Heavenly Bodies Strut Their Stuff at Sycamore Canyon Star Parties

February 15, 2012 | 10:00am

Mars will be stunning in red; Jupiter will break the rules in horizontal stripes; Venus will be simply radiant as ever.

Eye-catching heavenly bodies will vie for attention at Sycamore Canyon Preserve's “Star Party” this Friday. And the planets are expected to be especially dazzling.

San Diego Astronomy Association member Bob Austin said the fine views of several planets will include a Mars that’s brighter and closer to earth than it’s been in two years.

“You can actually see a little detail in Mars right now,” Austin said.

And Jupiter’s colorful bands should be visible through a telescope too.

The San Diego Astronomy Association has been hosting star parties at Sycamore Canyon for several years. For the first time this year, the popular events will happen monthly, on the third Friday. This month, that's this Friday, Feb. 17.

At the events, San Diego Astronomy Association members set up telescopes for public peering, with each scope generally aimed at a different celestial object. An SDAA member stands by to explain.

“They set up on different planets, galaxies, nebula...,” said Supervising County Park Ranger Maureen Abare-Laudy. “They’re really knowledgeable people, and it’s a lot of fun.”

The SDAA comprises amateur and professional astronomers who share their love and understanding of science with the public events around the region. The County's Sycamore Canyon Preserve, an open space east of Poway along Highway 67, is a particularly good place for the group to throw a regular stargazing shindig.

“It’s really dark out here, which is perfect,” said Ranger Abare-Laudy. “It’s really easy access for the public off the highway; we set up in the staging area—our big parking lot—and you get a really great 360 degree view.”

Besides planets, the February sky on Friday should hold many other wonders, Austin said. The Orion Nebula, a region of dust and hydrogen gas where stars are born, will definitely be worth a look.

“This nebula is very bright, and you see a lot of detail; you see the curve of the clouds and all,” Austin said.

Other telescopes will train on stars and star clusters, including globular clusters where hundreds of thousands of stars pack into globe-shaped groups. Individual stars resolve into twinkling points of light through a telescope, Austin said.

Of course, rain, complete cloud cover or muddy condition can cancel the star parties. Indeed January, rain foiled 2012’s first party scheduled for Sycamore Canyon.

But the forecast is so far clear for Friday, and if that holds, the party will be on. Abare-Laudy said the event has wide appeal, and everyone is welcome.

“We get single people; we get families,” she said. “They come in pretty much the whole night.”

County park rangers will be on hand to ensure safety and to help direct the public to the event.

The Star Party runs from sunset to 10 p.m. The entrance to the staging area is on South Highway 67, about a half mile south of Poway Scripps Parkway. Lights will mark the entrance. Beyond the gate, you will drive about 1.5 miles up a road, and rangers will direct you to parking.