The ringed planet Saturn, sitting in the nearby constellation of Virgo, will be one of the focal points of a free, public viewing Friday, June 21, beginning at about 8 p.m. at the Westmont Observatory. The observatory opens its doors to the public every third Friday of the month in conjunction with the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit, whose members bring their own telescopes to Westmont for the public to gaze through. The viewing lasts for several hours. In case of inclement weather, please call the Telescope Viewing Hotline at (805) 565-6272 and check the Westmont website to see if the viewing has been canceled.
“Although the Moon will be nearly full this evening, 12 days old, and placed in the constellation Libra, we should still get a good look at Saturn,” says Thomas Whittemore, Westmont physics instructor. “Saturn’s large moon, Titan, will lie on one side of the planet and the moons Enceladus, Rhea and Dione on the other side of Saturn’s rings. If the seeing is good, we should be able to see the Cassini Division, the beautiful, dark break between Saturn’s A and B rings.”
The viewing will feature the Great Globular Cluster, M13, in Hercules by about 9:30 p.m. “This spectacular ball of about a million old stars will be well up for viewing,” Whittemore says. “As you look at this beast the night of the viewing, keep in mind that you are looking back in time 26,000 years. Since the age of these stars exceeds 10 billion years, it’s likely that all of the stars in this cluster still exist and will exist for a long time to come.”
During the past few evenings, Whittemore says the planet Mercury has been slipping by the planet Venus. “The night of the viewing, we will find Mercury just to the left and below Venus in the northwest after sunset,” he says. “The public might enjoy seeing this close pairing of the two bright planets with their bare eyes as they wait to look through Westmont’s large telescopes. Unfortunately, the planets are far too close to the horizon to be viewed through Westmont’s observatory-based scopes.”
Westmont students and faculty use the Keck Telescope, a 24-inch reflector, to conduct astronomical research. The telescope is housed in the observatory between Russell Carr Field and the track and field/soccer complex. Free parking is available near the baseball field.