Saturday, May 10, 2014

International Astronomy Day, May 10, 2014

M109 barred spiral galaxy © Reinhold Wittich
image from © Reinhold Wittich
A number of years ago we inherited a telescope from a friend. They hadn't used it in ages and thought our son would enjoy it. (Yes, it was so long ago we had just one boy!) We were stoked! All three of us were excited to explore the stars and planets in the night sky. 

But we live in Toronto. If you don't live in a big city, you might not understand what that means, but the level of ambient light is just nuts here. It never really gets dark enough to properly use the telescope in our backyard. But in spite of that, it's pretty amazing how many things we can still see, even if our views aren't as stellar (pun intended) as they are in cottage country. Boo can find and identify a couple of the biggies - Orion and the Bid Dipper. With the help of star charts we've been able to pick out planets. And of course we can always enjoy the changing phases of the moon.

Today, May 10, is International Astronomy Day, making it a great opportunity to share an exploration of the night sky with your kids. The Ontario Science Centre has a number of events planned to mark the day:

Solar Observing
Observe the sun safely through specially-filtered solar telescopes. Guided by members of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, learn about our nearest star and try your eye at spotting exotic surface features such as sunspots, spicules and prominences.
Time: 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. (weather permitting)
Price: Free
Location: TELUSCAPE, outside main entrance

Presentation: Astronomy in Medieval Islam
Dr. Ingrid Hehmeyer (Ryerson University) shares the results of her research on astronomy during the Golden Age of Islam. She will discuss why Muslims excelled in astronomy and how advances in areas like navigation and timekeeping gave rise to new tools and practical applications. This presentation complements and expands upon the Sultans of Science exhibition, which explores the multicultural roots of modern science and technology, including astronomy.
Time: 1 p.m.
Price: Free with general admission
Location: Level 6

Planetarium Shows
Experience breathtaking views of the night sky and travel to far-out places at one of three planetarium shows:
  • The Sky Tonight – Take in the beauty of the night sky, learn about upcoming celestial events and receive a star chart to help you stargaze from the comfort of your own backyard. (5 years +)
  • The Extreme Universe – Journey through space to witness the explosive death of a star, discover the destructive powers of black holes and learn how astronomers “see” the invisible. (8 years +)
  • Eyes on the Skies – Pre-school children learn about the night-time sky through singing, connect-the-stars constellations and a journey to the moon. (up to 5 years)
Time: Check schedule upon arrival. Space is limited to a first-come, first-served basis.
Price: Free with general admission
Location: Planetarium, Space Hall, Level 4

There will also be comet-making, a scale model of the solar system and other astronomy-inspired demonstrations throughout the day. Plus, for those who would like to check out our night sky for themselves, the Science Centre offers these tips for viewing the evening's top targets:

1. Find a location away from any bright lights that has an unobstructed view of the southern horizon. Lakeshores, parks or playing fields are great places to start.

2. Use our star chart to show the position of constellations and objects in the sky, including three bright planets: Jupiter, Mars and Saturn (

3. Give your eyes a boost with binoculars and hunt for the following:
  • Craters and mountains along the Moon's terminator, or the line that divides the day and night. Shadows are more pronounced here, causing lunar features to stand out when seen from a distance. 
  • Brilliant Saturn. On May 10th, Saturn will be at its closest and brightest in the year. Look for it as a 'star' low in the southeast in the early evening. Through binoculars it appears as a pale yellow disc.
  • Mizar's companion star ‘Alcor.’ Mizar, the second star in from the end of the Big Dipper’s handle, is easily 'split' into two stars with binoculars. Several ancient cultures used Mizar and Alcor stars as an eye test. 
Happy stargazing one and all!

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