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Lost in space: Weekend star party displays wonders of the cosmos

Steve Snider, left, vice president of The Albuquerque Astronomical Society (TAAS), stands by as someone gazes at the sun through a safely filtered telescope during last year’s star party at Albuquerque’s Open Space Visitor Center. This year’s party is from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29, at the visitor center. (Courtesy Jim Roucis)

When Jim Roucis was a 7-year-old kid growing up in the Denver area, a neighbor let him look at Mars through a telescope. Things have not been the same for Roucis since that Red Planet night.

“I was hooked,” said Roucis, 57, a member of The Albuquerque Astronomical Society. “Something set me on fire.”

Roucis built his first telescope from a kit when he was in junior high school and has had retained a childlike wonder for the universe for 50 years.

“I never grew up,” he said. “I actually like how humbling (astronomy) is. I am continuously fascinated about how vast the universe is and how much there is to know. And every time we think we know everything, the universe teaches us a new lesson.”

You’d have a difficult time finding a person better suited than Roucis to host a stargazing get-together. He is, in fact, TAAS organizer for the star party, co-hosted by the astronomical society and the Open Space Visitor Center, from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29, at the visitor center, 6500 Coors NW.

“We’ll have a half-dozen to a dozen telescopes,” Roucis said. “The location at Open Space is a semi-rural island in the Albuquerque area. It is convenient to the entire city, but it is a tad darker than other places.”

The star party starts before sunset, which will be at 6:02 p.m. But that’s no problem. Roucis said there will be several solar telescopes on hand that will allow visitors to view the sun safely. Sunspots, areas of reduced temperatures that appear as dark spots on the sun’s surface, are not likely to be seen this time of year, but Roucis said there’s always a chance. Besides, how often do you get to look at the sun through a telescope?

Inside the visitor center, there will be a table set up to help visitors make star wheels that will enable them to navigate the night sky.

As dusk turns to night, people take to telescopes during last year’s star party at the Open Space Visitor Center. There will be six to 12 telescopes at this year’s star party, on Saturday. (Courtesy Jim Roucis)

“Each person gets a couple of pieces of paper, and they do a little bit of cutting and a little bit of taping,” Roucis said. “You get a sleeve on the outside and on the inside is a wheel representing the stars of the night sky. You turn the wheel to a set time and date, and it shows people what they should be seeing in the sky at that time.”

Phil Fleming will attempt to do the same thing with his “Fabulous Fifty” talk at 7 p.m. in the visitor center’s Kiva Room. Fleming’s presentation keys in on the 50 most prominent objects visible in the night sky during winter.

“He will talk certainly about the brighter stars and the brighter constellations,” Roucis said. “Sirius is a star he will talk about – and the constellation Orion, which is high in the southern sky now and very prominent.”

Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, gets its name from the Greek word for glowing or scorching. It is also known as the “Dog Star” because it is part of the constellation Canis Major, the greater dog. Other stars Fleming is likely to discuss include Polaris, Castor, Pollux and Capella.

The constellation Orion is named for a hunter in Greek mythology and is best defined by the three bright stars that make up the hunter’s belt. Beside Orion and Canis Major, constellations playing leading roles in the winter sky include Ursa Minor, the lesser bear; Taurus, the bull; and Auriga, the charioteer.

Fleming will tell you about them, star wheels will help you locate them, but, as Roucis will testify, the best way to travel to the stars and planets is through a telescope.

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