Telescopes checked out from the library will let you explore the starry skies

The Salt Lake County Library system has several items available to borrow for free in its Library of Things.

Zach Schierl | National Park Service) In 2017, the night sky is filled with thousands of stars, as seen from Utah's Cedar Breaks National Monument, an officially designated dark sky park. Telescopes are available to check out from the Salt Lake County Library system for free.

Stars may be very, very far from Earth, but obtaining a telescope to get a good look at them only takes a trip to your local public library — and a library card. And with the Delta Aquariids hitting their meteor-viewing peak later this week, it’s a perfect time to go stargazing here in Utah.

The Salt Lake County Library system has 48 telescopes available for adult patrons to check out. These sturdy, beginner-friendly models are part of the county library’s growing collection of equipment called the Library of Things, which also includes internet hot spots, Chromebooks, tablets and a variety of other items, all free to borrow.

Spearheaded by Joan Carman with the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, the library system’s telescope program provides access to an instrument that usually costs at least $100 and up to $1,000 or more.

“I think [patrons are] very grateful for having this opportunity, without having to go out and purchase one, to share with their family,” said Carman, during a virtual presentation in May about the county library’s telescopes.

Each branch has about two telescopes available to reserve, and they’re hot ticket items. Kara Pearson, an acquisition librarian for Salt Lake County, said during the presentation that the library system has seen up to 350 holds for a telescope at one time. But with Clark Planetarium planning to donate 18 additional telescopes to the county library, Pearson said, even more people will be able to explore the night sky.

The prospect of setting up a telescope and successfully observing a planet or star may be daunting to some, but the county’s librarians can walk you through the process. Each telescope available to check out is prepared by the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, and the model (the Orion StarBlast, with key components labeled for easy use) doesn’t require any assembly.

Each kit comes with everything you’ll need to go stargazing. A small pack attached to the telescope’s wooden base includes a headlamp, astronomy books, batteries, an eyepiece with zoom, a rubber eye guard, lens covers, a viewfinder and instructions. All of the components and the telescope itself can be checked out for seven days, and they must be returned to the branch they came from.

Once you get your telescope, there’s a whole lot to see this time of year. According to NASA, sunsets during the month of July are made even more striking by the bright presence of Venus, visible low in the western sky about a half-hour after the sun goes down. July is also prime viewing season for the Milky Way, especially its core, made up of billions of stars. You’ll need a dark sky to get the best views of the Milky Way, but you shouldn’t underestimate the detail visible in the moon itself.

The most recent full moon was July 23, and as the moon wanes toward the next new moon on Aug. 8, the Milky Way will become even more visible in the southern sky.