer, our view of the Milky Way is right to the center of the galaxy,” Jandorf said.
Jandorf also offered practical advice about viewing aids. “The best telescope is the one you use most,” he said, suggesting that a pair of binoculars may be much more useful for casual sky watchers than a large—and often complicated—telescope.
Local astronomers brought a formidable array of telescopes to the event, and were available to answer questions. A break in the clouds offered a quick look at the craters on the moon, and neither scopes nor binoculars were required to view the stellar sunset.
Marine layer permitting, Malibu residents, especially those who live in the west end of the community where light pollution is less prevalent, will have an opportunity to catch another celestial event this week.
The Perseid meteor shower peaks on Aug. 13, but stray “shooting stars” may be visible through Aug, 26, as earth travels through the cloud of debris—mostly ice and dust—left by the passage of the comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 133 years, according to NASA.
For more than 2,000 years, skywatchers have observed the annual meteor shower, named for the constellation Perseus—the location, or radiant, in the night sky where the meteors appear to originate.
When conditions are right, the particles can create a spectacular display of shooting stars as they skim across Earth’s atmosphere, sometimes at a rate of more than 75 per hour, but even in a less than optimal year, patient viewers will be rewarded with at least a few sightings.
This year, the American Meteor Society is predicting rates of up to 20 per hour at peak. Light from the waning “super moon,” one of the brightest full moons of the year, will impact viewing. Usually, the best time to watch for the Perseids is between midnight and dawn. This year, the time between sunset and moonrise may provide the best window, or at least the darkest viewing conditions.
Those hoping to spot a shooting star should face north and be patient. A comfortable lounge chair or a camping mat makes meteor-watching a more pleasant experience.
The Perseid shower is the best known and most often observed meteor event of the year, but there are two minor meteor showers later this month that overlap with the tail end of the Perseids: the Kappa Cygnids on the night of Aug 18, and the Theta Piscids, on August 20. Experts say the key to seeing meteors, or any astronomical phenomenon, is to make the time to go out and look for them.
More information on upcoming meteor events is available at http://www.amsmeteors.org. Information on future SMMNRA astronomy events will be posted at http://www.nps.gov/samo.