Pick of the Week

Planets on Parade

Once the sun has gone down, and it's not so hot outside, Tucson evenings can be beautiful. That makes it a perfect time for the Flandrau Science Center to bust out their telescopes to view four planets that are coming out to play this month.

"I think it's a pretty big deal," says Mike Terenzoni, Flandrau's astronomy coordinator. "It's the best time to see these astronomical sights in our changing sky."

Saturn, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury are all going to be visible this month--and Flandrau is going to show them to anybody who wants to see them.

Venus doesn't usually like to be found grouping with other planets ("grouping" means that the planets appear close together in the sky from our earthbound perspective)--but Venus is going to be grouping with Saturn above the west-northwestern horizon all month.

Terenzoni said Venus is only found grouping with another planet once every three or four years, and Venus and Saturn are going to be within one degree of each other.

Venus will be at its highest location in the sky, which makes it great for viewing through a telescope. Of course, Saturn by itself is a very cool planet to look at because of its huge, icy rings.

Also visible will be Jupiter, which is going to be at opposition--meaning it's on the opposite end of the sky from the sun. The farther a planet is from the sun in our sky, the bigger and brighter it appears in a telescope. Jupiter has 63 moons and a giant red spot on its side; it's the biggest planet in our solar system.

Viewing of these planets will take place between 7 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, June 8 and 9, on the UA mall (weather permitting), in front of the Flandrau Science Center, 1601 E. University Blvd. Viewings will also be offered on Friday and Saturday, June 29 and 30. All planetary viewings are free, but admission to Flandrau shows and exhibits is $5. Parking is free after 5 p.m. For more information, call 621-7827 or visit www.flandrau.org.

The planets are visible with your eyes, and look better through a decent set of binoculars or even a home telescope--but if you want to get a good look at the rings of Saturn, you'll need a high-powered telescope like they have at Flandrau. The 16-inch telescope is available with an astronomer to help you find cool stuff to look at Wednesday through Saturday nights. Telescopes aren't cheap, so donations are accepted. Also, you can rent the telescope on Monday and Tuesday nights to look at the sky with your friends.

If you come early in the month, within 45 minutes of sunset, you can also get a peek at Mercury in the western part of the sky.

There are sky charts available on the Flandrau Web site if you can't make it out to the viewings; the charts will show you where to look for Saturn and the other planets, whether you are using a telescope or not.

Flandrau also has great stuff for kids over the summer, including two shows: Larry Cat in Space and 3-2-1 Blast Off!

Another show, Under Arizona Skies, is designed for grown-ups; the show illustrates what you can see in the skies in Arizona, be it with your eyes or with a telescope.

There's also the Ring World show, which chronicles the trip that the Cassini spacecraft took to Saturn in 2004. Admission to the shows is $5.