Steamboat Springs Mercury will be the star of this year's celestial show.
On Nov. 8, Mercury will pass between the earth and the sun. With a telescope and solar filter, astronomy lovers will be able to watch the planet pass across the face of the sun.
The last time this event was visible from Colorado was in 1999, and it won't happen again until 2019.
Although a transit of Venus across the sun is visible with the (protected) naked eye, Mercury is much farther away and needs telescope magnification to be seen.
Staring at the sun is extremely dangerous to the eyes, so watching the Mercury transit with a telescope should be done only with a solar filter or through a projection method.
If you don't have a filter, the best way to watch the transit is to aim the telescope at the sun and put a white card by the eyepiece. A projected image of the sun will appear on the card.
"If there are kids around, you need to be very careful that someone doesn't walk up and look through the eyepiece," Colorado Mountain College astronomy professor Jimmy Westlake said. "Serious eye damage can result."
Anyone who wants to buy a solar filter can visit www.telescopes.com, a clearinghouse Web site for telescope supplies. Solar filters vary in price depending on the material.
If you don't have a telescope, Westlake said, "your best bet to see the transit is to take up the SKY Club on their offer."
The SKY Club at CMC will host safe telescopic observing of the transit, weather permitting. The time and location will be announced closer to the event.
In the past, planetary transits were scientifically valuable to gauge the distance of the earth from the sun. Today, they are just enjoyable events for the amateur astronomer because they "just don't happen that often," Westlake said.
Although the Mercury transit is something to look forward to, it is still more than 10 months away. In two weeks, the planets Mars and Pluto will be making headlines.
On Jan. 17, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft will be
launched on a mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Pluto is the only planet in our solar system that hasn't been visited by spacecraft, Westlake said. All that is available are fuzzy photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
"We stand to learn a lot," he said.
New Horizons will study the surface of Pluto and its moon, Charon.
Pluto is one of the largest objects in the Kuiper Belt, a ring of more than 1,000 objects that orbit the solar system beyond Neptune.
Pluto was considered the largest until scientists discovered an object they have nicknamed Xena. Debate has begun about Xena's possible position as the 10th planet.
If New Horizons launches on schedule, the spacecraft will be able to us the gravity of Jupiter to slingshot toward Pluto. It should arrive by 2015.
Meanwhile, the Mars Recon--naissance Orbiter should reach Mars on March 10, when it will go into orbit. The Orbiter was launched in August.
While in orbit, the spacecraft will map Mars at a much higher resolution than previously has been possible, Westlake sad. "We will be able to see the surface of Mars so clearly that (NASA) will use the maps to pick out specific landing sites for future unmanned and, eventually, manned missions to Mars."
NASA hopes to launch a manned mission to Mars sometime about 2020, Westlake said.
Back on earth, on Jan. 15, NASA's Stardust spacecrafts return from space, landing in the desert of Utah.
Launched in 1999, the Star--dust spacecrafts encountered comet Wild 2 in 2004 and collected samples from the comet's tail.
"This is the end of a seven-year mission," Westlake said. "Comets are believed to contain unaltered material from the formation of the planets 4.5 billion years ago.
"These uncontaminated particles could shed some light on our own origins."
-- To reach Autumn Phillips, call 871-4210 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org