- Associated Press - Sunday, October 18, 2015

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - It isn’t every day you see a ghostly view of Saturn or a flaring Iridium satellite zip over McAllister Park. Because most likely it would be at night. And most likely it would be with the passionate stargazers of the San Antonio Astronomical Association (SAAA).

For years, SAAA has set up towering Dobsonians, compact Schmidt-Cassegrains and other powerful telescopes in a McAllister parking lot near some too-well-lit soccer fields. And despite growing light pollution, the group continues to open many a squinted eye to the wonders of the cosmos.

“For some of us it isn’t about science,” Danielle Rappaport, SAAA public programs coordinator, told the San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1GdWfz4). “For some of us, it’s the sheer joy of looking at the real world.”

And you needn’t travel light-years outside Loop 410 to enjoy them.

“We are moving into our best stargazing season for San Antonio,” said Bob Kelley, planetarium coordinator for the Scobee Education Center at San Antonio College. “The fall and winter are some of our favorite conditions.”

Did you know you can pinpoint Jupiter’s major moons from within the 210 area code? Or gawk at galaxies and nebulae from fewer than 100 miles from the Alamo? All you need are dark skies and bright astronomy buffs to guide you, along with a quality telescope and handy mobile apps. We asked area experts such as Rappaport and Kelley for some stargazing pointers.

Astronomy groups: Before you drop any money on a telescope, drop by a free star party first.

Most Wednesday nights at McAllister Park, you’ll find SAAA members as well as the San Antonio League of Sidewalk Astronomers (SALSA) huddled in parking lots with various telescopes for the public to peek through. SALSA also hosts First Friday Stargazing at the main campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Star parties are a good way to learn about stargazing and telescopes and to try before you buy. And the astronomy groups are eager to answer questions.

“We want people to feel like there are no stupid questions,” Rappaport said.

The views are right smart, too. Weather permitting, SAAA can show you plenty of stars as well as several planets, including the rings of Saturn and the “canals” of Mars. And at a recent SALSA First Friday at UTSA, attendees enjoyed views of Neptune and globular star clusters.

SAAA and SALSA offer public stargazing parties as well as school outreach and private events. Learn more about the SAAA at sanantonioastronomy.org and SALSA at salsa-astro.com.

The Scobee likewise offers Friday night shows for learning about the night sky. Programs cost $5 for ages 18 and older and $4 for ages 4 through 17. Go to alamo.edu/sac/planetarium for more information.

Telescopes: You don’t exactly need a telescope to stargaze. Kelley noted a good pair of binoculars provides a great view of the craters on the Moon and even a peek at the larger moons of Jupiter, as well as the Andromeda Galaxy and Orion Nebula.

If you do buy a telescope, expect a quality model to run at least $300. That means skipping the toy aisles or department stores. As for telescope types, you’ll find three kinds:

A reflector telescope uses mirrors and offers the largest telescope for the dollar. You get bright images of deep-sky objects like galaxies, but the mirrors may require an adjustment called collimation.

A refractor telescope uses glass lenses for a high resolution, though you often pay more for that premium view. Refractors deliver sharp details of planets as well as what’s on land.

A compound or catadioptric telescope uses both lenses and mirrors, often packed into a short tube. Their sophisticated motors and gears often make these the most expensive.

Kelley recommends a reflector telescope with at least a 4.5-inch or 6-inch aperture that gives 300 to 400 power magnification. Aperture is the diameter of a telescope’s main lens or mirror, and determines the brightness and sharpness of what you see. It’s more important than magnification, so buy the most aperture you can afford. You also want a telescope that’s easy to set up and transport.

Doug Aldrich, co-owner of Analytical Scientific science supplies, walks prospective telescope owners through various models in his shop’s upstairs display area. He said beginners should consider a reflector telescope like the Sky-Watcher Traditional Dobsonian 6” ($329.95 at Analytical Scientific), a towering yet surprisingly portable telescope that looks like a cannon on a simple two-axis mount.

Aldrich also highlights the Celestron NexStar 4SE computerized telescope ($499.95 at Analytical Scientific), a Telescopes.com 2015 Telescope of the Year. The NexStar 4SE boasts a 4-inch aperture for sharp images, and a beginner-friendly automated mount that can locate and track more than 40,000 objects from the SE’s database.

Apps: SAAA members like Rappaport know the stars well, but they still welcome the assist from their handy astronomy apps. You will too, especially if you’re just learning the night sky.

Star Walk ($2.52 for Android and $2.99 for iOS) can pinpoint thousands of heavenly bodies in their proper positions above you by just pointing your smartphone or tablet to the night sky, with detailed overlays and information on the planets, constellations and other heavenly bodies. The free app Star Chart delivers a similar point and view experience.

Rappaport also swears by Phases of the Moon (free for Android and $1.99 for iOS), with its hyper-detailed images of the Moon’s phases, distance from Earth and other features; and Gas Giants (free for iOS) for its sharp simulated looks at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune and their major moons.

Dark skies: Since light pollution muddies the view of the nighttime skies, your best bet for the best stargazing is to get out of town. You want locations that score low on the Bortle scale, which measures the night sky’s brightness of a particular location.

Bortle scale ratings range from Class 1 for the darkest skies on Earth to Class 9 for your typical inner-city skies. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has a list of Bortle ratings for various state parks at tpwd.texas.gov. Just enter “Bortle ratings” into the website’s search field.

The McDonald Observatory in Jeff Davis County looks up to some of the darkest skies in Texas, if not the country. It’s also more than 400 miles west of San Antonio. Much closer to home, Enchanted Rock, Lost Maples State Natural Area and Garner State Park are only around 90 miles away, and provide views of globular star clusters and other astronomical sites normally not visible from the city. Enchanted Rock and Lost Maples score a 3 on the Bortle scale, while Garner rates a 4.

Even closer to San Antonio, Government Canyon State Natural Area lies fewer than 30 miles away and rates a 6 on the Bortle scale, while Guadalupe River State Park is only around 40 miles away with a 4.5 Bortle scale rating. If you really want to stick close to S.A., Aldrich said you can spot the Milky Way from as nearby as Castroville and Medina Lake, provided there’s no moon that night and you manage to avoid house and street lights.


Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com

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