Astronomy hobbyists Kenneth Short and Robert Bolster lucked out May 15 when they gazed through a telescope at the Hopewell Observatory west of Haymarket and saw four of five visible planets. Early summer is a difficult time for stargazing in the Mid-Atlantic because clouds dominate the skies during the rainy time of year.
The Hopewell Observatory was built by a private group of individuals from 1970 to 1985 so that they could have a dark sky available for their telescopes within commuting distance of Northern Virginia, said Short, one of the founders.
It has been used by professional astronomers at times instead of the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., which is surrounded by light pollution in the nation’s capital, said Bolster, another founder and builder of one of the facility’s two telescopes.
They hold open houses twice a year and take church and Scout groups to the observatory. When Halley’s comet zoomed by Earth in 1984-85, three bus loads of people came from a Smithsonian group to view it. Bolster remembers the temperature was 11 degrees both nights. He took high-quality 30-minute exposure photos of the comet in early January 1985.
But winter is the best time for night sky viewing: Less clouds and less moisture in the air, Bolster and Short said.
The Milky Way isn’t prominently overhead until August through November, Short said. Some of it can be seen with the naked eye out at Bull Run.
On May 15, Bolster and Short caught a glimpse of four of the five planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in alignment. Mercury fell below the tree line. Jupiter and its moons could be seen before dark at 8:21 p.m. by telescope, as well as the two dark atmospheric bands on the planet’s surface, where 1,000 mph winds blow as the giant planet spins a complete turn in nine quick hours, Short said.
Mars was a red fuzzy blob in the telescope but will be “spectacular” later this year when it is on the other side of the Sun, he said.
Short directed the telescope toward a faint Saturn and its rings, more than a billion miles away, shortly before 9 p.m.
He and Bolster also showed single stars, double stars, star clusters, faint galaxies, and the craters on the crescent Moon that night.
The faint reflection of a satellite could be seen with the naked eye.