A Sight To Behold

While gazing at all five bright planets with the naked eye in July, the Paul & Jane Meyer Observatory at the Turner Research Station still reaches for the stars

Filled with an array of bright planets, July 2020 offers an exceptionally interesting and exciting time to be a stargazer – or rather, a planet gazer in this case. But as they say, reach for the stars and you just might find the planets…or something like that.

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Who hasn’t spent hours staring up at the magical Milky Way on a sultry summer evening? Who hasn’t stepped out on a summer night to witness the annual mystical meteor storm? Who hasn’t felt the seemingly insignificance of our earthly existence amidst that vast, and practically unfathomable celestial sky?

And deep in the heart of Texas, stars shine brighter and more distinct, making the Bosque night skies exceptional.

The lack of earthly light sources makes Bosque County an excellent place for a stellar and planetary observation station. The Paul and Jane Meyer Observatory at the Turner Research Station – a dark sky site between Turnersville and Clifton – provides that kind of ideal astronomical viewpoint into the night sky’s secrets because the stars are bright in the Central Texas night.

The Observatory, located on land donated by the Turner family, serves as a sanctuary for stargazing enthusiasts as well as beginners looking for a crash course in Stargazing 101 with the station’s 24-inch telescope – with Saturn and the moon being the main attractions.

But this July offers so much more.

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With all five bright planets on display, Venus becomes that very bright object lighting the east before sunrise. After mid-July, observers can find Mercury below Venus. But that’s not all as Jupiter and Saturn also stand out as the planets to watch close together on the sky’s dome, while both reach opposition this month.

That means our solar system's two largest planets shine at their best, up nearly all night, all month long. And then there’s Mars looking very red in July, steadily brightening, out between midnight and dawn.

But what do we mean by bright planet?

When any one of our solar system planets becomes easily visible without an optical aid, we are presented with a “bright planet” as it has been watched by our ancestors since time immemorial. In their outward order from the sun, the five bright planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – represent the five bright planets in our solar system.

These five planets actually appear bright in our sky – typically as bright or brighter than the brightest stars. In fact, these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. Consequently, the casual observer often mistakes them for just another star in the night sky.

But 2020 stands out as a special year for knowledgeable stargazers as all five bright solar system planets present themselves in July. Catch Jupiter and Saturn at early evening and throughout the night, Mars between midnight and dawn, Venus in the predawn/dawn sky, and Mercury below Venus at dawn in the second half of July.

The rare alignment will be the first time the planets have appeared together in the sky in 10 years. And it all can be seen with the naked eye.

Premier stargazing happens with the right equipment, a little orientation and a good dark night. A spectacular and mystical full moon can lessen the stargazing success, according to the Central Texas Astronomical Society members, who gather at the Observatory on a regular basis and are often on hand for special events to explain the night sky to the stargazers.

The society’s newsletter is called Carpe Noctem, as a play on Carpe Diem. In other words, seize the night.

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The Central Texas Astronomical Society does exactly that on the third Saturday of each month as they host an Observatory Open House and Tour where people from the surrounding communities are encouraged to visit experience the wonders of the night sky. The society encourages registration, designing each event to describe their activities and to share their passion for astronomy. Although there are no admissions, contributions are much appreciated, and they have an alternative indoor program in case of cloudy or even rainy weather.

In addition to bringing an excitement about what you’re going to see, the society recommends bringing a small flashlight helpful for getting around at night. Keep in mind that bright lights from flashlights and cell phones can bother people’s night vision, so a red light flashlight is preferred. If you have binoculars or a telescope, by all means, bring them. Don’t worry if you’ve forgotten how to use them. These events are great for refreshing your skills.

Whether you are an experienced observer or just starting out, membership in the Society brings you together with a group of people who are passionate about all aspects of astronomy.  As a member, you can enjoy many benefits including: access to our world class observatory and dark sky observing site, discounts on subscriptions to “Sky and Telescope” and “Astronomy” magazines, access to our monthly members-only star parties and other exclusive events, membership to the nation-wide astronomy club, The Astronomical League, and much more.

CTAS partners with Baylor University Continuing Education to offer a beginning astronomy class in the early spring annually. In addition, the observatory invites individual students and science clubs from area schools to develop projects that involve observing though the research-quality telescope.

And if you can’t come to one of the public events, they can come to you. The society often hosts private star parties at schools, churches, scout camp outs, and the occasional promotional event, at your location. You can even rent the Meyer Observatory for your own private star party.

The Meyer Observatory also performs research, both on its own, and in collaboration with other institutions, most notably Baylor University and the University of Texas McDonald Observatory.

The Central Texas Astronomical Society promotes preservation of dark night skies everywhere and is a member of the International Dark Skies Association .The International Dark-Sky Association is the only non-profit organization fighting to preserve the night. IDA takes great pride in its efforts to protect natural nightscapes. Yet night sky protection starts locally, with a dedicated group of citizens.

The Meyer Observatory is owned and operated by the Central Texas Astronomical Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. As such, they always appreciate contributions, large and small. If astronomy is your passion, consider joining the Central Texas Astronomical Society. If you would like to simply contribute to their work, consider becoming a Friend of the Meyer Observatory.

The Turner Research Station is located at 14801 FM-182, Clifton, Texas. People are advised to use the directions on the website, since the most digital maps are not reliable. For more information, visit the website at: http://www.centexastronomy.org or call 254-326-1027.

As astronomers correctly predicted, a rare and unique planetary parade took place on July 4. All of the planets in our solar system – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, as well as the dwarf planet Pluto – lined up on one side of the Sun at the same time.

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By discussing a parade of planets, astronomers point out that planets will appear in the same part of the sky. Sometimes the arrangement of planets resembles a line, but it's not always the case. Most often, two or three planets form a line in the sky. The last parade of planets of this type occurred in 1982. But no one will see it happen again until 2161 and 2492.

Now that’s something worth getting excited about – whether you are a bona fide stargazer or not.

Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS & courtesy of TURNER RESEARCH STATION

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