saturn.jpgBay Area residents are dusting off their telescopes and braving chilly evening breezes in hopes of catching a glimpse of the planet Saturn, which is poised for optimal viewing during the month of April.

Saturn will be at opposition beginning Sunday night, meaning it will position itself along a straight line with the Earth and sun, said Jeffrey Silverman, public liaison for the University of California at Berkeley’s Astronomy Department.

Silverman said the department calendar has no special event planned for the ringed planet’s shining moment because the phenomenon itself is not that extraordinary.

“Saturn is going to be slightly more interesting to look at, but not much,” he said.

“At opposition, its rings brighten for a few days, but beyond that, opposition doesn’t mean anything really special for observers on Earth,” he said.

Still, a casual observer will note Saturn as one of the brightest objects in the night sky seen with the naked eye beginning Sunday until about the end of summer, Silverman said.

More ambitious enthusiasts can use shorter-range telescopes to spot the planet’s lustrous hoops and maybe a small moon or two.

People can also head over to one of several telescopes open to the public throughout the Bay Area.

Lick Observatory, serving the University of California system’s 10 campuses, is located on the summit of Mount Hamilton, 20 miles east from downtown San Jose at an elevation of about 4200 feet.

The observatory is open to visitors Thursday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., but the public cannot look through a telescope at that time. Instead, Bay Area stargazers should look into the observatory’s summer program, which begins June 24, according to the organization’s website.

During scheduled events in June through August, visitors can peer at Saturn and other celestial bodies beginning at 7 p.m. for a small ticket price.

Alternatively, observers can make their way to Chabot Space and Science Center, which has telescope hours for visitors on Fridays and Saturdays.

Residents can also head to Los Altos Hills in Santa Clara County, where Foothill College has telescope viewings on Friday evenings.

UC Berkeley has a telescope available to university students who are currently enrolled in astronomy classes. The telescope is inaccessible for disabled people because the building it sits on has not been properly retrofitted to withstand earthquakes for about 20 years, according to the Astronomy Department.

This Thursday, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco will host its weekly NightLife event, which opens at 6 p.m. to attendees ages 21 and over.

The event includes a segment called “Telescopes and Star Talks,” which features looking at the city’s night sky and an informational talk by Paul Salazar, an urban astronomer.

Saul Sugarman, Bay City News

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