Asilomar Beach is a superb place to scope out heavenly and not-so-heavenly bodies. On a dark, cloudless night, planets, meteors, and even the Space Shuttle go zipping by. But there are no shortages of summertime cosmic sightings or places to see them, even without the aid of a telescope or binoculars. You just have to know where and when to look.
At www.heavens-above.com, you can select your location and what you want to see – a Space Shuttle, the International Space Station (ISS), the Hubble Space Telescope, the secret spaceplane X-37B, the Genesis space hotels, or others.
Spotting the Space Shuttle Endeavour, which is currently docked to the ISS, should top the priorities because the coming days just might be the very last time for terrestrials to see it in action.
Endeavour and the ISS circle Earth every 90 minutes going 17,000 mph at a height of 200 miles, about the distance from Monterey to Santa Barbara (by comparison, airliners fly seven miles high).
One of the best chances to see Endeavour and the ISS will be on Friday, May 27, at 5:14am. They’ll appear as a bright light 10 degrees above the horizon in the west-southwest direction. The last Space Shuttle launch is set for July 8, which ends the 30-year-old program. Sadly, it may not be viewable because of its orbit.
For planet hunters, looking east 30 minutes before sunrise, Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter await, grouped together slightly above the horizon. Look southward, halfway up, at 10pm, to spot Saturn. These orientations don’t last, so check out www.skyandtelescope.com for updated sky charts and upcoming celestial events.
The light from full moons around the Aquarids and Perseids meteor showers (July 28-29 and Aug. 12-13) will prevent seeing peak counts of 20 and 60 meteors per hour, respectively. But the show still sizzles.
For best viewing, it’s helpful to get as far away from light pollution as possible. Plan ahead by marking directions on a map and bringing a compass. A flashlight covered with red, see-through plastic will let you see your way in the dark and won’t destroy your night vision.
But for a really close-up look at celestial bodies, the Fremont Peak Observatory Association (FPOA) has a huge, mountain-top telescope available for public viewing at least three times a month (the next one is this Saturday, May 28).
FPOA’s telescope is powerful enough to spot the rings around Saturn, moons around Jupiter, and a little farther off, spinning galaxies. Special daytime viewing allows safe, close-up views of our own fireball, the sun.
One of the best research telescopes in the region – even compared to those at Stanford and Berkeley – is operated by the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy (MIRA) on Chews Ridge, deep in Carmel Valley.
MIRA hosts lectures and tours (their next outing comes June 26) but their telescope has very limited public viewing opportunities. In collaboration with Garland Ranch Park, MIRA does run star and meteor shower watching parties equipped with powerful yet portable telescopes (next one: July 8).
Throughout the year, the Planetarium at Hartnell College in Salinas runs programs that immerse audiences in its state-of-the-art dome projection system. Saturday, May 28, is the last showing of “Tales of the Maya Skies,” which explores the ancient civilization’s ties to the cosmos.
Both FPOA and MIRA offer summer internships for students who are interested in astronomy. And Hartnell College has just partnered with NASA to open the new and innovative Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy aimed for K-12.
For those longing to make contact with an alien lifeform, the Forest Theater in Carmel guarantees a UFO visitation under the night sky on July 27, when E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial plays at the Films in the Forest series. Bring a blanket and delectables.
The Moon is 4.5 billion years old, and a popular place to watch this ancient wanderer is in the cliffside hot springs at Esalen in Big Sur. Be prepared to see many moons while doing this (in all phases) if your eyes drift Earthward.
So even though celestial objects may reside in the vast distance, the chances for a close encounter are never far away. And, in one way, they are even nearer than that: As late, celebrated astronomer Carl Sagan once said, “We are made of star stuff.”
For more about these and other events, visit: FPOA (www.fpoa.net, 623-2465), Hartnell Planetarium (www.hartnell.edu/planetarium, 770-6161), MIRA (www.mira.org, 883-1000), NASA SEMAA (www.nasa.gov/education/semaa), space vehicle sightings (www.heavens-above.com), and star and planet sightings (www.skyandtelescope.com).