Out-of-this-world weekend slated | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Out-of-this-world weekend slated

Telescope builder John Lightholder hopes to cut through the smoke and pollen haze for an out-of-this-world view of Mars this weekend.

On Thursday night, the orbits of Mars and Earth ushered in the first day of summer by bringing the two planets the closest they’ve been in 13 years.

The Meyers resident, a member of Lake Tahoe Astronomers, is inviting other star gazers to a late-night party Saturday to peer through his 22-inch telescope at the red planet.

With a golden-colored hue, Mars looms six times larger and 80 times brighter than last July. Even at 42 million miles away, it dominates the night sky. The naked eye can pick up the planet in the southeast low off the horizon.

Lightholder’s 96-pound telescope stands 15 feet tall and holds a 22-inch mirror that can make a bug on a tree look like a “War of the Worlds” character.

He hopes to see a lot of definition in the planet – including its ice caps and surface markings.

“I’ve had people tell me they don’t believe what they see,” said Lightholder. “The optics are the key.”

Working out of his home, Lightholder produces about seven telescopes with different mirror sizes and sells them on the Internet.

With a new moon, solar eclipse, Mars close orbit and summer solstice Thursday, astronomy buffs and casual observers are focusing on the skies.

“One thing astronomy does, you get a lot of calm and quiet time out of it. Some people pick it up and can’t get enough of it. That’s me,” Lightholder said.

He’s not alone.

Lake Tahoe Community College Astronomy Professor Gary Mouck believes when a universal phenomenon occurs, it connects people to their world.

It happened to him in the summer of 1994. The Shoemaker-Levy comet – named after astronomers Eugene Shoemaker and David Levy – smashed into Jupiter. He took a class out to view the spectacle. Beyond making teaching more fun, these sightings spur interest that’s otherwise dormant in everyday life.

“People usually don’t think about things outside their own little world,” he said.

Children become more enthralled with this connection than adults, astronomer Tony Berendsen said.

Berendsen plans to view the stars and planets Saturday with the Astronomers Society of Nevada. The club will join the Friends of the Planetarium for a barbecue north of Stead.

Keith Johnson, who runs the Fleischmann Planetarium, called the lining up of astronomical events “a fantastic coincidence.”

The Mars spectacle prompted calls to the UNR planetarium.

“People will call asking: ‘What’s that bright thing in the southeast at sunset?’ ” said Johnson.

Northern California and Nevada residents have a 14-year wait to view a solar eclipse. Thursday’s early morning phenomenon provided those in southern Africa with the show.

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