Darrell Heath of the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society

With the total solar eclipse in the rearview mirror, we got curious about other phenomena for aspiring stargazers to seek out in the night sky this year. Lucky for us, the modestly self-described “amateur astronomers” at the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society were there to help us feel less clueless about it. 

First on your list should be attending one of CAAS’s monthly public “star parties” where experts like Darrell Heath — Barnes & Noble employee by day, CAAS outreach coordinator by night — help you decode constellations, planet arcs, the summer Milky Way and other deep-sky delights. Find details at caasastro.org/calendar.

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The Arkansas Natural Sky Association’s third annual Arkansas Dark Sky Festival set for Sept. 26-28, is a three-day, family-friendly star party along Bear Creek near the Buffalo National River. Think nature hikes by day, celestial tours of the sky after dark and talks from featured speaker Jennifer Wiseman of Mountain Home, an astrophysicist currently working on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Visit darkskyarkansas.org for details.

Pregame for those events with a deep dive into the resources at CAAS website’s “New Observers” tab, or visit the first-floor galleries at the state Capitol before Sunday, May 5, to catch “Astronomical Arkansas: Astronomy and Space Science in the Natural State,” an exhibit highlighting Arkansas’s connections to space science — like Wiseman and Amber Straughn of Bee Branch [Van Buren County], deputy project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. “Women from Arkansas are running the space telescope business for NASA,” Arkansas Natural Sky Association Chairman Bruce McMath told us.Dark Sky FestivalDark Sky Festival

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Heath filled us in on skygazing opportunities ahead. 

OK, what are we looking for in the night sky in 2024? I understand the moon cycle will interfere with my favorites — the Perseids — this year. 

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Of course, as far as nature’s spectacles go, the eclipse is one of the most breathtaking and spectacular sights you can see. But there are some other cool things to see. The meteor showers aren’t entirely wiped out. On Aug. 12, the Perseid meteor showers peak, and the moon is going to set around midnight — which is fine, because most of the best meteors are to be seen after midnight anyway. When you see numbers listed, like, say, 100 meteors per hour, those are under ideal conditions, which few people ever have, but we should be able to see about 60 per hour after midnight. 

Then, Sept. 8, Saturn is in opposition. When we say a planet is in opposition, it means it’s just opposite the sun from the Earth. … And when that happens, that means that Saturn is going to be up all night, and it’s also the closest to us it’s going to be for the year. So if people have access to a small telescope — and we have put telescopes in the Central Arkansas Library System and other libraries in the area — that would be a great time to view it. Another thing I want to point out about Saturn this year is that the rings of the planet are tilting. As we orbit around the sun, we get different perspectives on those rings. Next year, we are going to be alongside Saturn in such a way that we’re parallel with the equator, and the rings will completely disappear and gradually come back into view. I’ve shown people Saturn through a telescope at our star parties, and many times the response I get is, “That’s not real.” One lady one time rather angrily swore up and down that I had painted the image on the inside of my lens. So it gets that kind of response with people. 

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On Sept. 18, there’s a supermoon. I’m always kind of leery about promoting supermoons because it’s more of an astrological event than it is an astronomical event, probably more media hype than anything else. The moon, of course, orbits the Earth in an ellipse. And that means when it’s at its closest approach to Earth and it coincides with the full moon, we see it bigger in our sky, but it’s only bigger by about 10%. Now, most of us who do not see a full moon often don’t really recognize that 10% difference in size. If you view it as it’s rising above the horizon, you’ll see what’s called the moon illusion. Whenever we see the moon rising above mountains or the treeline, it seems really, really big. … Catch it right as it’s coming up above the horizon.

Anything else to watch out for this year?

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Yeah, on Dec. 7, Jupiter’s in opposition. And this year, Jupiter is going to be placed higher up in the sky than it has been in the past. Jupiter for the past few years has been relatively low in opposition, and when you see it lower in the sky, the light from the object has to travel through more of the Earth’s atmosphere, so the image gets a bit distorted, but when it’s higher up, the atmosphere is thinner, so you get a clearer image of it. You can see the belts, the dark and light zones that crisscross the planet’s surface, and there are apps that will tell you when the Great Red Spot [a gigantic, nonstop storm on Jupiter’s atmosphere] is in front of the planet, so we can see it with a small telescope. Even with a pair of binoculars, you can see Jupiter’s four largest moons orbiting around it: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.