Shoot for the Stars

The night sky: our grand celestial ceiling, which has been a cause for awe and wonder by earth’s down-world denizens and amateur astronomers trying to make sense of the stellar sights above even before Galileo’s telescopic invention.

The Escambia Amateur Astronomy Association (EAAA) is not the only local group to host stargazing events in the Pensacola area, but they are the only group who sets up on local beach locations, including Fort Pickens, Casino Beach, and Big Lagoon State Park.

All sites are fairly close to water because it offers more stable air to look at objects in the sky. Plus, you’re looking out toward the southern sky, which points you away from the light pollution produced by nearby restaurants and businesses.

Although there are between 80 to 100 members of the EAAA, the driving force behind the association is Dr. Wayne Wooten, an astronomer at Pensacola State College—where the group hosts open meetings every third Friday for members and nonmembers alike.

The association is all about community outreach, which is why they offer free stargazing sessions in all three beach locations. You heard right: there’s no cost for rentals because volunteers allow visitors to use their personal telescopes.

The association also reaches out to schools to offer special chances for students to learn more about astronomy. Last year, the EAAA visited 22 school events in Escambia and Santa Rosa county.

For each stargazing session, the EAAA sets up at least 20 telescopes for any one to stop by and use for their viewing pleasure.

There are two basic types of telescopes, which vary according to model: there are refractors that resemble the scopes carried by sea-faring pirates, and reflectors that use mirrors to project images. Although binoculars are suggested for beginners, if you’re set on a scope then Dr. Wooten recommends looking at the inexpensive models carried by Toys R Us, efficient for your wallet and for stargazing.

Usually, the best time to observe the skies in Florida’s climate is from October to March, when there is the smallest amount of humidity, which fogs up lens and makes the sky hazy, and least amount of mosquito activity (since stationary stargazers make easy targets).

However, the EAAA does set up during summer months to give the community a chance to come out and search the skies, especially for special seasonal sights like the Perseid Meteor Shower.

This year, the Perseid Meteor Shower will peak on August 12 and 13, and you can expect to see the EAAA at Casino Beach where they set up for the best view. A waxing gibbous moon may make it more difficult for observers to watch the meteor shower, which will be most visible after 11 pm.

The Perseids, made of tiny space debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, are named after the constellation Perseus, since the direction in which the shower seems to come in the sky lies in the same direction as the constellation Perseus, found in the northeastern part of the sky.

“Stargazing gets you away from electronics and Facebook,” said Dewey J. Barker, EAAA stargaze and event coordinator. “That’s not to say social media isn’t a great way to connect with like-minded astronomy lovers. But, it’s a call back to nature, and, if you like to learn new things, there’s a lot to learn in amateur astronomy. With scientific discoveries made just about every day, there’s not enough hours in the day to keep up, which is good because you never run out of new things to discover.”

Even though you might prefer solitary time gazing at the stars, you might first consider checking out one of the public stargazing sessions to get some pointers from seasoned gazers, share your enthusiasm with fellow amateur astronomers, and pick up free charts so you can line up your telescope just right to shoot for the stars.

Upcoming Stargazing Events:
Aug. 5: Fort Pickens
Aug. 12-13: Casino Beach

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