Mars is closer to Earth than it will be for several hundred years, a celestial event that has turned scores of people into amateur astronomers. Last week, many of them met at the Glenwood library branch for a better look at the Red Planet and other wonders of the night sky.
The session was sponsored by the library and the Howard Astronomical League, a nonprofit organization of about 100 members. The amateur astronomers hold meetings, star parties and astronomy lessons, all of which are open to the public.
HAL, which was formed in 2000, has focused on educating amateur astronomers.
"We purposely do that because all the amateur astronomers that I know love to share what they've discovered," said the group's president, Jerry Persall, an Ellicott City retiree.
Dozens of people braved the dark and mosquitoes Aug. 20 in hopes of seeing details of the Martian landscape through HAL members' powerful telescopes. Much of the Glenwood library's parking lot was set aside for sky watching.
Four telescopes were dedicated to two open star clusters, a globular cluster and a triple star. About a dozen others were pointed at galaxies, star clusters and planets. HAL members were on hand to explain what visitors were seeing.
Before dark, at the beginning of each public session, HAL offers classes, one for beginning astronomers and the other for intermediates.
"There are an awful lot of people that have come to the meetings that were discovered to be astronomer wannabes, and they didn't know how to begin," Persall said. "So we came up with the idea of the astronomy school ... to give them some resources to help them get started."
Barbara Totis of Woodbine took her children to the library meeting. They became interested in astronomy after looking through a neighbor's backyard telescope and wanted to see Mars in more detail.
"I'm just so interested in this whole Mars thing," Totis said. "I think it's just fascinating."
"Some of the features of the planet's surface will pop into view," Persall said, such as the planet's southern icecap.
It was nearly 10 p.m. by the time Mars was visible above the trees. Visitors needed help focusing the telescopes, but eventually were able to see the planet clearly enough to detect a white patch of ice.
As people milled around the telescopes, stopping for a look through each, they asked HAL members about their equipment and what they were seeing.
One of the telescopes was trained on globular cluster M-13, a grouping of nearly a million stars. To the naked eye, the cluster appears to be a fuzzy star, but through the telescopes visitors could see some of the stars in the group, especially those toward the edges of the cluster.
'I've learned a lot'
Daniel Weaver, 8, a third-grader at Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School, is a member of Howard County Celestial Seekers, an astronomy club for children. "I've learned way in the future we could probably harness energy from a black hole," he said. "I've learned a lot about the constellations."
His mother, Donna Weaver, said, "I've learned a tremendous amount. Just how to navigate the night sky" from her son's interest in astronomy. Daniel went to the event in hope of seeing Olympus Mons, the largest volcano on Mars. "It's five times the size of Mount Everest," he said.
To make stargazing more accessible for young visitors, George Sauter usually sets up a large screen. Sauter, who works in research and development for W.R. Grace & Co., has a computer program that feeds his telescope's images to a display device.
"The eyepiece can be difficult for children," Sauter said. "This way they can definitely see" images such as a double star and a faint ring-shaped nebula.
Persall said HAL members such as Sauter are happy to share their equipment and their knowledge. "They feel like they've found out secrets," he said, "and they can't keep it to themselves because the things they see through telescopes as individuals are so wondrous and marvelous."
HAL also offers information at www.HowardAstro.org.