Look to the sky. That's the message two faculty members at Texas A&M International University want to spread. Why? Because 1999 will be a great year for astronomy buffs, explained Dr. Michael W. Roth, assistant professor of physics, and Omar A. Gonzalez, instructor/lab technician.
"I would like to encourage everyone to enjoy and appreciate what promises to be an extraordinary time for astronomy. Get out there and look at the sky through either binoculars, the telescopes at A&M International, or the newly donated telescopes at the Laredo Public Library," said Dr. Roth.
He noted one astronomical event is just days away.
"There will be a spectacular conjunction--that is a close approach in the sky--of Venus and Jupiter on February 23," he explained.
Dr. Roth compiled the following list of other coming astronomical events. He recommends Sky & Telescope magazine and the 1999 Old Farmer's Almanac for additional personal reference.
In early March, Jupiter and Mercury will be close.
Mars will be in opposition--it will rise when the sun sets--on April 24 and at that time it will be closest to the earth this decade. Therefore it will be very bright and should present polar ice caps and surface markings through earth-based telescopes.
Saturn starts out the year as an evening star but will become a morning star in June. It will be in opposition on November 6. Because of changing vantage points, the rings on this planet appear to tilt, and the rings will be quite open, helping the planet to be its brightest since 1977. The rings and one of its moons, Titan, will be visible.
Venus will be an evening star, setting after the sun, until July after which it moves into the morning sky.
"Venus goes through phases like the moon and will exhibit a spectacular crescent phase in late June through early July. Mercury also goes through phases but unlike Venus, it is never outside the sun's twilight and is found at various places throughout the year," he explained.
There will be a partial solar eclipse on August 11, as well as several meteor showers.
Jupiter will become visible in the fall and will be in opposition on October 23. It also will be the closest to Earth this decade, and will shine brilliantly with a steady light typical of planets, since they shine by reflected sunlight. Jupiter's atmospheric bands, the Great Red Spot and the four Galilean satellites, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto will be visible.
Mars will be close to Uranus in mid December. There will also be a spectacular solstitial full moon on December 22.
"This is when the winter solstice and the full moon are on the same date. However, this will also be a point of perigee, the closest approach of the Moon to Earth, which will cause the moon to be brighter and larger. Perigee of a solstitial full moon hasn't happened since 1866. As if that weren't enough, the Earth is going to be closer to the Sun in winter (the seasons come from the axial tilt - not distance), so this will even further increase the brilliance of the full moon. This should also affect tides a bit," Roth said.
He noted that astronomy can be enjoyed by young and old alike, and recommends it as a family adventure.
"Although these worlds have been studied, mapped out by spacecraft and even walked on in the case of the Moon, they never seem to lose their wonder and deep inspiration for me when I look at them. I hope they will also be an inspiration to others," he said.
Members of the community are invited to view the night sky through the University's high power telescope during the Stellar Astronomy Lab conducted at the University by Gonzalez. The Lab is conducted on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, from 8:30 - 10 p.m., however interested persons should call Gonzalez at 326-2600 before heading to campus as weather conditions may sometimes hamper viewing.
For additional information, contact the University's Department of Natural Sciences at 326-2445. University office hours are 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday - Friday.