Shooting Stars, Gleaming Planets, Vivid Nebula: Local Skies Offer More Than What’s Visible to The Naked Eye
Any time of the year is a great time to participate in a Southwest Florida Astronomical Society outing or take a trip to the planetarium.
Look up to the sky at night and you can often see the moon, five planets—Venus, Mercury, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter—and an array of stars, an occasional shooting star, possibly a comet or even a meteor shower. However, zoom in with a pair of binoculars, or, better yet, a telescope, and the colorful collage of deep-sky magnificence intensifies. With a little more lens power, you can sometimes spot things such as the interstellar cloud—Helix Nebula—and Neptune and Pluto.
Ron Madl, of North Fort Myers, edits the newsletter for the Southwest Florida Astronomical Society, or SWFAS. It was formed in 1980 by amateur astronomers in Lee County. Madl grew up on a Kansas farm and was always interested in what he could see in dark Kansas night skies.
Madl wound up as a faculty member at Kansas State University, whose physics department had an astronomy club, which he later joined. The department had a telescope available for outreach, to provide educational programs for organizations and social groups—for adults and children. He conducted many of the programs and enjoyed teaching all ages that science can be interesting and entertaining. “I think it's important that people maintain an awareness of the natural world, how it works, and how we humans can impact it,” Madl adds.
When he retired to Florida six years ago, Madl was thrilled to find out about SWFAS. It has a program that loans out telescopes to interested individuals or families. “I quickly took advantage of it, and borrowed a telescope for my use to explore the Florida night sky,” he says.
And there is always something different to look at during each season in Southwest Florida. “This summer and early fall will feature bright Venus in the western sky at dusk, which will only be a thin crescent when viewed through a telescope,” Madl explains. “Mars will be closest to us in summer and still visible into the fall; Jupiter will still be in the western sky in fall; and Saturn, with its gorgeous rings, rounds out the major planets to view this fall.”
Chuck Pavlick, of Cape Coral, has been a member of SWFAS since the mid-2000s. His interest in the skies also started young—at 12 years old as an amateur astronomer. “Later on, I joined SWFAS to meet other astronomers in the area and share my experiences and knowledge,” Pavlick notes.
SWFAS does a lot of outreach in the area, such as setting up telescopes for views of the night sky and—during the day—for views of the sun through special solar telescopes. “I never get tired of hearing the response from people when they see Saturn or the moon through a telescope,” Pavlick adds.
SWFAS meets monthly at the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium in Fort Myers. Also monthly, several of the astronomers take their equipment to dark-sky spots in the area for viewing sessions. These include Caloosahatchee Regional Park, Seahawk Park and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park in Copeland, near Marco Island. The public is welcome and the astronomers are happy to share their views—and their telescopes—to explain and witness the beauty of Southwest Florida’s nighttime skies.
Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium is the only planetarium south of Bradenton, Florida, and west of Miami. It offers three different shows daily, which change monthly. Recent shows include “Billion Suns” and “Spring Stargazing.” Audiences are typically given a live introduction on what they can see in the local night sky between dusk the evening of the show and the following morning.
“We are one of only four places in the U.S. with permanent exhibits where a visitor can touch a meteorite that originated from the planet Mars,” says planetarium director Heather Preston. “Visitors can also touch a 126-pound iron-nickel meteorite that is part of an 800-ton body that broke into more than 10 pieces as it entered Earth’s atmosphere 4,500 years ago, landing in northern Argentina in what is now called Campo del Cielo (or Field of the Sky).”
Any time of the year is a great time to participate in a SWFAS outing or take a trip to the planetarium. And in the meantime, just grab a pair of binoculars and see what you can spot!
FOR MORE INFO:
To check out what’s visible in the skies tonight, go to
Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium
3450 Ortiz Ave., Fort Myers
Southwest Florida Astronomical Society
Meets first Thursday of the month, 7:30 p.m. at the planetarium
Contact president Brian Risley at [email protected]
Ann Marie O’Phelan is a Southwest Florida resident and a regular contributor to TOTI Media.