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Summer star-gazing at Sugarloaf’s Robert Ferguson Observatory

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Sunset is arriving a bit earlier every evening, and the night sky is visible a bit longer with every passing day – good news for amateur astronomers who find plenty to observe in the dog days of summer.

The Robert Ferguson Observatory takes note, and has scheduled several special events this month in addition to their regular Star Parties, held during dark of the moon weekends all year round.

This Saturday, Aug. 11, is one such Star Party, which includes a daytime Solar Observation from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s free, although the usual $8 per car State Park parking fee is collected at the kiosk. Come and view Earth’s closest star and learn about sunspots, prominence, flares and more, through both visible light and radio telescopes at the observatory.

The Star Party itself begins at 8 p.m. and continues until about midnight. In addition to the parking fee, there’s a $3 charge per adult, 18 and older – younger kids are free. Mars is the focus this weekend, as it is now just past opposition. Note that Mars observing will occur late, with the best viewing after 11 p.m. As usually guests will have the chance to observe through the observatory’s three telescopes – an 8-inch refractor, a 20-inch astrophotography telescope, and a large 40-inch reflecting telescope.

Also this weekend is a special Perseids Meteor Shower viewing, beginning at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 12. This is one of summer’s largest and most reliable meteor showers, as the Earth passes through the path of an ancient comet every year about this time. There will be a short presentation in the observatory’s classroom about the Perseids at 9 p.m. After that, the show moves outdoors under the dark skies of a New Moon.

Note that the meteors don’t usually become visible until about 11 p.m., with best viewing in the late morning hours. Bring lawn chairs, blankets, wool caps and red lights. since the area around RFO will be a strict no white light zone. There will be no observatory fee this night, but the Park’s parking fee still applies.

Another special summer event was last night, Thursday, Aug. 9, the first of two scheduled programs called “What’s Up?” These are classroom talks about prominent objects that are viewable that night, followed by telescope observing on RFO’s three large telescopes. There’s a follow-up scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 11, starting at 7 p.m. Last night Saturn was the star of the show; in October the Great Square of Pegasus will be high in the sky, along with the famous Andromeda Galaxy and the other members of our local group of galaxies. (Tickets at brownpapertickets.com/event/3327102.)

This month, a similar evening show is “Focus on the Moon,” on Wednesday, Aug. 22, starting at 8 p.m. Attendees will not only learn about the “seas” that are really lava beds or how the moon directly affects life on Earth by controlling the tides, but how the phases work, why we have eclipses and why we only ever see the side of the moon that has The Man in it. (Tickets at brownpapertickets.com/event/3586835.)

Finally, the Night Sky Classes resume in September, a series of six lecture/observation programs for star-gazers who want to take their interest a little bit farther. Classes are on Monday a couple times a month, six times between Sept. 10 and Dec. 10. For more information on these and other programs, visit rfo.org.

It all points to a busy month for star-viewers at Sonoma County’s most accessible observatory, located at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

Incidentally, the term “dog days” refers to the summertime visibility of Sirius, the Dog Star, and not those hot summer days when your dog lazes around with his tongue hanging out – which means it’s an astronomical reference after all.