April 2019

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 5th. For April, your best viewing nights will be from April 1st to the 10th and the 22nd to the end of the month. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on April 15th at 9 pm.

This month I will repeat one of the favorite viewing targets of spring.  In addition, I will revisit the topic of binoculars, in particular, big binoculars.

M104:

I believe that the nicest deep sky object in April is the Sombrero galaxy. M104.

M104

With our simple amateur telescopes, we can only hope to see M104 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 Dobsonian reflectors to enhance their viewing experience of these deep sky wonders. 

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.

With my big binoculars, I can see the dust band of M104, the rings of Saturn, the cloud bands of Jupiter, the full Andromeda galaxy, and all 110 Messier objects.  In addition, it gives the best views of the Pleiades cluster, the Double cluster, and several other viewing sights.  So let’s revisit the subject of big binoculars.

Big Binoculars:

As I have mentioned in previous columns, a good way to begin a hobby in astronomy is to use binoculars.  Some of the reasons are:  they are light weight, easy to use, and relatively inexpensive, can be used for other things besides astronomy, objects are right side up and not reversed, and you can see a large area of the sky.  One downside is their limited useful power.  A handheld binocular is only useful at 7-10 power; above that, normal hand shake makes viewing difficult. 

In the quest to enjoy the night sky, most amateurs totally neglect the use of “Big Binoculars”. Big binoculars usually range from 15 X 70mm to 40 X 100mm in size, but can be even larger.  All the benefits of binoculars are retained, with some limits on portability.  The price will also increase as the size increases, and all big binoculars require a tripod.  The image below shows a selection of various binoculars. Moving right to left, the smallest is a 35 mm binocular, followed by two 50 mms, then a 20 X 70 mm, and on the far left, 25 X 100mm binoculars.

In reality, a binocular is just two refracting telescopes attached side by side.  However, there are two main advantages of big binoculars over using a refracting telescope.  First, the images are right side up and not reversed. Second, they give better views.  Concerning better views:  One cold winter evening several years ago I was out viewing the Orion Nebula, M42, at 25 power through an expensive Schmidt-Cassegrain reflecting telescope.  Out of curiosity, I pointed my 25 power binoculars at M42; the result was striking.  The images shown below give a good approximation of what I saw that night.

The striking difference in the views is due to the ability of the brain to better process images from two eyes versus one eye, and not the fault of the optics of the two instruments. 

If you decide to venture into big binoculars, on the low price end, 15 X 70mm, 20 X 80mm and 25 X 100mm are priced from about $80 to $350.  The only required accessory is a tripod, and these binoculars can easily be placed on a standard photographer’s tripod. The second accessory is not required, but is on my “must have list”, and that is a Red-Dot finder. 

Once you start viewing through 25 power binoculars, you will find it somewhat difficult to aim them; sometimes to the point of frustration.  These simple finders, attached with double-sided tape will make using big binoculars a joyful experience.

Naked Eye Sights:  The return of Leo as prominent southern constellation. However, Orion is still visible in the western sky.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Consider the purchase of a big binocular.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  The Sombrero galaxy (M104) and Mars.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch):  The Sombrero galaxy (M104) and Mars.

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