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 August 25. For August, your best viewing nights will be from August 16 to the 31. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on August 15 at 10 pm.
The Perseids Meteor Shower:
A meteor shower is when a large number of meteors can be seen in one night. There are three good meteor showers each year, each occurring around mid-month in August, November, and December. Over the last several years, in my opinion, the December Geminids yielded the best shower. The favorite shower for most amateurs however is the Perseids which occur this month. This shower is favored because it occurs when the weather is warm, and during summer vacation time. I agree that these are good reasons to stay up past midnight and look to the heavens from a lawn chair. My personal maximum for this shower is 60 meteors per hour.
This month I will not give a general description of a meteor shower or discuss various observation methods. The reason that I am not going into further detail is that the only way to enjoy a meteor shower is with a dark sky, but this year the Perseids shower occurs during a full Moon. The full Moon will be like having a flashlight in your eyes. You may be able to see a few large meteors, but most will be washed out by the Moon. If you want to try anyway, go out late at night on August 12 into early August 13. Who knows, it might be fun just sitting out in the backyard on a warm night under a full Moon hoping to see a few meteors.
There are certain topics that I feel are important enough to be repeated each year. One such topic is the Messier Objects. These 110 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 as he rescanned the night skies. Most of these objects can be seen with binoculars, and in the Florence area, you may be able to locate 70 to 80 objects with 7 to 10 power binoculars. The remaining may require a small telescope, at about 25 power.
I have repeatedly stated that if you are serious about astronomy as a hobby, then you should try to locate all the Messier objects. Some are easy and many are difficult, but if you try this challenge, in the process, you will learn the locations of the major stars and constellations of the night sky. Take your time; it may take you two to three years to find all 110 objects. 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 110 Messier objects, and then simply check off or circle each one as you find them. In addition, you should write descriptive notes about each Messier you find. All 110 are shown in the image below:
If you have not tried to find any Messier objects, this is a good month to aim your binoculars toward the southern sky, and set a goal of finding 15 Messier objects this month. The good news is that all 15 reside in a small region of the sky between and above the easily identified constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius.
The first image below shows the location of eleven Messier objects around and above the constellation Sagittarius.
The next image moves slightly to the right to show four additional Messier objects.
You can start in your backyard, and then look for darker viewing sites. These 15 Messiers should all be visible with 7 to 10 power binoculars. If you have a reflecting telescope, you can also search for these objects at your lowest available power. Many of the Messier objects are dim and fuzzy, and since your reflector collects more light than a refractor, this can help your search. The low power will be sufficient to see all 15 Messiers, and in addition the large field of view will aid your search.
I have always wanted to form a ScienceSouth Messier club, open to all ages. We would begin by introducing everyone to the Messier objects. After that, we would meet for observation as a group only a few times each year. The rest of the year members would search out the Messier objects at their own pace. We would also supply short report forms for you to record each Messier object. If you can find dark sky sites, you may be able to locate 75 or more with just simple binoculars. Certificates of achievement would be given out when you reach 50, 100, and all 110.
If you have any interest in us setting up a Messier Club, E-mail ScienceSouth, or comment on our Facebook page.
Naked Eye Sights: The constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius and the summer Milky Way. Maybe a few large meteors will be visible during the Perseids shower.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Southern sky Messier objects; try for 15 this month.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): If you cannot find all 15 Messier objects with your binoculars, try searching with your telescope set at low power.
This month is your last chance to see the planet Saturn sitting low in the southwest evening sky.