Viewing the heavens
Publication Date: Wednesday Oct 30, 1996

Viewing the heavens

The Peninsula Astronomical Society provides an eye onto stars, planets, comets

Name: Peninsula Astronomical Society

What the society does: The astronomical society runs the Foothill College Observatory, which is open to the public for viewing stars and planets on Friday evenings and the sun on Saturday mornings.

Sky gazing: Volunteer club members who lead the free viewings, point out their favorite objects on the observatory's 16-inch reflecting telescope (good for comets and other deep sky objects) and a 6-inch refractor telescope (used for the planets, moon and sun). The club is currently installing a dedicated telescope for solar viewing. The telescopes are covered with a special filter for safely observing the surface of the sun.

What you can see when the sky is clear: Saturn will still be close to the Earth in November, and if the atmosphere is steady, its rings will be visible. The new Hale-Bopp comet is heading closer and also can be seen with binoculars. The Andromeda Galaxy is visible in the evening this time of year. The Geminid meteor showers are coming Dec. 13. Club members also point out when prominent satellites pass by, like the Russian space station Mir. Also visible are the moon's craters and other scars from ancient battering.

Through the solar filter, you can see surface texture on the sun, including spots, prominences and flares. "The surface of the sun looks like a tennis ball, it's fuzzy," said William Phelps, society vice president. But in this case, the "fuzz" is really 6,000 miles high. "It's neat, and it's free," Phelps said.

The challenges of solar viewing: Looking directly at the sun with a telescope or other optical aids can cause blindness. So the club uses a $3,000 filter to view the sun safely and directly. The filter is certified and checked regularly and club volunteers are specially trained to lead solar observing. "Solar viewing is awesome," Phelps said.

The details: Observing is free, but you need four quarters to pay for a parking permit for Lot T (as in telescope) adjacent to the white-domed, cylindrical brick observatory. Friday stargazing is from 8 to 11 p.m. on clear evenings. Solar viewing is from 10 a.m. to noon on clear Saturday mornings. The observatory is closed when the sky is cloudy. The Foothill Observatory is at Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road in Los Altos Hills off the El Monte exit of Interstate 280. For recorded information on observing, call 949-7334. For club information, call William Phelps at 493-4742. For information on what to look for, Phelps recommends Sky & Telescope magazine or its web site,

The lunar eclipse: Between 1,500 and 2,000 people came to the hilltop Foothill College Observatory on Sept. 26 to watch the full moon being eclipsed by the Earth's shadow. Club members ran the observatory telescope and set up about a dozen other telescopes outside.

Other club activities: The society has monthly meetings with lectures open to the public on the second Friday of each month. The next meeting, on Nov. 8, features Dr. Isabel Hawkins of the Center for Extreme Ultraviolet Astrophysics in Berkeley, who will talk about satellite observations of high energy phenomenon like neutron stars and black holes. The meetings start at 7:30 p.m. in the Forum Building, Room F1 at Foothill College next to parking Lot B. The club also teaches astronomy in Bay Area classrooms, and gives summer star parties at Foothills Park, Hidden Villa and at Glacier Point in Yosemite.

Joining the club: The society has about 250 members, ranging from age 11 to more than 90 years old. "We have people who work at NASA and car dealership salespeople. You don't have to know about astronomy, you just have to have an interest," Phelps said. Members have access to the observatory, to a private viewing site in the Santa Cruz mountains and to the club's loaner scopes. Phelps likes to point out that new amateurs can also learn about what they want in a telescope before plunking down $200 or $300. Annual membership is $20 for individual or families and $6 for people under 17. The club started to help Foothill College keep running the observatory it lost funds from the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.

--Heather Rock Woods 

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