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 18th. For April, your best viewing nights will be from April 11th to the 22nd. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on April 15th at 9 pm.
Spring Time Skies:
As I mentioned last month, every spring marks the time many amateur astronomers try the Messier Marathon. Anyone trying to locate all 110 Messier objects must venture into a region of the sky between the constellations Leo, Virgo and Coma Berenices. This region is the location of the center of the Virgo Super Cluster. This is a cluster of galaxies containing approximately 1300 to 2000 galaxies! Included in these galaxies are fifteen Messier Objects. See part of the galaxy cluster below:
This super cluster also includes a group of galaxies known as the Local Group. The Local Group includes our Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy, and the Local Group is being pulled toward the center of the Virgo Super Cluster, 54 million light years away. This area of the sky is a good place to direct your observing equipment even if you are not searching for Messier Objects. See location of the Virgo Cluster below:
If you check out this region with a good pair of binoculars you may not see anything but apparent stars. However, some of these “stars” are actually galaxies. The best way to see some of these galaxies is to use a reflector telescope, such as Dobsonian reflector. A simple refracting telescope will not have enough light gathering ability to see these galaxies. Another way to view the Virgo Cluster is with very large binoculars; best with 25 X 100 mm in size. The reason you will be able to see this distant group of galaxies at only 25 power is because the use of two eyes with binoculars allows the brain to efficiently process and combine the information from both eyes, which is not possible with single eyepiece telescopes.
If you are new to astronomy and telescopes you might start out with a 6 to 8 inch Dobsonian reflector. Try this telescope on the Virgo cluster. If you continue with your hobby, you may move up to a 10, 12 inch or even larger reflector. These larger reflectors will allow you see many more Virgo Cluster galaxies. Better yet, visit ScienceSouth when we have a NASA Saturday viewing event, and ask us to turn our larger Dobs toward the Virgo cluster.
If you are able to see any of the galaxies in the Virgo Cluster with your telescope, then you should be able to see Messier 104, the nearby Sombrero Galaxy. This is one of the nicest observable deep sky objects. The actual galaxy is shown below:
With our simple amateur telescopes, we can only hope to see it as a tiny elliptical fuzzy object. However, as amateurs, we know this small fuzzy is really the beautiful galaxy shown above. Galaxies such as M104, and others are the reason that serious amateurs invest in larger and larger Dobsonian reflectors to enhance their viewing experience of these deep sky wonders. As I mentioned above, one of the goals of ScienceSouth is to allow you to enjoy these wonders by visiting us during a nighttime viewing event.
The best way to locate M104 is to find the constellation Corvus; see charts below. This four star trapezoid is usually easy to locate. If you can’t find Corvus, then the sky is not clear/dark enough to see M104. Find the star farthest to the left, called Algorab. Next move to the left of Algorab and slightly up until you see a small triangle known as the Star Gate You may not be able to clearly see the Star Gate, but what should be quite obvious is a small line of about three stars to the left of the Star Gate. These “pointer” stars point directly to M104.
This image below is the capability of our ScienceSouth telescopes; note the three pointer stars on the right.
If you find M104, congratulations. Next, look closely and try to see the famous dark dust lane that bisects the galaxy. When trying to see small deep sky objects through your telescope, one trick used by amateurs is averted vision. The center of your retina has a bundle of nerves, and therefore no light receptors. If you look slightly to the side of your target, it should be easier to resolve. This technique may allow you to see the dust lane in M104. With my 25 X 100 mm binoculars I can easily see the Sombrero. On a clear dark night with averted vision I can just detect the dark dust lane.
April Meteor Shower:
One of the lesser meteor showers is the Lyrids. This shower will peak April 22nd and 23rd, and come from the eastern sky. This meteor shower usually has about 20 meteors per hour. However, this year there are two reasons to stay up and check it out. The waning Moon will set about midnight, so there will be a dark sky. Next, the scientists who study meteor showers predict a better than normal shower this year. These predictions are difficult to make, so there is no guarantee they will be correct.
Naked Eye Sights: Check out the Lyrid meteor shower. The constellation Leo taking the place of the constellation Orion in the southern sky. The planet Venus continues its climb higher into the evening sky.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Virgo Cluster?
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The Virgo Cluster, and the Sombrero Galaxy (M104), near Corvus.
See you next month!