Springs night sky a window to universe

Planetarium show to examine season's highlights
by: photo courtesy of NASA Pat Hanrahan will explore Saturn in a planetarium show May 2 at the Mt. Hood Community College Sky Theater, 26000 S.E. Stark St., near the library.

Spring means new life on earth as well as a stellar show above it.

Pat Hanrahan, planetarium director at Mt. Hood Community College, says his Monday, April 4, show at the Sky Theater will explore the spring night sky as well as Saturn, constellations, galaxies, star clusters and a massive black hole.

Hanrahan says the program is appropriate for all ages and uses science, history and sky lore to link the audience with the spring sky.

Viewing Virgo

The Virgo cluster of galaxies is prominent in the sky this time of the year, Hanrahan says.

'This is an interesting target for many amateur astronomers,' he says, noting the cluster is about 40 to 50 million light years away from Earth. 'You do need a telescope to see the Virgo cluster, and you can almost get lost in there, there's so many galaxies in there.'

The winter constellations - Orion and Taurus - are 'setting and we still have some opportunity to see them.' As days get longer, the constellations set beneath the horizon earlier and earlier.

Best spots

If you really want to enjoy the night sky, turn out the lights, Hanrahan says, noting it's best to view the stars and planets 'virtually anywhere away from the city lights.

'During warmer weather, I recommend Larch Mountain (near Corbett), but snow is probably still a problem there,' he says. There's also the Womens Forum Scenic Viewpoint, an outlook off the Historic Columbia River Highway, and other places not that far from the city.

Binoculars or telescopes

Before you go spending money on a big telescope, Hanrahan recommends you use 'the pair of binoculars you already have sitting in the back of your closet.

'I recommend that people not buy a telescope until they know the sky well and have explored it with binoculars,' he adds. 'Complicated telescopes can easily ruin your fun. The main thing with astronomy is to simply enjoy the experience. Even with all the excessive number of telescopes that I own, I still enjoy astronomy the most in a lawn chair or on a blanket under the stars with my old binoculars and a star chart.'

Sky lore

Since ancient times, people have seen stories in the night sky, Hanrahan says. One of the sights in the spring sky is 'Berenice's Hair' or Coma Berenices, a fuzzy patch near the constellation Leo. The name refers to Queen Berenice II of Egypt, wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes, who ruled Egypt in 240 B.C. when the city of Alexandria became an important cultural center.

'(Berenice) was worried about her husband's return and offered to cut off her hair if her husband came back alive,' Hanrahan says. 'Someone ended up stealing the hair, and the guard saved his skin by saying that her hair was placed among the stars in her honor.'

Saturn's turn

The planetarium will offer another show Monday, May 2, this time exploring Saturn.

'Saturn is now rising in the eastern sky after sunset and is an amazing object to see in any telescope,' he says. 'I get a lot of 'Wows!' when I show Saturn to people through a telescope because a lot of people have seen pictures of the planet, but actually seeing the rings through a telescope impresses them. I'll be showing some of the latest pictures of Saturn and its moons that were taken by the Cassini spacecraft.'