June 20, 2005
As the mercury shoots upward and lazy summer days stretch into balmy evenings, NASA is teaming with amateur astronomy clubs across the country to share the wonders of the nighttime skies with the public.
"From campgrounds to beaches, to museums to inner city streets, our Night Sky Network is helping people look up and enjoy the starry view overhead," said Michael Greene, manager of the Navigator/Planet Quest public engagement program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Although beautiful objects are plentiful in the sky all year long, summer stargazing is especially appealing. "The nights are warmer, skies are generally clear, and because school's out, kids can stay up later," said Marni Berendsen, the Night Sky Network's education project coordinator at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, San Francisco, Calif.
Numerous events planned by the Network's astronomy clubs will highlight sky-watching under the summertime canopy of stars. Telescopes will be trained on an assortment of objects, including Jupiter, our Milky Way galaxy, dying stars, double stars, star-forming nebula regions, and a trio of constellations.
"Jupiter is high enough in the western sky to be clearly visible through late July or mid-August," Berendsen said. "Also, the Milky Way is high overhead, and we'll have a great view of the center of our galaxy toward the constellation Sagittarius, right near the Milky Way's central black hole."
Also on display is the Summer Triangle, which includes three constellations straddling the Milky Way. These "icons of the summer sky" include Lyra the harp, Aquila the eagle, and Cygnus the swan.
The Night Sky Network, established in March 2004, includes more than 175 amateur astronomy clubs across the country and in Puerto Rico. Clubs receive current, NASA-reviewed information and suggested activities to inspire the public. They're also privy to the latest space news "straight from the horse's mouth" during teleconferences with NASA scientists from such missions as the Cassini journey to Saturn, and the Deep Impact encounter with comet Tempel 1. In fact, some clubs are planning events linked with the Deep Impact encounter over the July 4th weekend.
To find summer activities planned by a Night Sky Network club near you, see the interactive online map at http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/club-map.cfm.
More than 140,000 people have taken part in Night Sky Network events, which have totaled more than 1,700 so far, which is extremely gratifying to Berendsen. "You can just feel the appreciation flowing from people when they look through a telescope and see what's out there," she said. "First-time telescope viewers usually respond with some variation of 'Oh, wow, that's cool!'"
That sentiment is apparently echoed by the most cynical of stargazers, according to Ray Shapp of the New Jersey Astronomical Association in High Bridge, New Jersey. "Even 'super cool' high school kids will pay attention to this stuff!" he said.
"Those of us at NASA hope the excitement and enthusiasm these amateurs convey might inspire a young boy or girl to become a space scientist or explorer someday," said Greene.
More information about the Night Sky Network is at http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov. The Night Sky Network is supported by PlanetQuest at JPL; the Astronomical Society of the Pacific; the Structure and Evolution of the Universe Education Forum; and the Origins Education Forum. PlanetQuest is linked with several NASA planet-hunting missions, including the Keck Interferometer in Hawaii, the planned Space Interferometry Mission and Terrestrial Planet Finder. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Jane Platt (818) 354-0880
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.