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Public may see four brightest planets through telescopes at special viewings

Contributed • Jul 20, 2018 at 10:39 PM

Two opportunities for the public to view four of the brightest planets with the aid of small telescopes are planned by the East Tennessee State University Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Bays Mountain Astronomy Club.

Free viewing sessions will be held on Fridays, July 27 and Aug. 3, from 9:30-11:30 p.m. on the ETSU campus. Telescopes will be set up on the west end of parking lot 22 across from the Summers-Taylor Soccer Complex on Go Bucs Trail. These events will be cancelled if the sky is overcast with clouds or if there is a threat of rain.

The planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are all currently visible in the evening sky. However, at the end of July, Mars will be the closest to Earth it has been since 2003, giving a window of opportunity to see Mars look a lot bigger in a telescope than it typically does.

However, according to ETSU astronomer Dr. Gary Henson, Mars is currently experiencing a planet-wide dust storm that is obscuring all surface details, so it will only appear as a yellowish-orange ball through the telescope. Also, on the evening of July 27, the moon will be nearly full, and the brightness will limit the contrast of the image.

The view of the planet Venus will not show clear features, as Venus is always enshrouded by a thick cloud layer. “It will look like a small image of the moon in gibbous phase,” Henson said, “as Venus does show phases like the moon as it orbits the sun. Venus will look about the same in apparent size as Mars through a telescope.”

Jupiter and Saturn will put on the best show for the planned viewings, according to Henson.

“They both reveal a good amount of features, looking twice as large as Mars will in a telescope,” he said. “Jupiter’s main dark belts and light zones of its enormous atmosphere highlight the planet’s visual features. Jupiter’s four largest moons will also be visible. Saturn sports its eye-catching rings quite easily, as seen in a telescope, and some of the larger moons of Saturn can also be seen.” 

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