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 10th. For April, your best viewing nights will be from April 1st to the 14th, and April 28th to the 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on April 15th at 9 pm.
By now everyone is aware that Pan-STARRS was not an impressive comet. I personally searched for the comet right after sunset beginning on March 7th through March 16th using 15 power image stabilized binoculars, however, was only able to see Pan-STARRS on March 13th. On that night, the comet was directly below a crescent Moon about halfway from the Moon to the horizon. The image I saw through the binoculars was just as shown below.
Clouds near the horizon prevented viewing on most of the other nights. Even in the absence of clouds, the primary difficulty in spotting the comet was that it remained very close to the horizon after sunset; therefore it was never in a dark sky, but remained in the twilight.
There is one last chance to see the comet with binoculars. The comet will pass near the Andromeda Galaxy in the first week of this month. The comet will be under Andromeda on the 3rd, and on the 6th and 7th it will be to the right of the galaxy. From the 2nd until the 8th, it will be in the same field of view as the Andromeda Galaxy with either 7 or 10 X 50mm binoculars. The downside is that it will still be near the horizon. The best viewing time will be from 8:30 until about 9 pm. The view below is April 7th at 8:30 pm looking to the northwest.
The comet is heading out of the solar system never to be seen again, and we do not expect any changes as it moves into deep space. However, some comets can do strange things. I am thinking specifically of Comet Holmes in 2007. This comet was only visible through binoculars or a telescope at its closest approach to the Sun. After the comet circled around the Sun in May 2007 and was headed back out into deep space, it suddenly erupted on October 24th forming a rapidly expanding sphere of debris. No one was looking for Comet Holmes because it is was not visible to the naked eye, and at this point it was not even a telescope object. However, in the 42 hours after October 24th, it increased its brightness by 500,000 times! It was now a naked eye comet, but instead of a tail it was a ball. This expanding ball quickly became larger than the diameter of the Sun; so late in 2007, the largest object in our solar system was Comet Holmes! It was a beautiful sight, and ScienceSouth had a public viewing of the comet at Lynches River Park. That night we had a great view of Comet Holmes through our large binoculars. The image below closely represents what we saw through the binoculars that night.
These big binoculars have 100 mm objective lenses, and can be used effectively at 25 or 40 power. These binoculars can even see the rings of Saturn! In a later column, I will discuss binocular astronomy. The image below shows the 25 X 100mm binoculars in use at another ScienceSouth event.
As comet Pan-STARRS leaves our solar system, we can still look forward to Comet ISON arriving right after Thanksgiving. Comet ISON still has the potential of being a great comet.
I will feature the planet Saturn next month, but I want to allow you time to prepare for its arrival. First of all concerning the arrival of Saturn next month; if you had a strong desire to see Saturn, then you could have setup your telescope just before dawn beginning last December. Saturn is visible every year for about eight months; the remaining four months it is on the other side of the Sun. Astronomy like most hobbies is done for enjoyment, and therefore most amateurs wait until a planet moves into a position that allows viewing between sunset and about 11 pm. This year the “enjoyable” viewing window is from May through July.
The heading “Saturn Returns” however does not refer to the time of year. It refers to the tilt of Saturn in relation to the Earth. As the Earth and Saturn move around the Sun in their orbits, at certain times, Saturn’s tilt does not allow us to have a good view of its rings. For the last five years, Saturn’s rings were not very impressive. In the years 2009 and 2010, they were nearly non-existent. Last year the ring began to open up to view, and this year they have finally reached a good viewing angle. The good news is that over the next several years the ring angle will continue to improve; see image below.
The best viewing window for Saturn’s rings is 2013 to 2021; so you will have several years to enjoy this sight.
If you don’t have a telescope, this is a good time to purchase one. Even smaller inexpensive telescopes will allow you to see the rings of Saturn.
Naked Eye Sights: By mid-month, Leo the Lion will be high in the south, and Jupiter will shine in the west as Saturn shines in the east.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Try to locate comet Pan-STARRS as it moves near the Andromeda Galaxy on the 6th through the 8th.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): This is a good time to buy your first telescope.
See you next month!