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Eyes on the skies There are plenty of places here at home to enjoy this summer's interstellar scenery

Not all of summer's stars perform on stage. Just look to the sky for a breathtaking show of a celestial sort.

In the coming weeks, there will be many opportunities to view astronomical activity. Double stars, shooting stars, Jupiter's moons and the rings around Saturn. The lunar eclipse, solar flares and a special appearance by the meteor shower called Perseid all make summer a wonderful time to salute the sky.
"The first time I looked at the sun from the roof of the museum, it seemed like it seeped into me," said Jayme Cellitioci, site manager of the Elmwood Science Spot. "All it takes is one viewing, one look. It opens up a whole new world."

Despite our frequent cloud cover, Buffalo is home to some serious star watching. Whether it's from the roof of the Science Museum, inside Buffalo State College's Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium or on the sidewalks of Elmwood Avenue -- local astronomy buffs are rolling out the red carpet to make it easy for all to star gaze.

"You don't need to be super brainy for this stuff, you just need to enjoy nature," said Dan Marcus of the Buffalo Astronomical Association. "Other people can calculate the orbits."

For Paul Zimmer, it was the eclipse of the moon that drew him in. "The moon turns a real nice coppery color, but I wanted to see more," said the self-taught astronomer and president of the Hamburg Natural History Society.

That's the thing with astronomers. They gravitate quickly to their interest. Some are gluttons for galaxies. Others prefer to hang out in our solar system. Zimmer took up the sun.

"The sun is always bubbling, always boiling, always changing," said Zimmer, who frequently sets up his solar scopes to share with visitors to Hamburg's Penn Dixie site. "The sun affects our weather. It's just neat to look at."

In June 2004, 500 people climbed the steps of the Science Museum to greet the sun at the crack of dawn. The occasion -- a red-letter day in local astronomy circles -- was the "transit of Venus" or the passage of the planet across the face of the sun.

"It was a murky morning," recalled planetary photographer Alan Friedman, "when a giant red ball appeared on the horizon with a big black circle on it. It was breathtaking, so exciting."

How much of an event was the June 8 transit of Venus? Cellitioci planned her wedding for that date, and is looking forward to celebrating the next transit on June 6, 2012. If she misses that, her next opportunity won't be until December 2117.

Each event -- comet, eclipse, meteor shower -- increases astronomy's mass appeal. The ability to predict an event hundreds of years into the future increases the importance of present day occurrences and makes the 400th anniversary of the telescope in 2009 a cause for celebration.

>Let's get it started

Astronomers are children at heart, living for the drama of discovery, the beauty of the night sky as seen by the naked eye -- which leads to a critical lesson for those new to the stars.

"Stay away from department store telescopes," said Marilou Bebak, biology teacher at Nardin Academy. "They are more frustrating than useful. You're better off buying binoculars (7 x 50), which will give you a wide field of view in the sky. And if you don't continue in astronomy, you can take them to a football game."

Bebak identified Meade and Celestron as two good telescope manufacturers, but cautioned against picking a scope based on magnification. Base your purchase on the width of the lens, and don't spend more than $300 on your first scope.

"Learn how to set it up and point it yourself," Bebak said. "Join a local club. Take a class. The Buffalo Astronomical Association has a mentoring program. They'll find someone who lives near you."

Arthur Gielow, director of the Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium at Buffalo State College, runs many introductory programs for budding astronomers. After some planetarium pointers, Gielow invites his guests outside for a telescope session. Like any good instructor, he takes requests.

"People request constellations, but they don't request stars," said Gielow, who has worked at the planetarium since 1970. "They love to see the North Star [Polaris], but are they surprised when I show it to them. It's not very bright, and it doesn't move much. That's why it is important as a navigational tool. Vega was our North Star at one time, but that was more than 12,000 years ago."

Gielow is often asked to explain the difference between a planetarium and an observatory (as in Kellogg at the Science Museum). "A planetarium is a domed theater, but instead of a telescope it has a star projector that simulates the night sky. An observatory also has a dome, but it contains a telescope that peers out and pulls in different stars and planets, magnifying them so you can look through the eyepiece and see moon craters or the Andromeda Galaxy."

>Sidewalk Astronomy

It has been called urban guerrilla astronomy, the San Francisco program that periodically places telescopes on sidewalks and invites passers-by to stop for a gaze. Recently, the 800 block of Elmwood Avenue was buzzing with stargazers of all ages waiting to take a peek at the crescent moon.

"The clouds cover beautiful things," said Friedman, standing by his refractor telescope. Still, a crowd gathered and within minutes the clouds broke enough to allow a glimpse. "If it stays clear, Jupiter will make an appearance," the sidewalk audience is told.

Creating experiences that allow people to see the sun for the first time or view a celestial event they have never seen is part of an astronomer's mission.

"Sometimes there are barriers between people and natural science," Cellitioci said. "We set this up so pretty much anyone walking by can take a look. You are not preaching to the converted. Most people we stop have never looked through a telescope, and typically they end up staying."

Typically, when astronomers share their notable moments comets often top the list. Like the time in summer 1994, when Comet Shoemaker-Levy smashed into Jupiter, leaving trails of what looked like billowing black smoke. A good sky-watching afternoon occurred recently when the International Space Station passed before the sun on a clear day.

But when it comes to light shows, almost nothing tops the intensity of a good meteor storm. The last major Leonid display in 2001 produced 1,000 shooting stars over one hour, recalled Marcus. "That's the last big one we'll have for years," he said.

Notable moments are relative. Comet sightings like Hale-Bopp and Halley are once-in-a-lifetime events, but observing a double star in the Big Dipper's handle could make one rookie's night. As Friedman put it:

"You go to bed with your heart racing because you just had this moment of discovery."



>Coming to a Sky Near You

* Aug. 13 -Perseid meteor showers peak, but you can catch their show for 10 days before and 10 days after. The good news, according to Art Gielow of the Whitworth-Ferguson Planetarium, is they occur during a new moon (7:03 p.m. Aug. 12). Otherwise, the shooting stars would pale in comparison to the moon's light.

* Aug. 23 - Lunar eclipse begins in early morning and sets in the western sky.

>Stellar Activities:

* Stars of Summer - Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium, Buffalo State College, 1300 Elmwood Ave. Starting at 7:30 p.m. Fridays through Aug. 17, watch a presentation on summer constellations, stars, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, planets and their moons. Followed by meteor-watching tips. Followed by outside star-gazing through telescopes ($5).

* Solar Observation - Roof of the Buffalo Museum of Science 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 28 during Bubblefest. Museum admission: $8 adults, $6 children.

* Mid-Summer Night's Adventure - 5 p.m. Aug. 11 at Penn Dixie, 4050 North St., Blasdell: View sunspots and solar flares until dusk. After dark, catch Jupiter above the red star Antares, M13, M57, Perseid meteors and other constellations ($2).

* The Buffalo Astronomical Association's Beaver Meadow Observatory, 1610 Welch Road, North Java, is open to the public on the first and third Saturdays of each month from April through October, rain or shine (donation requested).

* The BAA also maintains the Remick Observatory on the west side of Lockport High School, 250 Lincoln Ave. - Open to the public the second and fourth Saturdays of each month from May through September.

* Williamsville Space Lab Planetarium, Williamsville North High School, 1595 Hopkins Road

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