Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into three sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, and with a small telescope. The best time to view the night sky is at and around the times when the Moon is not visible, what is known as a New Moon; which will occur this month on April 24th. For April, your best viewing nights will be from April 12th through April 27th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on April 15th at 9 pm.
ScienceSouth’s New Astronomy Program! The Sidewalk Astronomer
Update: Our Sidewalk Astronomy program continues each month. As of this writing, we are planning to leave the sidewalks again and attend a special star party at Lynches River Park on March 28th. Check out our website, or the local newspapers to see where we will be each month.
Over the months I have at times mentioned the famous Messier Objects. These 109 celestial objects include star clusters, nebula, galaxies, and other objects, and are usually described as M numbers. In the late 1700’s, the comet hunter Charles Messier catalogued these celestial objects because he did not want to mistake them for possible comets. Most of these objects can be seen with binoculars, but in this area of the country, many require 25 power or greater. It is noteworthy that in areas of the United States that are not bothered by light pollution, all 109 Messiers can be found with binoculars only. However, there are few dark sky sites left in our country, but certainly not on the east coast. Perhaps some readers travel often, and would like to know the locations of truly dark sky sites. Here is a little trick I use. Instead of searching out sophisticated light pollution maps, or nighttime satellite images, I simply use cell phone coverage maps. By using cell phone coverage maps of the largest providers, non-coverage areas are almost always in dark sky locations. In the maps below, non-cell phone coverage areas are in the pale yellow regions. So if you want beautiful clear starry nights, head to these locations.
Now back to the Messiers. I have always told people I meet that if they want to be serious about astronomy as a hobby, then they should start by trying to locate all the Messier objects. Some are easy and many are difficult, (because of light pollution) but if you try this challenge, in the process, you will learn the locations of all of the major stars and constellations of the night sky. Remember, you won’t see these objects as you do in the photos taken by Hubble and other telescopes; instead, you will be searching for “faint fuzzies.” So how do you begin? Make a simple list of all 109 Messier objects, and then simply check off or circle each one as you find them. In addition, you should use a notebook, and write notes about each Messier you find. Of course, use the Internet to gain a wealth of knowledge about the Messiers.
To continue your search, you will need star charts, and/or preferably an astronomy program. An example is an image from the program Starry Nights.
To further help you become a Messier hunter, here is a nice Messier list that includes some common names of several objects. Clicking on each M number gives information about and photos of that object.
The Planet Mercury
Did you miss Mercury at the end of December 2008? If so, you have an even better chance from mid to late April. As you may recall, of the five easy planets for naked eye viewing, Mercury is the most difficult to see because it is so close to the Sun. In addition, many viewing locations do not have a clear view of the horizon. For a special treat, check out the southwest between 7- 7:30 PM on April 26th to see the crescent moon with the Pleiades directly underneath, and Mercury just under the Pleiades.
Naked Eye Sights: Look to the west and watch as Mercury moves higher in the sky, especially check it out on April 26th.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Begin your Messier list.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): You no longer have to stay up late to watch Saturn as it climbs higher in the southeast sky. Once you locate some Messiers with your binoculars, check them out with your telescopes.
See you next month.