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Out-of-this-world Perseid watch party set for Northerly Island

Like it has in past years, the Chicago Astronomer organization will provide the largest free-to-use telescopes in the city at the 3rd annual Northerly Island Perseid shower watch party, according to Joe Guzman, the group's chief astronomer. | The Chicago Astronomer

The forecast is looking up for a meteor shower watch party this weekend.

Storms are expected to clear in time for the “Northerly at Night” Perseid shower star party, from 7:30 p.m. to midnight Saturday.

The all-ages astro bash is the only free observation session in the city, with nearly 2,000 people expected to attend this year. It’s hosted by the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Astronomer, a collection of astronomers with telescopes and enthusiasm for space education.

“Cloudy or clear, we’ll be there,” said Joe Guzman, founder, administrator and chief astronomer of the Chicago Astronomer.

The watch party will have several family-friendly activities, including telescope tutorials, night hikes, storytelling booths and a presentation of live bats. | The Chicago Astronomer
The watch party will have several family-friendly activities, including telescope tutorials, night hikes, storytelling booths and a presentation of live bats. | The Chicago Astronomer

The meteors are usually visible to the eye, but Guzman said the Chicago Astronomer will set up a handful of large telescopes for viewing the waxing moon’s surface and five planets: Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Mercury. Astronomers will give demonstrations on how to use the tools and read the night sky.

“We have plenty of skilled astronomers attending with their own telescopes,” said Guzman. “I’ll discuss how they work. One question leads to another. … It’s going to be great.”

Other activities include campfires with marshmallow roasting, storytelling booths about constellation legends, a documentary screening and guided nature hikes, said Teish Daniel, Northerly Island Center director.

Daniel also said Jim Louderman, a collections assistant at the Field Museum, will showcase insects and spiders, and live bats are being brought in by the Flying Fox Conservation Fund, a nonprofit group that works to protect Old World fruit bats and their habitat.

The presentation on nocturnal bats goes hand-in-hand with the astrological focus of the evening, Guzman said.

Around 300 people attended last year’s Perseid watch party, according to Northerly Island Center Director Teish Daniel, but more than 1,000 people have said on Facebook that they plan on going to this year’s event. | The Chicago Astronomer
Around 300 people attended last year’s Perseid watch party, according to Northerly Island Center Director Teish Daniel, but more than 1,000 people have said on Facebook that they plan on going to this year’s event. | The Chicago Astronomer

The Chicago Porkchop food truck will be on site, said Daniel, who noted there are few food options where the stargazing session will take place.

Music will be provided by El is a Sound of Joy, a group that emulates environmental sounds. More accompaniment will be provided by nature itself — the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology will lead educational night hikes to hear the noises of insects and wildlife.

The main attraction, of course, is the Perseid meteor shower, which is made up of fragments in space left behind by the breakdown of a comet called Swift-Tuttle. This year, the number of meteors visible could top 150 per hour, and the last dense shower was in 2009.

The 1,700 people who say on Facebook they’re attending the event came as a surprise for the Park District organizers, said Northerly Island’s Daniel; attendance for past shower parties hovered around 300. Coordinators included extra activities this year in response to the higher turnout.

The skyline view from Northerly Park makes it an ideal, photo-worthy location for observing the the meteor shower, said Joe Guzman of the Chicago Astronomer organization. | The Chicago Astronomer
The skyline view from Northerly Park makes it an ideal, photo-worthy location for observing the the meteor shower, said Joe Guzman of the Chicago Astronomer organization. | The Chicago Astronomer

If it does rain, the party will move indoors to the Northerly Island visitor center building (1521 S. Linn White Dr.). Although the meteors can’t be brought inside, the live animals, telescope tutorials and some of the other activities can.

Daniel encourages people to take public transportation, carpool or bike to the park — parking is $3 at the visitor center’s lot, but there’s very little of it. The CTA’s No. 146 bus stops at Linn White Drive, and from the bus stop, it’s a 10-minute walk to the visitor center, she said.

The National Weather Center predicts scattered showers and thunderstorms Saturday morning, primarily before 7 a.m.; Saturday night is expected to be partly cloudy, with a low around 70 degrees.

“When you set up a telescope, they will come. We always have large crowds,” said Chicago Astronomer’s Guzman, who goes by the nickname “Astronomer Joe.”

“We’ve got a great eastern vista over the lakefront with the city behind us. … Northerly Island is the perfect spot; it’s the front lawn of the city.”