January 9, 2019

File
Local astronomy buff Mike Hughes is hosting a monthly presentation at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park until April. Hughes aims to provide practical knowledge about the stars and planets that people will retain.

File Local astronomy buff Mike Hughes is hosting a monthly presentation at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park until April. Hughes aims to provide practical knowledge about the stars and planets that people will retain.

KEY LARGO — During winter, Mars dominates the night sky.

“To the naked eye, it will be a tiny red dot,” said Mike Hughes, host of the monthly Astronomy Night at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

But Hughes hopes to offer attendees a closer look at the red planet through his telescope.

The park’s Cannon Beach parking lot, in front of the visitor center, provides the ideal darkness for optimal night vision, he said.

“I have a fall-back plan in case the weather doesn’t hold up. So far, the forecast is for clear skies and we’ll have a very thin sliver of a moon which will be perfect,” Hughes said of the Thursday, Jan. 10, viewing.

A Coral Shores High School math teacher by day, the astronomy buff said he’s good at planning ahead and that he expects to catch Mars in the 8-inch telescope he brings to the monthly event.

The star-filled sky will also feature the Orion Nebula, which is to the right of Orion’s sword.

“It’s a star nursery. It’s the closest star-forming region to Earth,” Hughes said.

Although his monthly program was sidelined last year due to damage inflicted on Pennekamp park by Hurricane Irma, he’s been teaching astronomy to Upper Keys residents for about 30 years.

“I like doing these things for local folks and for the campers there,” Hughes said.

The upcoming “super blood wolf moon” eclipse on Jan. 20 will be the only opportunity to view a lunar eclipse for at least another year.

The moon will begin to enter into the earth’s shadow around 11:30 p.m.

“Unlike a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse spans a few hours,” he said. “Totality will last about 62 minutes. It’ll be a partial about an hour before and an hour after.”

Hughes explained the celestial event as the moon being in perigee, or at the closest point on its axis to Earth.

This gives it the appearance of being 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter, according to NASA. Hence the name “super.”

In totality, when the moon is completely in Earth’s shadow, it will turn a reddish-copper color, hence “blood.”

As for “wolf,” the Old Farmer’s Almanac ascribes that name for the January full moon to American Indians.

Hughes said historically, all cultures have associated the moon with a natural calendar event driving agriculture, cultural ceremonies and traditions.

Hughes said there are 88 named constellations and that a nighttime glimpse of the sky reveals about 2,000 stars.

“We know that Polaris isn’t the brightest star. It’s the 49th brightest. Sirius is the brightest. There are 88 constellations, but there’s way more out there,” he said.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park Ranger Bob Muhly said that Astronomy Night is a popular event. He and his wife regularly attend.

“It’s about an hour, hour-and-a-half long. People hang around afterwards and ask questions,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

The next Astronomy Night at the park begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10. Subsequent Astronomy Night events are scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 14 and March 7.

There will be about a 30 degree difference in the sky view from month to month, according to Hughes.

Stargazers are encouraged to bring a chair, binoculars if available, bug spray and a jacket if needed. The event is free and gates will be open to the public about 30 minutes prior to the program. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is located at 102601 Overseas Highway in Key Largo.

tjava@keysnews.com