In late August, the sun, moon and stars are likely to upstage the art, music and theater CultureSpotMC.com customarily covers. The Gaithersburg Community Museum’s (GCM) sky-watching celebrations will encourage Montgomery Countians to turn their eyes to the skies.
GCM’s first sky-watching activity of the season took place Aug. 12 in conjunction with the Perseids Meteor Shower. From 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., viewers brought blankets and chairs to the Observatory Park lawn to watch for meteors. Flashlights were not allowed, but red lights were; red cellophane was available to cover any white light flashlights.
“This is the third year we’ve hosted a Perseids event,” said GCM Program Coordinator Karen Lottes. “It’s different than the other sky-watching events in that we start and end much later and the telescopes are out, but not the main focus of the evening. Participants bring blankets and chairs and just lay out looking for meteors shooting across the sky. It’s kind of a laid-back affair—literally—and everyone enjoys it.”
Next up, the GCM will present an advance screening of the new PBS documentary, “The Farthest: Voyager in Space,” at 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20, at the Kentlands Arts Barn. The film celebrates the 40th anniversary of NASA’s Voyager mission, which launched Aug. 20, 1977, revolutionizing how the solar system is understood and setting the stage for many milestone missions that followed.
Tickets will be distributed in person at the Arts Barn on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 2 p.m. the day of the screening. GCM Facility Manager Nansie Heimer Wilde encourages viewers to come early, as the theater has only 99 seats. Attendees must be present to receive tickets.
“The Farthest” will premiere on PBS at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23, with an encore broadcast at 10 p.m. Sept.13. In the meantime, you can see the film’s trailer at: www.pbs.org/the-farthest/home.
The following day, Monday, Aug. 21, participants can party like its 1979 as the GCM marks the solar eclipse at Observatory Park. Not since 1979 has a total eclipse been visible from the mainland United States.
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon casts a shadow onto Earth. On Aug. 21, the moon will cross the entire country in about 90 minutes. It will begin on the Oregon coast as a partial eclipse at 9:06 a.m. (PST) on Aug. 21, and end later that day as a partial eclipse along the South Carolina coast at about 4:06 p.m.
While folks in Giant City State Park near Carbondale, Illinois, will experience the longest duration of totality—2 minutes, 41.6 seconds, our area will darken “probably for one to two minutes,” Lottes said.
The path of totality (or maximum eclipse), a 70-mile-wide, 3,000-mile-long swath that lies directly in the shadow of the moon, will touch 14 states: Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. A partial eclipse will be visible in many more states, including Maryland. Here in Montgomery County, Lottes said, “we will be at 85 percent, so expect it to get as dark as cloud cover.”
The Solar Eclipse Party, from 1 to 4 p.m. Aug. 21 at Gaithersburg’s Observatory Park, is one of the best places to observe the eclipse safely. Sky watchers of all ages will learn why the solar eclipse happens and take part in eclipse-related activities, like creating sun prints and sundials; observe the eclipse using safe solar viewing glasses (available while supplies last) and other types of solar viewers and telescopes.
Lottes explained the importance of safe viewing. “If you look directly at the sun without taking precautions, you can burn your eyes. You must use proper solar glasses which have a special film to prevent eye damage or a projection viewer. Projection viewers project the sun onto another surface through a hole,” she said. “Even if you have very good sunglasses, they will not protect your eyes if you look directly at the sun. In a total eclipse, there is a point when you don’t need them, but since we will be at about 85 percent, proper solar protection will be needed the whole time.”
The Solar Eclipse Party is a great way to become acquainted with the Gaithersburg’s International Latitude Observatory, a little-known and historically significant Montgomery County treasure. Operating from 1899 to 1982, it was one of six observatories worldwide that measured the wobble of the earth on its polar axis to improve navigation and facilitate scientific discovery.
Before setting out for the party, make sure there is no change of venue. Coordinators are hoping to move activities indoors if the weather does not cooperate, but that is not yet confirmed.
The Arts Barn is located at 311 Kent Square Road, and Observatory Park is at 100 Desellum Ave., Gaithersburg. For information, visit www.gaithersburgmd.gov or call 301-258-6160. Learn more about “The Farthest: Voyager in Space” on CultureSpotMC here and the Solar Eclipse Party on CultureSpotMC here.