Cosmic spectacle

Join fellow stargazers tonight at Paynes Prairie.

Imran Aziz takes photos through his telescope of the lunar eclipse in Gainesville. The Alachua Astronomy Club and Friends of Paynes Prairie host a night of stargazing tonight from 6:30-9.

Matt Stamey/Staff Photographer
Published: Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 at 4:26 p.m.

Don't look down.


If you go

What: Alachua Astronomy Club and Friends of Paynes Prairie host a night of stargazing.
When: 6:30-9 tonight
Where: Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park at Hickory Ranch, 9300 SW County Road 23
Cost: $5 per person; free for kids 6 and younger and Friends of Paynes Prairie members


Get ready to be starstruck

Bob Lightner said nebula newbies should download Stellarium, a free computer program that breaks down the night sky by location. The best part: “You can actually see the night sky as it exists tonight or go back in time,” he said.
For stargazers with iPhones at their fingertips, there are several applications — many of which help identify and locate stars — available for download. Try GoSkyWatch Planetarium or StarMap.
Check the forecast. Lightner said to prepare for potential cool weather — and hope for clear skies.

That might as well be Bob Lightner's mantra — at least when he's outside, gazing heavenward at the night sky. As the president of the Alachua Astronomy Club, he's a nebula of knowledge about the galaxy and all those pretty things in the sky called stars.

And for earthlings who want an out-of-this-world view, Lightner's organization is stepping up — and looking up — Saturday night at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The organization is bringing telescopes to the Friends of Paynes Prairie event for an evening of hot cocoa, hayrides and stargazing at Hickory Ranch, 9300 SE County Road 234, from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

“Once you get out of town, and you find that there's not too much light pollution, you can actually see quite a bit,” Lightner said. “To actually look out through a telescope and see beyond — that is actually pretty neat.”

For those who don't know a Milky Way candy bar from a cosmic spectacle, Lightner shed light on light-years-away sights to see.

Jupiter and Co.

There's no spaceship necessary to see a planet: Lightner said Jupiter and its four Galilean moons are easy to spot.

“Jupiter is one of the brightest objects in the sky next to the moon right now,” he said.

Lucky gazers might even get a glimpse of Jupiter's signature Great Red Spot.


Jupiter may have some competition from its solar system neighbor. Uranus also will be visible, Lightner said, and the planets will appear close in proximity.

“Definitely seeing [Uranus] is unique because not too many people can spot it easily,” he said.

The Seven Sisters

Family matters in outer space — namely for Pleiades, a star cluster that owes its nickname, “Seven Sisters,” to an optical illusion.

“A lot of people think they're seven [stars],” Lightner said. “But in a telescope you can see that they're actually millions of stars.”

The Man on the Moon

Lightner said the moon is almost full, which means gazers will notice more light in the night sky.

“A lot of people are attracted to lunar observing,” he said. “[People] will see the craters and the [lunar] maria and some of the features that make up the Man on the Moon.”

The North Star

It might not be quite as trusty as a GPS, but Polaris, also called the North Star, can come in handy when trying to navigate around the galaxy, Lightner said.

“It's the one place in the sky that if you look [at it] for over a period of hours, it's pretty much fixed,” he said. “All the other stars seem to rotate about it.”

The real reason it appears to stay put: the earth's rotation, Lightner said.

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