Tony’s Astronomy Corner

May 2018

// May 1st, 2018 // Comments Off on May 2018 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                                Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 May 15th. For May, your best viewing nights will be from May 4th to the 18th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on May 15th at 9 pm.  Note: A new table of contents for earlier columns is located in this January 2018 column.

Deep Sky Objects (DSO’s):
As a lifetime amateur astronomer, I often inform people that I am not a lunar astronomer, or a planetary astronomer.  Instead, my fun is observing deep sky objects.  A deep sky object is any object that is located outside of our solar system, but not another star.  I continually mention searching for Messier Objects. The Messier Objects list is essentially a list of deep sky objects. This list contains 110 or 109 objects; most astronomers accept 109, but some feel 110 is correct. Only one Messier Object is not a deep sky object; Messier 40. M40 located in Ursa Major is a line of sight (not true) double star. Messier stated that an earlier astronomer, Hevelius, reported a nebula in Ursa Major. Messier found the object and reported that it was a double star not a nebula, and then for some unknown reason, he added this double star to his famous list of comet-like deep sky objects; M40.

Over the years, I have only mentioned the Messier list for amateur astronomers. However, there are other notable lists available. A gentleman Patrick Moore felt that once amateur astronomers completed the Messier list, they would want more. Moore noted that Messier left out some great amateur targets, such as the Double Cluster in Perseus. In addition, Messier was limited by latitude because he made his observations from Paris, France. With this in mind, Moore made up a new list of deep sky objects covering both the northern and southern hemisphere. In addition, he purposely listed 109 objects, and named it the Caldwell Catalog; published in 1995. Example: the Double Cluster is C14.  The good news is if you want to complete the Caldwell Catalog, you will have to take a vacation toward the equator.

Finally, there is a massive list of deep sky objects with the prosaic name “New General Catalogue.” This list contains 7,840 objects, known as the NGC objects. Some later updates to this list were called Index Catalogue objects; IC objects. This massive list was completed near the end of the 19th century, and the updates in the early 20th century.  A total of 106 Messier Objects have NGC #’s, two have IC #’s, and two have no other designation: M40 and M45. All but two Caldwell Objects have NGC/IC designations.

In conclusion: The Messier list is still the best place for new amateur astronomers to go. Next is the Caldwell Catalogue. Finally, the NGC and IC lists are for high end amateurs and professional astronomers.

There are three types of deep sky objects for your viewing enjoyment, nebulae (gaseous, planetary and dark), star clusters (open and globular), and galaxies. Throughout my many columns, I have pointed out a multitude of deep sky objects that you might enjoy. This month, try to observe the following two; the first is easy, and second is difficult.

The Hercules Cluster (M13, NGC 6205):
This is a globular star cluster is in the east in the constellation of Hercules. The location of the cluster is shown in the image below.

Start by trying to see it with binoculars first. It should look like a blurry star. Move on to your telescopes. Consider yourself successful if you can resolve some individual stars.  Your best view will usually be with an eight inch or above Dob, but it is an easy target with any scope. Below is M13 seen through a large Dob.

The Sombrero Galaxy (M104, NGC 4594):

The best way to locate this beautiful deep sky object is to find the constellation Corvus low in the southern sky; see below. This four star trapezoid is easy to locate. 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 obvious is a small line of about four stars to the left of the Star Gate. These “pointer” stars point directly to M104.

When you find M104 with binoculars or a small telescope, it will not look like the beautiful image shown above. Instead, it will look more like the image shown below.

Naked Eye Sights: Watch in the west as Venus rises this month. Look to the east as Jupiter moves upward this month. Throughout the year there are nice flyovers of the International Space Station (ISS); check out the flyover 9:37 pm on the evening of May 20th, very bright and high in the sky.

Brightness Start Highest point End
(mag) Time Alt. Az. Time Alt. Az. Time Alt. Az.
18 May -0.6 05:10:20 10° N 05:12:18 15° NNE 05:14:17 10° ENE
19 May -1.8 20:56:13 10° SE 20:57:19 11° SE 20:57:29 11° ESE
19 May -1.1 22:30:14 10° WSW 22:30:36 13° WSW 22:30:36 13° WSW
20 May -1.7 05:00:59 10° NNW 05:03:56 30° NE 05:06:51 10° E
20 May -4.0 21:37:38 10° SW 21:40:52 72° SE 21:44:07 10° NE

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Jupiter’s moons.

Big Binocular Sights (18 to 25 power): Jupiter, M13 and M104

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  Jupiter and M13.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch):  Jupiter. M13 cluster and M104.

April 2018

// March 29th, 2018 // Comments Off on April 2018 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                                 Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 15th. For April, your best viewing nights will be from April 3rd to the 18th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on April 15th at 9 pm. Note: A new table of contents for earlier columns is located in this January 2018 column.

The Virgo Cluster:
As you know, many times I will repeat a column. Usually I feel that it is an important topic, and at least five years have passed since I discussed the subject. Another reason, is that it is timely. In this case, April is indeed the best month of the year to observe the Virgo Cluster. Searching the Virgo Cluster will require that you have large binoculars, 20 to 25 power, or a Dobsonian telescope; most simple refractors will not suffice. If you have been trying to work through the Messier Objects list, you can find at least fifteen Messier Objects in this small area of the spring sky.

The Virgo Cluster is not a star cluster, but is a cluster of galaxies; the month of April is usually the best time to view this target. Data from the Hubble telescope estimates there are as many as 1500 galaxies associated with this cluster. This galaxy cluster is also referred to as the Virgo/Coma Bernice’s Cluster.

If you attempt to venture into this realm of galaxies, you are somewhat limited to using a reflecting telescope, preferably a 4 inch or larger Dobsonian, or large binoculars, such as 25 X 100 mm. A 100 mm binocular is actually the same size as a 4 inch refracting telescope. However, dim objects such as galaxies are surprisingly more defined through the binoculars using your two eyes than with the equivalent telescope with one eyepiece.

As always when attempting to find galaxies you must find a dark sky location. In our area of the country, five to ten miles outside of any modest size town should be sufficient for your search of the Virgo Cluster. A great viewing location is Lynches River Park. However, unless you are camping at the park, or coming to a Lynches River Star Party, you are not allowed to just bring your telescope to the park. The best choice may be to find a friend or relative who owns farm land.

Once you have chosen a good viewing location, first find the location of the Virgo Cluster, see circle below.

Next, check out the area circled with ten power binoculars. The image below is a good example of what you may see.

So where are the galaxies? With normal 7-10 power binoculars, this region looks like a simple star field. If you look carefully, you may note that several “stars” are somewhat larger and fuzzy. These small fuzzies are some of the many galaxies in the Virgo cluster. Next aim your reflecting telescope near the center of this region shown in the circle above. Starting at about 25 power, while looking through the eyepiece, slowly move your scope outward in an expanding spiral. Every few minutes check you telescope finder to make sure you have not drifted outside the Virgo Cluster region of the sky. This roaming technique is quite different from the normal careful searching for a specific target in the sky. If you have chosen a good dark sky site, and you are careful and patient, you should be able to see many small fuzzy galaxies. This next image is what you may see through your telescope. The yellow circle is the field of view at about 30 power and contains three Messier Objects. This image also shows the locations of various other cataloged galaxies. These objects are dimmer than the Messiers, and are assigned a NGC (New General Catalog) number.

The following image is how you could see the Virgo Cluster if you owned expensive astronomy equipment and used long exposure astrophotography.

What I have briefly described above is how to casually visit the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. If you are a serious Messier Object searcher, then you must revisit the Virgo cluster with more care. There are a total of fifteen Messier Objects near the center of the Virgo Cluster, and three others nearby. You will need a good star chart or computer program to start your search. Below is the star chart that I used to check off each Messier as I personally searched this region. As you can see, the chart lists Messiers, NGC objects and many too dim to be labeled objects in the Virgo region. I started with Messier 60 and ended with M49; logging fifteen Messiers in one April night’s viewing.

From M60 to M49, the black line/arrow shows the exact path I used that night as I worked my way through the cluster. I used 25 X 100 mm binoculars to locate all these objects.

Now it’s your turn.

Naked Eye Sights: Venus returns in the west as the Evening Star.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Go to the Virgo Cluster and try to see if any “stars” are fuzzy. You will need a very dark sky site to do this with simple binoculars.

Big Binocular Sights (18 to 25 power): Go to the Virgo Cluster and see how many galaxies you can find. Remember they will still be small fuzzies.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Jupiter returns low in the eastern sky towards the end of the month.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): Try to get a closer look at some of the many galaxies in the Virgo Cluster.

See you next month!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March 2018

// March 1st, 2018 // Comments Off on March 2018 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                                Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections: what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 March 17th. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 7th to the 21st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.  Note: A new table of contents for earlier columns is located in this January 2018 column.

Messiers:
There is one subject I that continually mention in my column; Messier Objects. Therefore, this month I am repeating below an earlier column about Messier Objects and how they relate to the month of March.

Messier Marathon:
It’s March again, the month of the Messier Marathons. I believe that the best way to become a good amateur astronomer is to try to locate all 110 Messier Objects in the night sky.

For new readers, the Messier Objects are a list of 110 celestial objects which include galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. The objects are usually known by their “M number”; M1, M42, M104, etc. This list was composed by Charles Messier in the late 18th century. Messier was a comet hunter, and he recorded this list of objects that looked like comets but were not. This list helped Messier, and his fellow astronomers avoid objects that might be confused for comets. It is ironic that today this “negative” list has become one of the most widely used lists of objects used by amateurs around the world. All 110 objects can theoretically be seen with only a pair of 10 X 50 binoculars under perfect dark sky viewing conditions. However, under normal viewing conditions, about 50% of the objects can easily be seen with simple binoculars. All 110 objects can be seen at about 25 power, using a simple telescope, preferably a Dobsonian, or 25 power binoculars. All 110 Messiers are seen in the image below.

So what is a Messier Marathon? The Messier Objects are found throughout the night sky every month of the year. However, a rare event occurs each year in March. In mid to late March, all 110 Messier Objects can be found in one night!  Of course in order to accomplish this, you also need to have a new Moon. This event is known as a Messier Marathon, and amateur astronomers around the world attempt this task on or about the new Moon closest to the first day of spring (Vernal Equinox).  This year the Marathon will be run on the weekend of March 17th and 18th.  The best locations in this hemisphere are in the southern part of the United States, including South Carolina.  Please note that a Messier Marathon is not an easy task. It requires an excellent viewing area well away from light pollution. If you decide to take this challenge, you could go on-line and find the locations where you can join amateurs gathered at “perfect” locations for the marathon; most likely in Texas, New Mexico or Arizona. If you travel to these perfect locations, you still will be challenged to succeed.  For example: To see Messier 110 (M110) you will have to find it very close to the western horizon just after sunset. To finish your marathon the next morning you will have a more difficult task competing with the Sun to see the cluster M30 in the east just before sunrise.  Below is an image of 150 amateur astronomers during a past Messier Marathon in the desert of Iran.

My thoughts on the Messier Marathons: It is better to take your time and slowly attempt to locate all 110 Messier Objects over two to three years.  Once you have enjoyed the challenge of completing this list, at a later time you may like to try to do it in only one night in March.  However, if you have not tried finding any Messier Objects, why not start from your local viewing site on the weekend of this year’s Messier Marathon. Keep your list small but try for at least twenty Messiers, using binoculars only. The list below shows 42 Messiers to choose from.

Easy Messier Objects:
2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 29, 31, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 41, 42, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 52, 55, 67, 92, 93, 103.

The twenty numbers shown in bold are the Messiers visible between sunset and midnight on March 21st.

Three Planets:
By mid-month, the planet Venus can be seen low in the western sky.  The more difficult naked eye planet, Mercury, can be seen above and to the right of Venus on March 15th.

At the end of the month, the planet Uranus can be found above Venus, the closest approach on March 28th. A good telescope will be required to see Uranus. You should be able to see the planet as a blue ball.

Naked Eye Sights: Venus returns to the western sky by mid-month.  Along with Venus, you can see the planet Mercury above and to the right of Venus. As the Month progresses, Venus will higher up while Mercury will move downward and out of sight by month’s end.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Start working on your Messier List.

Big Binocular Sights (18 to 25 power): Continue working on your Messier List.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Try for Uranus, just above Venus near the end of the month; the closest approach is on March 28th.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): Try for Uranus, just above Venus near the end of the month; the closest approach is on March 28th.

February 2018

// February 1st, 2018 // Comments Off on February 2018 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                               Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections: what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 February 15th. For February, your best viewing nights will be from February 7th to the 20th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on January 15th at 9 pm.  Note: A new table of contents for earlier columns is located in this January 2018 column.

The Demon Star:
There are many double (binary) stars visible in the night sky; indeed the majority of stars you see in the night sky are true binary stars. Some amateur astronomers enjoy locating as many binary stars as they can just using simple binoculars. There are really two types of binary stars. The first is a misnomer, and is just a chance alignment, in which one star is relatively close by and the other a long distance away, but because of their alignment, it appears that they are next to each other. However, a true binary star is one in which both stars are gravitationally linked to one another, and therefore rotate around a common center of gravity.

My favorite star is a binary star called Albireo in Cygnus. (The head of the swan or the bottom of the Northern Cross asterism). What makes this binary star so special are the colors, one is golden and the other sapphire blue; you will need a telescope to see them clearly. It takes thousands of years for the Albireo stars to rotate around each other.  Probably the most famous binary star is the one in the middle of the handle of the Big Dipper. The star we easily see is called Mizar, but if you have good vision, there is a smaller star right above it called Alcor. In fact is was said this binary was once used as a test of good eyesight. In reality, Mizar and Alcor have four other tiny stars linked to them resulting in a six star system. For telescope users only, there is another famous binary system called epsilon lyrae in the constellation Lyra. This is a nice double star with each star being another perfect double; known as the Double Double; see below.

So, binary stars rotate around a common center of gravity, many with long rotational times. In addition, as they rotate, they are located in many different orbital planes as viewed from Earth. It is only when the orbital plane is lined up just right, that one star

can eclipse another. Astronomers have recorded thousands of these eclipsing binaries, but most are too distant or dim for amateurs to observe, and/or have too long of an orbital time(period).  When binary stars eclipse each other they become dimmer, because you cannot see the light from the eclipsed star.  Of course other features come to play, such the brightness and sizes of each star.

This month I would like you to go out and view an eclipsing star system. The eclipsing binary star system is 92 light years away, but the first thing you do is leave your telescopes and binoculars inside, and view the eclipse with your naked eyes. Some readers might assume that this amazing naked eye eclipse of two stars 92 light years away must be a rare event that will be reported in all the news media; wrong. The stars will eclipse each other 10 times this month, 6 of these times at night.  The star is called Algol, which is translated as the demon star.  The two main stars in this binary system eclipse each other every 2 days, 20 hours and 49 minutes throughout the year. It is also known as the winking star. The ancient people thought that this strange effect was caused by a demon, and was therefore a bad luck star. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1600’s that the variability was officially reported, but it was 100 years later until an astronomer John Goodricke studied Algol, an theorized correctly that it was an eclipsing star system.

Now, let’s find Algol.  Algol is in the constellation Perseus which is in the west this month.  Check out the star chart below.

You will notice that it is about halfway between the Pleiades and the “W” in Cassiopeia. The brightest star in the constellation Perseus is Mirfak.  First find Mirfak, then move your gaze two stars below. You will find that Algol is quite easy to locate because after Mirfak, it is the brightest star in Perseus.

Almost every 69 hours, Algol is eclipsed, and the eclipse lasts about 20 minutes. The diagram below describes the event. The secondary eclipse is not noticeable.

Below is a list of the best viewing times for the eclipses this month. Go outside about an hour or so before the eclipse and notice the brightness of Algol compared to the nearby stars above and below Algol (small arrows). Then go back out later as the eclipse occurs and notice how much it has dimmed.  You can also return after to see it brighten again.

The three evening eclipses are shown below. The time represents the center of the 20 minute eclipse.

February 4:  11:38 pm
February 7:  8:27 pm
February 27:  10:12 pm

Naked Eye Sights: Find Algol in Perseus and watch it eclipse and dim.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Pleiades Cluster and the Orion Nebula.

Big Binocular Sights (18 to 25 power):  The Double Cluster in Perseus.  The Pleiades.  The Orion Nebula.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  Orion Nebula

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch):  Try to locate the four young stars near the center of the Orion Nebula, called the Trapezium.

January 2018

// January 1st, 2018 // Comments Off on January 2018 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                              Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections: what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 January 16th. For January, your best viewing nights will be from January 6th to the 20th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on January 15th at 9 pm. Note: A new table of contents for earlier columns is located in this January 2018 column.

Updated Table of Contents:
In addition to reporting seasonal and timely astronomy events each month, in many columns I discuss specific astronomy topics.  Example: if you want to know more about using “Big Binoculars,” go to February 2015, finder scopes, December 2012, etc. Therefore, every few years I will update the table of contents for the monthly astronomy topics.

Tony’s Astronomy Corner Topics:

  1. Accessories – Oct 2008, Feb 2014, March 2014
  2. Achro vs Apochromatic Lenses – July 2016
  3. Albireo – July 2009
  4. Andromeda – Oct 2009, Oct 2014, Jan 2017
  5. Arcturus – May 2008, May 2017
  6. Asterisms – Oct 2012, Dec 2014
  7. Asteroids – Aug 2011
  8. Astronomy Corner Table of Contents – Feb 2016
  9. Autumn Skies – Oct 2015
  10. Beehive Cluster(M44) – March 2016
  11. Big Binoculars – May 2010, Feb 2015
  12. Binocular Astronomy – Oct 2012
  13. Blue Moon – July 2011
  14. Canopus – April 2017
  15. Cascades – Feb 2013
  16. Clear Sky Chart – Oct 2010, Sept 2016, Oct 2017
  17. Coat Hanger Asterism – July 2009
  18. Color in the Night Sky – May 2016
  19. Comet ISON – Oct 2013, Nov 2013
  20. Comets – Jan 2013, March 2013, April 2013
  21. Constellations – Feb 2011
  22. Curiosity – Dec 2011, Aug 2012, Sept 2012
  23. Dobson, John – Feb 2009
  24. Double Cluster – Nov 2008, Nov 2009
  25. Dwarf Planets – June 2009, July 2014
  26. Finder Scopes – Sept 2009, Dec 2012
  27. Fomalhaut – Dec 2008
  28. Geminids – Dec 2012, 2014, Dec 2015, Dec 2016
  29. Green Flash – April 2017
  30. Harvest Moon – Nov 2010, Oct 2016
  31. Iridium Flares – April 2016
  32. ISS – March 2009, June 2015
  33. Jupiter – August 2008, Aug 2009, Sept 2009, July 2010, Feb 2013, March 2016
  34. Leonids – Nov 2009
  35. Lunar Eclipse – April 2014, Sept 2015
  36. Lunar Observing – May 2013, Sept 2014
  37. M104 – March 2011
  38. M13 “Where is” Program – July 2009
  39. M27 – July 2009
  40. M42 – Jan 2011
  41. M81 and M82 – June 2008
  42. Mercury – Dec 2009, Feb 2013
  43. Messier Marathon – March 2011, March 2012, March 2015, March 2016
  44. Messiers – June 2008, April 2009, July 2010, June 2013, Aug 2014
  45. Meteor Showers – Aug 2010, Dec 2011, Dec 2012
  46. Milky Way – May 2008
  47. Milky Way Shape – Dec 2008
  48. Milky Way Summer – July 2008
  49. Neptune – May 2009, Dec 2016
  50. Northern Cross(Cygnus the Swan) – Nov 2017
  51. Orion Constellation – Dec 2016
  52. Perseids – Aug 2010, Aug 2012, Aug 2013, Aug 2014, August 2015, August 2016
  53. Planetary Nebula – July 2011
  54. Planets: Dance of – April 2010
  55. Planets: Minor – May 2011
  56. Planets: New 9th – June 2011
  57. Planets: View perspective – Nov 2011
  58. Pluto – May 2011, July 2015, August 2015
  59. Quadrantids Meteor Shower – Jan 2016
  60. Red Dot Finder – Sept 2009
  61. Saturn – April 2013, May 2013, June 2014, May 2015, June 2015, June 2016, June 2017
  62. ScienceSouth Astronomy – Sept 2011
  63. Sidewalk Astronomy – Feb 2009, March 2009
  64. Solar Eclipse – July, Aug, Sept 2017
  65. Solar Observing – June 2011
  66. Springtime Skies – April 2015, May 2017
  67. Star Associations – Dec 2010
  68. Star Birth – Jan 2011
  69. Star Gazing by Constellation – Sept 2013
  70. Star Gazing Techniques – July 2013
  71. Star Hopping – Sept 2012
  72. Star Names – Jan 2012
  73. Star Parties – Sept 2008, Nov 2011, May 2015
  74. Star Party Phone Maps – April 2009
  75. Starry Night Program – Mar 2010
  76. Summer Milky Way – July 2012
  77. Summer Observing – July 2009, June 2017
  78. Summer Triangle – July 2009
  79. Telescope: Buying – Every November
  80. Telescopes: GoTo – Aug 2009
  81. Trapezium – Jan 2011
  82. Triangulum Galaxy – Jan 2010
  83. Uranus – June 2010, Feb 2012, Sept 2012, Feb 2017
  84. Venus Transit – June 2012
  85. Vesta – Feb 2010
  86. Virgo Cluster – April 2010, April 2012

Winter Constellations:
A New Year’s resolution. This month find one or more people who never heard of the Orion constellation, and bring them outside and point it out; I will try to do the same. I have been surprised/shocked over the years to find that so many people have no concept of what or where is Orion. Be sure to avoid having the Moon wash out its splendor. You will have a nice dark two week window in the middle of the month. I recognize that light pollution has ruined star gazing for many people; especially along the East Coast corridor, but Orion stands out as a bright wonderful grouping of stars that has delighted the eye since people walked the Earth.

If you wish, you can show your friends some of the stars and features of Orion; check out my December 2016 column. If they are at all interested, have binoculars ready to check out the “sword” and the Orion Nebula.

If your binoculars are handy, check out the three open clusters in Auriga, and the one at the left foot of Gemini.

Naked Eye Sights: The constellation Orion; show your friends. The Pleiades. The Taurus “V.”

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Pleiades Cluster and the Orion Nebula.

Big Binocular Sights (18 to 25 power): The Double Cluster in Perseus.  The Pleiades. The Orion Nebula.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Orion Nebula

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): The blue ball planet Uranus in the southwest in Pisces.

See you next month!

December 2017

// December 1st, 2017 // Comments Off on December 2017 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                              Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 December 18th. For December, your best viewing nights will be from December 7th to the 22nd. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on December 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

Correction Note: For the last several months, the location of my table of contents page, shown in the introduction paragraph, was incorrect. The correct location of my table of contents page is in the February 2016 column.

Note: Usually each November I feature my telescope purchasing column. It was postponed until December this year.

So you want to buy a telescope:

Every year a telescope appears on someone’s Christmas list. If you are considering your first purchase of a telescope, the following information may help you with your selection.

First suggestion: Never buy a telescope from a department store. This suggestion also pertains to TV shopping networks. If the telescope box, sales sign or salesperson mentions power (usually something above 200 or 300 power), then stay away! Good telescopes are defined by their light gathering ability, not by power.  In addition, these department store scopes usually have poor quality lenses and wobbly tripod mounts. The short comings of these “bargain” telescopes my may result in frustration when using them, and therefore may discourage instead of encourage your new interest in astronomy.

So the solution is to purchase a telescope from a telescope store, most of which are online. One well-known dealer is Orion telescopes found at telescope.com, others are Meade and Celestron. In addition, check out sources in “Astronomy” or “Sky and Telescope,” magazines.

So now that you know where to buy, the harder problem is what to buy. There are three basic types of telescopes: Refractors, Newtonian reflectors and Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors. You should consider a starting price of about $200, with a better starting amount being $300.

A refractor is what one might consider a traditional shaped telescope, a long thin tube with a lens (objective) in front to gather light, and another lens (eyepiece) in the back. They are fine telescopes for viewing the moon, planets and double stars and are often bought as “starter scopes.” However, they usually don’t have sufficient light gathering ability to give good viewing of galaxies and nebulas, unless you purchase expensive high-end refractors.

A Newtonian reflector uses a mirror to gather light instead of a lens.  The telescope consists of a hollow tube open at the top with the viewing eyepiece near the top at a right angle to the tube. Amateur scopes can have as small as a 3-inch diameter mirror, but basic reflectors usually range in size from 6 to 10 inch diameter mirrors. Because of their large light gathering ability, they can be used for a large range of astronomical targets, including galaxies and nebulae.

Another type of Newtonian reflectors is the Dobsonian reflector, usually called a Dob. The Dob was invented by John Dobson, and is a simple reflector that is placed in a mount on the ground, see image below.

Dobs are easy to use and quite inexpensive versus light gathering ability. Bottom line is that Dobs are known for giving the best telescope for your money. Some other considerations are; the larger ones can be bulky to transport, and they do need periodic fine adjustments to re-align the main mirror, called collimation. Laser collimators are available to make this job easy.  I collimate our Dob every time we use it; this adjustment takes me only about 1-2 minutes.

Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors were designed to give the benefits of a reflector, but minimizing the length. These telescopes tend to be, on average, the most expensive of the three telescopes types. Also of the three types, these are the telescopes that most likely to come equipped with a GoTo contoller which allows you to enter in on a keypad any celestial object, and the telescope will automatically find it for you. I do not personally favor GoTo systems because I feel that the best way to learn the night sky is to find your target objects using charts or astronomy computer programs.

Do you really need a telescope? If you are serious about a hobby in astronomy, it might be best if you put a pair of binoculars on your Christmas list this year, and buy the telescope next year. Reasons:  Binoculars are cheaper, most ranging between $80 and $200.  Binoculars will allow you to see a large region of the sky, and right side up! Binoculars can serve for other uses such as bird watching or sporting events. For simple astronomy, most people prefer 7 X 50 or 10 X 50 mm binoculars. If you get the binocular astronomy bug, you might someday upgrade to “big binoculars”; some of these are shown below. I own the gold colored one shown on the far right side of the photo, and with it, I can see Saturn’s rings!

To sum up my recommendations: If you want to start a serious venture into amateur astronomy, begin by buying a pair of binoculars, star charts, books, and astronomy software. If you must have a telescope this year, start with a Dob, minimum 6 inch, preferred 8 inch.

Naked Eye Sights: Geminids meteor shower peaks on morning 14th, on a Moonless night.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Pleiades, the Double Cluster and the Coathanger asterism.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The double star Albireo.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): The Ring Nebula in Lyra, M57.

See you next year!

November 2017

// November 1st, 2017 // Comments Off on November 2017 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                              Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 November 18th. For November, your best viewing nights will be from November 8th to the 23rd. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on November 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the November 2016 column.

The Northern Cross (Cygnus the Swan):

The cooler weather is bringing clearer skies, so enjoy. You may notice that this is the only season that has no impressive constellations low in the southern sky. Remember, Winter – Orion, Spring – Leo, Summer – Scorpius and Sagittarius. You will also notice the absence of stars in the south. There is only one somewhat bright star in the south this month, Fomalhaut in the constellation Piscis Austrinus. Don’t feel bad, most amateurs have never heard of that constellation.

So this month I suggest you spend some time observing the prominent constellation Cygnus, high in the western sky. This constellation can be enjoyed with simple amateur equipment, but it also contains some objects that are challenging for the advanced amateur astronomer.

First, observe the naked eye view. Cygnus represents a swan in flight.  The brightest star in this constellation is Deneb, derived from the Arabic word for tail. We can also see the long neck of the swan ending at an interesting star, Albireo; and of course, we can see the extended wings. From its rising in the spring and through the summer, it looks like a swan in flight, and it is flying along the Milky Way. This time of year, it looks like it is diving/falling down from the sky, and as such, it now looks like the asterism, the Northern Cross. Specifically, it is in the shape of a perfect Christian cross. Many people ask me if there is a Southern Cross; the answer is yes; it is called the constellation Crux, and it is the smallest constellation in the sky.

I have searched it out on my many trips to Mexico, and it is not a very impressive cross asterism. On a clear dark night, you can see seven stars forming the Northern Cross, however, the Southern Cross is defined by only four stars, and a fifth star interferes with the cross asterism. However, in the southern hemisphere, it is highly regarded, and is found on the national flags of five countries.

Cygnus also contains my favorite star, Albireo (the bottom star of the cross or the head of the swan). Albireo is a double star. There are hundreds of double stars in the sky, but Albireo is special because of the colors. One star is sapphire blue, and the other is golden yellow.

The best way to see this colorful double star is through a simple telescope at low power, or through large binoculars; check it out.

There are only two Messier objects in Cygnus, M29 and M39, both are unimpressive open star clusters. There is an interesting Messier M27 (The Dumbbell) that many people assume is in Cygnus, but it is in a small constellation nearby called Vulpecula; see its location in the Cygnus image above. While visiting Cygnus, check it out. M27 is called a planetary nebula, which is the remnant of a dead star, see image below.

This object is faint and fuzzy, but you will see the dumbbell shape.  When viewing this object through large binoculars (25 X 100 mm) at a dark sky location, for some unknown reason, it gives a 3D optical illusion. It appears to be standing out in front of the background stars.

There are two challenging objects to locate in Cygnus; the North America nebula, and the Veil Nebula. As I discussed last month, having good dark sky viewing in our part of the country can be quite difficult. Whenever attempting to view most nebulae, a dark clear sky is essential. I have been in several dark sky sites, but I have yet to see the North America or Veil nebulae. This month the North America nebula is found just to the left of the star Deneb; see below.

The best way to view the North America nebula is at low power, with a large aperture. If you use a large Dobsonian telescope, you may have trouble attaining a low enough power. Your best chance is by viewing with both eyes. Therefore, large binoculars should work. I have tried and failed with 25 X 100 mm binoculars, but I believe it is possible if conditions are perfect. Our new 25 X 150 mm binoculars may supply the extra light gathering needed to see this elusive nebula. Below is an impressive image of the North America nebula.

Note in the North America nebula image, there is a second nebula to the right called the Pelican. If you do get to see the North America nebula, it is not likely that you will see the super dim Pelican. This image is from long exposure astrophotography.

I have been told that viewing the Veil nebula is next to impossible without the use of special nebula filters. The Veil nebula was formed from a super nova, and exists as two sections to the left of the star Gienah; see image above.

Enjoy your tour of Cygnus.

Naked Eye Sights: The Northern Cross (Cygnus the Swan)

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): M27 (The Dumbbell), try for the North America Nebula, M31 (the Andromeda Galaxy).

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Albireo

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): Albireo, M27, the North America Nebula; at your lowest power using a wide field eyepiece.

See you next month!

October 2017

// October 1st, 2017 // Comments Off on October 2017 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

A little October fun!

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 October 19th. For October, your best viewing nights will be from October 10th to the 24th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on October 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the October 2016 column.

When to Take Out Your Telescopes:

The night sky has been unfriendly to astronomers for most of this year. In addition to the general problem of light pollution, there are two major natural situations that prevent amateur astronomers from enjoying the night sky. The first situation is cloud cover. This factor has ruined many ScienceSouth observing nights, and also caused us to miss the solar eclipse last August at Moncks Corner, SC. The second situation is the Moon. The light of the Moon one week before and after the full Moon prevents all but planetary viewing. You cannot adjust for clouds, just wait for a clear night. The Moon however moves with clockwork precision, so you simply plan your viewing the week before and after the new Moon.

Therefore, you should simply choose a viewing time without cloud cover and near the new Moon. This brings into play the real villain for amateur astronomy; heat.If the Earth’s surface is hot, as in summer, two heat factors ruin your nighttime viewing. First is excessive moisture in the atmosphere; we call this high humidity. How does this affect astronomy? Basically, atmospheric water doesn’t transmit light as well as clear air. A second factor is thermoclines. An atmospheric thermocline is the area where hot and cold air meet. I have been in deserts at midday, and the distant objects such as mountains are quite blurry. The reason is that the light is passing through many different variable densities of air, resulting in refraction, or bending of light.  Notice the wavy lines above a hot car hood or a hot highway distorting your view; see below.

These wavy lines are known as the Schlieren Effect. When you look through your telescope trying to find a distant galaxy, you will not actually see the Schlieren Effect, you just won’t see the dim object.  So as the hot wet air mixes with the cooler upper air mass, we end up with distortion, and of course, the hotter the surface air, the more distortion. This heat distortion is also affected by the amount of wind turbulence in the atmosphere. The end result is that usually the summer night skies are least favorable for astronomy.

To summarize: An apparently clear/cloudless night does not mean it is a good night for astronomy. There are three ways that I determine if I should bring out my telescopes on a clear Moonless night.

First I go on the computer and check an astronomer’s weather site called the “Clear Sky Chart”;  http://www.cleardarksky.com/c/FMUObSCkey.html?1.

This site reports the viewing conditions for over 5000 locations in North America. The link above is the Francis Marion University location. At first glance, this chart is quite confusing; see below.

I suggest you study the website to understand all of its functions. Focus primarily on the first three lines, cloud cover, transparency and seeing. When the squares on all three lines are dark blue, this is the best seeing that they can report. The first line is obvious; heavy cloud cover, white squares, no viewing, blue squares; no clouds. When the first and second lines are both dark blue, it will probably be a good viewing night. A dark blue third line just adds to your chance of a perfect night. If you note the image above, there were no good viewing nights for this time frame. So put the link to this site on your desktop or smart phone to quickly see the weather conditions for astronomers.

The second method I use is a naked eye view of the sky. If at any time of the year I can clearly see all seven stars in the Little Dipper, it should be a clear viewing night. From September through January, if I can see the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) in Andromeda, and/or the Circlet asterism in Pisces, it should be a good viewing night.

From February through May, if I can see the Beehive Cluster (M44) in Cancer, it will be a good viewing night. All through the summer, if the Milky Way is clearly visible, it should be a good viewing night.

If I can see the Lagoon Nebula (M8) in Sagittarius with the naked eye, you are in a great dark sky location. Finally, if you can see many stars inside the bowl of the Big Dipper, you are in one of the darkest skies on Earth.

The third approach, if the sky looks good with the naked eye, is to bring out your binoculars. I know various dim objects that I can see through simple binoculars. This time of year I will look for the Dumbbell Nebula (M27) in Cygnus; shown below. If I can easily see it, it is a good night for stargazing.

So let’s hope for cooler clearer drier skies as we head toward the winter months.

Naked Eye Sights: The Northern Cross asterism in Cygnus. The Great Square asterism in Pegasus.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Andromeda Galaxy. The Double Cluster in Perseus. The Coathanger asterism in Vulpecula.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  Andromeda Galaxy. The Double Cluster in Perseus. The double star Albireo in Cygnus.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch):  Andromeda Galaxy. The Double Cluster in Perseus. The Ring Nebula (M57) in Lyra.

See you next month!

September 2017

// September 23rd, 2017 // Comments Off on September 2017 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                             Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 September 20th. For September, your best viewing nights will be from September 10th to the 24th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on September 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the September 2016 column.

The 2017 Eclipse – My Personal Story:

I had been preparing for the 2017 total eclipse for the last three years.  This was not going to be the most important event of my life, but since my last total eclipse was 47 years ago, this was certainly an event to look forward to.

In the last twelve months I have discussed ScienceSouth’s contribution to this event with our director, Stephen Welch. There were three obvious locations we could visit near the centerline of the eclipse, and within easy striking distance from ScienceSouth; Lexington, Santee, and Moncks Corner. We avoided Lexington do to the large crowds in the Columbia region. Santee was the easiest location to reach, but it was also the target for anyone traveling from the north or south on Interstate 95; large congestion was anticipated. In addition, we could not see any large open viewing sites near Santee. With this in mind, we planned to pick a location just north of Charleston, and as close as possible to the centerline of the eclipse. A few months ago we settled on Moncks Corner.  We have had previous enjoyable contacts with Moncks Corner in which Stephen and I performed outdoor science shows in one of their parks. Upon contacting Moncks Corner, we were happy to hear that there was a large event planned at their recreation fields in the center of town. The coordinator of the event was Sara Anderson, and she graciously invited us to bring our observing equipment down to their event. One week before the event, I drove down and checked out the recreation center, and the area set aside for us to set up our equipment. We were given half of an outside basketball court to set up. This court was brand new, and had an excellent smooth surface to place our viewing equipment.

A few days before the eclipse, the weather report gave a high probability of clouds or rain in southeastern South Carolina; no matter what, Stephen and I would be there with hopes for the best.

The morning of August 21, 2017, the two of us left ScienceSouth at 5 am, and arrived at the Moncks Corner just before 7 am. Avoiding the interstate and using route 52, we had no travel delays. We set up a 10 inch Dobsonian telescope equipped with a solar filter, one small H1alpha solar telescope, one large H1alpha solar telescope, and two Sun Spotter solar projectors. In addition, we had our eclipse glasses and a pair of Coronado solar binoculars for personal use. Other items included a tent/canopy, large quantities of electrolyte drinks, and snacks. Our set up is shown below, with me wearing my “Totality or Nothing” T-shirt.

From 8 am until 1 pm, we had a mix of sunshine and cumulus clouds.  During this time we were able to show visitors great views of the Sun.  Surprisingly, there was a large band of sunspots covering over half of the Sun. In addition, there were some small prominences visible through our H1alpha scopes. The visitors really enjoyed using our solar viewing equipment. We met many wonderful people both locally, and from Maine, Georgia, Washington, DC and New York.

As the time of first shadow contact approached, 1:16 pm, I was watching through the 10 inch Dobsonian. I equipped the Dobsonian with a 2 inch 26 mm eyepiece giving a wide view 70 power image. I must admit, when I first the shadow of the Moon, I was overly excited.  We called out to all of the people in our area to come over and enjoy the view. Everyone was thrilled. Less than thirty minutes later we looked to the south, and became depressed, because bearing down on us was a massive thunderstorm. The last view of the eclipse in our Sun Spotter, before the storm, is shown below.

This ended our view of the eclipse for the rest of the afternoon. We did not experience any rain, but there was never any break in the clouds.  Our view of the Sun near totality is shown below.

During totality, there was some clear sky in the north. Everyone noticed two interesting things, first, the blue sky never became totally dark, and although we were under cloud cover, the totality seemed to be much too short. My theory is as follows: The time of totality was likely hard to determine with the Sun behind the clouds. The only possible reason that the sky did not totally darken was that there must have been a bright corona during totality. Shown below is an update of the “Totality or Nothing” T-shirt photo.

So we missed the eclipse, quite sad but beyond our control. What I remember most were the wonderful visitors we met during the day.  Also a special thanks to Sara Anderson and work she did setting up this event.

See you next month. I am busy checking Trip Advisor for motels in Hot Springs, Arkansas for 2024.

Naked Eye Sights: Last views of the Summer Milky Way

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Last view of the Messier Objects in the Summer Milky Way.

Telescope Sights (60-100 mm): Last chance to view Saturn

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): Last chance to view Saturn.

August 2017

// August 1st, 2017 // Comments Off on August 2017 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 21. For August, your best viewing nights will be from August 12 to the 27. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on August 15 at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the August 2016 column.

The Total Solar Eclipse August 21, 2017 – Part 2:
Note: To new readers, check out my July 2017 column for basic information about the eclipse. This month I will reinforce some of my column last month, and discuss some other eclipse related phenomena.

The eclipse time table is shown below.

By now, hopefully you have picked your viewing location. Assume you will experience the largest crowd of people you have ever seen. Don’t rely on GPS. Make sure you have either hard copy maps of the area, or have Google Maps on your smart phone. You may have to use small back roads to return home.

It’s August, dress cool and bring plenty of liquids to stay hydrated; use PowerAde or Gatorade type drinks to replenish your electrolytes. Put an ice cooler in the trunk. Make sure your gas tank is topped off when you arrive at your location. You may want to bring aspirin, antacids, or other medications you may need if you if you are delayed several hours before you can return home. Bring a small first aid kit. When you check out your viewing location, consider the availability of restroom facilities.

All these suggestions may seem to be overly cautious, but if they end up to be unneeded, no harm.

Special Shadows That No One Mentions:
Besides the shadow of the Moon on the Earth, there are other shadows that may amaze you, but no one will see them because they are watching the total eclipse of the Sun. These special shadows appear just before and just after totality, when everyone’s eyes are looking upwards.  These are the shadows of your surroundings.

All your life you have seen shadows outside when the Sun is out, and all these shadows are soft, with blurred edges. This is due to the sunlight coming from a large object, the Sun. However, just before and after a total solar eclipse, the still intense sunlight is coming from a narrow slit. The results, razor sharp shadows. This is the only time in your life that you will see razor sharp shadows outside; the effect is amazing, or to some, can be shocking. In 1970 during the total eclipse at Virginia Beach, one woman dropped her head to see these shadows and screamed, “It’s the end of the world”; true story. So why don’t you hear people mention it; they are all looking at the Sun.

So if you want two thrills during the 2017 eclipse, do the following.  Everyone will be counting down to totality. Between 2 minutes and 1 minute before totality, drop your eyes to ground level, take off your eclipse glasses and look around you, checking the shadows. Put your eclipse glasses on and look back at the Sun.  As totality approaches, repeat the procedure again. You may be amazed, but it is not the end of the world.

If you want to see this effect tonight, try this at home. You must have a high intensity single bulb LED flashlight. At night turn on a standard bulb lamp in your room, and note the soft shadow of some object on your wall. Now turn off the lamp and shine your bright flashlight on the object; sharp shadows. Note: These LED flashlights are also great for finding misplaced objects around the house; sharp shadows.

Another Special Shadow That No One Mentions:
This other special shadow is harder to detect. The phenomenon is called shadow bands. There is about a 50% chance that you will see these shadows during this eclipse. These shadows move on the ground like ripples. They are best seen on light colored surfaces, such as a beach. I plan to stake out a large white sheet on the ground in hopes of observing this interesting, but not shocking, effect; see below.

If you miss the total eclipse this month, you can wait 7 years and in 2024, drive 750 miles to Arkansas. Or, you can wait 28 years, and in 2045 drive 480 miles to Orlando, Florida. Or, you can wait 35 years and in 2052 drive 180 miles to Savannah, Georgia. Finally, as I mentioned above, for my young readers, you can wait 61 years, and in 2078, watch the total solar eclipse from your backyard in Florence; see below.

Now if for some reason you are unable to view the eclipse, you may plan for the 2024 eclipse. I have a personal thought on this subject. I predict that if you miss the 2017 eclipse, you probably will not drive over 700 miles to see the next one. However, if you do see the 2017 eclipse, you will drive over 700 miles to see the next one. Reason for my prediction: If you miss the 2017 eclipse, you won’t really know what you missed. If you see the 2017 eclipse, it will be so amazing, that you will want to see another one.

ScienceSouth will NOT be hosting an eclipse event on-site at the Pavilion.  However, our staff will be assisting with other eclipse programs around the state (information below).

The Dooley Planetarium will be hosting a Solar Eclipse Viewing Party starting at 11:30am on August 21st, 2017 at the Griffin Athletic Complex on the Francis Marion University campus.  Dr. Jeanette Myers, ScienceSouth staff and others will be passing out solar eclipse glasses to patrons as they enter the gates of the complex.  Participants will be able to engage in hands-on demonstrations, make UV bracelets and more.  For more information on this event and other events leading up to the solar eclipse, click the following links:  Dooley Planetarium Website and Dooley Planetarium Facebook Page

The City of Moncks Corner will be hosting a “Total Eclipse in the Park” event on August 21st, 2017 at the Regional Recreational Complex from 11:00am until 4:00pm.  Food trucks, icy treats and eclipse activities will be available to all patrons that attend.  ScienceSouth staff will be in attendance with solar telescopes, sunspotters and more.  For more information, click the website link:   Total Eclipse in the Park Event

 

Naked Eye Sights: The Solar Eclipse on August 21, 2017.  The sky during totality, see below.

The Perseids Meteor shower peaking early morning on August 13.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The summer Milky Way deep sky objects.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Saturn and Jupiter.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): Saturn and Jupiter.

See you next month!

July 2017

// July 15th, 2017 // Comments Off on July 2017 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                               Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 July 23rd. For July, your best viewing nights will be from July 12th to the 26th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on July 15th at 9 pm.  Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the July 2016 column.

Total Eclipse of the Sun:
A total solar eclipse of the Sun occurs during a New Moon when the Sun and Moon are perfectly aligned so the disk of the Moon totally covers the Sun. We have a New Moon every month, but because the orbit of the Moon is tipped in relation to the plane of the Sun and Earth, the perfect alignment is quite rare for any given location on the Earth, see image below.

Get Ready for the Total Solar Eclipse August 21, 2017:
The solar eclipse next month is such an important event that you should be thinking about and preparing for it this month. No one in South Carolina should miss seeing this event! No one in South Carolina should witness this event outside the area of totality. If you have no means of transportation, plan ahead. Ask a friend to take you. Take a bus or train to Charleston area or Columbia area. The path of totality for the eclipse is shown below. The closer you are to the center of this path, the longer will be the totality. Therefore, some of the best locations close to the Florence area are: Santee, Monck’s Corner, and Lexington.

Most people only see a total solar eclipse once, and at most twice in a lifetime. The last total eclipse in Florence was in 1970, 47 years ago.  The next total solar eclipse in Florence will be in 2078, 61 years from now. Therefore, the time between total solar eclipses in Florence, SC will be 108 years. Now I admit that these times/dates are a little misleading, because although the total solar eclipse of 2017 next month will not be seen in Florence, it will only be a short drive away.

So where should you go? Since you are going to drive to see the total eclipse, go to a location closest to the center path of totality. The total eclipse is a thrilling, possibly once in a lifetime experience, so maximize your time in totality. For this eclipse, the times of totality will range from 1 minute to a maximum of 2 minutes 40 seconds.  Check the path of totality map above. Your locations in South Carolina for maximum totality are along a line running directly through: Clemson, Lexington, Santee, and Monck’s Corner. Next, plan ahead, choose a viewing site, and check with the local area tourist centers or chamber of commerce to find out where the best actual viewing locations will be in your location of choice.  If possible, drive there a week or so before to get a feel of the area. Note: there is a great unknown factor that will affect your viewing site. We have no idea at all how many people will be at any given location, or what the potential for traffic congestion will be; assume the worse and plan ahead.  Many schools and government offices on the totality path will be closed on that day; Monday August 21, 2017.

One national eclipse center used statistical analyses and plotted data for the point where Interstate 95 crosses the center of the totality, and from that determined that about 75 million east coast people are in driving distance of the eclipse at Santee, SC; the data then projected visitor numbers would range from 500,000 to 2 million in central South Carolina.

What to bring? The only unique and necessary tools are eclipse viewing eyeglasses. Do not try to design your own glasses using dark sunglasses or welder’s glasses; not every welder’s glasses are suitable.  Make sure the glasses are labeled for viewing the sun/solar eclipse. If you use the wrong dark glasses, you can permanently damage your eyes and be unaware that it has happened until several hours later. There are thousands of cardboard eclipse glasses available for free at many science centers, museums and colleges, and they are fine to use.  You can also buy better plastic eclipse glasses on line for $5 to $10.

Only during totality can you remove your eclipse glasses to view the eclipsed Sun with your naked eyes. Hopefully you will see a nice corona as shown below. In addition, you will see the stars come out.

Please note that some locations, colleges, science centers, outside the path of totality are forced to set up eclipse viewing events because of internal politics. Please do not be tempted to go to non-totality viewing events. If for some reason you choose to stay in Florence and see a partial eclipse, remember, during a partial solar eclipse, you can never take off your eclipse glasses when looking toward the Sun.

To be continued next month. See you then!

Special eclipse information you may not read about anywhere else.

Naked Eye Sights: Sagittarius and Scorpius are moving into the southern sky. Enjoy the stars and constellations of summer. Also, if you go away from the city lights, you should easily see our Milky Way Galaxy.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): In the south, slowly follow the Summer Milky Way from the southern horizon upwards.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The clusters above Sagittarius and Scorpius. Saturn and Jupiter.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): The clusters and nebulas above and between Sagittarius and Scorpius. Saturn and Jupiter.

June 2017

// June 16th, 2017 // Comments Off on June 2017 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                                  Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections: what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 June 23rd. For June, your best viewing nights will be from June 12th to the 28th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on June 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the June 2016 column.

Saturn:
Saturn is the best planetary target for amateur telescopes, and therefore each year I repeat a Saturn column during the best months of the year to observe this planet.

The return of the planet Saturn to the evening skies continues to be of particular importance this year because the favorable tilt of the planet versus the Earth. This view will continue to be impressive for at least 4-5 more years. A classic Saturn image is shown below.

Of course, the image you will see through your amateur telescopes will be quite small and sometimes blurry, but still impressive.

When observing through my 25 X 100 mm binoculars, I can just see the rings of Saturn, they are tiny, but clearly visible. Therefore, any scope you use at 25 power and above will allow you to see the rings of Saturn; of course views are better at 50 power and above. Below are three views of Saturn through amateur telescopes. The smaller blurry image represents what you might see with a very inexpensive discount store telescope. The other two images represent views from Dobsonian reflectors ranging from 6 to 10 inches.

At various times ScienceSouth has free public astronomy events using the ScienceSouth Dobsonian reflectors. Keep checking our website for dates. We often set dates that will allow us to see spectacular views of the mountains and craters of the Moon along with the views of the planets. Although the Moon and Jupiter both generate various amounts of excitement, I always hear the biggest “wows” when someone sees Saturn for the first time. The Moon is great, the big ball of Jupiter looks quite nice, and the small fuzzy ball of Mars is OK, and some people even enjoy the fuzzy crescent of Venus; but Saturn is special. You can view hundreds of images of Saturn on the internet, but there is something magical when your see it through your own eyes. So if you have a telescope, try viewing Saturn this month in the southern sky. If you don’t own a telescope come visit us and use our telescopes. Saturn will be in a good viewing position this month onward starting about 10 pm. Good viewing of Saturn will continue from now through August, and into September. However, if you have a clear view of the western horizon, you can still see Saturn through September and into early October.

To find Saturn this month, look to the southeast to see the pale yellow planet. Find the two most obvious constellations; Scorpius and Sagittarius, described later in this column.

The planet Saturn will be found between these constellations, somewhat closer to Sagittarius, see image below. It is interesting that the location of Saturn this summer is close to the center of our Milky Way. Below and slightly to the left of Saturn is the center of our galaxy and the location of our black hole. The location of Saturn lies almost exactly over our black hole in mid-December, but at that time it is also nearly in line with our Sun, so obviously not visible.

I have a trick that may help you when viewing Saturn, or any bright planet. When viewing bright planets through some amateur telescopes, the contrast of a very bright planet against a black sky can produce a glare, which may prevent a clear view of the planet. A simple way to solve this problem is to view the planet before the sky becomes black; during twilight. Example: This month when you go out to view Saturn, begin viewing in the twilight, for July, start about 9 pm. Note, in July and August, Saturn will be much higher in the sky, so this twilight viewing trick will be more useful.

The Constellations of Summer:
The constellations of summer are returning. The two most prominent constellations of summer are Scorpius and Sagittarius, now rising in the southeast, moving into the southern sky next month.

Scorpius itself does look like a scorpion, but the stars for its claws appear to be missing. The ancients used two stars in the constellation we now call Libra to represent the claws; Zubeneschmali and Zubenelgenubi. So just look to the right of Scorpius and add these two stars to complete the scorpion. Scorpius is also known as the “Letter J” asterism. The brightest star in Scorpius is the red-orange star Antares at the heart of the Scorpion. Unlike Scorpius, Sagittarius does not look at all like its namesake, an archer riding on a horse; it looks like a teapot. I would expect that when it was named thousands of years ago, no one used teapots. Check it out.

Naked Eye Sights: Scorpius and Sagittarius, now rising in the southeast. In dark sky areas, the Milky Way should be easy to see, because in the summer we look into the direction of the center of the Milky Way, maximizing the concentration of stars.

 Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Aim your binoculars between Sagittarius and Scorpius and slowly wander upward, to see star clusters and nebulae.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Saturn, in the southeast is always the best planetary target, followed by Jupiter, now in the southwest.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): Saturn and Jupiter.

See you next month!

May 2017

// May 5th, 2017 // Comments Off on May 2017 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                               Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 May 25th. For May, your best viewing nights will be from May 14th to the 29th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on May 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the May 2016 column.

The May 2017 Sky:
This month we will focus on one section of the southern sky as shown in the squared off section of the star map above. You can enjoy this area of the sky with your eyes, binoculars, and small and large telescopes. Below is a larger view of this region.

Leo: Starting with naked eye targets. The most obvious is the constellation Leo the lion. Leo is the most prominent constellation of spring. In addition, the shape of the constellation does indeed look like a crouching lion. The brightest star is Regulus representing the front leg of the lion, however, all nine stars that define the constellation are easily visible to the naked eye even with our local light pollution. The head and mane of the Leo is known as the “Sickle” asterism or the backwards question mark. Leo contains five Messier Objects, all located just below the lion.

Jupiter: This spring, the brightest star-like object is the planet Jupiter located in the southeast. Jupiter is a favorite planet because with a small amateur telescope you can see the planet as a disk, see its four major moons, and in addition, you should be able to see Jupiter’s clouds bands, usually in color. If you have not yet purchased a telescope, with simple binoculars braced against a building or car, you can easily see the four major moons of Jupiter, as small pinpricks of light. Remember, on any given night, one or more of these moons may be in front or behind the planet.

Arcturus: The brightest star in this field of view is the orange star Arcturus. If you are not sure you are looking at Arcturus, go to the main star chart at the top of the page. Starting at the bowl of the Big Dipper, follow the curve of the handle, and it will point to Arcturus; known as “Arc to Arcturus.” This is not just another bright star in the night sky; Arcturus is quite unique versus all the other stars visible in the night sky. All of the naked eye visible stars in the sky are moving together in the rotating Milky Way, except one star, Arcturus. Arcturus is not moving along with the other stars in the Milky Way, it is plunging perpendicular through the Milky Way. I good analogy to describe this is as follows. Imagine standing on a bridge spanning the Great Pee Dee River in late autumn and looking down as fallen leaves float along down the river. These leaves are carried along as the stars are carried along the spinning Milky Way. Now drop a small stone off the bridge into the river; this would represent how Arcturus is moving through our galaxy.

The Milky Way rotates once every 250,000 years, so after one rotation, the star Arcturus will no longer be visible to the naked eye. You may wonder why there is only one star moving in this manner. There are at least 50+ other stars moving this way along with Arcturus, but they are too dim and far away to be seen with the naked eye.

There is another interesting fact about Arcturus. Using technology available about 100 years ago, it was determined that Arcturus was 40 light years away. Now, in 1893 there was a World’s Fair in Chicago. In 1933 there was another World’s Fair in Chicago; 40 years later. Some brilliant person had a great idea. When the World’s Fair closed in 1893, the light from the star Arcturus began its journey to Earth, arriving in Chicago 40 years later. The light from Arcturus in 1933 was focused on a photoelectric cell, and used to turn on the power for the opening of the new World’s Fair. Many years later, data showed that Arcturus was actually 37 light years away; however, it was still a great idea.

Virgo Cluster: Below Arcturus, and above Jupiter is a region of the sky known as the Virgo Cluster. Usually clusters refer to clusters of stars, but the Virgo Cluster is a cluster of about 1500 galaxies. Many of these galaxies are visible through large binoculars. The best choice is to point your Dobsonian into this area, and slowly scan this region. For the Messier Objects hunters, there are fifteen Messier Objects in the Virgo Cluster. Below is a view of a small section of the cluster.

For a good overview of the Virgo Cluster, go back in my blog to April 2012.

M104 (The Sombrero): My personal favorite target in this area is Messier 104, also known as the Sombrero Galaxy.

This beautiful edge-on galaxy can be detected with simple binoculars, but only as a tiny smudge. I have seen the central dark band with my 25 X 100mm binoculars.

For a good overview on locating M104, go back in my blog to March 2011.

Naked Eye Sights: Leo the Lion, Jupiter, and Arcturus

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Jupiter’s four major moons. Possibly a few galaxies in the Virgo Cluster, and possibly the tiny smudge M104.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Jupiter. Try for some more Virgo Cluster galaxies, and M104.

Dobsonian telescope Sights (6 -8 inch): Jupiter. The best choice for the Virgo Cluster and M104.

See you next month!

April 2017

// April 7th, 2017 // Comments Off on April 2017 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                                 Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 26th. For April, your best viewing nights will be from April 16th to the 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on April 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the April 2016 column.

The “Green Flash”
The Green Flash is a rare solar phenomenon that few people have ever seen. I have yet to see this event although I looked for it over many years. Regular visitors to ScienceSouth know that we have a great rocket scientist in our group known as Mister Fred. Recently Mister Fred casually mentioned to me that he has seen the Green Flash. I was shocked, and at that point, I realized that I had never discussed this event in my column.

The Green Flash is a rare event that occurs during sunset. Just as the top of the Sun is about to disappear below the horizon, a green flash of light is seen on the top of the Sun. I have been told that this can also occur during sunrise, but almost all reports of this event occurred during sunset. This Green Flash lasts only one to two seconds; which also adds to the rare chance that you might see it. The best chance you have of seeing this event is your knowledge that it can happen. Therefore, once you are aware of this phenomenon, from this day forward, you will now watch for it whenever you view a sunset.

The Green Flash requires a sharp horizon. Therefore almost every report of this event has been when the Sun is setting over the ocean, as shown in the images above and below. Therefore, within driving distance, either the west coast of Florida, or a cruise ship would give you your best opportunity. The amazing image below was taken on the beach at Clearwater, Florida.

Let me clarify the sunset favored over the sunrise. If you are looking for a green flash as the Sun is setting in the west, your eye can clearly follow the disk of the sun disappearing into the ocean, and anticipate the exact moment that the green flash might appear. However, on the South Carolina coast watching the sunrise, you have no clear disk to follow, because it is below the horizon, therefore, you have to approximate where or when it might appear, lowering your chance of success.

The science behind this effect is simply light refraction. As the Sun sets or rises, the atmosphere is acting as a prism refracting light. When the Sun sets, the white light passes through a longer portion of the atmosphere than when is high in the sky. We have a blue sky because the atmosphere scatters blue, indigo and violet light. During a sunset, you essentially remove all of the BIV from the rainbow ROYGBIV, leaving ROYG. The ROY overpowers your eyes, and we see a red sun setting, however, the atmosphere is still refracting/separating the colors. So the blues are already gone, the red Sun then goes below the horizon, and the only color left is green! This sounds simple in theory, but it takes extremely special atmospheric conditions to see this rare event.

There is no bright star on the southern horizon!
Periodically people will call ScienceSouth with a question about astronomy. In March someone called and asked what the bright star near the southern horizon was after sunset. This question was then directed to me. I asked if the person was looking at Venus, which is not very close to the horizon, and in the west, not the south. The only other bright object that night was the bright star Sirius, in the south, but almost 40 degrees above the horizon. The woman who called was aware of both the location of Venus and Sirius that night, and stated that the unknown bright star was almost touching the southern horizon. Based on my lifetime of observing the night sky, my answer was, “there is no bright star on the southern horizon.”

Now a good scientist must train them self to be humble, and to always keep an open mind. Therefore, I turned on my astronomy computer program and looked at the southern horizon just after sunset, and there was a nice bright star only 4 degrees above the horizon! Impossible, but there it was, the star Canopus in the southern constellation of Carina. The caller was right, and I was wrong. It so happens that my lifetime of observing took place above 41 degrees north latitude. At this latitude, Canopus would not be visible. In addition, my viewing sites since I have been in South Carolina have not had a clear view of the southern horizon. So I said there was no bright star on the southern horizon because I never had a place to see it.

View of Canopus on March 15th.

The star Canopus is visible from South Carolina every March, if you have a clear view of the southern horizon. Note: There is a small chance that you will be able to see it early this month.

Naked Eye Sights: Maybe Canopus on the southern horizon early in April. The winter constellations are still visible but not for long.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Comet 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák, mentioned last month, is moving downward through the constellation Draco in the first two weeks of April.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Jupiter in the east.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): Jupiter in the east.

 

March 2017

// March 9th, 2017 // Comments Off on March 2017 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                                   Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope, and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 March 27th. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 18th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the March 2016 column.

Short Period Comet Hunting:
It has been several years since we have seen a readily visible comet. When amateur astronomers get tired of waiting for a naked eye comet, they enjoy searching for small dim comets, using binoculars or a telescope. Most of these comets have a “P” designation in their name, which means they are a periodic comet. Periodic comets have a relative short orbital time around the Sun, ranging from a few years to a maximum of 200 years. There are almost 100 short period comets that orbit the Sun from 10 years to only a few years. This month, one such comet, is 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák; note the letter ”P” followed by the names of the three people who discovered it. Below is a telescopic view of this comet taken on February 25, 2017.

The first time it was observed was in 1858 and it has an orbital time around the Sun of 5.4 years. This month, is the closest approach it has ever made to Earth; 13 million miles. However, it still may not be a bright or easy to spot comet. The reason that most of the short period comets are seldom seen as naked eye objects is directly related to their short orbits. When any comet swings around the Sun, called perihelion, large amounts of its surface gases are blown away. The ejection, or burning off of this surface material produces the large bright comet tails that we see when a new comet enters into our solar system. However, these short period comets may have passed near the Sun hundreds or thousands of times. Most of the surface debris that forms the bright long tails have long ago been depleted. So these comets tend to be dim and usually have no tails, or only a small tail.

The best time to start looking for this comet is around March 22nd. From this time until the 25th it will pass through the bowl of the Big Dipper. Therefore, you will have no problem aiming your binoculars. At this time of year, the Big Dipper will appear upside down. The comet will enter from above and into the bottom of the Dipper’s bowl on March 22nd and exit the bowl on March 25th. See the images below.

First note that these images are from a computer astronomy software, and the computer default always shows a comet having a tail. The positions of the comets are accurate, but the visual representations are not. The red circle shows the field of view for a 7 X 50 mm binocular. The two bright stars to the left are Merak on the top and Dubhe on the bottom. The unknown factor is how bright the comet will appear based on the darkness of your viewing location. If the comet is bright enough for binocular viewing, then you will be able to follow it each night as it moves away from the Dipper’s bowl. The closest approach of the comet to the Earth will be the last day of the month through the first days of April. Again, depending on the darkness of your viewing site at this time the comet may become faintly visible to the naked eye.

What may you expect to see? Most likely you will see the comet as a small fuzzy ball, which will make it easy to distinguish it from the nearby stars. As it gets nearer to the Sun it may begin to form a small tail. In the worst case, it may be so dim that you may have trouble distinguishing it from the nearby stars. If you have any doubt that the tiny diffuse object is the comet, then check the next night to see if it has changed its position.

What I have described in the paragraph above is probably an accurate description of your viewing experience of comet 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák this month. However, there is another reason that you should try to locate the comet. Think of a comet as an onion, and each pass around the Sun peels off one layer of debris and gases. However, these “layers” are not uniform. Using the onion analogy, look at the image below.

Layers one and two may have a small amount of tail forming gases and debris, but layer three may contain huge amounts of tail forming material. This irregularity would result in a significant brightening of the comet and tail formation when the comet passes around the Sun and “layer three” is exposed.

This irregular brightening of comets is not normal for most comets. However, comet 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák has a history of these outbursts. The most recent explosive outburst of a comet occurred in November 2007. ScienceSouth telescopes were at Lynches River Park, and the public viewed the impressive outburst of Comet Holmes which became larger than our Sun!

Personally I would be happy just to see the comet this month, and learn how to pronounce its name.

Naked Eye Sights: Say goodbye to Orion as it sets in the west.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): View comet 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): View comet 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): View comet 41P/Tuttle–Giacobini–Kresák.

See you next month!

February 2017

// February 6th, 2017 // Comments Off on February 2017 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                                       Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections: what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope, and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 February 26th. For February, your best viewing nights will be from February 17th to the 28th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on February 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

The Planet Uranus:
There are seven planets in the night sky that you can see with the naked eye or with simple binoculars. The naked eye planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The last two, Uranus and Neptune are visible through binoculars. Usually finding Uranus or Neptune requires star hopping and good star charts. The reason for the difficulty is that these two outer planets are not in a region of the sky near any prominent stars, which could be used as locators. In addition, when these planets are in such a region of the sky, they remain there for several years, because the orbital time of Uranus is 84 Earth years, and Neptune is 165 Earth years. Therefore, the best times to find these outer planets, is when one of the bright faster moving inner planets lines up with them. The first time I reported such an alignment for the planet Uranus in this column was in June 2010 when the planet Jupiter passed under Uranus early in the morning. The second alignment I reported in this column was on February 2012 when Venus was just to the right of Uranus in the early evening. Now after five years have passed, the planet Uranus is again lined up this month near an easily visible planet; Mars. The image below shows a close up view of Uranus.

The good news is that using amateur telescopes, you should be able to see this planet as a small disk, and with a deeper blue color. I have found Uranus to have a nice pure color blue whereas the much farther out Neptune has a dim dull blue color.

Uranus is the first planet discovered with a telescope in the late 1700’s. It is also the farthest planet that is visible to the naked eye. In order to see Uranus with the naked eye, you will need extremely dark skies. It is unlikely that such a dark area would be in this area of South Carolina, however, on special occasions, a rare weather event may result in very dark and transparent skies. If you can clearly see all seven stars of the Little Dipper, then you might see Uranus with the naked eye. If you are at a dark sky site where you can see stars inside the bowl of the Big Dipper, then you can definitely see Uranus with your naked eye.

We will assume that super dark skies will not be available to you this month, so get out your binoculars. Uranus will be an easy target with 7 X 50mm or 10 X 50mm binoculars. To locate Uranus you will look to the southwest sky after sunset. The only shortcoming viewing Uranus is that it will be low in the southwestern sky. Therefore you must find a viewing location without trees or city lights in the southwestern sky. Below is an image showing the planet lineup earlier this month.

At that time, it would be quite difficult to easily find Uranus through your scopes. However, as the month progresses, Mars will move closer to Uranus. Using 7 X 50mm binoculars, Uranus will begin being seen in the same field of view as Mars beginning on February 16th and ending March 7th. The closest line of sight approach of the two planets will occur early on the night of the 26th; see image below.

Note the large red circle is your field of view through 7 X 50mm binoculars, and the smaller circle is 10 X 50mm binoculars. Note: On the night before the 26th, Uranus will be slightly higher up, and on the night after the 26th, Uranus will be slightly below the position on the image shown.

Set up your viewing equipment by 7 pm. From 7:30 until 8:30, you should have a good view of Uranus. Beginning with your binoculars, you will be able to record that you have seen the seventh planet from the Sun, Uranus. Moving on to your telescopes, you should be able see the blue color of this planet. If you have a Dobsonian telescope, you should be able to see Uranus as a blue planetary disk. The image below approximates the view through a good amateur Dobsonian telescope.

Note: To understand the immense distance you are witnessing, it took over two and a half hours for the light of Uranus to reach your eyes, while Mars, to the right of Uranus, took less than thirteen minutes for its light to reach you.

Naked Eye Sights: For those who have access to a very dark sky site, try to see Uranus just to the left of Mars on the night of the 26th. Enjoy the sights of the winter sky; such as the Orion constellation and the Pleiades.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Locate Uranus using only your binoculars. The Orion Nebula, the Pleiades, the Double Cluster and the open star clusters in Auriga and Gemini.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Try to resolve the blue color of Uranus. As always start at the lowest possible power of your telescope and then move set up to higher powers.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): You should easily see the planet Uranus as a pretty blue disk.

See you next month!

January 2017

// January 10th, 2017 // Comments Off on January 2017 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

                                Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 January 27th. For January, your best viewing nights will be from January 16th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on January 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

Clear Sky Please:
Two years ago I noted, in this column, that although the causes of global warming are still being debated, the winters here have indeed been abnormally warm for the last few years. In general, warmer weather results in more moisture in the atmosphere, and also can cause atmospheric turbulence as the hot air rises and the cool air falls; both situations have a negative impact on nighttime viewing. If you are aiming your telescopes at simple targets such as the Moon and planets, you will not experience too much difficulty. However, there is so much beauty to be seen observing the dim DSOs (deep sky objects) such as nebulae, galaxies and star clusters. These DSOs require a clear dry sky to enjoy their grandeur. Another weather problem recently was when the warm days evaporated significant moisture from the ground, followed by cold nights resulting in heavy fog. The 2016 December Geminids meteor shower was washed out by a full Moon, but the 2015 Geminids were washed out by a heavy fog.

We can only hope that this month brings us a few clear dry nights to enjoy our new, or old, telescopes.

Catch Four Star Clusters and a Cat:
There are many star clusters for you to view, but let’s try to find four clusters in one small area of this month’s southeast sky. The four clusters are also Messier Objects; M35, M36, M37 and M38. The image below shows the southeast sky in mid-month, and the shaded area is the region to search for the four star clusters.

These four objects are open star clusters. They are not tightly grouped like globular clusters, but instead contain hundreds to thousands of stars in an area spanning 10 to 25 light years. The image below pinpoints their locations.

First look for M35 just off the left foot of the constellation Gemini. This is an easy target. If you can’t see M35 through your binoculars, then it is a bad viewing night or location; try another clear night. Once you have located M35, search for the other three open clusters using the chart above. Note: The image below shows M35.

Now move your binoculars toward the constellation Auriga to find the other three clusters. All three clusters are visible in the same field of view of a 7 or 10 power binocular. M38 and M37 will be somewhat easy to see, but M36 can be more difficult.

Where is the cat? An asterism is a group of stars that form a shape that is recognizable as a common object. Examples: The Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, the Northern Cross, the Cassiopeia “W”, and the Coathanger (in Vulpecula). There are many lesser-known asterisms reported in the night sky, and most take quite an imagination to visualize, but many are obvious. One of the more obvious but little known asterisms is in the constellation Auriga, mentioned briefly in this column three years ago. If you found M38 earlier, then you have seen the asterism known as the Cheshire Cat, or the Smiley Face. The image below shows the Cat and the position of M38. This asterism is easily seen with simple binoculars.

Always Check Out Andromeda:
All amateur astronomers are aware of the Andromeda Galaxy. On a clear night you can actually see it with the naked eye. Therefore, it is readily visible through simple binoculars. However, it always seems to look like the same fuzzy ellipse, as shown below.

Novices think it is just too far away (2.5 billion light years) to see it any better; that is a false assumption. Andromeda is so large that it would fill the view of some binoculars, it is too dim to see fully, not too far. What you see through you binoculars or telescopes is just the bright core of the galaxy. Note in the image below, the elliptical outline in the center of the image is the area you normally see through your binoculars.

The remainder of the Andromeda Galaxy that you don’t see is huge. So how can you view the entire galaxy? On any clear night when Andromeda is high up, and you are in a dark viewing area, “Always check out Andromeda.” Special note: When you are checking out the Andromeda Galaxy take your time, and stare intently, and one night the entire galaxy will “magically” appear.

If the Andromeda Galaxy were very bright, it would appear in the night time sky as shown below!

Naked Eye Sights: The constellation Orion; always enjoyable. Venus will continue to move higher in the western sky. The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. You can only see six stars with the naked eye. In a very dark sky area, you might see eight stars, but never just seven.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The entire Andromeda Galaxy; very difficult, don’t get discouraged if you fail.

Big Binocular Sights (18 to 25 power): Best chance to see the entire Andromeda Galaxy. The Double Cluster in Perseus. The Pleiades. The Orion Nebula.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Orion Nebula

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): Try for the planet Uranus, may be hard to locate in Pisces, but once found, it is easy to see its blue color.

See you next month!

December 2016

// December 2nd, 2016 // Comments Off on December 2016 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 December 29th. For December, your best viewing nights will be from December 1st to the 4th and the 19th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on December 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

wholeskychart1

Geminids Meteor Shower:
For several years, the best meteor shower of the year has been the Geminids, peaking on December 13th and 14th. This trend may likely continue, but the most important variable for this, or any meteor shower, is the Moon phase. This December, the full Moon is on December 13th, therefore, this should result in a total washout for 90% or more of the meteors. The future good news is that December 2017 and 2018 will be good Geminids viewing years.

Neptune:
One goal of most amateur astronomers is to see all of the planets in our solar system. The easily viewed planets are Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Mercury is also easy to see, but only when is perfectly positioned in its orbit. That leaves Uranus and Neptune. Uranus is much closer than Neptune, and it can be seen with the naked eye at a dark sky location. Also, Uranus will show its beautiful blue color through most amateur telescopes. Therefore, the most difficult planet to find is Neptune. Neptune will not be visible through the naked eye, but it can be seen with simple binoculars. Difficult to locate celestial objects are best found when they are near an easy to spot target. Near the end of this month, Neptune will have the closest alignment to Mars since the year 1305. So if you wish to check this planet off your viewing list, your best chance will be early in the evening on December 31st. Look to the southwest starting just before 7 pm. A thin crescent Moon will just be setting in the west, and above the Moon you will see the bright planet Venus. Above Venus and slightly to the left will be the planet Mars. Mars should be the brightest object in that area of the sky. Once you located Mars, the planet Neptune will be above and to the left of Mars, see diagram below. In the diagram, top left shows the general area, top right image shows planet separation through simple ten power binoculars and bottom image shows planet separation through a simple telescope.

find-neptune

Through an amateur telescope you should also be able to see the bluish color of Neptune, but due to its extreme distance, is usually a dull blue versus the brighter color of Uranus. Good luck with your search.

Note: If you are up to the challenge, Uranus is also visible this month well above and to the left of Neptune in the constellation Pisces. The major difficulty finding Uranus in this area of the sky is the absence of easy markers to locate this planet. You will need a good star chart and some patience if you hope to find this blue planet.

What you can and can’t see in Orion:
Orion still remains the most visible and well known of the constellations. It will spend most of this month in the southeast sky. Known for its famous belt and sword asterisms, there are two well-known objects in Orion that I have yet to see.

First let’s start with what you can easily see. The Orion Nebula (M42) appears to be the center star of Orion’s sword. With any simple pair of binoculars, you will see it as a gaseous nebula. I have found over the years that large binoculars are the best viewing tools for observing nebulas. Nebulae can be seen through telescopes, but using two eyes allows the brain to better process the image. Through large binoculars, the gaseous Orion Nebula will look like a diving eagle with its wings out spread.

Some things you can’t see in Orion challenge amateur astronomers worldwide. The first elusive target is the Running Man Nebula. This target is easy to locate, it appears as the top star in Orion’s sword. However, the gaseous nature of the nebula is much less visible than the Orion Nebula. We are trying to view this nebula with ScienceSouth’s 150 mm X 25 power binoculars. The main requirement is a dark very clear night. Hopefully we will be successful this winter. The image below shows the large Orion Nebula on the bottom, and the Running Man on top. If you look closely, you can see the man’s head, his arms stretched out, and part of his legs.

running-man-and-m42

A second potentially more elusive Orion target is the Horsehead nebula. This dark nebula is to the left of Orion’s belt. This nebula is an easy target for large observatory telescopes, see below, but it is a most difficult target for amateurs, myself included.

horsehead1

It usually requires filters to view it, but it has been reported that it can be seen with our 150 mm X 25 power binoculars. So as you look up at Orion this winter you may hope as I do to someday see these two “unseen” targets in Orion. Below is a broad field long exposure photo of the Orion constellation.

orion900

Naked Eye Sights: The Orion constellation and the Pleiades cluster

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Orion Nebula

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Your best chance to see the planet Neptune and maybe Uranus.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): Your best chance to see the planet Neptune in color

November 2016

// November 16th, 2016 // Comments Off on November 2016 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 November 29th. For November, your best viewing nights will be from November 1st to the 4th and the 18th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on November 15th at 9 pm.  Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

wholeskychart1

Note: Each November I feature my telescope purchasing column.

So you want to buy a telescope:

Every year a telescope appears on someone’s Christmas list. If you are considering your first purchase of a telescope, the following information may help you with your selection.

First suggestion:  Never buy a telescope from a department store. This suggestion also pertains to TV shopping networks. If the telescope box, sales sign, or salesperson mentions power (usually something above 200 or 300 power), then stay away! Good telescopes are defined by their light gathering ability, not by power. In addition, these department store scopes usually have poor quality lenses and wobbly tripod mounts. The short comings of these “bargain” telescopes my may result in frustration when using them, and therefore may discourage instead of encourage your interest in astronomy.

So the solution is to purchase a telescope from a telescope store, most of which are online. One well-known dealer is Orion telescopes found at telescope.com, others are Meade and Celestron. In addition, check out sources in “Astronomy” or “Sky and Telescope,” magazines.

So now that you know where to buy, the harder problem is what to buy. There are three basic types of telescopes: Refractors, Newtonian reflectors and Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors. You should consider a starting price of about $200, with a better starting amount being $300.

A refractor is what one might consider a traditional shaped telescope, a long thin tube with a lens (objective) in front to gather light, and another lens (eyepiece) in the back. They are fine telescopes for viewing the moon, planets and double stars and are often bought as “starter scopes.” However, they usually don’t have sufficient light gathering ability to give good viewing of galaxies and nebulas, unless you purchase expensive high-end refractors.

refractor

A Newtonian reflector uses a mirror to gather light instead of a lens. The telescope consists of a hollow tube open at the top with the viewing eyepiece near the top at a right angle to the tube. Amateur scopes can have as small as a 3-inch diameter mirror, but basic reflectors usually range in size from 6 to 10 inch diameter mirrors. Because of their large light gathering ability, they can be used for a large range of astronomical targets, including galaxies and nebulae.

reflector

Another type of Newtonian reflectors is the Dobsonian reflector, usually called a Dob. The Dob was invented by John Dobson, and is a simple reflector that is placed in a mount on the ground, see image below.

dob

Dobs are easy to use and quite inexpensive versus light gathering ability. Bottom line is that Dobs are known for giving the best telescope for your money. Some other considerations are; the larger ones can be bulky to transport, and they do need periodic fine adjustments to re-align the main mirror, called collimation. Laser collimators are available to make this job easy. I collimate our Dob every time we use it; this adjustment takes me only about 1-2 minutes.

Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors were designed to give the benefits of a reflector, but minimizing the length. These telescopes tend to be, on average, the most expensive of the three telescopes types. Also of the three types, these are the telescopes that most likely to come equipped with a GoTo contoller which allows you to enter in on a keypad any celestial object, and the telescope will automatically find it for you. I do not personally favor GoTo systems because I feel that the best way to learn the night sky is to find your target objects using charts or astronomy computer programs.

cat

Do you really need a telescope? If you are serious about a hobby in astronomy, it might be best if you put a pair of binoculars on your Christmas list this year, and buy the telescope next year. Reasons: Binoculars are cheaper, most ranging between $80 and $200. Binoculars will allow you to see a large region of the sky, and right side up! Binoculars can serve for other uses such as bird watching or sporting events. For simple astronomy, most people prefer 7 X 50 or 10 X 50 mm binoculars. If you get the binocular astronomy bug, you might someday upgrade to “big binoculars”; some of these are shown below. I own the gold colored one shown on the far right side of the photo, and with it, I can see Saturn’s rings!

neaf-2005

To sum up my recommendations: If you want to start a serious venture into amateur astronomy, begin by buying a pair of binoculars, star charts, books, and astronomy software. If you must have a telescope this year, start with a Dob, minimum 6 inch, preferred 8 inch.

Naked Eye Sights: The largest full Moon of the year on the 14th. Leonid’s meteor shower peaks on morning 17th, but this year the Moon will wash it out. The return of Orion in the east.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Pleiades, the Double Cluster and the Coathanger asterism.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The star Albireo and the planet Mars.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): The Ring Nebula in Lyra, M57. Don’t forget to wander through the mountains of the Moon from crescent to first quarter.

Happy viewing!

 

October 2016

// October 3rd, 2016 // Comments Off on October 2016 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

A little October fun!

                              A little October fun!

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope, and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 October 30th. For October, your best viewing nights will be from October 1st to the 5th and the 20th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on October 15th at 9 pm.  Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

wholeskychart1

The Harvest Moon:

harvest_moon-1

On many occasions, I will write a column based on questions I am asked by students or friends during the past month. This month, on four occasions I was asked about the Harvest Moon. I then checked and found that I have not discussed this subject since 2010. So for my new readers, I will revisit this interesting subject.

The short and simple answer is that a Harvest Moon is the full Moon closest to the Autumnal equinox; therefore occurring near the time that farmers harvest their fields. The rising full moon just after sunset would then allow them to extend the time of their harvesting by using the light of the full Moon. So this year, the true Harvest Moon occurred on September 16th.

However, there is a longer answer to this question. What few people know is that one to two days after the full Moon, the farmers can still use the Moon to extend their harvesting. This situation only occurs in the autumn, thereby extending the concept of a Harvest Moon. The reason is as follows. The Sun and all the planets are located on about the same plane. This is the reason that you always find the planets by looking in the region of the path of the Sun.

solar_flat1

However, the plane of our Moon’s orbit is tilted versus the plane of the solar system. You know this to be true, because if the Moon’s orbit was on the same plane as the solar system, then each month we would have one solar eclipse, and one lunar eclipse. Instead, each month the Moon passes below or above the Sun, and on chance occasions, it eclipses the Sun. Now remember our Earth is tipped 23 ½ degrees, and as we circle the Sun, this affects our Earth/Sun perspective; known as the change of seasons.

Now, back to the Harvest Moon: Combining the above parameters, at any given month of the year, the angle of our Moon’s orbit versus the visible horizon will vary. This change results in an interesting effect on Moon rises. The full Moon in spring near the Vernal Equinox follows a path that results in a large angle of the Moon’s orbit to the horizon, see below.

789b

This diagram can be somewhat confusing, however, direct your attention to the lower center left of the image. Note how far below the horizon the Moon is located each night after the full Moon. The farther the Moon is below the horizon, the longer it will take to rise on the next night.

Now, look below at the diagram for the full Moon in the fall near the Autumnal Equinox.

789a

 

Again direct your attention to the lower left side of the image, and note the distance below the horizon the Moon is located each night after the full Moon.  The Moon is relatively close to the horizon on the nights following the full Moon. Therefore, on the nights following the Harvest Moon, the Moon will rise only a short time later than the previous night.

So, during harvest, the night after the Harvest Moon, the farmer can continue harvesting in the twilight for about 20-25 minutes after Sunset, and again he will enjoy the Moonrise so he can continue his work.

After the springtime full Moon, on the next night the Sun would set, and darkness would come, and it would take a minimum of 60 minutes after sunset until the Moon rises.

Autumnal Astronomy:
We have had an extremely hot and humid summer, and in general, this is not favorable for good telescopic viewing. Finally, this month we should begin to have cooler less humid skies and much better telescopic viewing, with conditions continuing to improve throughout November and into December.  Saturn will still be a good target low in the west. It is noteworthy that Saturn’s ring tilt will still be favorable for the next four to five years.  During this time, Saturn viewing will extend onward through the clearer sky months of November and December.

You should also turn your scopes to the planet Venus after sunset in the west. Although Venus is covered in clouds, check out the subtle phase changes throughout the month. Near the end of the month you will see the Pleiades rising in the east, followed by Taurus and finally the beautiful constellation Orion will peak over the eastern horizon near the end of the month. For thousands of years people knew that this was the sign the winter is on the way.

Naked Eye Sights: Throughout the month you can watch brilliant Venus rise higher each evening in the west after sunset.  Near the end of the month notice that Venus will move directly under the planet Saturn.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  A good month to start working on your Messier list.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  This is the month to catch your last views of the planet Saturn as it slowly sets in the west.  Check out Venus phases.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): This is the month to catch your last views of the planet Saturn as it slowly sets in the west.  Check out Venus phases.

See you next month!

September 2016

// September 7th, 2016 // Comments Off on September 2016 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                    Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections: what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 September 1st and September 30th. For September, your best viewing nights will be from September 1st to the 7th and the 21st to the 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on September 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

wholeskychart1

The August Perseids Meteor Shower Update:
As I mentioned last month, some astronomers were predicting a possible great Perseids meteor shower with counts ranging from 100 to 150 meteors per hour. My personal count from the west Florence suburbs was only 30 meteors per hour.

Clear Sky Chart:
The weather report says clear night tonight, so maybe you can spot that Messier galaxy you have yet to see. A clear night weather report doesn’t always mean a clear night for astronomy. Many other factors affect our ability to see objects clearly through our telescopes.

However, there is a weather site designed for astronomers, this site is called “The Clear Sky Chart,” and it has viewing forecasts for 5277 locations, covering the entire United States (except Hawaii), all of Canada, parts of Mexico, and the Bahamas. The location closest to Florence is the Francis Marion University Clear Sky Chart; http://www.cleardarksky.com/c/FMUObSCkey.html?1. When you go the site to check out the viewing forecast, you may be perplexed. You won’t see any maps or radar, etc.; instead you see only a bunch of small colored squares, as shown below.

Clear Sky Chart

The Chart reports data for a 45-hour period. Next notice the times listed on the site use a 24-hour clock. Then, notice that in the far left, the vertical bands tell you that the top four lines of little squares refer to sky conditions, and the bottom three lines of squares refer to ground conditions. These bottom three lines, wind, humidity, and temperature, are there primarily there to tell you what clothing, etc. that you might need that evening. Therefore, the top four lines of squares (sky conditions) are where you focus your attention.

For all sky conditions, dark blue squares are great, and white squares are bad. Next, notice that the fourth row of squares, from the top, is for darkness. This information gives an overview of the Moon phase situation. All black squares for a new Moon and blue and lighter blue squares as the Moon interferes with viewing.

The first row denotes cloud cover: dark blue, no clouds; white, total cloud cover; and pale blue, partly cloudy. The next two rows supply you with the information that no other weather site will give you. The “transparency” row refers to the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. Excessive moisture in the atmosphere will definitely affect your viewing. The “seeing” row refers to atmospheric turbulence due to temperature differences. Therefore, you can have a cloudless night with low atmospheric moisture, and still not be able to resolve the cloud bands on Jupiter because of poor seeing. So, go to the Francis Marion Clear Sky chart, check the time of night that has all dark blue squares in the first three rows, and go outside and enjoy the stars.

Besides “Clear sky Chart” basics, there is other interesting information available. If you are a visual type person, you can click on any small square and it will show you the visual map that refers to that information. Also note that you can animate the map if desired. The image below came from clicking on the cloud cover square at midnight on September 30th; note that the faint crosshairs denotes the Chart’s location.

Clear Sky Map

Next, look to the right side of the main page of the Clear Sky Chart at a green box labeled “Other Charts.” In this box you can go to all the Clear Sky charts in South Carolina, or those nearby Francis Marion University. In addition, you can click on “All,” which will direct you to all 5277 locations. Now notice that you have a choice of “List” or “Map.” If you click on South Carolina List, you will go to the image shown below.

Clear Sky List

This is an interesting page. It gives a list of all the Clear sky charts in South Carolina, along with comments and links for most sites. Next, under the heading, “Preview,” is a column of the actual first two rows of every site. This allows you to quickly determine the best viewing site in South Carolina on that particular date.

Before leaving this page, note that there is a vertical column of colored squares in the center of this page, under a heading of light pollution. Click on the heading, and you will see an explanation of the colored squares. Note that black means no light pollution at all, and white means too much light (cities, etc.). You will also notice that no site in South Carolina is better than a green square, with Florence having only a yellow square.

CSC 4a

Finally, return to the Green Box on the main page, and click on South Carolina “Map.” Now you have a map of South Carolina with all the Clear sky Chart locations represented as a “push pin” matching the color of the light pollution for every site in our state.

Clear Sky Map2

Naked Eye Sights: You may get a glimpse of Venus in the west.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Summer Milky way area is still the best region to scan.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm: Last chance for an easy view of Saturn.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): Last chance for Saturn.

See you next month!

August 2016

// August 3rd, 2016 // Comments Off on August 2016 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections: what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 2nd. For August, your best viewing nights will be from August 1st to the 8th and the 22nd to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on August 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

wholeskychart1

The Perseids Meteor Shower:
A meteor shower is when a large number of meteors can be seen during one or two nights. 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 observed maximum for this shower was 60 meteors per hour.

A detailed description of meteor showers and various observation methods is found in my August 2015 column; just scan down in this blog to read it. In that description, you will find that the best time to view a meteor shower for maximum rate of meteors is after midnight; even better would be about 3 am. If you have trouble staying up that late, you may be able to see a notable amount of meteors before midnight. Another major factor in viewing a meteor shower is the Moon. If astronomers predict a meteor shower of ~100 per hour, this is based on a dark sky site, with no interference from the Moon. A full or nearly full Moon will wash out the vast majority of meteors. If the shower occurs during a favorable new Moon, viewing from a neighborhood back yard can also wash out the majority of meteors.

The Perseids meteor shower this month will peak on the morning of August 12th. The lunar phase on the evening of August 11th will be about a nine-day-old Moon heading toward a full Moon on August 18th. (Allow me to digress: For clarity, amateur astronomers like to discuss lunar phases by the age of the lunar cycle. Therefore, a first quarter Moon is about a seven day Moon, and a full Moon is about a fourteen day Moon. So by knowing it is a nine-day Moon, you can have a clearer image of lunar cycle, and when the Moon will set.) Returning to the 11th and 12th. The nine-day-old Moon will set at 1 am. Therefore, 1 am forward should offer excellent viewing of the meteor shower, and as I mentioned before, this coincides with the best viewing times for most meteors showers. For the people who can’t stay up this late, try this. Go to bed early, and have a designated meteor watcher who stays up. If it is a great meteor shower, he or she can wake up the other family members.

Perseids

One final comment about this Perseids shower. It is quite difficult for astronomers to give accurate predictions of the meteor rate per hour for any meteor shower. This year, two astronomers noted that the stream of comet debris responsible for the Perseids shower passed quite close to Jupiter this year, which they predict moved the debris field closer to the Earth’s orbit. With this in mind, they are predicting a meteor rate of 100 to 150 per hour. Personally I am quite skeptical about that rate, but I will check it out and hope.

View Meteor

So go out late at night on August 11th into early August 12th. If the predictions are wrong, then it can be fun just sitting out in the backyard on a warm night hoping to see some meteors; at least for the designated meteor watcher.

Planet Watching:
The three planets of this summer have now been reduced to two as Jupiter finally sets in the west this month. However, Saturn and Mars remain, both near or in the constellation Scorpius. For amateurs who like attention to detail, Saturn is actually in the constellation Ophiuchus all month. Mars begins in Libra, moving through Scorpius, and into Ophiuchus by month’s end. Saturn being much farther away appears stationary, but you will easily see the daily movement of Mars through Scorpius.

Saturn and Mars

You can see the rings of Saturn with a simple 60-100 mm refractor, starting at 25power, but better viewed at about 50 power or above. A 6-8 inch Dob should give you even better views of the ringed planet. Whichever way you choose to view the ringed planet, your views may suffer due to the high temperatures and humidity this summer.

Mars-Saturn

Mars is best viewed through high end (expensive) refractors. If you can find a clear night in the summer heat, the larger Dobs should give you a nice view of the Red Planet.

Naked Eye Sights: The Perseids meteor shower on the morning of August 12th. The Summer Milky Way.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Scan the southern skies between Scorpius and Sagittarius and upward following the Milky Way picking out the several clusters and nebulae.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Saturn is the best target. Also the crescent Moon the 6th through the 9th.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): Saturn and Mars. Some of the clusters and nebulae in the Milky Way. First find them with your binoculars and then aim your Dob at the targets.

See you next month!

 

 

July 2016

// July 1st, 2016 // Comments Off on July 2016 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                      Tony Martinez

Each month I will describe sights of interest in the night skies of South Carolina. These sights will be broken down into four sections; what you can see with the naked eye, with binoculars, with a small refracting telescope and with a Dobsonian reflector. 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 July 4th. For July, your best viewing nights will be from July 1st to the 9th and July 23rd to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on July 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

wholeskychart1

Achromatic versus Apochromatic Lenses:
In last month’s column I mentioned the use of refractors for planetary viewing. In doing so, I mentioned the achromatic versus expensive apochromatic refractors. I did not have the space to discuss the differences between these two types of telescopes; so I will do so now.

When you look at objects in the night sky, they are usually white in color.  As such, the white objects contain all the colors of the light spectrum; ROYGBIV.  If you were to pass white light through a prism, each color would refract at a different angle, yielding a rainbow/spectrum. When you pass white light through a standard convex lens as found on simple refracting telescopes, it will come together at the focal point. However, in reality, due to color versus angle of refraction, not all the colors meet exactly at the focal point.  This is called chromatic aberration. In general, your eyes may not notice this problem, but when viewing a tiny object such as a star or planet through your telescope, the result is lack of good sharpness; the object looks good, but not great. This effect is seen with achromatic telescopes. Apochromatic lenses utilized multiple lenses to correct this problem. The more costly the apochromatic lenses, the tighter the focal point of ROYGBIV. See diagram below.

achromatic-doublet

The easiest way to check out chromatic aberration on your simple refracting telescope is to aim it at the Moon, and focus on the edge of the Moon. You will see that the Moon will have a blue/violet ring around its edge; check it out. You easily spend over $2000 on a large pair of binoculars and still see a blue/violet halo on the edge of the Moon.

Another perimeter affecting clarity is called spherical aberration. This is distortion is caused by how well the lenses are perfectly curved.  Spherical aberration is most seen on inexpensive discount store refracting telescopes. If you buy a good achromatic refractor, spherical aberration is usually not a problem. With apochromatic lenses spherical aberration will not be a problem.

You can enjoy your astronomy hobby without ever finding the need to buy apochromatic telescopes.  If one ever decides to invest in an apochromatic refractor, they usually invest in a 5 inch (130 mm) scope. The reason is that a 5 inch apo refractor has enough aperture to also see dim deep sky objects, thus not limiting yourself to only the planets and the Moon. Back to money. The 5 inch apochromatic refractor shown below costs $3000, which does not include a diagonal, lenses, tripod, finder, and tripod adaptor.

Apo Scope

My suggestion is to spend your money on nice Dobsonians, and big binoculars, and when you go to star parties look through someone else’s apochromatic refractor.

The Summer Sky:
I find the winter and summer constellation to be equally enjoyable. Winter of course features Orion, and summer features Scorpius and Sagittarius. However, unlike winter, in the summer looking in the south toward Scorpius and Sagittarius brings you several other enjoyable sights. You are looking into the center of the Milky Way, therefore you will see a high density of stars, clusters and nebulae.  Your biggest challenge will be to locate an area near Florence where you can see the Milky Way. If you can see the Milky Way at all, then with simple binoculars you should be able to locate many nebulae and clusters.Below is an image of many deep sky objects found in the region of Scorpius and Sagittarius.

In the image are objects listed by three different deep sky catalogs.  The M numbers are Messier Objects, the NGC numbers are New General Catalog Objects and the IC numbers are from a supplement to the NGC published about 1900 known as the Index Catalogues.

2a Milky Way

Below is an offset chart adding a few more objects.

3 Milky Way

So take these two images print them out, and bring them outside to a dark sky site. Use a red light to see the printouts, and then use your binoculars to see how many objects you can find. You will find that you can easily find some of the brighter objects, and others may not be so obvious. Some like M20, the beautiful Trifid Nebula will be almost impossible to see without super dark skies.

If you find a nice dark location, using your naked eye only, see if you can locate the large wispy dark nebula known as the Dark Horse. This dark nebula is seen in both image above, and below, but the image below may help you to better define it. Its hind quarter is on the bottom, and the horse’s legs are to the right.

Dark-horse-locatorV2_S

Note:  This month onward, I added Dobsonian sights to the lists below.

Naked Eye Sights: The summer Milky Way and the Dark Horse nebula.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Follow the charts above and see how many targets you can find. I will also see how much I can find with my handheld binoculars.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Saturn continues to be the target for this month.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch): Saturn, and aim your scope at some of the southern sky objects shown in the images above.

See you next month!

June 2016

// May 31st, 2016 // Comments Off on June 2016 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                      Tony Martinez

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 June 4th. For June, your best viewing nights will be from June 1st to the 8th, and June 23rd to June 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on June 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

wholeskychart1

Saturn:
Saturn is a wonderful planetary target for amateur telescopes, and therefore each year I repeat a Saturn column during the best months of the year to observe this planet.

The return of the planet Saturn to the evening skies is of particular importance this year because the favorable tilt of the planet versus the Earth. This view will continue to be impressive for at least 4 more years. A classic Saturn image is shown below.

Saturn

Of course, the image you will see through your amateur telescopes will be quite small and sometimes blurry, but still impressive.

When observing through my 25 X 100 mm binoculars, the rings of Saturn are tiny, but clearly visible. Any scope you use at 25 power and above will allow you to see the rings of Saturn; of course views are better at 50 power or above. Below are three views of Saturn through amateur telescopes. The small blurry image represents what you might see with a very inexpensive discount store telescope. The other two images represent views from Dobsonian reflectors ranging from 6 to 10 inches.

Views of Saturn

At various times through the year ScienceSouth has free public NASA Saturday astronomy events using the ScienceSouth and Francis Marion’s Dobsonian reflectors. These NASA Saturday viewing events are not run during the summer due to the high temperatures and humidity, which adversely affects viewing. Our plans are to run some ScienceSouth Saturn observing nights this summer. We will try to choose a Saturday night when both Saturn and the early phases of the Moon are visible. The two nighttime objects that are least affected by the summer weather conditions are the Moon and the planets. Keep checking our website for dates. In past years, we have given people the chance to see spectacular views of the mountains and craters of the Moon and views of the planets. Although these sights generate various amount of excitement, I always hear the biggest “wows” when someone sees Saturn for the first time. The big ball of Jupiter looks quite nice, and the small fuzzy ball of Mars is OK, and some people even enjoy the fuzzy crescent of Venus; but Saturn is special. You can view hundreds of images of Saturn on the Internet, but there is something magical when your see it through your own eyes. So if you have a telescope, try viewing Saturn this month in the southern sky. If you don’t own a telescope come visit us and use our telescopes. Saturn will be in a good viewing position this month onward starting about 9:30. Good viewing of Saturn will continue from now through August.

To find Saturn this month, look to the southeast to see the pale yellow planet. As you may recall, most seasons of the year have a prominent easily identified constellation in the south. For summer, the constellation is Scorpius. This scorpion shaped, or “sloppy J,” stays close to the horizon throughout the summer. The planet Saturn will be found above and to the left of the brightest star in Scorpius, the red/orange star Antares; see the chart below.

Saturn 2016a

When viewing bright planets through amateur telescopes, the contrast of a very bright planet against a black sky can sometimes produce a glare which may prevent a clear view of the planet. If this is a problem, try to view the planet before the sky becomes black; during twilight.

All types of telescopes can be used to view the planets, but many astronomers believe that refractors are your best choice for planets; see a refractor below.

‏Refractor

The refractor uses two convex lenses to focus your target, like binoculars. The result of this setup is very crisp images. All reflecting telescopes, use mirrors. Mirrors excel in capturing much more light than a refractor, but in general, you lose some crispness of the image. If you want an all-around telescope you would probably choose a six to eight inch Dobsonian reflector. If you are excited about planetary and lunar viewing, you would enjoy a good refractor. Starting out amateur astronomers usually limit their expense for a good refractor; $150 to $250. What many amateurs are unaware of is that there are refracting telescopes that appear similar to theirs, but are made with superior quality lenses. These lenses are called apochromatic. Your standard lenses are achromatic. A standard apochromatic refractor would cost between $1000 and $4000 and up!

Naked Eye Sights: From the beginning of the month until the end watch toward the southeast as the most prominent constellations of summer move into the southern sky; Scorpius and Sagittarius. All through June you can see three planets in the night sky. Saturn in the southeast above the star Antares in Scorpius, Mars in the south southeast in front of Scorpius and Jupiter in the west under the constellation Leo.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Along with the summer constellations comes the center of the summer Milky Way. Scan above the center of the constellation Scorpius and move slowly upward and to the left following the Milky Way. You will see an abundance of stars, and Messier clusters and nebulae.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The planet Saturn. Also check out nearby Mars and Jupiter in the west.

See you next month!

May 2016

// May 2nd, 2016 // Comments Off on May 2016 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                      Tony Martinez

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 May 6th. For May, your best viewing nights will be from May 1st to the 10th, and May 24th until the end of the month. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on May 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

wholeskychart 1

Where is the color?
One thing that is most obvious with Hubble telescope images is color. Everything is colorful. Then you search the skies with your new telescope, and everything is in black and white. So the question is do these deep sky objects really have these colors, or is it just computer enhancement. The answer is both.

Every element in the universe can emit light when enough energy is supplied. The energy supplied to an element can be heat, or other forms of electromagnetic energy. In addition, when you burn certain elements the can have different color flames. Examples: Sodium burns yellow, and since sodium is ubiquitous, when you spill water on a gas stove, you see a burst of yellow. Copper burns green, strontium burns red and selenium burns blue. Other examples: When high voltage is passed through gases, hydrogen emits a rose color, argon emits a red/orange color and helium emits white with a tint of orange. See hydrogen emission below.

Hydrogen discharge tube

If we observe these emissions through a diffraction grating, which can separate colors, we will see many lines of color each representing different electrons releasing energy as they move from one energy level to another. The result is every element has a light emission “fingerprint.” These light emission fingerprints are used to determine which elements are present in stars and other night time objects. Therefore, because the stars and nebulas in the sky are high energy systems, night sky objects can be very colorful.

To further understand why seldom see any color, let’s consider the biology/biochemistry of your eyes. Your eyes have two primary light receptor cells, rod and cones. The cones are designed for bright light and can readily detect colors. The rods are designed for low light, night vision, and have very little color sensitivity. Example, go outside at night in the Florence area, away from lights, and you will be able to see trees and objects in your yard, but not their color. Likewise, when you look at a deep sky object through a telescope at night, your eyes are not very responsive to any colors coming from the object.

If you venture in to the area of astrophotography and take long exposure images of objects, you will then see the colors. Yes, astrophotographers often use photo-enhancing software on their images, but it is not always necessary. The nebula image below was taken by an amateur; no filters, no enhancing, just time exposure. In addition, this person used a regular 35 mm camera and the now seldom seen photographic color film; see results below.

eta_carina

However, in addition to seeing mainly black and white images, some color can be seen with your naked eye, and through your simple telescope. Let’s discuss these by object type.

Stars: Use your star charts to check out these stars; some are not visible this month.

Using your naked eye only: Follow the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle to the bright yellow/orange star Arcturus, and continue in the same direction to the bluish/white star Spica. As Scorpius rises late in the evening, it is obvious that the “heart” of the scorpion, Antares is red/orange in color. Early in the month in the northwest, the bright yellow star Capella in Auriga is visible. In the winter months the most obvious colored stars are Betelgeuse, red/orange, and Rigel, blue/white. To the casual nighttime observer, all of the stars appear to be white. I find that only when you tell them that a particular star has color does it then become obvious.

Next turn to your telescope: I believe that the most colorful star in the sky is Albireo, the head of the constellation Cygnus the Swan or the bottom of the asterism the Northern Cross. Through a simple telescope, you can easily see that Albireo is a double star with one star yellow/gold, and the other sapphire blue; see below.

Albireo

If you would like to search for other colorful stars, the easiest method is to go on-line and find a list of double stars (binaries). Focus on which constellation the star is in, and magnitudes below 8, and of course look in the column showing the colors of the two stars; see example below.

Double Stars

Planets: To the naked eye; Mars looks yellow/orange, and Saturn looks yellow. With a telescope: Uranus and Neptune definitely are blue. Jupiter’s cloud bands are brownish.

Deep Space: The problem with deep sky objects is that only a small amount of light reaches us, and as mentioned earlier, low light means loss of color. I have only seen one colorful deep sky object, NGC 7662, the Blue Snowball Nebula. I was able to see the blue color with my 25 X 100 mm binoculars. The image below approximates the tiny blue dot I saw through my large binoculars.

NGC_7662_00

In conclusion, although most astronomy objects are seen in black and white, if you make an effort, you can find some color in the night sky.

Naked Eye Sights: Colorful Stars

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Colorful stars

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Check out colorful double star systems. If you are dedicated, try to find the Blue Snowball Nebula at 4 am near Pegasus.

NGC 7662

April 2016

// March 31st, 2016 // Comments Off on April 2016 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                        Tony Martinez

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 7th. For April, your best viewing nights will be from April 1st to the 10th, and the last five days of the month.  The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on April 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

wholeskychart1

Iridium Satellites:
There is a large group of satellites that were placed in orbit for use by satellite phones. A satellite phone is similar to a cell phone, except that there are no cell phone towers needed. The satellite phones send and receive their signals directly from satellites passing overhead. You would not be able to use your cell phone in the middle of the Amazon rainforest or in the middle of the ocean, but a satellite phone would work at any location on the Earth.

In the 1990’s a corporation decided that there was a market for portable phones that could be used anywhere on Earth. The engineers then went about working out the details of this venture. One important piece of data was how many satellites would be required to have worldwide coverage. Their calculations determined that 77 satellites would be needed. Soon after, marketing people at the corporation wanted to pick a clever name for this satellite system. Someone in the company noted that these 77 satellites circling the Earth reminded him of electrons circling the nucleus of an atom.

Bohr Atom Satellites

Then someone asked which element contains 77 electrons, and the answer was Iridium. Thus was the reason for the name Iridium satellites. Later in the development of the Iridium satellites system the engineers determined that only 66 satellites were necessary to have total coverage of the Earth. One might wonder why they didn’t change the name to element 66; Dysprosium. Beside the difficulty pronouncing the name, I assume that the word Iridium was already well accepted throughout the organization. So as of today, there are 66 Iridium satellites circling the Earth, with an additional six Iridium satellites in orbit as backups whenever one of the 66 fails. A great marketing idea isn’t always successful, and addition to the high price of such a phone, most people really don’t have a need for a phone that works in remote places on the Earth. However, the Iridium satellite concept has been successful because of its use by the military.

Iridium Flares:
As Iridium satellites pass overhead they, like many artificial satellites, have a magnitude of about 6.0; that of a dim star. In the Florence area it is difficult to see magnitude 6.0 due to light pollution. It would require a distance of 10-20 miles from Florence to see objects at magnitude 6.0. However, Iridium satellites are easily visible anywhere in the Florence area when they flare.

In addition to solar panels, the Iridium satellites have three polished antennas, each about the size of a door; see image below.

Ir Sat

As the satellite moves over the Earth, at certain times, sunlight will reflect off one of the polished antennas and direct the bright beam to Earth. So for a few seconds, the observer sees a bright light moving across the sky. Remember, the lower the magnitude number, the brighter the object. In addition, the magnitude scale goes below zero to negative numbers; the higher the negative number the brighter the object. The brightest nighttime star is Sirius; mag. -1.4, the International Space Station; mag. ranges from 0 to -3, the brightest planet is Venus, with a mag. as high as -4.4. An Iridium flare can easily be as bright as -8.0! Note the image below is a time lapse, you will see the flare as a moving point of light.

Iridium_Flare

If you want to see an Iridium flare, you can search the website “heavens-above.com”; be sure you login with your present location. The easiest way to see a flare is to download an Iridium Flare app on your Smartphone. If I am at home, I like to combine data from my Smartphone and from Heavens Above to give me maximum information. The beam of light that strikes the Earth is about 6 miles in diameter. The Iridium apps will tell you the magnitude of the flare where you are standing, and the magnitude if it was directly overhead. Example: A flare might be mag. -2.5 in Florence but mag. -8.0 in Lamar, SC. If you so desire, you might want to drive over to Lamar that night to experience a mag. -8.0 flare.

Some flares are so bright that they may be visible during daylight. I have not seen a daylight flare, but I will try for my first one on April 11th. This flare will be almost directly overhead before sunset at 7:25 and 30 seconds pm; you might also try to see this daylight flare. The magnitude will approach -8.0; see info below.

Project1

FlareSkyChart

I think the reason I most enjoy seeing Iridium flares is that they are a testimony to the science of mathematics. These satellites are traveling about 400 miles above the Earth at about 17, 000 miles/hour, with their shiny antennas slowly turning, and we can calculate exactly when they will reflect the sunlight on your head.

Naked Eye Sights: Try to see some Iridium flares this month; much easier viewing at night.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Check out Jupiter’s moons, and the last glimpse of the Orion Nebula.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): For the serious amateurs, search out the Virgo cluster of galaxies above Virgo and to the left of Leo the Lion.

See you next month!

March 2016

// March 3rd, 2016 // Comments Off on March 2016 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                 Tony Martinez

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 March 8th. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 1st to the 12th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.

March 2016

Note: Over the years I have reported interesting night time viewing targets that you could observe each month with your naked eye, binoculars, or with a simple telescope. In addition, most months would feature a general astronomy topic. These topics can be a good source of information for new amateur astronomers. The Astronomy Corner column is in a blog format, and as such, you can easily check out many previous columns; the earliest column available is May 2008. A table of contents for these earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.

Jupiter: Jupiter has not moved considerably since March 2015. Last March it was in front of the constellation Leo, and this month it is below the back legs of Leo. On February 27th, we had public star gazing event at Francis Marion University. As we watched Jupiter rise above the tree line, we were able to observe the effects of weather on telescope viewing. In general, it is not advisable to view any object near the horizon because you would be looking through a greater amount of atmosphere. In addition, you may also see the effects of some near ground air pollution. However, in South Carolina this time of year we also have a weather effect. We often experience warm days and cold nights. If the temperature difference between night and day is too high we may see fog, but even when the night is clear such as February 27th, we experienced the dramatic change in the clarity of Jupiter as it rose higher in the night sky. This was due to the warmed daytime Earth releasing the heat back into the cold early spring nighttime sky. This caused a blurring effect such as you see when heat rises off a road surface in the summer time. At 8pm, the cloud bands of Jupiter were visible through our 10-inch Dobsonian telescope, but blurry. Between 9 and 10 pm, they sharpened up to a “wow” factor. The below image approximates what we saw that night.

Jupiter Clarity

Messier Marathon: Every March throughout the northern hemisphere, amateur astronomers attempt to locate all 110 Messier objects during one night. The night chosen is on the weekend closest to the spring equinox and closest to a new Moon. Therefore for this year it will be on the weekend of March 13th. This marathon is best for experienced amateur astronomers. For readers who are new to astronomy, you should try to locate the 110 Messier Objects over a period of two to three years, instead of one night.

The subject of Messier objects and the Messier Marathon is discussed fully in my March 2015 column.

The Beehive Cluster:
The Beehive star cluster is one of many open star clusters easily visible through binoculars. The Beehive is also known as M44 and Praesepe. Open clusters are groups of stars gravitationally bound but spread over a larger area than the tightly bound globular clusters. In general, using binoculars, many open star clusters are available to view, versus only a few globular clusters. In addition, some open star clusters are visible to the naked eye, the most famous being the Pleiades. Another is the Hyades which surrounds the main star in Taurus, Aldebaran. The Hyades are so broad in size that it doesn’t appear to be a cluster.

The Beehive cluster is great representative of an open star cluster, see below.

M44

In addition it is a great indicator of the clarity of the night sky. On a truly clear night, M44 is visible to the naked eye, looking like a small smudge in the sky in front of the constellation Leo. This cluster actually is located in the constellation Cancer, however, even when M44 is visible to the naked eye, the constellation Cancer is still difficult to discern. In ancient times, sailors used the sighting of M44 as an indicator of good weather. If they could not see the Beehive at night on an open sea that usually meant a significant amount of moisture was in the atmosphere and a storm might be coming. The Latin name for this cluster is Praesepe which means a manger, and as you know, a manger is an animal feeding trough. For some reason, the ancients saw the Beehive cluster as animal food for two donkeys; the stars Asellus Borealis (northern donkey), and the star Asellus Australis (southern donkey).

M44 Location

To locate the Beehive cluster this month look to the south and you will easily locate the constellations Leo and Gemini and the Beehive is about half way between them as shown above. First try to see the cluster with the naked eye, next locate it with a pair of 7 to 10 power binoculars. While you are visiting the Beehive, look for the two donkeys; shown below.

The Donkeys

Naked Eye Sights: Try to see the Beehive Cluster; if possible, travel to a site well away from city or town lights.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Beehive Cluster (M44), and many other Messier objects, such as M35, M36, M37, M38, etc.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Jupiter is your best telescope target this month. Allow the planet to move somewhat high in the sky before viewing. Most telescopes will be too powerful to enjoy the view of the Beehive Cluster; the absolute best view is with large binoculars from 18 to 25 power.

See you next month!

 

February 2016

// February 19th, 2016 // Comments Off on February 2016 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez's first Astronomy Corner photo!

   Tony’s first Astronomy Corner photo!

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 February 8th. For February, your best viewing nights will be from February 1st to the 11th, and the 26th to the 29th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on February 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

100!
This is my 100th Astronomy Corner column! That’s 100,000 words, equivalent to a 400-page novel; but a lot easier to write then a novel. I joined ScienceSouth in August 2007. In October that year it was decided that one of ScienceSouth’s goals would be to bring astronomy to the public by having public viewings of the night sky. The first event was in November 2007 at Lynches River Park. The image below was taken that night. I am in the orange ScienceSouth shirt leaning over a laptop explaining how astronomy computer programs are used to locate objects in the night sky.

LynchesStarParty20071115sm

Soon after we had a special second public viewing at Lynches River. It was a special night because we were able to view the largest explosion in our solar system in recorded history; Comet Holmes. Below is what we saw through our telescopes that night.

Holmes

In October 2007 it was also decided that I would write a monthly column titled Tony’s Astronomy Corner. The first column appeared in November 2007, and during its writing, Comet Holmes exploded. This fact was discussed in the November column, and also in the December column after our Lynches River viewing.

Over the years in each column I reported interesting nighttime viewing targets that you could observe that month with your naked eye, binoculars, or with a simple telescope. In addition, most months would feature a general astronomy topic. These topics are a good source of information for new amateur astronomers. The Astronomy Corner column is in a blog format, and as such, you can easily check out many previous columns; the earliest column available is May 2008. Therefore, this month I have placed a table of contents of nearly eight years of columns for your use.

Tony’s Astronomy Corner Topics:

  1. Big Binoculars – May 2010, Feb 2015
  2. Autumn Skies – Oct 2015
  3. Astronomy Corner Table of Contents – Feb 2016
  4. Asteroids – Aug 2011
  5. Asterisms – Oct 2012, Dec 2014
  6. Arcturus – May 2008
  7. Andromeda – Oct 2009, Oct 2014
  8. Albireo – July 2009
  9. Accessories – Oct 2008, Feb 2014, March 2014
  10. Binocular Astronomy – Oct 2012
  11. Blue Moon – July 2011
  12. Cascades – Feb 2013
  13. Clear Sky Chart – Oct 2010
  14. Coat Hanger Asterism – July 2009
  15. Comet ISON – Oct 2013, Nov 2013
  16. Comets – Jan 2013, March 2013, April 2013
  17. Constellations – Feb 2011
  18. Curiosity – Dec 2011, Aug 2012, Sept 2012
  19. Dobson, John – Feb 2009
  20. Double Cluster – Nov 2008, Nov 2009
  21. Dwarf Planets – June 2009, July 2014
  22. Finder Scopes – Sept 2009, Dec 2012
  23. Fomalhaut – Dec 2008
  24. Geminids – Dec 2012, 2014, Dec 2015
  25. Harvest Moon – Nov 2010
  26. ISS – March 2009, June 2015
  27. Jupiter – August 2008, Aug 2009, Sept 2009, July 2010, Feb 2013
  28. M104 – March 2011
  29. M13 “Where is” Program – July 2009
  30. Leonids – Nov 2009
  31. Lunar Eclipse – April 2014, Sept 2015
  32. Lunar Observing – May 2013, Sept 2014
  33. M27 – July 2009
  34. M42 – Jan 2011
  35. M81 and M82 – June 2008
  36. Mercury – Dec 2009, Feb 2013
  37. Messier Marathon – March 2011, March 2012, March 2015
  38. Messiers – June 2008, April 2009, July 2010, June 2013, Aug 2014
  39. Meteor Showers – Aug 2010, Dec 2011, Dec 2012
  40. Milky Way – May 2008
  41. Milky Way Shape – Dec 2008
  42. Milky Way Summer – July 2008
  43. Neptune – May 2009
  44. Perseids – Aug 2010, Aug 2012, Aug 2013, Aug 2014, August 2015
  45. Planetary Nebula – July 2011
  46. Planets: Dance of – April 2010
  47. Planets: Minor – May 2011
  48. Planets: New 9th – June 2011
  49. Planets: View perspective – Nov 2011
  50. Pluto – May 2011, July 2015, August 2015
  51. Quadrantids Meteor Shower – Jan 2016
  52. Red Dot Finder – Sept 2009
  53. Saturn – April 2011, May 2012, April 2013, May 2013, June 2014, May 2015, June 2015
  54. Sciencesouth Astronomy – Sept 2011
  55. Sidewalk Astronomy – Feb 2009, March 2009
  56. Solar Observing – June 2011
  57. Springtime Skies – April 2015
  58. Star Associations – Dec 2010
  59. Star Birth – Jan 2011
  60. Star Gazing by Constellation – Sept 2013
  61. Star Gazing Techniques – July 2013
  62. Star Hopping – Sept 2012
  63. Star Names – Jan 2012
  64. Star Parties – Sept 2008, Nov 2011, May 2015
  65. Star Party Phone Maps – April 2009
  66. Starry Night Program – Mar 2010
  67. Summer Milky Way – July 2012
  68. Summer Observing – July 2009
  69. Summer Triangle – July 2009
  70. Telescope: Buying – Nov 2008, Dec 2009, Nov 2012, Dec 2013, Nov 2014, Nov 2015
  71. Telescopes: GoTo – Aug 2009
  72. Trapezium – Jan 2011
  73. Trianglulum Galaxy – Jan 2010
  74. Uranus – June 2010, Feb 2012, Sept 2012
  75. Venus Transit – June 2012
  76. Vesta – Feb 2010
  77. Virgo Cluster – April 2010, April 2012

You may also use this list above out of plain curiosity; what in the world is a “Star Party Phone Map”? (#65 above).

Which column was my favorite; Andromeda, October 2014.

Finally, thank you readers, I hope you enjoyed my columns.

Naked Eye Sights: This month should hopefully produce some clear dark skies; so go out and enjoy the winter night skies, especially the beautiful constellation Orion, and the Pleiades.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Orion nebula, the Pleiades and Andromeda Galaxy

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The return of Jupiter to the late evening skies.

January 2016

// January 8th, 2016 // Comments Off on January 2016 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                      Tony Martinez

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 January 9th. For January, your best viewing nights will be from January 1st to the 14th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on January 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Geminids Meteor Shower Update:
For us in Florence, South Carolina, the weather gave an unexpected bad turn. On the night of December 13th and the early hours of December 14th, the astronomy weather satellites (Clear Sky Chart data from Canada) reported relatively good atmospheric data for viewing the Geminids meteor shower. The unexpected event was that in South Carolina, December was, and continues to be, one of the warmest Decembers in many years. In addition we had wet ground, a very warm day and a cool evening. When I stepped out to check the sky at 11 pm, the fog was so thick that I could barely see more than 100 feet away. The next day, a frontal system moved through the area, blowing away most of the moisture. If you read my column last month, I noted that the Geminids could show a decent amount of meteors before and after the peak on the 14th. I went out after midnight on the next night. The sky was clear and transparent, with a few fast moving clouds. The Geminids produced 30 meteors per hour, many were large and left a debris trail behind after they burned out. Not a great shower but quite enjoyable. Note: My clothing at 1 am on December 15th; T-shirt and shorts!

The Quadrantids Meteor Shower:
Due to the washout of the Geminids shower in December, I direct you to a possibly great but challenging meteor shower early in January called the Quadrantids. This shower is seldom mentioned because of its challenging nature. It is another asteroid based meteor shower, however, the debris field of the shower is extremely narrow. Therefore, unlike the recent Geminids, which took several days for the Earth to pass through, we will pass through this shower peak in only a few hours. This narrow passage also makes it difficult to predict how good it will be. As of now, astronomers are predicting 80 to 120 meteors per hour; matching the Geminids. For most meteor showers, you can view the shower anytime from midnight to dawn. The challenge with the Quadrantids is we really aren’t sure exactly what time we will pass through the center of the debris field. Therefore, a dedicated Quadrantids observer should stay outside from midnight until dawn. In addition, we may just miss the center of field and have only a small shower. Therefore, go outside around 1 am on Monday January 4th, look to the northeast, and stay outside until 6 am, enjoy and stay warm.

If you do decide to try for the Quadrantids, while waiting between 4 am and 6am and looking to the east/northeast, you may try to spot comet Catalina. This dim comet will be near the bright star Arcturus in Bootes, and should be visible through simple binoculars as a dim fuzzy object; see dates and location chart below. It’s always fun to see a comet that no one seems to know about or hear about on the local news channels.

Comet Catalina2

Global Warming and Amateur Astronomers:
Is the Earth warming up? This question has caused much disagreement over the last several years. I personally believe that the Earth may be warming up; but the real debate and science should be directed at the question; are humans the cause of global warming? Human caused global warming scientists are using carbon isotope ratios in atmospheric carbon dioxide to push their theories. Naturally caused global warming scientists are using past temperature data and the Medieval Warm Period to demonstrate that the Earth goes through cycles of hot and cold; see graph below.

mwp

If this graph is a true indicator, then we will be getting much warmer and for about 200 years! The above graph is based on factual data, but in reality, it would take temperature data collected for the next thousand years to prove that there is a true natural cyclic pattern in the Earth’s temperature.

So back to amateur astronomy. Whatever the cause is, in our area of the world, Florence, SC the temperature has been well above normal for the last six months. It is the last week of December, the outside temperature is in the low 80’s, and my raised bed garden is lush with vegetables. However, astronomy has suffered. The heat and humidity of the summer has always been bad for viewing. For years we looked forward to the cool weather of late fall and early winter to give us clear viewing nights for star parties. Instead, the higher temperatures have resulted in an abundance of nighttime fog and/or other atmospheric moisture ruining our viewing.

We now rest our hopes on this month giving us cold and dry skies. As you look toward the wonderful constellation Orion, try this nice viewing sweep through the night sky; start with binoculars. Begin at the Orion Nebula #1, then go to the Hyades open cluster #2, on to the Pleaides #3, then the Andromeda Galaxy, #4, the Double Cluster, #5, the Perseus Association #6, Clusters M38, #7, M36, #8 and M37, #9. Next move to another nice cluster M35, #10 and end at the Beehive Cluster M44, #11. Enjoy the trip.

Sweep

Naked Eye Sights: The Quadrantids meteor shower. Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades,

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The “winter sweep” shown above.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Check out the targets on the “winter sweep”.

December 2015

// December 15th, 2015 // Comments Off on December 2015 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                  Tony Martinez

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 December 11th. For December, your best viewing nights will be from December 3rd to the 15th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on December 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Geminids Meteor Shower:
Many meteor showers occur throughout the year but are often not very impressive, averaging only 10-20 meteors per hour. The three most watched yearly showers are the Perseids in August, the Leonids in November, and the Geminids in December. Usually the Perseids are most watched because they occur during the warm summer nights of summer vacation. The Leonids are next in importance because on a few occasions they have produced over 200 meteors per hour. The Geminids seem to be the least viewed of the three. I have been watching the night sky for many years and I have noticed that over the last ten years or so, the Perseids and the Leonid averaged only 10 to 20 meteors per hour. However, during this time period, the Geminids have been averaging 60 to 100 meteors per hour. This year, the Geminids may again shine as the best meteor shower of the year.  Astronomers are predicting as high as 120 meteors per hour.  These predictions are directed at very dark sky sites. If this year’s prediction is correct, areas on the outskirts of Florence should see over 80 meteors per hour; worth staying up late. The only downside this year is that they will peak late on the night of Sunday the 13th and early in the morning of the 14th; school and work the next day. However, the good news is that it will occur during a New Moon. Shown below: Late night December 13th looking east.

Geminids

Meteor showers should only be viewed with the naked eye, no binoculars. The reason being that although the meteors appear to come from one area of the sky, in this case the constellation Gemini (see above), they may actually appear in almost any part of the sky.  They also move too fast to see with binoculars. A lounge chair will be a good viewing aid, because one down side of constantly looking up is a stiff neck. This time of year, another problem may be the cold, so bring blankets or a sleeping bag for your lounge chair. Hot chocolate is another good viewing aid for the Geminids shower.

The Anatomy of a Meteor Shower:
For the new readers, I want to review the subject of meteor showers.  Meteoroids are small pieces of rocky or metallic debris dispersed throughout the solar system. As the Earth revolves around the Sun, we run into these meteoroids, and as they enter the atmosphere, they become meteors, and the friction causes them to quickly burn up. We see them as a short streak of light, and they are usually referred to as “shooting stars.” This misnomer is a throwback to the distant past when ancient observers really had no idea what the stars were. So on any given night of the year it is likely that you will see a few meteors streak through the sky. In addition to the meteoric debris left over from the formation of the solar system, there is another more concentrated source of meteoroids; comets.

Comets are balls of ice, gases and rocks that circle the Sun in elliptical orbits. As a comet circles the Sun, gases and ice particles are released, along with the release of some of the comet’s rocks. These rocks become meteoroids, and remain in the orbit of the comet. So after several thousand years of circling the Sun, the entire orbital path of the comet is littered with meteoric debris. Since there are hundreds of known comet orbits circling the Sun, it is logical that our Earth would pass through some of these orbits each year.

periodic_shower

When the Earth passes through one of these cometary orbits, we experience a larger amount of meteors known as a meteor shower.  On a normal night, one might see one or two meteors per hour, but during a meteor shower, one might see from twenty to one hundred meteors per hour or more.

For most meteor showers, or for meteor viewing in general, the best viewing time is after midnight. The reason is based on the positions of the Earth and you the viewer as the Earth runs into meteoroids.  Before midnight, an observer would be on the side of the Earth opposite the direction of the Earth’s movement through space. From midnight onward, an observer would now be looking in the same direction that the Earth is moving through space. Therefore, we could easily see the meteoroids hit our atmosphere; like running through raindrops. Remember, you may still see some meteors before midnight as the graze the upper atmosphere.

Now that I have carefully explained the relationship of meteor showers with comets, it is noteworthy that the Geminids shower is not associated with any comet.  It is associated with the orbit of an asteroid called Phaethon. As such, it has a much wider debris field and can yield a good display over many days; have fun.

Have a wonderful Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

camels3wisemen

Naked Eye Sights: The Geminids meteor shower on the night of the 13th and morning of the 14th. If the weather is bad that night, definitely check out the night sky a day before and after the peak night. Also enjoy the return of the wonderful constellation Orion.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Orion Nebula and the Pleiades

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Orion Nebula

See you next month!

November 2015

// November 6th, 2015 // Comments Off on November 2015 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                    Tony Martinez

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 November 11th. For November, your best viewing nights will be from November 4th to the 16th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on November 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Note: Each November I feature my telescope purchasing column.

So you want to buy a telescope:
Every year a telescope appears on someone’s Christmas list. If you are considering your first purchase of a telescope, the following information may help you with your selection.

First suggestion: Never buy a telescope from a department store. This suggestion also pertains to TV shopping networks. If the telescope box, or sales sign or salesperson mentions power (usually something above 200 or 300 power), then stay away! Good telescopes are defined by their light gathering ability, not by power. In addition, these department store scopes usually have poor quality lenses and wobbly tripod mounts. The short-comings of these “bargain” telescopes my may result in frustration when using them, and therefore may discourage instead of encourage your interest in astronomy.

So the solution is to purchase a telescope from a telescope store, most of which are online. One well-known dealer is Orion telescopes found at telescope.com, others are Meade and Celestron. If you require other sources of telescopes, go to your local bookstore and buy a copy of either “Astronomy” or “Sky and Telescope,” magazine, and check their advertisements.

So now that you know where to buy, the harder problem is what to buy. There are three basic types of telescopes: Refractors, Newtonian reflectors and Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors. You should consider a starting price of about $200, with a better starting amount being $300.

A refractor is what one might consider a traditional shaped telescope, a long thin tube with a lens (objective) in front to gather light, and another lens (eyepiece) in the back. They are fine telescopes for viewing the moon, planets and double stars and are often bought as “starter scopes.” However, they usually don’t have sufficient light gathering ability to give good viewing of galaxies and nebulas, unless you purchase expensive high-end refractors.

Refractor

A Newtonian reflector uses a mirror to gather light instead of a lens. The telescope consists of a hollow tube open at the top with the viewing eyepiece near the top at a right angle to the tube. Amateur scopes can have as small as a 3-inch diameter mirror, but basic reflectors usually range in size from 6 to 10 inch diameter mirrors. Because of their large light gathering ability, they can be used for a large range of astronomical targets, including galaxies and nebulae.

Reflector

A second class of reflectors is the Dobsonian reflector, usually called a Dob. The Dob was invented by John Dobson, and is a simple reflector that is placed in a mount on the ground, see image below.

Dob

Dobs are easy to use and quite inexpensive versus light gathering ability. Bottom line is that Dobs are known for giving the best telescope for your money. Some other considerations are; the larger ones can be bulky to transport, and they do need periodic fine adjustments to re-align the main mirror, called collimation. Laser collimators are available to make this job easy. I collimate our Dob every time we use it; this adjustment takes only about 2-3 minutes.

Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors were designed to give the benefits of a reflector, but minimizing the length. These telescopes tend to be, on average, the most expensive of the three telescopes types. Also of the three types, these are the telescopes that most likely come equipped with computerized finders, known as GoTo scopes. A GoTo attachment will allow you to enter in on a keypad any celestial object, and the telescope will automatically find it for you if it is visible on that particular night. Note: GoTo systems are available for other reflectors and also for refractors. I do not personally favor GoTo systems because I feel that the best way to learn the night sky is to find your target objects using charts or astronomy computer programs.

CAT

Do you really need a telescope? If you are serious about a hobby in astronomy, it might be best if you put a pair of binoculars on your Christmas list this year, and buy the telescope next year. Reasons: Binoculars are cheaper, most ranging between $80 and $200. Binoculars will allow you to see a large region of the sky, and right side up! Binoculars can serve for other uses such as bird watching or sporting events. For simple astronomy, most people prefer 7 X 50 or 10 X 50 mm binoculars. If you get the binocular astronomy bug, you might someday upgrade to “big binoculars”; some of these are shown below. I own the one shown on the far right side of the photo, and with it, I can see the Saturn’s rings!

NEAF 2005

To sum up my recommendations: If you want to start a serious venture into amateur astronomy, begin by buying a pair of binoculars, star charts, books, and astronomy software. If you must have a telescope this year, start with a Dob, minimum 6 inch, preferred 8 inch.

Naked Eye Sights: Leonids meteor shower peaks on morning 18th. This year the prediction is low with the expectation of only about 15 meteors per hour. My personal feelings are that a minimum of 60 meteors per hour constitutes a good meteor shower.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Pleiades, in the east.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Orion Nebula, Ring nebula, M57, in Lyra and the star Albireo; bottom of the Northern Cross asterism.

See you next month!

October 2015

// October 8th, 2015 // Comments Off on October 2015 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

A little October fun!

                            A little October fun!

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 October 12. For October, your best viewing nights will be from October 5 to the 17. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on October 15 at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

September Lunar Eclipse:
Sadly most of South Carolina was completely cloud covered during the eclipse. This was a “perfect” lunar eclipse for a potential 3D view of the Moon. The next total lunar eclipse in our area will not occur until January 21, 2019. This eclipse will also occur late in the evening with totality between 11:30 pm to 12:30 am. This timing sets up the same possibility that we will see the spherical nature of the Moon (See last month’s column).

Viewing the Autumn Skies:
In the eastern United States the majority of star parties occur in the autumn. The reasons are the cooler nights and lower humidity result in clearer skies. Another plus is that there are many great targets to observe in the fall. These targets include: globular clusters, open clusters, planetary nebulae, galaxies, and other targets.

Globular Clusters: The two best globular clusters in the northern hemisphere are the Hercules Cluster (M13) and M22 in Sagittarius. Although they are low in the sky this month, the clearer skies make them good targets. During this month they can best be seen between 8 pm and 9 pm. Below is the location of M13.

M13a

Below is the location of M22.

M22 Saga

Open Clusters:
There are various open clusters visible this month; however the nicest target all month is the Double Cluster in Perseus. The only designations of this object are NGC884 and NGC 869. Note: NGC stands for New General Catalog, a listing of deep sky objects published in 1888. The Double Cluster is best viewed with binoculars or low power telescopes. If you observe from a good observing site it is a nice target. If you view the Double Cluster from a truly dark sky site it looks like two piles of jewels on black velvet. These clusters are just below the Cassiopeia “W.” The locations are shown below:

Double Cluster

Planetary Nebulae:
There are two nice planetary nebulae to check out. Planetary nebulae were mislabeled by early astronomers. In reality, they are remnants of star deaths. Our Sun should end its life as a planetary nebula. These objects can form many shapes, and the two I will point out are named after their shapes. The first is the Dumbbell Nebula (M27) in the constellation of Vulpecula; however you can easily locate this target by using the constellation Cygnus. You can see M27 with binoculars or a small telescope.

The location of M27 is shown below:

M27 nebula2

The second target is the Ring Nebula (M57) in Lyra. This object is a perfect ring, however, unlike M27; M57 will require a telescope at high power such as a six inch Dob using from 25 to 10 mm eyepieces. The location of M57 is shown below:

M57a

Galaxies:
There are various galaxies visible this month. The best target is the famous Andromeda Galaxy (M31). This galaxy can be seen with the naked eye from dark sky sites. Through most amateur telescopes, M31 looks impressive, but what you are seeing is only the central core of this massive object. Once you go above 25 power, you cannot see the entire galaxy. The absolute best equipment for observing M31 are large binoculars; such as 25 X 100mm. Binoculars this size start at about $300.00; of course you have to also purchase a tripod. If you one day view the Andromeda Galaxy through a pair of large binoculars you may be upset that you still only see the central core of the galaxy. Large binoculars are indeed the best tool for seeing dim galaxies, but you still need near perfect dark sky conditions, so keep trying. Below left shows 25 power on normal night and on the right is the same view at a dark sky site.

M31 2 views

Other Autumn Sights:
Check out the star Albireo in Cygnus; which without hesitation I call my favorite star. Albireo is the star that marks the head of the swan or the star that marks the bottom of the Northern Cross asterism. This colorful double star has one sapphire colored star and one golden colored star. It is best viewed at 25 power or above either with a telescope or with large binoculars. The general consensus is that it is a true double star and not a chance alignment.

Cynus beta

Collinder 399 is also known as the Coathanger and Brocchi’s Cluster is an asterism in the vicinity of the star Albireo. This asterism consists of ten stars in the shape of a coathanger. This asterism rises in May and sets in the west in November, but throughout this time it is always seen upside down. In the southern hemisphere it is always seen right side up. Another plus is that the Coathanger is best viewed through seven or ten power binoculars. In this case the stars in the asterism are not associated with each other but are just a chance alignment ranging from 200 to 1,100 light years away. Therefore the name Brocchi’s Cluster is a misnomer. See below:

Coathanger2

 

Naked Eye Sights: The Summer Milky Way is still partially visible. Try to see the Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Try for M13, M22, M27, M31, NGC 884 and 869. Also check out the Coathanger asterism.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Try for M13, M22, and M27. Also NGC 884 and 869 at low power. Don’t forget the star Albireo.

 

September 2015

// September 1st, 2015 // Comments Off on September 2015 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                Tony Martinez

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 September 13. For September, your best viewing nights will be from September 6 to the 17. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on September 15 at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Lunar Eclipse:
There will be a total eclipse of the Moon on the night of September 27. For an amateur astronomer this is a pleasant celestial event; the lineup is shown below.

Lunar Eclipse

For the non-astronomers the media tends to embellish celestial events. I predict that the media will have a field day with this eclipse. First of all this month’s eclipse occurs when the Moon is at perihelion; closest to the Earth. At its closest approach, the Moon is only 5% closer than the average Earth – Moon distance. Your eyes may or may not perceive that the Moon appears closer and therefore larger at perihelion. However the media will not mention average Moon distance or percentages, but they will instead call it a “Super Moon”! Therefore this will be a “Super Eclipse”! This hype is deceptive, but at least it is based on orbital mathematics.

I predict that the second media hype will be directed at the subject of a “Blood Moon”. What is a Blood Moon? It’s the new media term for a total lunar eclipse. Most total lunar eclipses have a reddish brown color. One might logically think that if the Earth totally blocks the light of the Sun from reaching the Moon, then the Moon should look black during a total lunar eclipse. If the Earth had no atmosphere, then this would be true. However, the Earth’s atmosphere acts like a lens and bends the Sun’s light around the Earth. We know from red sunsets that only the longwave red and orange can penetrate farthest through our atmosphere, therefore the small amount of light that reaches the Moon during a total lunar eclipse would have a reddish color; no blood, just physics, see below.

Total Eclipse

The next media hype is to add myth/prophecy to this month’s lunar eclipse. Lunar eclipses are somewhat rare, but four in a row about six months apart are really rare and are known as tetrads. This is being reported as a sign of some upcoming doom. Many celestial events have been used to portend some prophetic event. Some examples are: lining up of planets, comets, eclipses and meteor storms.

First, concerning rarity, this is the second tetrad in this century, and there will be six more before the end of this century; so this appears to be a doomed century. The media may also remind you that this Blood Moon tetrad coincides with some spring and fall religious holidays. Therefore, a tetrad that also overlaps these religious celebrations is so rare that it must be pointing to a doomsday event. Back to math and orbital calculations: In the last 2000 years we have had eight tetrads that have totally coincided with religious holidays, and the Earth is still here. My comments are not to minimize any beliefs; but are instead to make you aware that this tetrad is only a mathematical orbital coincidence.

At ScienceSouth we have an apparatus known as a wave pendulum; see two examples below.Wave PendulumAs all the balls are set in motion at the same time, they each swing in their own unique period, based only on the lengths each pendulum. However, after several swings, the periods of some of the balls begin to match up with other balls resulting in many different synchronized swings. This synchronization effect is analogous to the effects that result in eclipses of the Sun and Moon, and tetrads.

So go out and enjoy a fun celestial show and leave all the hype to the non-scientific branch of the news media.

It’s a ball!!!
I will make a final prediction for this month’s column. I predict that what I am about to tell you next about this month’s lunar eclipse will not be mentioned by any other non-science or science columnist!

First some background: If the Moon is a sphere, why don’t we see it as a three dimensional ball in the sky, instead of a flat disk? Most people say because it is too far away to see the curvature, but this is not so.

The first Moon landing finally cleared up this question. When the astronauts walked on the Moon, they noticed that the surface is covered with a fine powder. This fine dust tends to diffuse/scatter the bright Sun’s reflected light, called Lambertian reflection. A surface which gives equal reflectance at all observing angles is Lambertian reflectance, and this is what prevents us from seeing the Moon as a ball. Now, during a total lunar eclipse, the Moon is only dimly lit by a small amount of reddish sunlight refracting/bending around the Earth’s atmosphere. Under this low light, the bright diffuse reflected light is gone and a spherical Moon can sometimes become apparent. Observing a three dimensional Moon during a lunar eclipse is best achieved when the Moon is high in the sky from 10 pm onward, and this month’s eclipse will be in totality from 10:11 pm until 11:23 pm. There are many other variables in play but the timing of this eclipse sets up a great chance of seeing this effect.

So check it out this month, and for the first time in your life you may see the Moon as a sphere.

Naked Eye Sights: Lunar eclipse

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Lunar eclipse

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Use the hour of lunar darkness to check out your favorite targets.

August 2015

// August 4th, 2015 // Comments Off on August 2015 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                             Tony Martinez

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 14th. For August, your best viewing nights will be from August 7th to the 18th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on August 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Pluto:
As of last month, Pluto was still seen only as a fuzzy ball. On July 14th the New Horizons spacecraft successfully flew by Pluto taking the first close up images of Pluto, along with thousands of bits of data collection. During the last few weeks of July, NASA had several news conferences to show and discuss the preliminary photo and data collection. The one feature that was most prominent was the now famous Pluto “Heart.” The below images were taken before the fly by, and show both sides of Pluto along with its moon Charon; the fly by was on the heart side of Pluto.

01

 

Below is the, to date, best overall view of Pluto.

2b

 

Along with the best view, to date, of Pluto’s Moon Charon.

09

And finally some of the many close up views of Pluto’s surface.

10Perseids Meteor Shower:
The Perseids meteor shower is a favorite for many observers because it occurs during the warmth of summer, and you don’t have to worry about getting up early for school the next day. The shower should peak on the night of August 12th and early on the morning of August 13th. The Perseids shower always has the potential of a good display, but for several years only a few meteors have been seen. This year the shower occurs during a new Moon, and astronomers predict a great meteor shower with as much as 100 meteors per hour! Please don’t be upset if you only see a few meteors, meteor shower rates are difficult to predict.

For new readers, it is important to review the subject of meteor showers. Meteoroids are small pieces of rocky or metallic debris dispersed throughout the solar system. As the Earth revolves around the Sun, we run into these meteoroids, and as they enter the atmosphere, they become meteors, and the friction causes them to quickly burn up. We see them as a short streak of light, and they are usually referred to as “shooting stars.” This misnomer is a throwback to the distant past when ancient observers really had no idea what the stars were. So on any given night of the year it is likely that you will see a few meteors streak through the sky. In addition to the meteoric debris left over from the formation of the solar system, there is another more concentrated source of meteoroids; comets.

Comets are balls of ice, gases and rocks that circle the Sun in elliptical orbits, and these orbits are usually above or below the plane of the planets in the solar system. As a comet circles the Sun, gases and ice particles are released, along with the release of some of the comet’s rocks. These rocks become meteoroids, however, they do not disperse into the solar system, but instead they remain in the orbit of the comet. So after several thousand years of circling the Sun, the entire orbital path of the comet is littered with meteoric debris.

When the Earth passes through one of these cometary orbits, we experience a large amount of meteors known as a meteor shower. See below:

periodic_shower

 

On a normal night, you might see one or two meteors per hour, but during a meteor shower, one might see from twenty to one hundred meteors per hour or more.

Rules of meteor shower viewing: No binoculars, telescopes or any optical aids are needed, just use your eyes. Due to the position of the Earth and the stars during a particular entry into the meteoroid’s orbit, the meteors appear to be coming from a particular constellation, thus the name of the meteor shower. Therefore, the Perseids meteor shower is centered on the constellation of Perseus, which rises about midnight in the northeast on August 12th. See below:

Perseids

This brings us to another aspect of watching meteor showers; time. For most meteor showers, or for meteor viewing in general, the best viewing is after midnight. This is based on the positions of the Earth and you the viewer as the Earth runs into the meteoroids. Before midnight, an observer would be on the side of the Earth opposite the direction of the Earth’s movement through space. From midnight onward, an observer would now be looking in the same direction that the Earth is moving through space. Therefore, we easily see the meteoroids hitting our atmosphere; a good analogy is like running through raindrops. Remember, you may see some meteors before midnight as they graze the upper atmosphere.

So lie on the ground on a blanket, or use a chaise lounge chair to view the shower, using a standard chair may result in neck pain. Look in the direction of Perseus (northeast), but be aware of your peripheral vision since meteors may also appear overhead or toward the north or south.

Naked Eye Sights: Perseid’s meteor shower

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The area in and around the Summer Milky Way in the south.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Saturn remains a good target in the southeast. Search out Messier Objects in Sagittarius, Scorpius, and along the Milky Way

 

July 2015

// July 16th, 2015 // Comments Off on July 2015 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                 Tony Martinez

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 July 15th. For July, your best viewing nights will be from July 8th to the 20th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on July 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Pluto:
The most important astronomy event of the year occurs on July 14th. However, you will not be able to view it with your telescope, binoculars or naked eye. The event is the arrival of our spacecraft New Horizons at the dwarf planet Pluto. To date most of the images of Pluto have been generated by the Hubble telescope and are quite blurry and unresolved. Although good imaging of Pluto is not possible using the Hubble telescope, it is amazing that we have been able to locate five moons circling Pluto. In 1978, long before the Hubble telescope, the first and largest moon of Pluto, called Charon, was discovered; using a telescope at the US Naval observatory. By 2012, using the Hubble telescope four more moons were also found; see image below.

Pluto and 5 Moons

A brief background about Pluto: By the late 1800’s, astronomers felt that there was another planet out beyond Neptune’s orbit that was causing some disturbances to the orbit of Uranus. This “Planet X” was finally discovered in 1930, and called Pluto. Later information proved that Pluto was too small to have any effect on Uranus, and thus the whole Planet X/Uranus theory was disproven. Therefore, it was only by accident that Pluto was discovered and not because of theoretical calculations. Below is an image of the actual photos they used in 1930 when they discovered Pluto.

Pluto Discovery

So for seventy-six years our Sun had nine official planets. In 2006 it was decided that Pluto would be reclassified as a dwarf planet. The primary reason for the reclassification was that other small planet-like objects were being discovered beyond Pluto, and one called Eris was larger than Pluto. To prevent a constant upgrading of the number of planets circling our Sun, new rules were written for planet classification. These new rules determined that Pluto and the Pluto-like objects beyond would now be called dwarf planets. The new classification rules also resulted in the largest asteroid Ceres becoming a dwarf planet; note: a spacecraft called Dawn has recently been placed in orbit around Ceres. Below is an artist’s comparison of the Earth to Pluto and three of its moons.

Earth and Pluto

The New Horizon’s spacecraft was launched on January 2006 to begin its nine year and 3 billion mile journey to Pluto. As the spacecraft approaches Pluto it has been sending back images. The images below were taken by New Horizons in late June 2015. On the left is Pluto and Charon, and on the right are two images of Pluto. Note on the Pluto images, a bright spot has been detected. In a few weeks, we should know what it is.

Latest New Horizon images

On Tuesday morning July 14th just before 8 am, the New Horizons spacecraft will make its closest approach to Pluto, flying only 7,770 miles above its surface. The fact that tiny Pluto has at least five moons raises suspicions that Pluto may have many other small moons. Indeed, Pluto may be a ringed planet. The answers will be known in only a few weeks.

Pluto Facts and Trivia:
Percival Lowell at the Lowell observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona spent the last several years of his life trying to locate this Planet X. After his death, the job was later given to a young 23 year old Clyde Tombaugh. After searching for a year, the new planet was discovered in 1930.

The naming of Pluto caused great discussion. The final name came from a suggestion by an eleven-year-old girl in England. One of the reasons it was liked is that the first two letters, PL were Lowell’s initials. Obviously Walt Disney was impressed and named his newest cartoon dog character after the planet.

Eight years after the discovery of the planet Uranus, in 1781, a new element was discovered and named Uranium in honor of the planet. In 1940 element 93 was discovered and since it was the next element after Uranium, it was named for the next planet after Uranus, Neptunium. Finally in 1941 Element 94 was discovered and therefore took the name of the next planet out, Plutonium.

Pluto does not orbit in the same plane as the rest of the planets. Pluto’s orbit is so irregular that it spends part of the time closer to the Sun that Neptune. From 1979 until 1999, Neptune was the farthest planet from the Sun. However, Pluto will never intersect/collide with Neptune.

Radio signals take four and a half hours to travel to the spacecraft from Earth as it approaches Pluto.

From May 2015, onward, the resolution of images taken by New Horizons exceeds those of the Hubble Space Telescope

Clyde Tombaugh died in 1997, and some of his ashes are on board the New Horizons spacecraft.

 

Naked Eye Sights: Look to the south for the bright summer Milky Way passing through Scorpius and Sagittarius.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Scan the regions near the tail of scorpion, and then upwards along the Milky Way to see high concentrations of stars, nebulae and star clusters.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): That bright object in front of Scorpius is Saturn, your best target of the month. If you have a 10-inch or larger telescope, and patience, you can search for the planet Pluto in Sagittarius. You must use a good astronomy program such as Starry Night, and you must realize that this is a difficult task.

June 2015

// June 5th, 2015 // Comments Off on June 2015 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                               Tony Martinez

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 June 16th. For June, your best viewing nights will be from June 9th to the 20th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on June 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Saturn:
Saturn is the best planetary target for amateur telescopes, and therefore each year I repeat a Saturn column during the best months of the year to observe this planet.

The return of the planet Saturn to the evening skies is of particular importance this year because the favorable tilt of the planet versus the Earth. This view will continue to be impressive for a least 5 more years. A classic Saturn image is shown below.

Saturn

Of course, the image you will see through your amateur telescopes will be quite small and sometimes blurry, but still impressive.

When observing through my 25 X 100 mm binoculars, the rings of Saturn are tiny, but clearly visible. Any scope you use at 25 power and above will allow you to see the rings of Saturn; of course views are better at 50 power or above. Below are three views of Saturn through amateur telescopes. The smaller blurry image represents what you might see with a very inexpensive discount store telescope. The other two images represent views from Dobsonian reflectors ranging from 6 to 10 inches.

Views of Saturn

At various times ScienceSouth has free public NASA Saturday astronomy events using the ScienceSouth and Francis Marion’s Dobsonian reflectors. Keep checking our website for dates. We often give people the chance to see spectacular views of the mountains and craters of the Moon and views of the planets. Although these sights generate various amount of excitement, I always hear the biggest “wows” when someone sees Saturn for the first time. The big ball of Jupiter looks quite nice, and the small fuzzy ball of Mars is OK, and some people even enjoy the fuzzy crescent of Venus; but Saturn is special. You can view hundreds of images of Saturn on the Internet, but there is something magical when your see it through your own eyes. So if you have a telescope, try viewing Saturn this month in the southern sky. If you don’t own a telescope come visit us and use our telescopes. Saturn will be in a good viewing position this month onward starting about 9:30. Good viewing of Saturn will continue from now through July. However, if you have a clear view of the western horizon, you can still see Saturn through August and into early September.

To find Saturn this month, look to the southeast to see the pale yellow planet. As you may recall, most seasons of the year have a prominent easily identified constellation in the south. For summer, the constellation is Scorpius. This scorpion shaped, or “sloppy J,” stays close to the horizon throughout the summer. The planet Saturn will be found just to the right of the upper “claw” star of the scorpion, called Graffias.

Location Saturn

I have a trick which may help you when viewing Saturn, or any bright planet. When viewing bright planets through amateur telescopes, the contrast of a very bright planet against a black sky can produce a glare which may prevent a clear view of the planet. A simple way to solve this problem is to view the planet before the sky becomes black; during twilight. Example: This month when you go out to view Saturn, begin viewing in the twilight, between 8:45 pm and 9:30 pm.

The ISS (International Space Station):

ISS

Since the launch of the ISS in late 1998 until now there have been forty-three crews on board (called expeditions). Expedition 43 began this March, and contains a full crew of six astronauts; two from the United States, three from Russia and one from Italy; see below.

Expedition 43

On any given night it is possible to see many artificial earth satellites move across the night sky. However, the brightest by far is the ISS. Measuring several hundred feet across it is an easy target. It is best viewed when its path somewhat high in the sky. So at any given location, the flyover should be high, and in darkness; preferably in the early evening. This month there are two perfect ISS flyovers; one on the 18th lasting about 4 minutes and one on the 21st lasting over 6 minutes. The chart below is for the Florence area and is from the website “Heavens Above.”

ISS Flyover

The best way to use this chart is to first look in the center column and check the highest point/Alt (altitude) of the flyover in degrees. The best numbers are 60 degrees and above. In this chart there are two flyovers above 60, one at 64 and one at 78 degrees. Next look to the left and check the times for these flyovers. Any times near 20:00:00 and below are in daylight. The flyover listed at highest point 22:07 starts at 22:04 (10:04 pm) and ends at 22:08 (10:08 pm). The 78 degree flyover starts at 9 pm and ends at 9:06. Finally check the dates and your set to go.

Below is a chart of the June 18th flyover. Note that the path of the ISS does not end at the horizon. Instead, the path ends near the bright star in Ophiuchus called Rasalhague. Why, because at this point the ISS moves into the Earth’s shadow.

PassSkyChart2

Naked Eye Sights: Check out the two nice flyovers of the ISS this month.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Scan the Summer Milky as it reappears in the southern sky.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Saturn.

See you next month!

May 2015

// May 8th, 2015 // Comments Off on May 2015 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                     Tony Martinez

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 May 18th. For May, your best viewing nights will be from May 10th to the 22nd. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on May 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Saturn:
If you have been waiting for Saturn to return, it begins this month, but good viewing begins around 11 pm. The image below shows the position of Saturn throughout May at 10 pm.

Project1

The next two months Saturn will be high in the sky earlier in the night. Most beginning amateur astronomers view the night sky from about one hour after sunset until about 10 until 11pm; depending on the season. This is because most people wish to enjoy stargazing without interfering with their need to wake up for work or school. In most of my columns I try to direct sky objects of interest to a time frame before midnight. For example, if you wanted to see the beautiful planet Saturn earlier in the year, there was great viewing at 5 am in mid-March, or at 2 am in mid-April. Most serious amateurs also tend to do their viewing before midnight. However, serious amateurs also attend star parties at least twice a year or more. During these star parties, most of us stay up the entire night, and sleep in the day. I have mentioned star parties in my columns some years ago, so I will revisit the subject again.

Star Party:
Star party (stär pär’tI) n. [AS. steorra + OF. partie] A congenial gathering of astronomers, photographers, scientists, and other night owls; convened in a dark place with hope of clear skies for the purpose of admiring creation.

The traditional star party is a gathering of amateur astronomers at a site removed from light pollution. They are usually run in parks or campgrounds and sometimes at private sites owned by colleges or astronomy clubs; a moderate fee is often charged for use of the facility. The amateurs usually spend most of the time with their own equipment. In addition, they may also wander about to see various objects through other peoples’ scopes. Note: Star parties are a great way to check out new equipment before making a purchase. At star parties, many people are trying to seek out dim objects, and some people are deeply involved in astrophotography. Because of this, it is very important that you do not use any white lights at all. If you need a light, only red lights are allowed and kept at a minimum. This is because red light is least likely to disturb your night vision. Also, at normal star parties, the use of green lasers is prohibited. One green laser can ruin hours of long exposure astrophotography.

In addition to the traditional star parties, there are also events called public star parties; this is the type star party we have on several Saturdays of the year either at ScienceSouth or at Francis Marion University. If you are new to astronomy, these are always great events to attend. At a public star party, many if not most people come without a telescope, and these gatherings are free of charge. The amateur astronomers will have their telescopes set up to allow people to view various objects, answer questions, and in general help people learn more about astronomy. Green lasers are usually allowed, and are used by the astronomers to help people find various celestial objects. If you do attend a public star party, be sure to bring a pair of binoculars if possible. A knowledgeable amateur can point to sky objects with a green laser. You then follow the laser to the target with your binoculars. At our star parties we have several pairs of binoculars available for loan.

The large traditional star parties are now phasing out in this part of the country as the summer heat causes humid skies or other thermal effects. When the fall approaches star parties return. There are two large star parties in driving range of Florence: The Peach State Star Gaze in Georgia in October, (observing field shown below)

dav5

and the Chiefland Star Party in /Florida in November. Both of these events are several days long. I will give more information about these gatherings in the fall columns. Closer to home is the Midlands Astronomy Club out of Columbia, SC. Check out their website. They do have some public viewing events, but most of the observing dates are for members. Some people pay the membership fees to nearby astronomy clubs primarily to be allowed to use their observing sites. You may consider this if your astronomy hobby becomes more serious.

Naked Eye Sights: Through most of this month you can see three bright planets visible at the same time; Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. The best time to observe these three planets is about 10 pm from May 10th to the end of the month. Saturn will be in the east, Jupiter in the southwest, and Venus in the west.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): As Scorpius rises follow down the scorpion and move into the rich star field of the summer Milky Way. Look to the southeast. The brightest star in Scorpius is Antares, which appears as the “heart” of the scorpion. This red/orange star marks the upper edge of the Milky Way; see image below.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Saturn after 10 or 11 pm. Try to visit a ScienceSouth/FMU observing night (public star party). If you are adventurous plan one traditional Star Party later this year, somewhere in South Carolina or the southeast.

See you next month!

April 2015

// April 9th, 2015 // Comments Off on April 2015 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                Tony Martinez

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.

wholeskychart1

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:

800px-ESO-M87

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:

Virgo cluster

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.

M104:
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:

M104

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.

Finding M104 a

This image below is the capability of our ScienceSouth telescopes; note the three pointer stars on the right.

Sombero Galaxy-Combined-7-small

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!

March 2015

// March 7th, 2015 // Comments Off on March 2015 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                     Tony Martinez

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 March 20th. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 13th to the 22nd. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Messier Marathon:

It’s March again, the month of the Messier Marathons. I believe that the best way to become a good amateur astronomer is to try to locate all 110 Messier Objects in the night sky.

For new readers, the Messier Objects are a list of 110 celestial objects which include galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. The objects are usually known by their “M number”; M1, M42, M104, etc. This list was composed by Charles Messier in the late 18th century. Messier was a comet hunter, and he recorded this list of objects that looked like comets but were not. This list helped Messier, and his fellow astronomers avoid objects that might be confused for comets. It is ironic that today this “negative” list has become one of the most widely used lists of objects used by amateurs around the world. All 110 objects can theoretically be seen with only a pair of 10 X 50 binoculars under perfect dark sky viewing conditions. However, under normal viewing conditions, about 50% of the objects can easily be seen with simple binoculars. All 110 objects can be seen at about 25 power, using a simple telescope, preferably a Dobsonian, or 25 power binoculars. All 110 Messiers are seen in the image below.

MESSIERS

So what is a Messier Marathon? The Messier Objects are found throughout the night sky every month of the year. However, a rare event occurs each year in March. In mid to late March, all 110 Messier Objects can be found in one night! Of course in order to accomplish this, you also need to have a new Moon. This event is known as a Messier Marathon, and amateur astronomers around the world attempt this task on or about the new Moon closest to the first day of spring (Vernal Equinox). This year the Marathon will be run on the weekend of March 21st and 22nd. The best locations in this hemisphere are in the southern part of the United States, including South Carolina.  Please note that a Messier Marathon is not an easy task. It requires an excellent viewing area well away from light pollution. If you decide to take this challenge, you could go on-line and find the locations where you can join amateurs gathered at “perfect” locations for the marathon; most likely in Texas, New Mexico or Arizona. If you travel to these perfect locations, you still will be challenged to succeed. For example: To see Messier 110 (M110) you will have to find it very close to the western horizon just after sunset. To finish your marathon the next morning you will have a more difficult task competing with the Sun to see the cluster M30 in the east just before sunrise. Below is an image of 150 amateur astronomers during a recent Messier Marathon in the desert of Iran.

Iran Marathon

My thoughts on the Messier Marathons: Take your time and slowly attempt to locate all 110 Messier Object over two to three years. Once you have enjoyed the challenge of completing this list, at a later time you may like to try to do it in only one night in March.  However, if you have not tried finding the Messier Objects, why not start from your local viewing site on the weekend of this year’s Messier Marathon.  Keep your list small but try for at least twenty Messiers, using binoculars only.  The list below shows 42 Messiers to choose from.

Easy Messier Objects:

2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 29, 31, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 41, 42, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 52, 55, 67, 92, 93, 103.

The numbers shown in bold are the Messiers visible between sunset and midnight on March 21st.  Of course if you wish to try for all 42 objects you will have to stay up all night.

Jupiter:

Your best target for your telescope this month is the planet Jupiter.  Although it was visible in January, the warmer temperatures of March should make observing more enjoyable.  If you own a small telescope, the planets Jupiter and Saturn are usually the best targets each year.  Jupiter is high in the sky all month, very bright, and just in the front of the constellation Leo the lion. The image below is what we can see with our ScienceSouth Dobsonian telescope.

Jupiter-2004-03-18-715-c

One more sight for the month:  Look at Jupiter with a pair of simple binoculars, and to its right you should be able to also see the open cluster M44 (Beehive Cluster), possibly in the same field of view; as shown below.

Jupiter a M44a

Naked Eye Sights: Enjoy the brilliant planet Venus in the west after sunset, and the bright planet Jupiter in the southeast. Don’t forget the constellation Orion as it begins its departure from the night sky.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Try for twenty Messier objects this month. Check out Jupiter and M44 to its right.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Concentrate on Jupiter. Observe the planet on several clear nights. Take note of the variation in detail of the Jupiter’s cloud bands. On any clear night, a planet may appear the same to the naked eye, but upper atmosphere moisture or turbulence although not visible to the naked eye will affect your viewing through a telescope.

See you next month!

February 2015

// February 5th, 2015 // Comments Off on February 2015 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                      Tony Martinez

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 February 18th. For February, your best viewing nights will be from February 11th to the 21st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on February 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

At various times I like to repeat topics from earlier columns. These are topics that I feel are important to the hobby of astronomy, and it is therefore important that new readers to this column are aware of these subjects.

This month, I will repeat, with some modifications, the topic 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. The downsides of telescopes are: they are not light weight, therefore not very portable, not always easy to use, can be expensive, and usually cannot be used for things other than astronomy; also objects may be upside down and/or reversed.

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 70 mm, and on the far left, 25 X 100mm binoculars.

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 a 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.

Tel and Bino 2

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 particular optics of the two instruments. That incident led me to redirect my hobby to becoming a binocular astronomer. Although I still use my standard telescopes, almost all of my astronomical viewing is done through “Big Binoculars.”

Below are photos of my two big binoculars. Both are 25 X 100mm as shown, however, the binoculars on the left have 45 degree viewing, and interchangeable lenses, and the binocular on the right is straight through viewing, with a fixed 25 power eyepiece.

Two Big Binos 2

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 good standard photographer’s tripod. The second accessory is not required, but is on my “must have list,” and that is a Red-Dot finder. Again, if you note in the above photos, both binoculars have Red-dot finders attached. 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 little finders will make using big binoculars a joyful experience.

If you have more money available for this hobby, then you may want to invest in a 45-degree viewing binocular with interchangeable lenses; seen on the left image above. However, this will bring the price up to about $1000 to $2000. From my personal experience, the 45 degree viewing aspect is much more important than the ability to increase your power. The reason is that when using a straight through big binocular on a simple tripod, it is almost impossible to view objects above an angle of 50 to 60 degrees; thereby missing a lot of sky. My solution was to just stay up later until the object of choice moved lower and into my range of view, or to look for selected objects at a different month of the year.

In addition to the simple tripod mount, there are other mounts for big binoculars, as is shown below.

Family Binos

If you like to build things, the mount options will increase.

Three Chairs 2

And finally, if you decide to invest heavily in binocular astronomy, you will probably opt for the set up below! The big binoculars shown in the image below are 25 X 150mm. These big binoculars are used by amateurs to discover new comets, such as the comet Hyakutake in 1996, which was 100 million miles from Earth when spotted with these binoculars.

Hopefully, ScienceSouth will have these binoculars available for public viewing later this year. (But not the chair)

Karin

Naked Eye Sights: Venus in the west and Jupiter in the east, and the beautiful Orion constellation.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Jupiter and its moons. The Pleiades cluster. The Orion nebula.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Jupiter will be at its best this month.

See you next month!

January 2015

// January 13th, 2015 // Comments Off on January 2015 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                Tony Martinez

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 January 20th. For January, your best viewing nights will be from January 12th to the 22nd. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on January 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Triple play:

This month gives a good opportunity to use all three viewing methods mentioned each month.

Naked Eye Sights:

The constellation Orion is always a wonderful sight to see especially on a crystal clear night in the winter. I was recently discovered that many people have never heard of or seen the constellation Orion. So this month ask friends and relatives if they have ever seen Orion. If not bring them outside this month and point out the beautiful Orion. Next you should give them a simple tour of the Orion constellation. Point out the four major stars: Betelgeuse, an orange giant whose size is larger than the Earth’s orbit. Betelgeuse is near the end of its life, and when it explodes it will likely be visible during the day. Bellatrix: Note that in the original movie “The Planet of the Apes” the astronauts thought they were on a planet circling this star; people like strange trivia. Saiph, although one of the smaller of these four stars, it is still over twenty times larger than our Sun. Rigel, a super-hot blue star. Point out the belt stars and note that the three apparent stars that form the sword are not single stars. The top “star” of the sword is really three stars with some smaller ones included. The bottom “star” of the sword is a group of stars. The center “star” of the sword is the famous Orion Nebula consisting of gases and baby stars. Don’t forget to point out the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, just below Orion.

The other naked eye sights of interest are planets. The planet Jupiter returns and rises in the east about 10 pm early in the month and by month’s end it will be visible starting at 8 pm. Due to its large size, Jupiter will be very bright and obvious.

An even more interesting planetary event can be seen in the western sky this month. Venus also makes its return to the night sky, along with a companion, the planet Mercury. In the first few days of January Venus will be low in the western sky about 6 pm. Just below and to the right of Venus is a smaller object, Mercury. As the month progresses, they will rise higher into the night sky. Mercury will continue to rise higher until about January 15th, and then it moves lower in the west remaining visible until about the 24th. Mercury can be difficult to see because it is so close to the Sun, and is a small object. This month is a perfect time to find Mercury because you can use the bright planet Venus to help you locate tiny Mercury. Although Mercury quickly disappears in the west, Venus will continue to rise higher in the night sky until June 12th. The image below shows Venus and Mercury on January 10th about 6:30 pm.

2 Planets 3

The image below gives you a perspective of the locations of Venus and Mercury if you were looking down at our solar system on January 10, 2015.

2 Planets 2

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):

Turn your binoculars toward the “Sword of Orion” and with just seven or ten power binoculars; you should see that the center of the sword is a fuzzy gaseous nebula. You should now move your binoculars above Orion to the center of the constellation Taurus, which forms a “V” with the bright star being the yellow-orange Aldebaran. Your binoculars will be looking straight into the large open star cluster; the Hyades. Continue to move above Taurus to the beautiful cluster of young stars known as the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. In Japan it is called Subaru, and is used as an emblem on the back of Subaru cars.

Binos1

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):

Your primary target this month would be the return of the planet Jupiter. The clear skies of January should allow you to easily see the cloud bands of Jupiter, and you should also be able to see the colors of these clouds. If the cold nights of January bother you, not to worry, Jupiter will be easily visible from now on into June.

Next, be sure to turn your telescope toward Venus and Mercury. If this is your first time viewing these planets, you may be surprised to see that they are not disks. Both Venus and Mercury are always seen in phases, like the Moon from crescent to gibbous shaped, but never a full disk. Venus and Mercury are between us and the Sun, so they would only be fully illuminated when they are positioned on the other side of the Sun. All the other planets are farther from the Sun than the Earth, and therefore are always seen as a full disk.

Venus and Mercury

Venus may present another problem; it will likely be too bright for your telescope, which may make it difficult to see the shape of its phase. You can invest in filters or telescope masks, but there is a simple way to eliminate the brightness of Venus. The trick is to view the planet before the sky darkens. Set up your telescope before sunset. After the Sun sets, watch for Venus to first appear in the twilight, and check it out; no brightness problem. Mercury is dim, smaller and farther away so you will not have a brightness problem.

 

Have fun.

 

December 2014

// January 1st, 2015 // Comments Off on December 2014 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                   Tony Martinez

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 December 21. For December, your best viewing nights will be from December 13 to December 25. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on December 15 at 9 pm.

wholeskychart_1[1]

Geminids meteor shower:
For the past several years, the Geminids meteor shower in mid-December has been the best shower each year. My personal standard for meteor showers is that one meteor per minute is a good shower. This meteor shower can easily range between 60 to 100 meteors per hour. Hopefully this year’s Geminids will perform well. Normally meteor shower viewing is best done well after midnight, but a last quarter Moon will rise about 1 am.  Therefore, your best chance for success is to look to the east from 11 pm on Saturday the 13th until 1 am Sunday morning the 14th.  Remember, although named meteor showers appear to come from one region in the sky (this time from Gemini), be aware that they may be seen from the north to the south, and above. Don’t forget, no binoculars or telescopes, eyes only. Also note that the Geminids do tend to have some bright meteors, so it is possible you will see some meteors even in the presence of the last quarter Moon; good luck.

Asterisms:
An asterism is a group of stars that have a recognizable shape; example, the Big Dipper or the Northern Cross. An asterism can be part of a constellation or stand alone in the sky. The Big Dipper, Little Dipper, the “W” and the Northern Cross are parts of the constellations Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia and Cygnus, respectively.  Another trait of an asterism is that it can be seen with the naked eye, or with simple binoculars.  This month try to locate three interesting asterisms. All three will require 7 or 10 power binoculars. Remember, asterisms have no particular importance to the study of astronomy. Instead they are just interesting and fun objects to view. As long as humans looked into the sky, they enjoyed finding and naming groups of stars. As you continue your astronomy hobby and are scanning the night sky with binoculars, you may find your own asterisms that no one else has recognized or reported. If you find such an object, E-mail us ScienceSouth.

The first asterism has three names; the Coathanger, Collinder 399, and Brocchi’s Cluster, and it is found in the constellation Vulpecula, under and to the left of the Northern Cross.  However, the stars in the Coathanger are not associated with each other as in an actual star cluster, but this asterism is merely a chance lining up of stars, ranging in distance from 200 to 1100 light years away. What you will see through your binoculars is ten stars in the shape of an upside-down Coathanger, see below. Although you can find the Coat Hanger any time from June to December, it will always appear upside down in the Northern hemisphere. In Australia, it is always right side up.

Coat2[1]

The best time to view it in December is from 7 to 8 pm. Here is a hint to help you find it. Look to the west this month and find the Northern Cross asterism; which comprises most of the constellation of Cygnus the swan. This asterism is in the shape of a Christian cross, and in the autumn, it is positioned somewhat upright. The bottom star of the cross is a beautiful double star called Albireo. Using 7 power binoculars, place Albireo near the 2 o’clock position in your binocular’s field of view (red circle).

Coathanger_1e[1]

Then move your binoculars slightly to the lower left, (see arrow) and the Coathanger will pop into view; see image below.

Coathanger_2a[1]

The next asterism is called the “Little Queen.” Most people recognize that the constellation Cassiopeia, the queen, contains a letter W shape/asterism, although from August through November it looks like the letter M. However, few people know that there is another W asterism. It is quite small, but it is easily visible through 7 or 10 power binoculars. Like the Cassiopeia W, it is in the north and visible all year in the constellation of Draco. Look at the chart below to locate the star Chi Draconis.

Little_Queen[1]

Find this star with your binoculars, and this time of year the Little Queen W will be right above and to the left of this star. The Little Queen has six stars and is shown below.

Little[1]

The third also little known asterism is the “Smiley Face” in the constellation Auriga. This asterism actually looks best with 7 power binoculars. Use the chart below to find this asterism. The constellation Auriga is to the left of Taurus and the Pleiades and above Orion. Aim your binoculars to region of Auriga show by the white arrow. You should be able to find the Smiley Face after a few tries.

Auriga[1]

I personally think that this asterism looks more like the Cheshire Cat. If you view it from a dark sky area, you should easily see that the open cluster Messier 38 sits on the right cheek of this face; somewhat like facial rouge/blush; see image below. The smudge shown on the left is Messier 38.

Face[1]

I hope you fun trying to locate these three asterisms this month.  Remember, many amateur astronomers are unfamiliar with all three of these targets.

Naked Eye Sights: Geminids meteor shower peaks on morning of the 14th.  Start viewing late on the 13th.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Coat Hanger, Little Queen, and Smiley Face asterisms.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Orion Nebula.

See you next month!

November 2014

// November 6th, 2014 // Comments Off on November 2014 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

Tony Martinez

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 November 22. For November, your best viewing nights will be from November 13 to November 26. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on November 15 at 9 pm.

wholeskychart 1

Note: Each November I feature my telescope purchasing column.

So you want to buy a telescope:
Every year a telescope appears on someone’s Christmas list. If you are considering your first purchase of a telescope, the following information may help you with your selection.

First suggestion: Never buy a telescope from a department store. This suggestion also pertains to TV shopping networks. If the telescope box, or sales sign or salesperson mentions power (usually something above 200 or 300 power), then stay away! Good telescopes are defined by their light gathering ability, not by power. In addition, these department store scopes usually have poor quality lenses and wobbly tripod mounts. The short comings of these “bargain” telescopes my may result in frustration when using them, and therefore may discourage instead of encourage your interest in astronomy.

So the solution is to purchase a telescope from a telescope store, most of which are online. One well-known dealer is Orion telescopes found at telescope.com, others are Meade and Celestron. If you require other sources of telescopes, go to your local bookstore and buy a copy of either “Astronomy” or “Sky and Telescope,” magazine, and check their advertisements.

So now that you know where to buy, the harder problem is what to buy. There are three basic types of telescopes: Refractors, Newtonian reflectors and Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors. You should consider a starting price of about $200, with a better starting amount being $300.

A refractor is what one might consider a traditional shaped telescope, a long thin tube with a lens (objective) in front to gather light, and another lens (eyepiece) in the back. They are fine telescopes for viewing the moon, planets and double stars and are often bought as “starter scopes.” However, they usually don’t have sufficient light gathering ability to give good viewing of galaxies and nebulas, unless you purchase expensive high-end refractors.

Refractor

A Newtonian reflector uses a mirror to gather light instead of a lens. The telescope consists of a hollow tube open at the top with the viewing eyepiece near the top at a right angle to the tube. Amateur scopes can have as small as a 3-inch diameter mirror, but basic reflectors usually range in size from 6 to 10 inch diameter mirrors. Because of their large light gathering ability, they can be used for a large range of astronomical targets, including galaxies and nebulae.

Reflector

A second class of reflectors is the Dobsonian reflector, usually called a Dob. The Dob was invented by John Dobson, and is a simple reflector that is placed in a mount on the ground, see image below.

Dob

Dobs are easy to use and quite inexpensive versus light gathering ability. Bottom line is that Dobs are known for giving the best telescope for your money. Some other considerations are; the larger ones can be bulky to transport, and they do need periodic fine adjustments to re-align the main mirror, called collimation. Laser collimators are available to make this job easy. I collimate our Dob every time we use it; this adjustment takes only about 2-3 minutes.

Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors were designed to give the benefits of a reflector, but minimizing the length. These telescopes tend to be, on average, the most expensive of the three telescopes types. Also of the three types, these are the telescopes that most likely come equipped with computerized finders, known as GoTo scopes. A GoTo attachment will allow you to enter in on a keypad any celestial object, and the telescope will automatically find it for you if it is visible on that particular night. Note: GoTo systems are available for other reflectors and also for refractors. I do not personally favor GoTo systems because I feel that the best way to learn the night sky is to find your target objects using charts or astronomy computer programs.

CAT

Do you really need a telescope? If you are serious about a hobby in astronomy, it might be best if you put a pair of binoculars on your Christmas list this year, and buy the telescope next year. Reasons: Binoculars are cheaper, most ranging between $80 and $200. Binoculars will allow you to see a large region of the sky, and right side up! Binoculars can serve for other uses such as bird watching or sporting events. For simple astronomy, most people prefer 7 X 50 or 10 X 50 mm binoculars. If you get the binocular astronomy bug, you might someday upgrade to “big binoculars;” some of these are shown below. I own the one shown on the far right side of the photo, and with it, I can see the Saturn’s rings!

NEAF 2005

To sum up my recommendations: If you want to start a serious venture into amateur astronomy, begin by buying a pair of binoculars, star charts, books, and astronomy software. If you must have a telescope this year, start with a Dob, minimum 6 inch, preferred 8 inch.

Naked Eye Sights: Leonids meteor shower peaks on morning of the 17th and 18th. This meteor shower can be quite variable. This year the prediction is low with the expectation of only about 15 meteors per hour. My personal feelings are that a minimum of 60 meteors per hour constitutes a good meteor shower.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Orion Nebula, low in the east this month.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Orion Nebula.

See you next month!

October 2014

// October 1st, 2014 // Comments Off on October 2014 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

A little October fun!

                                  A little October fun!

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 October 23. For October, your best viewing nights will be from October 13 to the 28. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on October 15 at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

This month I would like to repeat one of my favorite autumn columns from several years ago.

The Andromeda Galaxy: October and November are great months to view the Andromeda Galaxy, also known as the Andromeda Nebula, and Messier 31 (M31). The Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million light years away, and is the farthest object that the unaided human eye can see. It is also the closest spiral galaxy to our Milky Way. Most recent data show that it is twice the size of our Milky Way. Another interesting fact is that the Andromeda Galaxy is blue-shifted. You may remember the term red-shift. When an object moves away from us at very high speeds, the light we observe shifts toward the red end of the spectrum (Doppler Effect). Most deep sky objects show a significant red-shift, demonstrating that the universe is rapidly expanding. However, the Andromeda Galaxy’s blue-shift means that it is headed right at us, and present data shows that the Andromeda Galaxy will collide with the Milky Way in about 2.5 billion years. The speed that we are approaching each other is 190 mi/sec, 684,000 mi/hour. So every day we get over 16 million miles closer to collision!

So how do you observe the Andromeda Galaxy? Since you know you can see it with the naked eye, use the chart below, or other charts on the Internet, and try to find the Andromeda Galaxy using only your eyes. It is really easy to see if you can get away from the city lights. The chart below on the left shows the southeast at 10 pm on October 15. Start by finding the “W,” Cassiopeia, and then move right to the “Great Square of Pegasus,” and finally work your way down the long “V” of the constellation Andromeda. The image on the right shows how you may see the Andromeda Galaxy with the naked eye at a very dark viewing site.

Chart and M31 B

 

Next try to view the Andromeda Galaxy through a pair of 7 to 10 power binoculars. Using simple binoculars will allow you to see the Andromeda Galaxy, even with some city lights around. Most people who have seen the Andromeda Galaxy saw it through simple binoculars, or with low power telescopes, and it looks similar to the image shown below.

Binoculars 1

Now for some surprises: Let’s look at a typical professional astronomer’s image of the Andromeda Galaxy, shown below; wow!

Andromeda

Looking at the two images above, one would logically conclude that the galaxy is just so far away, that the binoculars are just not powerful enough to see the Andromeda Galaxy as the professionals can. So one day you may advance in your hobby, and invest in a more powerful telescope, maybe like our 10-inch Dobsonian. Then you crank up the power, look at the Andromeda Galaxy and surprise, it will be a little bigger, but it still looks similar to what you saw with your simple binoculars! At this point, you may be confused. Allow me to explain. The binocular view as shown above, is not a distant view of a large galaxy; it is the view of the bright central core of a large galaxy. Even at 2.5 million light years away, a spiral galaxy measuring 200,000 light years across fills an impressive piece of the sky. Such an object would span at least seven Moon widths! Due to the low surface brightness of the Andromeda Galaxy, we don’t see the full diameter. If the Andromeda Galaxy was brighter, and our Moon passed near by, the image below is what you would see through your binoculars!

m31abtpmoon_c720B

So, can you see the Andromeda Galaxy this large, (of course without the bright Moon in the way) using only amateur equipment; yes. First, stay away from high power, the galaxy is just too large; stay at 20 to 25 power. Next you need significant light gathering, so a small narrow refractor will not do. A large Dobsonian has a lot of light gathering, but it has too much power. Finally, if you can use two eyes instead of one, you will have even a better shot at success. All these suggestions add up to a 20 to 25 power pair of binoculars with 70 to 100 mm objective lenses as your best equipment to see the full expanse of the Andromeda Galaxy. The last requirement is out of your control, a clear night with a transparent atmosphere. If it is the “perfect night,” you might be able to succeed with just a pair of 7 or 10 X 50mm binoculars.

On a personal note: The image below perfectly represents the actual view I saw through my 25 X 100 mm binoculars in October 2003 at a campground star party only 40 miles north of the city of Philadelphia, PA. It was after a storm front had moved through, and it was indeed the perfect night. It was the only time in my life of viewing that I saw the entire Andromeda Galaxy.

M31 at 25x

Your challenge is a least once in your lifetime to see the Andromeda Galaxy as I did on that night.

Naked Eye Sights: Try for a naked eye view of the Andromeda Galaxy.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Andromeda Galaxy.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Use a Dobsonian reflector at its lowest power to attempt viewing the entire Andromeda Galaxy.

See you next month!

September 2014

// September 2nd, 2014 // Comments Off on September 2014 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                    Tony Martinez

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 September 24. For September, your best viewing nights will be from September 15 to the 30. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on September 15 at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Lunar Observing:
For many years on my wall calendar I had black dots on at least one day of each month marking the dates of each New Moon. As an amateur astronomer, I used these dates to plan for astronomy viewing trips. My targets of choice were deep sky objects (DSO’s), usually Messier objects, and these faint fuzzy objects are difficult to view when the Moon is in the sky. As you notice every month in the introduction above, I give the best viewing dates based on the phases of the Moon.  This month I would like to discuss the Moon as a target and not a bothersome light in the sky.

Let us begin with the basics. I am always amazed that most people think the best time to view the Moon is when it is full. Actually, the full Moon is the worst time to enjoy observing. The Moon’s intense bright light overpowers your telescope. This brightness can be corrected somewhat by placing a Moon filter into the back of your eyepiece. These filters essentially act like polarized sunglasses, and you can now comfortably look at the full Moon. However, the Moon still lacks texture, or depth; the surface looks flat and drab like a standard black and white photograph. In the image below, left is unfiltered, and right is through a lunar filter.

01What the full Moon is missing is shadows. It is the shadows that define the depth of the craters and the heights of the mountains.

To enjoy observation of the Moon with your telescope you should use the following approach. The best time to look at the Moon with any telescope is from waxing crescent to first quarter. Allow me to digress and discuss the lunar phases. As the Moon phases increase toward the full Moon we say that the Moon is waxing. As the Moon phases decrease from full toward new Moon, we say the Moon is waning.  When the Moon first appears in the west, it is called a waxing crescent.  As the days progress, it reaches the phase called first quarter.  Between first quarter and full, the phases are called waxing gibbous.  After the full Moon it moves into waning gibbous until it reaches third quarter, and finally it moves through waning crescent until it reaches new Moon. Most amateur astronomers do not discuss the various phases of the Moon. Instead we measure the Moon by days. Scientists prefer to use numerical data when describing various events.  Example: A four-day Moon is in crescent in the west. A seven-day Moon is in first quarter. An eight to thirteen-day Moon is in waxing gibbous, etc.

I like to ask students the following questions: Where does the Sun rise and where does it set? Answer: It rises in the east and sets in the west. Now, where does the Moon rise and where does it set? This is not a simple question, so here is the complex answer. After a new Moon, the Moon does not rise, but it just appears low in the west, and then quickly sets in the west. Each night the Moon does not rise, but just appears in the sky farther east each night, and sets later and later in the west. At full Moon, the Moon rises in the east at sunset and sets in the west at sunrise. After the full Moon, the Moon rises every night in the east later and later, but it never sets. To summarize: After a new Moon, the Moon doesn’t rise but always sets. At full Moon the Moon rises and sets. After full Moon the Moon always rises but never sets.

Now, returning to my comments about lunar observation; the best time to observe the Moon through your telescope is between a three day and a seven day Moon. During this period, the Sun casts stark shadows, and the surface features are beautiful to see. Both the craters and the mountains show obvious depth. Below on the left is a five-day Moon as seen through large binoculars or a low power telescope. On the right is a six-day Moon with various lunar features labeled.

02If you develop an interest in lunar observing, you can find many sites on the Internet that will help you identify the many craters and mountain ranges.

Another good aspect of lunar observation, versus planets or deep sky objects, is that you can crank up the power on your telescope, and still have decent resolution. The images below represent the views of craters and a mountain range as seen through ScienceSouth’s ten-inch Dobsonian reflector at about 150 power.

03Finally, the next time you look at the Moon, try using your digital camera as a simple telescope to photograph the Moon. Most simple digital cameras have a significant zoom lens. I took the photo below with a simple handheld point and shoot camera. I am sure you can do much better. Don’t forget you can then improve the contrast using any standard photo editor.

04

Naked Eye Sights: The Moon.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Moon through the first 10 days after New Moon.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The Moon through the first 10 days after New Moon. Concentrate on various craters and mountain ranges as they move into view each day.

See you next month!

August 2014

// August 1st, 2014 // Comments Off on August 2014 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                    Tony Martinez

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.

wholeskychart1

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.

Messier Objects:
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:

110 Messiers

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.

2 Milky Way

The next image moves slightly to the right to show four additional Messier objects.

3 Milky Way

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.

Messier Club:
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.

 

July 2014

// July 3rd, 2014 // Comments Off on July 2014 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                     Tony Martinez

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 July 26th. For July, your best viewing nights will be from July 16th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on July 15th at 10 pm.

wholeskychart1

Can I see a Dwarf planet?
Dwarf planets became popular around 2006, which is when Pluto lost its planet title. I am often asked why Pluto is no longer an official planet. The answer is quite straight forward. As our telescopes became better, astronomers began to find planets beyond Pluto. Haumea was discovered in late 2004, and was smaller than Pluto; did we now have ten planets? Shortly after that in early 2005, Eris was discovered, and Eris was larger than Pluto; eleven planets? A few months later another small planet beyond Pluto was discoved, Makemake; thirteen planets?  The trend was obvious; we would be finding more and more small planets.

The astronomers decided to make a set of rules defining what is a planet, and these rules would have to eliminate these new tiny planets beyond Pluto. However, because Eris was larger than Pluto, these new rules would also eliminate Pluto as a planet. The three rules to define a planet were as follows.

  1. A planet must be in orbit around the Sun.
  2. A planet must have sufficient mass and gravity to form a sphere.
  3. A planet must have cleared the neighborhood in its orbit.

The third rule is what eliminated Pluto and all the planets beyond.  During the billions of years since the formation of the planets, their significant gravity pulled in all of the debris that existed in their orbit.  Smaller planets would be unable to clear their orbital path of significant debris. These rules resulted in the Sun now having only eight official planets. All other planet-like objects are now known as dwarf planets.

An interesting result of these rules, specifically rule 2 was that a dwarf planet was discovered in 1806! This dwarf planet is the asteroid Ceres.  The reason for this is that astronomers just assumed that Ceres was just the largest chunk of rock orbiting in the asteroid belt. However, when the Hubble telescope first viewed Ceres, it was found to be spherical. Since it orbits the Sun, and certainly has not cleared its orbit of debris, Ceres became an official dwarf planet. The Hubble image of Ceres is shown below.

640px-Ceres_optimized

There are officially five dwarf planets; in order of size: Eris, Pluto, Makemake, Haumea and Ceres. At this time, there are six other planet-like objects located beyond Pluto, but not enough data is available to classify them as dwarf planets. All dwarf planets except Ceres are known as trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs). Some of the dwarf planets have moons. Some official and unofficial dwarf planets compared to the size of the Earth are shown below.

TNO

So back to the original question; can I see a dwarf planet? The image below shows that this month four dwarf planets are in the night sky; see below:

Four Dwarves

Makemake and Haumea are well beyond the range of any amateur telescope. If you have at least an 8 to 10 inch Dobsonian, then you could see Pluto. This is most difficult, but possible if your use a good astronomy program such as Starry Night. This month Pluto is in its best position for viewing; good luck.

This leaves the dwarf planet Ceres. Ceres can be seen with just a pair of binoculars! If you use 7-10 power binoculars, be sure to brace them on a solid object, or better yet place them on a simple tripod.

Not only can you see Ceres this month, but Ceres is also moving alongside the asteroid Vesta. So if you have never seen a dwarf planet or an asteroid, this is a good month to check these off your viewing list.

To locate Ceres and its companion Vesta, look to the southwest and locate the planet Mars; see chart below set at 10 pm on July 4th:

Find Ceres

The red circle on the image shows the field of view for a 10 X 50 mm binocular. Once you locate Mars in your binoculars, move directly up until you see the star Heze in Virgo. Ceres and Vesta will now be in your field of view with either 7 or 10 power binoculars.

Find Ceres 2

If you wish to keep things simple, you know that one of those dots of light below Heze is definitely the dwarf planet Ceres, therefore, you have seen a dwarf planet. If you wish to be a more dedicated amateur astronomer, you will try to locate which dot is Ceres, and which is Vesta. The easiest way to locate these objects is to make a pencil sketch of what you see through your binoculars. The next night check the same area, and you will see which objects moved. July 1st through the 7th, Ceres will be above Vesta. On July 8th, Ceres will be to the right of Vesta. After that, Ceres will be below Vesta. It is also possible to notice the movement of Ceres and Vesta after only two hours on the same night.

Naked Eye Sights: The summer constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius and the summer Milky Way.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Try to locate the dwarf planet Ceres as it passes with the asteroid Vesta above Mars.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The planet Saturn is still nicely placed for viewing in the southwest.

10 Inch Telescope: Try to locate the dwarf planet Pluto; very difficult so use a good astronomy program to help guide your search.

See you next month!

June 2014

// June 23rd, 2014 // Comments Off on June 2014 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                    Tony Martinez

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 June 27th. For June, your best viewing nights will be from June 16th to the 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on June 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Saturn:
I began writing this monthly column in late 2007. For the last 6 to 7 years the planet Saturn was seldom featured because the ring positions were poorly aligned to the Earth. Beginning this year, Saturn’s rings have returned to their beauty. Saturn represents the best target for any amateur telescope, and therefore each year I will repeat a Saturn column during the best month of the year for viewing.

As I mentioned, the return of the planet Saturn to the evening skies is of particular importance this year because the favorable tilt of the planet versus the Earth marks the beginning of an excellent eight-year viewing period. A classic Saturn image is shown below.

converted PNM file

Of course, the image you will see through your amateur telescopes will be quite small and sometimes blurry, but still impressive. I have viewed Saturn through many telescopes over many years. Throughout this time, I have always enjoyed watching someone looking through my telescope and seeing Saturn for the first time; it is always an amazing response.

At various times ScienceSouth has free public astronomy events using the ScienceSouth and Francis Marion’s Dobsonian reflectors. We give people the chance to see spectacular views of the mountains and craters of the Moon and planets. Although these sights generated various amount of excitement, I always hear the biggest “wows” when someone sees Saturn for the first time. The big ball of Jupiter looks quite nice, and the small fuzzy ball of Mars is OK, and some people even enjoy the fuzzy crescent of Venus; but Saturn is special.  You can view hundreds of images of Saturn on the Internet, but there is something magical when your see it through your own eyes. So if you have a telescope, start viewing Saturn this month in the southern sky.  Saturn will be in a good viewing position from mid-month onward starting about 9:30. Good viewing of Saturn will continue from now through July. However, if you have a good view of the western horizon, you can still view Saturn through August and before it sets in September.

To find Saturn this month, look to the south to see the pale yellow planet. As you may recall, most seasons of the year have a prominent easily identified constellation in the south. For summer, the constellation is Scorpius. This scorpion shaped, or “sloppy J,” stays close to the horizon throughout the summer. To find the planet Saturn this month, the head of the scorpion points directly to the planet. See chart below.

Saturn

So what should you expect to see? With standard 7 (or 10) X 50 binoculars, Saturn will still look like a star. With 15 power binoculars (tripod needed) it will look like the star has “ears.” I regularly use 25 X 100 mm binoculars, and the rings of Saturn are tiny, but clearly visible. Therefore, any scope you use from 25 power on up will allow you to see the rings of Saturn. Below are three likely views of Saturn as seen through amateur telescopes. The smaller blurry image represents what you might see with a very inexpensive discount store telescope (best to avoid). The other two images represent views from Dobsonian reflectors ranging from 6 to 10 inches. Therefore, if you own any telescope, you can see the rings of Saturn; wow!

Views of Saturn

I have a special trick, which could help you when viewing Saturn. This simple trick is used for viewing the three brightest planets through a simple telescope; Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. When viewing bright planets through amateur telescopes, the contrast of a very bright planet against a black sky can produce a glare, which prevents a clear view of the planet. A simple way (‘trick”) to solve this problem is to view the planet before the sky becomes black, during twilight.  Example: From mid-month on when you go out to view Saturn, begin viewing in the twilight, between 9 pm and 9:30. This simple method prevents the glare effect by eliminating the dark sky contrast; try it. Serious amateurs approach this glare problem with another approach. They observe the bright planet against a black sky, but they remove the glare by masking the telescope. A telescope mask is made of dark cardboard or metal, and has a hole cut into the mask to block most of the light. Some examples are shown below.

Masks

In general, masks are used on larger aperture telescopes, and are usually not used or needed on smaller 50 to 90 mm refractors. You can try masking your telescope easily and cheaply. Take a piece of dark cardboard, trace and cut out various size holes and then tape the cardboard over the front of your telescope.  Aim at your favorite bright planet and see the effect. Note: The hole you cut out does not have to be a perfectly cut out circle. A somewhat sloppy circle will work as well.

So your experiment for this summer: On the same night try viewing the planet Saturn in the twilight, in a dark sky and with various size masks on your telescope.

Naked Eye Sights: The summer constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius and the summer Milky Way.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Scan the southern sky in the regions of Scorpius and Sagittarius and up along the Milky Way.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The planet Saturn

See you next month!

May 2014

// May 9th, 2014 // Comments Off on May 2014 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                   Tony Martinez

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 May 28th. For May, your best viewing nights will be from May 18th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on May 15th at 9 pm.

Sky Chart

A New Meteor Shower?

Each year there are three major meteor showers; the Perseids in August, the Leonids in November, and the Geminids in December.  Over the past several years, the Geminids have produced the greatest number of meteors. However, the amount of meteors seen in a given shower can change over the years.  In reality, there are meteor showers every month of the year, but most are not impressive.  Another significant factor in viewing any astronomy targets is having a dark sky viewing site. When observing meteor showers, the degree of darkness at your viewing site has a dramatic effect on the number of meteors you can see.

This month may bring us a new major meteor shower resulting from the Earth passing through the orbit of Comet 209P/LINEAR. This small comet, discovered ten years ago, comes in the vicinity of the Sun every five years, but is too small and dim to be seen. However, this will be the first recorded passage of the Earth through the comet’s debris field. This event may result in a good or even great meteor shower and it is worthwhile to check it out between 2 am and 5 am on a Saturday morning on May 24th; see location below.

Camelo

For the new readers, it is important to review the subject of meteor showers. Meteoroids are small pieces of rocky or metallic debris dispersed throughout the solar system. As the Earth revolves around the Sun, we run into these meteoroids, and as they enter the atmosphere, they become meteors, and the friction causes them to quickly burn up. We see them as a short streak of light, and they are usually referred to as “shooting stars.” This misnomer is a throwback to the distant past when ancient observers really had no idea what the stars were. In addition to the meteoric debris left over from the formation of the solar system, there is another more concentrated source of meteoroids; comets.

As a comet circles the Sun, gases and ice particles are released, along with the release of some of the comet’s rocks. These rocks become meteoroids, however, they do not disperse into solar system, but instead they remain in the orbit of the comet. So after several thousand years of circling the Sun, the entire orbital path of the comet is littered with meteoric debris. Since there are hundreds of known comet orbits circling the Sun, it is logical that our Earth would pass through some of these orbits at certain times of the year; see image.

comet-debris

When the Earth passes through one of these cometary orbits, we experience a large amount of meteors known as a meteor shower. On a normal night, one might see one or two meteors per hour, but during a meteor shower, one might see from twenty to one hundred meteors per hour or more.

Rules of meteor shower viewing: No binoculars, telescopes or any optical aids are needed, just use your eyes. Due to the position of the Earth and the stars during a particular entry into the meteoroid’s orbit, the meteors appear to becoming from a particular constellation, thus the name of the meteor shower. This new shower will appear to come from the region of the North Star. However, it is centered in the difficult to see constellation called Camelopardalis. If this does become an important meteor shower, it will probably be called the Camelopardalids.

Another aspect of watching meteor showers is viewing time. For most meteor showers, or for meteor viewing in general, the best viewing is after midnight. The reason is based on the positions of the Earth and you the viewer as the Earth runs into meteoroids. Before midnight, an observer would be on the side of the Earth opposite the direction of the Earth’s movement through space. From midnight onward, an observer would now be looking in the same direction that the Earth is moving through space. Therefore, we could easily see the meteoroids hit our atmosphere; a good analogy is like running through raindrops.  Remember, you will still see some meteors before midnight as the graze the upper atmosphere. The sketch below may help to better explain this concept.

meteors

So lie on the ground on a blanket, or use a chaise lounge chair to view the shower, using a standard chair may result in neck pain. Look in the direction of the North Star, but be aware of your peripheral vision since meteors may also appear in various parts of the sky. Don’t forget to bring snacks and drinks.

Saturn Returns:

If you have a telescope, small or large please take the time to observe the planet Saturn. It is now in the best ring view position since 2005.  Good Saturn viewing will continue from now throughout July. I will feature Saturn next month. Look for Saturn in the southeast above Scorpius as shown in the image below.

Saturn

Naked Eye Sights: Check out the possible new meteor shower on the morning of May 24th.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The summer constellations and summer Milky Way are returning, so scan the skies in the south to check out the beauty of the region near the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The one major telescope target beginning this month, and continuing for the next few months; Saturn.

April 2014

// April 1st, 2014 // Comments Off on April 2014 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                     Tony Martinez

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 29th. For April, your best viewing nights will be from April 1st to the 4th, and the 19th to the 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on April 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart1

Lunar Eclipses:
There is a total lunar eclipse this month, but note that my heading says eclipses. For the United States there will be four total lunar eclipses in the next 17 months. Dates: April 15, 2014, October 8, 2014, April 4, 2015 and September 28, 2015. For South Carolina, only the April 4, 2015 will not be visible. I will discuss these later eclipses in my columns as they occur. At any given location on Earth, a solar eclipse is rare, but a lunar eclipse can occur at any given location every 2 to 4 years, and partial lunar eclipses are even more common.  The possibility that there will be a total solar eclipse at any given location such as Charleston SC is more like once every 100 to 200 years! Note: There is a total solar eclipse over Columbia and Charleston on August 21, 2017; please mark your calendars.

The lunar eclipse this month will occur early in the morning of April 15th. Lunar eclipses are not at all as exciting as a solar eclipse, so most people will step outside to view a lunar eclipse if it occurs conveniently between sunset and about 11 pm. Therefore one may not feel driven to get up between 3 and 4 am to see this eclipse. Later in my discussion I will give you a reason to check out this eclipse.

A lunar eclipse occurs when the shadow of the Earth covers the surface of the Moon. Another definition is when the Earth is lined up exactly between the Sun and the Moon; see image below.

Lunar Eclipse

Of course this can only occur during a full Moon. From this description, one might conclude that we should have a lunar eclipse once each month during the full moon and a solar eclipse once each month during a new Moon. The reason this does not occur is that the orbit of the moon is slightly tilted in relation to the plane of the Earth and Sun. So each month, the full Moon usually passes above or below the shadow of the Earth; see diagram below.

nodes

You will also note that there are two shadow regions; the penumbra is an area where a portion of the Sun’s light is blocked. The umbra is the area where all of the sunlight is blocked. This description would suggest that when the Moon is fully inside the umbra (total eclipse) the Moon would be dark and not visible. However, during a total lunar eclipse the Moon is darkened, but still visible, usually with a reddish brown color. The reason the Moon is not black/invisible is because the Earth has a significant atmosphere. Our atmosphere has the ability to bend (refract) the sunlight slightly around the Earth. Only light near the red end of the spectrum can make this bend. Another good reason to observe lunar eclipses is that many factors can effect this refraction such as time of night when totality occurs and the amount of dust in the atmosphere. Therefore every lunar eclipse may have a different shade of red and a different brightness.

Total Eclipse

Now I would like to mention a seldom discussed unique effect that can occur during a lunar eclipse, especially if the eclipse occurs when the Moon is somewhat high above the horizon as it is this April. To understand this effect, we begin with a question. If the Moon is a sphere, why don’t we see it as a three dimensional ball in the sky, instead of a flat disk? The Moon landing cleared up this question, when the astronauts noted that the Moon’s surface is covered with a fine powder. This fine dust tends to diffuse/scatter the bright Sun’s reflected light, which prevents us from seeing the Moon as a ball.  Now, during a total lunar eclipse, the Moon is only dimly lit by a small amount of reddish sunlight refracting/bending around the Earth’s atmosphere. Under this low light, the dimensionality of the Moon can sometimes become apparent. Check it out this month, and see if the Moon looks like a ball during this total eclipse. This effect alone makes it worthwhile to set your alarm clocks for 3 am April 15th.

NASA Saturdays:
On March 29th we had our second NASA Saturday public viewing at ScienceSouth. Again we were bothered by scattered cloud covering, but the sky was much more favorable than last month. We had good clear views of the planet Jupiter and its colorful cloud bands, and its moons. In addition, we viewed the Orion Nebula and the four young stars in its center (the Trapezium), along with the Pleiades Cluster and the Beehive Cluster. Keep watching the ScienceSouth website for news of future public viewings.

Naked Eye Sights: Check out the total lunar eclipse between 3 am and 4 am on the morning of April 15th.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Still another great month to view Orion nebula and the Pleiades. Add to your list the Beehive Cluster (M44) in front of the constellation Leo.

M44

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Try again to see Jupiter’s atmospheric bands and check out the positions of the four Galilean moons. Mars is clearly visible in the east throughout the month. You will need a higher end amateur telescope to enjoy the surface features of this planet.

See you next month!

March 2014

// April 1st, 2014 // Comments Off on March 2014 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                       Tony Martinez

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 due to a rare timing, there are two New Moons this March; March 1st and March 30th. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 1st to the 6th, and the 21st to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart March

Observing Accessories Part 2:
The accessories I discussed last month were the minimum required to start an astronomy hobby. The list included star charts, planisphere, astronomy observing books, camping table and chair and red lights.

The following list moves you from a casual observer to a more dedicated amateur astronomer.

Accessory Holder/Case:
As we acquire some of the items I will list below, carrying them to the observing site becomes cumbersome, and also, it is easy to misplace items in the dark. A typical accessory case is made of a hard metal or plastic shell, and contains soft foam with various cutouts; see image below.

Accessory

The foam cutouts will hold various eyepieces, filters, batteries, small tools, lens cleaning supplies, compass, small level, red dot finders, etc.

  • Eyepieces – You may only have a few now, but if you enjoy your new hobby, they soon will become many.
  • Filters – Help you see low contrast objects such as planet features and nebulas. They also are quite helpful for lunar observing.
  • Batteries – Everything seems to use batteries; don’t forget to keep some flat disk batteries; they are usually used in red dot finders.
  • Small tools – Get a multi tip compact screwdriver; see below. Also small pliers.

Screw driver

  • Lens cleaning – An obvious need for all optical equipment. Make sure the solution and cleaning wipes are for optical glass; do not use substitutes.
  • Compass and small level – These are needed if your telescope is on an equatorial mount. I will discuss equatorial mounts in a later column.
  • Red Dot finders – I have discussed these in earlier columns. They are great finders, but when you take them off your scope, they can easily get damaged; keep them safe in your foam accessory case.

I personally use two accessory cases. One similar to that described above and a second case that primarily holds the lenses I am likely to use on a given night. This case can be worn on your waist; see below. Note this case also has many pouches for other small accessories and tools.

Case A final thought on accessory cases. Although I have yet to use one, some of my astronomy friends love to use a fishing vest when out observing. Fishing vests are filled with pockets that can hold many of your astronomy accessories and tools.

Vest

Green Lasers:
In addition to Red Dot finders, green laser pointers have the potential of being the best way to aim your telescope. Green lasers are most used as a teaching tool. These lasers appear to reach up and “touch” the stars; therefore you can use them to trace out constellations or point to any object in the night sky. However, they also excel as a telescope finder. The image below left shows a green laser installed in a mount, which can then be attached to most telescopes. The image on the right shows how easily you can use these lasers to aim your telescope.

Red Dot

Note: When using a green laser do not aim it at people, houses or planes. Also, many groups will not allow it to be used at star parties because it interferes with people involved in astrophotography.  At ScienceSouth events, we ask that only ScienceSouth scientists use any green lasers.

Laptops:
Some people may feel that a laptop is an expensive astronomy accessory; however, most households now have one or more laptops or tablets available.  For most tablets, there are various free astronomy apps that will help you find your way around the night sky. My personal choice is to run the astronomy program “Starry Nights” on my laptop. This is a powerful astronomy program, and you can easily find any astronomical object; if your telescope is capable of seeing the object, “Starry Night” will find it for you. This program is user friendly, and you are able to set up the program so that what you see through any telescope or binocular will match exactly what you see on the laptop.

Final must have accessories:
Number one – Duct Tape.  Number two – Super Glue.  These two items have solved many of life’s problems.

Naked Eye Sights: Continue to enjoy Jupiter in Gemini, and the still visible winter sights; Orion, Taurus, Sirius, and the Pleiades Cluster.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Another great month to view Orion nebula, the Pleiades and the Double Cluster between Perseus and Cassiopeia.

Remember you can easily see Jupiter’s four Galilean moons with 7 to 10 power binoculars. A great web site from the magazine “Sky and Telescope” http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/javascript/jupiter  will show you the exact positions of Jupiter’s moons; see below. You can set the view for the type telescope you are using.  The view below, direct view, is how the moons would look through binoculars. The time may be a little confusing, because it is set for UT (Universal Time). As March begins, the UT is five hours ahead of us.  In the image below, note the date, and the time 00.59 UT is one minute to 1 am; subtract 5 hours (-5) and this shows the exact positions of Jupiter’s moons on March 1st, at 7:59 pm.  Beginning March 9th, you subtract 4 hours.

Moons of Jupiter

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  Try again to see the Jupiter’s atmospheric bands and check out the positions of the four Galilean moons.

See you next month!

 

February 2014

// February 4th, 2014 // Comments Off on February 2014 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                    Tony Martinez

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 due to a rare timing, there is no New Moon this February!  For February, your best viewing nights will be from February 1st to the 5th, and the 20th to the 28th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on February 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

Observing Accessories:
Whether you go to a star party or do solo observing, it is best to have an observing plan and observing accessories. You should have the following basic accessories: a red light, a planisphere, and a star chart.  If you are using hand-held binoculars, a folding lounge chair is a must.

A red light is a must if you go to a star party and is helpful for solo viewing. Any white light will ruin your night vision, but your night vision rods in your eyes are least sensitive to red light. There are many types of red lights available, and they are now usually LEDs. There are also hands-free red lights that are worn on your head. One final note: even red light can disturb your night vision. I find it is best to use a dim red light only if really necessary. Note star party photo below with red lights scattered among the observers.

610x

Just as you might want a road map when you travel, it is useful to have maps of the sky when you observe. First of all, it is useful to have a planisphere. A planisphere is a disk consisting of two wheels that spin and allow you to set the night sky to any date or time of the year. This will allow you to have a quick view of the entire dome of the sky, and it is an excellent way to learn the constellations. Once you set the time and date, you hold it over your head while facing the direction shown on the planisphere. Plastic planispheres are best, and one example is shown below.

Charts 2The position of the stars will not change in a person’s lifetime, so you only have to buy one. Also, any Messier object or any other target you seek will always be described by the constellation it is in. The planets however, move quite rapidly, and therefore are not shown on the wheel. On the back of the planisphere, in addition to general instructions for use, is a listing showing the constellation each planet is in during different months of the year, and they usually cover a period of eight years. Also note that planispheres are available for different latitudes, usually in units of ten degrees. Therefore, 30 and 40 degree planispheres cover the United States, so for South Carolina, purchase the 30 degree planisphere.

With the planisphere being useful for an overview of the sky, a star chart is designed to be more specific. The best star charts are foldable and plastic coated. They will include the exact locations of the stars, constellations, star clusters, galaxies and nebulae; and are a great way to plan a Messier object search. The star chart I use is the one shown in the image above.

I find star charts most helpful for setting up an observing plan. I simply place removable stickers on the chart listing all my planned targets for the night, and remove the stickers as I locate each object.  See below.

DSC01507b3

A special note: If you use colored stickers to mark your star chart, at home go into a dark room, and see which color shows up best under red light; it might surprise you.

Fun is spending the night scanning the sky with binoculars; but a stiff neck is not fun. So if you are a binocular observer, invest in a portable folding chair. They are cheap, and they are also available with attached foot rests. If you take your time searching for a chair, you may find some with a foot rest, and a chair back that tips back a little; this is the perfect astronomy viewing chair. Add a folding camp table and your favorite hot beverage and enjoy the evening. Below is an image of one of my tables and my chair.

Chairs2

Remember that observing plan I mentioned above? Although the Internet is great source of information, it is always nice to have some good observing books to plan your night. I suggest the following to start, but there are many others available: “Turn Left at Orion” by Consolmagno and Davis, is a classic for beginners. “Star Watch” by Philip Harrington, is an excellent book, divided into seasons, and then further broken down into binocular, small telescope, and large telescope viewing. “NightWatch” by Terence Dickinson, covers many aspects of astronomy, and has a lot of beautiful photos, but I recommend it because of the excellent set of twenty star charts; plus the book lies flat because it is spiral bound.

All the accessories mentioned above are available on the Internet.  There are many sources, but you can begin at “telescope.com.”

If you become more serious about your astronomy hobby, the amount of accessories can seem endless. Next month I will extend the list to include many accessories that you may not be aware of.

Naked Eye Sights Try to find a new Moon this month!  Continue to enjoy Jupiter in Gemini, and the winter sights; Orion, Taurus, Sirius, and the Pleiades Cluster.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Another great month to view Orion nebula, the Pleiades and the Double Cluster between Perseus and Cassiopeia.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  Try again to see the Jupiter’s atmospheric bands of clouds, hopefully in color.

See you next month!

January 2014

// January 16th, 2014 // Comments Off on January 2014 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                           Tony Martinez

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 January 1st and again on January 30th.  For January, your best viewing nights will be from January 1st to the 5th, and the 20th to the 31st . The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on January 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

The “Year of the Comets?”
One year ago I started my column with the exact words shown above.  You notice that I wisely placed a question mark after “the year of the comets.” The facts were that two comets were indeed heading toward the Sun. The unknown was how impressive each one might be. In March 2013 Comet PanSTARRS arrived and it was not impressive. I was able to view this comet in early March using binoculars. It was difficult to find, and was a tiny fuzzy object. The poor display of this comet was somewhat expected by astronomers.

Toward the end of 2013 we waited in anticipation as Comet ISON approached the Sun. The extremely close pass of ISON as it swung around the Sun at the end of November had the potential of generating a massive cometary tail. The other possibility was that this close solar approach would tear the comet apart. Unfortunately the worst-case prediction occurred, and ISON was destroyed after its passage around the Sun. Final results: two 2013 comets, and two washouts.

For the young readers who were waiting to see their first good comet, don’t worry. It is very likely that everyone will see at least one or more beautiful comets during their lifetime; be patient.

2014:
So what will be the best astronomy sights for this year? There are no special events expected for this year at this time. I will feature any interesting sights as they occur during the year, such as meteor showers, etc. However, I feel that the most interesting sight of this year will be the planet Saturn. Over the last five years, Saturn has not shown its true beauty. Last year Saturn looked reasonably well, but this year it is better, and it will continue to improve over the next few years; see image below.

Saturnoppositions-Tom-Ruen-large2011-1024x461

Now go to Google, click on images and search “Saturn.” You will find an amazing number of beautiful images. You can click on as many as you choose, and save many to a file for future reference. However, no matter how many fantastic images you find, not one of them will match the feeling you get when you look at Saturn through an amateur telescope. If you have never seen Saturn through a small telescope, put it on your list of must do this year. To help you out, ScienceSouth plans to have one or more public viewings of the “Ringed Planet.” Saturn will be in the best position for viewing from May through July. We plan to bring out our ScienceSouth telescopes a few times during that timeframe. Keep checking our website for public viewing locations and dates.

For anyone wanting to use their new telescope, the best target this month is the planet Jupiter. This year Jupiter has moved away from Taurus and into the constellation Gemini the Twins. The position of Jupiter looks like the Gemini twins are holding a bright ball between them; check out the star chart at the top of the page. It only takes 7-power binoculars to see the four largest moons of Jupiter, and about 20 power to see Jupiter as a disk. My 25 X 100mm binoculars can see the cloud bands of Jupiter on a clear night. Therefore any telescope you own can see the moons of Jupiter and the cloud bands. I cautiously use the term any telescope because some inexpensive discount store telescopes leave a lot to be desired. If you used my telescope buying suggestions from last month’s column, then your new telescope should not only see the cloud bands of Jupiter, but if the sky is exceptionally clear, you may also see them in color.

If you find the clear nights of January are too cold for viewing Jupiter, don’t worry. Jupiter will be in suitable viewing from now into early May. A final thought about viewing Jupiter and Saturn. View each planet at least ten different times. Each time wait for a clear night with no bright Moon in the way. You may even view your planet of choice each night for five consecutive days. The reason I make this suggestion is that what may appear to be a really clear night to your eyes, may not be a clear night for your telescope. Moisture, high altitude turbulence or thermal layers may affect what you see each night you look at your target planet. If you take the time to try my suggestion, I can almost guarantee you will find a night that the view of Jupiter or Saturn will be much better than you had ever seen before.  Possible nightly views of Jupiter below.

Viewing Jupiter

In general, the winter sky is a great time to scan the night sky with your eyes, binoculars or telescope.  Another plus in South Carolina is that we usually have a few days of some pleasant weather this time of year.

Naked Eye Sights:  Jupiter in Gemini, Orion, Taurus, Sirius and the Pleiades Cluster.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Jupiter is a good target this month. Check out Jupiter’s moons.  Great month to view Orion nebula, the Pleiades and the Double Cluster between Perseus and Cassiopeia.

Three Targets

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  Try to see the Jupiter’s atmospheric bands of clouds, hopefully in color.

See you next month!

December 2013

// December 5th, 2013 // Comments Off on December 2013 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                 Tony Martinez

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 December 2nd. For December, your best viewing nights will be from December 1st to the 6th, and December 22nd to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on December 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

 

Note: Each November I feature my telescope purchasing column. Due to the Comet ISON report last month, I moved this yearly column to December.

So you want to buy a telescope:
Every year a telescope appears on someone’s Christmas list. If you are considering your first purchase of a telescope, the following information may help you with your selection.

First suggestion: Never buy a telescope from a department store. This suggestion also pertains to TV shopping networks. If the telescope box, or sales sign or salesperson mentions power (usually something above 200 or 300 power), then stay away! Good telescopes are defined by their light gathering ability, not by power. In addition, the quality of the lenses is usually poor, and the tripod mounts can be quite wobbly. The short comings of these “bargain” telescopes my may result in frustration when using them, and may discourage instead of encourage your interest in astronomy.

So the solution is to purchase a telescope from a telescope store, most of which are online. One well-known dealer is Orion telescopes found at telescope.com, others are Meade and Celestron. If you require other sources of telescopes, go to your local bookstore and buy a copy of either “Astronomy” or “Sky and Telescope,” magazine, and check their advertisements.

So now that you know where to buy, the harder problem is what to buy. There are three basic types of telescopes: Refractors, Newtonian reflectors, and Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors. You should consider a starting price of about $200, with a better starting amount being $300.

A refractor is what one might consider a traditional shaped telescope, a long thin tube with a lens (objective) in front to gather light, and another lens (eyepiece) in the back. They are fine telescopes for viewing the moon, planets and double stars and are often bought as “starter scopes.” However, they usually don’t have sufficient light gathering ability to give good viewing of galaxies and nebulas, unless you purchase expensive high-end refractors.

T09881vl

A Newtonian reflector uses a mirror to gather light instead of a lens. The telescope consists of a hollow tube open at the top with the viewing eyepiece near the top at a right angle to the tube. Amateur scopes can have as small as a 3-inch diameter mirror, but basic reflectors usually range in size from 6 to 10 inch diameter mirror. Because of their large light gathering ability, they can be used for a large range of astronomical targets, including galaxies and nebulae.

T24731vl

A second class of reflectors is the Dobsonian reflector, usually called a Dob. The Dob was invented by John Dobson, and is a simple reflector that is placed in a mount on the ground, see image below.

T08947vl

Dobs are easy to use and quite inexpensive versus light gathering ability. Bottom line is that Dobs are known for giving the best telescope for your money. Some other considerations are; the larger ones can be bulky to transport, and they do need periodic fine adjustments to the main mirror, called collimation. Laser collimators are available to make this job easy.

Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors were designed to give the benefits of a reflector, but minimizing the length. These telescopes tend to be, on average, the most expensive of the three telescopes types. Also of the three types, these are the telescopes that most likely come equipped with computerized finders, known as GoTo scopes. A GoTo attachment will allow you to enter in on a keypad any celestial object, and the telescope will automatically find it for you if it is visible on that particular night. Note: GoTo systems are available for other reflectors and also for refractors. I do not personally favor GoTo systems because I feel that the best way to find your way around the night sky is to find your target objects on your own.

T24330vl

 

Do you really need a telescope? If you are serious about a hobby in astronomy, it might be best if you put a pair of binoculars on your Christmas list this year, and buy the telescope next year. Reasons:  Binoculars are cheaper, most ranging between $80 and $200. Binoculars will allow you to see a large region of the sky, and right side up! Binoculars can serve for other uses such as bird watching or sporting events. For simple astronomy, most people prefer 7 X 50 binoculars. If you get the binocular astronomy bug, you might someday upgrade to “big binoculars.” Some are shown below; I happen to own the one shown on the far right side of the photo, and it can see the Saturn’s rings!

neaf05e

 

My recommendations: If you want to start a serious venture into amateur astronomy, begin by buying a pair of binoculars, star charts, books, and astronomy software. If you must have a telescope this year, start with a Dob, minimum 6 inch, preferred 8 inch.

Naked Eye Sights: Geminid meteor shower peaks on the 14th.  Due to a waxing gibbous Moon, it might be best to get up early and view from 5:30 am until sunrise.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Comet ISON did not survive well as it swung around the Sun, but you may be able to find remnant of the Comet.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The return of the planet Jupiter in the east offers a great target.

 

November 2013

// November 7th, 2013 // Comments Off on November 2013 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

Tony Martinez

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 November 3rd. For November, your best viewing nights will be from November 1st to the 7th, and November 23rd to the 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on November 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

Comet ISON:
Astronomy magazines, planetariums, and all the news media will be heavily focused on the approach of Comet ISON late this month. As the comet comes closer, astronomers may also be able to predict by mid-month if Comet ISON will be spectacular, or unimpressive.  However, these early predictions may not hold true because the comet will make a rare close encounter as it swings around the Sun; called perihelion. At perihelion, the combination of the intense heat of the Sun, and the intense gravitational forces involved may result in an impressive flare up of the comet, or it tear the comet apart, or no effect. The bottom line is that we will have to have our Thanksgiving turkey before we find out the true nature of Comet ISON.

Many people do not get up before sunrise which does not fit well for viewing Comet ISON. You will notice in the comet orbit image below that ISON’s arrival and exit from the Sun occurs in front of the path of the Earth.

Ison Path

Therefore, the best views will be on the morning side versus the evening side of the Earth. The good news is that at and near perihelion, ISON will be so close to the Sun, it should be visible before sunrise and after sunset. This sets up the following scenario: Best view of ISON; Morning, Nov 20th to the 27th. Morning and evening, Nov 30th to Dec 1st. Morning, Dec 2nd to Dec 10th. If ISON does turn out to be a brilliant comet, it should be visible before Nov, 20th, and after Dec. 10th.

Last March I discussed the arrival of Comet Pan-STARRS, which was not bright at all. In that column I also gave a general overview of comets. With the awaited arrival of Comet ISON, I am repeating some of the comet overview from the March column.

A comet is often described as a giant frozen snowball several miles across, containing water, gases and rocks. It is believed that comets are objects leftover after the formation of our solar system, and reside in an area orbiting the Sun beyond the dwarf planet Pluto. This area contains two regions known as the Kuiper Belt and the Oort cloud, shown below.

OortCloudMapa

Note, the symbols AU on this image mean astronomical units. One AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun; 93 million miles. Therefore, the Oort Cloud is 93,000,000 X 55,000 miles away!

The Kuiper Belt is like the asteroid belt in that it lies in the plane of the planets in our solar system. It is unlike the asteroid belt because it contains mainly snowball-like objects, and not rocky asteroids. It also contains three dwarf planets; Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake.

The above image does not give an accurate representation of the Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is not a belt of objects, but a sphere. A better image is as shown below.

Oort

If a comet’s orbit is near the plane of our solar system, then it is likely that it originated from the Kuiper Belt. If a comet’s orbit is well out of the plane of the solar system, then it originated from the Oort Cloud.  Comet ISON’s out of plane orbit implies that it came from the Oort Cloud.

Let’s return to the origin of the comets. As leftovers from the formation of our solar system, comets always resided in this distant place never feeling the heat of the Sun. Periodically, some unknown object hits or disturbs their orbit, and they “fall” toward the Sun. As they hurdle past the orbit of Jupiter, for the first time in 3-4 billion years they feel; heat! Once exposed to heat, comets now start to boil away gases such as carbon dioxide. As the journey toward the Sun continues additional gases and then water-ice starts to boil off.  Actually the ice does not boil away; instead it is converted directly from solid ice into gas, a process known as sublimation. As this sublimation continues, solid debris imbedded in the ice begins to crumble off, and once the comet passes by the Earth’s orbit, and nears its closest approach to the Sun, called perihelion, the comet has now reached its most unstable state. The heat and energy of the Sun can tear the comet apart, but the most impressive effect is the comet can form a huge trail of rock, ice and gases millions of mile long; which we call the comet’s tail. An interesting property of the tail is that it always points away from the Sun. Outer space is devoid of almost all matter, so as the comet moves in its orbit, there is no friction from space itself, so the force of the solar wind can easily blow the comet’s debris away from the Sun.

Cometorbit

Below is a computer generated image of the best possible ISON scenario looking west from ScienceSouth on November 30th.

Nov 30a

Naked Eye Sights: Comet ISON, we hope, beginning about November 20th in the east before sunrise. At the end of the month it should be visible both at sunrise and at sunset, and then in early December visible only before sunrise.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Comet ISON

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Comet ISON, best viewed at wide field and at low power through a reflecting telescope.

Happy Thanksgiving! See you next month.

October 2013

// October 10th, 2013 // Comments Off on October 2013 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

 
A little October fun!

A little October fun!

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 October 4th. For October, your best viewing nights will be from October 1st to the 9th, and October 24th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on October 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

Comet ISON Inbound:
Next month may bring us the most spectacular comet of our lifetime.  Whenever a suspected bright comet is approaching, I try to locate the comet one to two months ahead of its arrival. So this month, let’s all take the challenge and try to find Comet ISON inbound.

To search for Comet ISON, you must be willing to get up early in the morning. Next, you should focus your search from the beginning of October to mid-month. During this time, have two guide posts to help you find the comet. First is the constellation Leo. Leo begins to rise in the east about 5 am early in the month. The second guide post is the planet Mars. Mars will be “in front” of Leo in early October, and by mid-month will be close to the brightest star in Leo, Regulus. Remember, you will be looking for a small smudge in the sky, with maybe a small tail, but not comet with a distinct tail. For now limit your search to using binoculars, either 7 X 50mm or 10 X 50mm.  If you have 15 to 25 power binoculars on a tripod, it will be much easier to find Comet ISON.

So you must get up early, have a relatively dark sky site, a clear view to the east, and simple binoculars. As you look to the east, look for the rising of the head of the lion, Leo, and look for the easy to spot reddish planet Mars. From October 1st until the 20th, Comet ISON is following alongside of Mars, above the planet and to the left, and finally by the 20th it will move below the planet. Below are the positions of Comet ISON in relation to Mars on three dates in October at 5:30 am.

Project1

The larger red circle represents the field of view for 7 power binoculars and the smaller circle is for 10 power. The white arrow points at the planet Mars. Comet ISON is somewhat hard to see in this image, but it is the small red triangle near Mars. This image shows you that if you place Mars near the center of your binocular’s field of view, Comet ISON will also be in your field of view. If the comet is not bright enough or if your view site is not dark enough, then you will not see the comet; but it is still there, in your field of view.

Below is an image of Comet ISON taken by an amateur on August 12th. Although this image was taken through a large amateur telescope, you should be able to see a similar or better image of the comet using only simple binoculars. In the last few months it has traveled many millions of miles closer to us.

ISON Amateur

Venus:
Throughout the month, the bright planet Venus is seen in the west as it moves through the constellation Scorpius and into Sagittarius. Be sure to look outside on the evening of the 8th, when Venus will shine brightly below a crescent Moon. If you have a simple digital camera, set it at its highest telescopic power. Then using a tripod, or bracing the camera on a solid object, you should be able to capture this lineup.

Venus

In its present position Venus is called the “Evening Star.” Venus has a path that causes it to rise higher each night in the west after sunset, and over a period of months retreat to set in the west. Then after a period of time, it rises in the east before sunrise (The Morning Star) and after a period of time retreats to set in the east. For a few months each year it is not visible at all. One thousand years ago, the scientists of Europe could not really explain this motion, because many scientists felt that the Earth was the center of the solar system. On this side of the Earth in Mexico a thousand years ago the Mayans plotted the path of Venus with great accuracy, and appeared to understand that it revolved around the Sun, and not around the Earth.

In the 16th century Copernicus offered evidence that the Sun was the center of the solar system, but Galileo was able to extend this proof by use of the first telescope. Galileo was able to see the planet Jupiter as a disk. However, he could never see Venus as disk, only as a crescent, or a half disk. This view was evidence that Venus was revolving around the Sun between the Earth and the Sun. You can check out Venus for the next few months as it goes through its various phases. Looking at the Venus phases in the image below, you can see why Venus appears so bright in October versus its appearance in December.

Venus Phases

Naked Eye Sights: Throughout the month, the bright planet Venus.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Try to find Comet ISON as it moves past the star Regulus in the constellation of Leo.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Only if you can find Comet ISON with your binoculars, you may then try to observe it through a telescope. If you can’t see it through your binoculars, it may be quite difficult to locate it with a telescope. Check out the phases of Venus.

See you next month!

 

September 2013

// September 9th, 2013 // Comments Off on September 2013 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                    Tony Martinez

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 September 5th. For September, your best viewing nights will be from September 1st to the 10th, and September 25th to the 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on September 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

Constellation Focus:
A few months ago I discussed another type of night viewing plan; the constellation plan. The object is to pick an easily visible constellation, and spend most of your viewing time only in that constellation. Of course most constellation plans are seasonally directed. This month let’s try to focus on the constellation Sagittarius. Although Sagittarius is moving low into the southwest, it is still a good target between 9 and 10 pm each night.

First let’s begin with a naked eye view of Sagittarius. As we notice with many constellations, what the ancient people saw in the sky often does not match what we see. The constellation Sagittarius does not look very much like an archer/horse (Centaur).

Sagittarius.ConstellationHorseStars

However, the main stars do look like a common object found around the house; a teapot.

sagittarius-teapot

You may also notice that this teapot asterism overlays the Milky Way, as do several other constellations. However, Sagittarius overlays the Milky Way close to our galactic center. Evidence supports the theory that all spiral galaxies contain a Black Hole at their center. Using radio astronomy, scientists have located the position of the Black Hole in the Milky Way. Our Black Hole is called Sagittarius A* (pronounced “Sagittarius A-star). Now, continuing on your naked eye observation of Sagittarius, you can use the “teapot” to find the location of Sagittarius A*. Look at the teapot and imagine it sitting on a stove, and boiling. Where the steam would be above the spout is the location of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy and our Black Hole, Sagittarius A*; marked below by the red “star” below.

sagittarius1

I won’t go over all the common names of the stars in the Teapot asterism, but the brightest star does have the euphonious name; Nunki.

Next you should scan Sagittarius with 7 to 10 power binoculars.  Note:  All of the constellations have been given official boundaries, and these fit together like pieces of a puzzle; see example below.

google-sky-constellations

So if the location of a particular Messier Object was assigned a constellation name, it would be found somewhere within the official boundary of that constellation. Within the boundaries of Sagittarius are 15 Messier objects. This is the largest number of Messier Objects found in any constellation. Therefore, if you wish to add 15 Messiers to your list, carefully scan Sagittarius. The image below shows the locations of the 15 Messiers within the white boundary of Sagittarius. These Messiers are shown as yellow circles and green squares.

SGR

Anyone who has taken my earlier suggestion to try to locate all 110 Messier Objects has realized that many Messiers can be quite challenging to locate. Sagittarius contains Messiers that range from easy to very difficult.  You also may have to brace your binoculars on a building or car to maximize your chances for finding the small and dim Messiers.

The most interesting Messier in Sagittarius is also the easiest to find; M22. M22 is a globular star cluster, and is one of the two best in the northern hemisphere, the other one being M13 in Hercules. If you aim your binoculars at the top star of the teapot, M22 will be in your field of view above and to the left. In the same field of view to the right is M28, but unless you are in a very dark viewing site, you will not see it. In addition to M22, the easiest Messier Objects in Sagittarius are M8, M17, M18, M23, M25, and M55.  The most difficult Messiers in Sagittarius are M20, M21, M54, M69 and M70.

Sagittarius gives a unique opportunity to test out various dark sky viewing sites in the area. Think about places you can safely go to view the stars in our area. You can start with your own backyard. If you have friends in the rural outskirts of Florence, check their locations out. With permission, you may also be able to use Lynches River Park. By using 7-10 power binoculars only, you can easily drive from site to site in one night, if you choose, without the necessity of setting up a telescope.

Although binocular viewing does allow for easy no setup viewing, some amateurs do use various tripod setups to aid their viewing.

DSC_5463a
Although I usually mention using 7 and 10 power binoculars because they can be hand held, if you decide to use tripod setups, you should consider purchasing larger binoculars. What few people realize is that you can purchase a good pair of 15 X 70 mm binoculars for only $89; example, Orion Telescopes, on-line. Also, larger binoculars will greatly help your Messier search.

Finally, your visit with the constellation Sagittarius should end by observing M22 with a telescope. Through binoculars, M22 will look like a smudge, but through a telescope, you may be able to resolve some individual stars, Globular star clusters are fascinating objects. Whenever I view them through a telescope, I always imagine what the night sky would look like living on a planet circling one of the stars in a globular cluster.  Below is Messier 22.

Messier22-La

Naked Eye Sights: The constellation Sagittarius. The Teapot Asterism. The location of our Black Hole

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): See how many Messier Objects you can find.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Messier M22; try to resolve some of the stars.

See you next month!

 

August 2013

// August 16th, 2013 // Comments Off on August 2013 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                    Tony Martinez

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 6th. For August, your best viewing nights will be from August 1st to the 11th, and August 26th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on August 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

Perseids Meteor Shower:

The Perseids meteor shower is a favorite for many observers because it occurs during the warmth of summer, and you don’t have to worry about getting up early for school the next day. Another nice aspect of the Perseids shower is even if you only see a small number of meteors, it is fun just sitting out late at night in August under the stars. The shower should peak on the night of August 12th and early on the morning of August 13th. The Perseids shower always has the potential of a good display, but the absence of the Moon this year may result in a better than normal event. The only downside is that the shower occurs during a weeknight, which may affect those who have to get up early in the morning. If clouds and/or rain are predicted for the 12th, you can check out the skies a few days before and after the 12th.

Perseids

For new readers, it is important to review the subject of meteor showers. Meteoroids are small pieces of rocky or metallic debris dispersed throughout the solar system. As the Earth revolves around the Sun, we run into these meteoroids, and as they enter the atmosphere, they become meteors, and the friction causes them to quickly burn up. We see them as a short streak of light, and they are usually referred to as “shooting stars.” This misnomer is a throwback to the distant past when ancient observers really had no idea what the stars were. So on any given night of the year it is likely that you will see a few meteors streak through the sky. In addition to the meteoric debris left over from the formation of the solar system, there is another more concentrated source of meteoroids; comets.

Comets are balls of ice, gases and rocks that circle the Sun in elliptical orbits, and these orbits are usually above or below the plane of the planets in the solar system. A comet’s orbit can be as short as a few years, or as long as thousands of years. As a comet circles the Sun, gases and ice particles are released, along with the release of some of the comet’s rocks. These rocks become meteoroids, however, they do not disperse into the solar system, but instead they remain in the orbit of the comet. So after several thousand years of circling the Sun, the entire orbital path of the comet is littered with meteoric debris. Since there are hundreds of known comet orbits circling the Sun, it is logical that our Earth would pass through some of these orbits at certain times of the year.

periodic_shower

When the Earth passes through one of these cometary orbits, we experience a large amount of meteors known as a meteor shower. On a normal night, you might see one or two meteors per hour, but during a meteor shower, one might see from twenty to one hundred meteors per hour or more.

Rules of meteor shower viewing: No binoculars, telescopes or any optical aids are needed, just use your eyes. Due to the position of the Earth and the stars during a particular entry into the meteoroid’s orbit, the meteors appear to be coming from a particular constellation, thus the name of the meteor shower.  Therefore, the Perseids meteor shower is centered on the constellation of Perseus, which rises about midnight in the northeast on August 12th. This brings us to another aspect of watching meteor showers; time. For most meteor showers, or for meteor viewing in general, the best viewing is after midnight.  This is based on the positions of the Earth and you the viewer as the Earth runs into the meteoroids. Before midnight, an observer would be on the side of the Earth opposite the direction of the Earth’s movement through space. From midnight onward, an observer would now be looking in the same direction that the Earth is moving through space. Therefore, we easily see the meteoroids hitting our atmosphere; a good analogy is like running through raindrops. Remember, you will still see some meteors before midnight as the graze the upper atmosphere. The sketch below may help to better explain this concept.

meteors

So lie on the ground on a blanket, or use a chaise lounge chair to view the shower, using a standard chair may result in neck pain. Look in the direction of Perseus (northeast), but be aware of your peripheral vision since meteors may also appear overhead or toward the north or south.  Don’t forget to bring snacks and drinks.

I clearly stated that you have no need for any optical instruments to view a meteor shower. However, I suggest you bring a pair of binoculars with you. Since you have already committed to spending at least an hour under the stars, you can enjoy scanning the sky with your binoculars if the shower is a washout.

Naked Eye Sights The Perseids meteor shower

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  The region around the Summer Milky Way is still available as a good area to scan.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  Saturn is still positioned for favorable viewing in the southwest.  Start viewing right after sunset.  Remember, with most simple amateur scopes, planets are sometimes more impressive in twilight; check it out.

See you next month!

July 2013

// July 3rd, 2013 // Comments Off on July 2013 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                   Tony Martinez

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 July 8th. For July, your best viewing nights will be from July 1st to the 13th, and July 26th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on July 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

 

Focus:
I am not about to discuss adjusting your eyepieces, or your telescope mirror. Instead, I would like to discuss how to approach an evening of stargazing.

Now there is nothing wrong with spending a night under the stars with your telescope or binoculars and randomly scanning the night sky searching for interesting objects.  However, I find that a night under the stars is always more pleasant when you have a plan for the evening. I continually stress the challenge of locating Messier Objects. Therefore, going outside with a list of five to ten new Messier Objects that you want to locate is a great approach to amateur stargazing. Days before your night out, you should determine which Messiers will be visible, and also determine their degree of difficulty. In general, the most difficult Messiers are the galaxies. In addition, choose a night at or near the new Moon, which is always pointed out above in the introduction. Finally, seek out a good viewing night; no clouds, haze, minimal humidity, etc. The best way to determine if you have a truly clear night is to use a website called the Clear Sky Chart. The local chart is centered at Francis Marion University, and can be found at http://www.cleardarksky.com/c/FMUObSCkey.html?1 .  It is actually a weather forecast for astronomers. In a future column, I will discuss the use of the Clear Sky Chart.

After you have located as many targets as possible on your list, you can then move on to random viewing, or revisit some of your favorite night sky objects. Remember; always keep your list small and not overpowering.

This month, I would like to discuss another type of night viewing plan; the constellation plan. Pick an easily visible constellation, and spend most of your viewing time only in that constellation. Except for the northern circumpolar constellations, all constellation plans are seasonally directed. This month let’s try to “Focus” on the constellation Scorpius.

Scorpius:  First of all, Scorpius is the only zodiac constellation that is not spelled like its astrological name, in this case, Scorpio. Scorpius is also the most well-known constellation of summer. Now using your own knowledge, or using a star map, first locate your target constellation Scorpius. It will be in the south all month, and most people see as a fancy letter J lying on its side.

Scorpius and Libra horizon view

 

It is one of the constellations that actually looks like its name sake; a scorpion.

scorpius

The constellation’s brightest star is Antares, which can be seen to be a red-orange giant star and is positioned at the heart of the scorpion. Below shows the size of the star Antares compared to our Sun, and the bright star Arcturus.

591px-Redgiants.svg

There are about 15 stars that define the constellation as shown below. The star that represents the scorpion’s stinger is called Shaula. At the head of the scorpion are three stars in a row. Using present day star charts and constellation images, it is hard to envision the claws of the scorpion. That is because when the constellation was first named in ancient times by the Arabs, the constellation Libra was not as it is depicted today. The two main stars of what we call Libra today were part of the ancient scorpion. Indeed, the star Zubeneschamali in present day Libra is Arabic for the “northern claw,” and the star Zubenelgenubi is Arabic for the “southern claw.” The star names stayed, but the constellations were rewritten at a later time.

ScorpiusWithLibra

Use your binoculars and slowly follow the constellation from Antares down to Shaula. As you scan this path, you will see a high concentration of stars because Scorpius lies in the direction of the center of our Milky Way galaxy. As you move downward from Antares, stop at the second main star, zeta (ζ) Scorpii. Right above zeta Scorpii is an open cluster known as the “northern Jewel Box.” This name implies correctly that there is a southern “Jewel Box.” The southern Jewel box is found in the southern hemisphere constellation Crux, which is also known as the Southern Cross. If you would like to see Crux, and the Jewel Box, you only have to go as far south as the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico; Cancun, Cozumel, or Playa del Carmen, etc. It is visible there in the southern sky in late spring.

So what is a Jewel Box? Certain open star clusters contain various stars of sometimes various colors, which when observed under very dark skies look like jewels spilled out on a black velvet background. Below are the Northern Jewel Box on the left, and the Southern Jewel Box on the right.

Jewel Boxes

Finally, whenever you scan any constellation, search out the Messier Objects in that constellation. There are four Messier Objects in Scorpius; M4, M6, M7 and M80. All four are star clusters, and are therefore relatively easy to find, check them out and add four more Messiers to your list.

scorpius-map 2

Naked Eye Sights: The Milky Way. Scorpius. Venus near Leo’s bright star Regulus just after sunset on the 21st.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Scan the constellation Scorpius enjoying the high concentration of stars. Try to find the four Messiers in Scorpius.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Don’t forget Saturn shining in the southwestern sky. Check out some of the Scorpius Messier clusters under higher power.

See you next month!

June 2013

// June 6th, 2013 // Comments Off on June 2013 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                       Tony Martinez

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 June 8th. For June, your best viewing nights will be from June 1st to the 13th, and June 26th to the 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on June 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

Messier Objects
There are certain topics that I feel are important enough to be repeated each year. One such topic is the 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 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 all of the major stars and constellations of the night sky. Take your time; it may take you two to three years to find all 109 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 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.  Below is a sample of my list made a few years ago.

June 2013 Messier List

Nightof71008

The list below shows some of the easiest targets.

Messier Objects for 7×35, 7×50, and 10×50 BINOCULARS

EASY MESSIER OBJECTS:
2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24, 25, 27, 29, 31, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 41, 42, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 50, 52, 55, 67, 92, 93,103
TOTAL = 42

This month I want to take you on a short tour of some Messier Objects of the southern summer sky. Your equipment for this journey: a pair of binoculars, seven to ten power, a lawn chair, beverages, and snacks of your choice. As you look to the south this month, you are looking into the center of our Milky Way galaxy. The fact that we are looking into the center of our galaxy in the summer is why the Milky Way is much brighter in the summer than in the winter when we are looking away from the galactic center. So let’s start our trip by referring to the map of the southern sky shown below.

Summer Messiers

 

The first stop is the globular cluster; M22 in Sagittarius. Many say that the globular cluster M13 in Hercules is the best globular cluster of the northern hemisphere, but I vote M22 as the best. This cluster is easy to find with binoculars because it is just to the left of the top star in the “Teapot” asterism in Sagittarius. Although M22 contains more than 70,000 stars, through binoculars, it is just a fuzzy ball. This is a good Messier to target with your telescope.

M22 A1

 

Next stop is the Lagoon Nebula; M8. This time look to the right side of Sagittarius, and using the “Teapot,” look above the spout to locate M8.  This Messier Object lies closest to the direction of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Using binoculars on a clear night, you can see some of the nebulosity of M8 imbedded in a “rectangular” grouping of stars. I have had the wonderful experience of seeing the Lagoon Nebula with my naked eye while at a dark sky site in northern Pennsylvania.

M8 A1

 

Next stop: If you look directly above M22, about twice the distance of M8, you will see the Eagle Nebula, M16.

M16 A

 

Years ago, this was just another nice Messier Object, until it became famous when the Hubble telescope took the amazing star birth “Pillars” photo in the Eagle Nebula; see below.

22969-001.ncs

 

The last stop on our short tour is the Omega Nebula, M17, also known as the “Swan Nebula.” You can find M17 just below the Eagle Nebula. I have always been surprised how easy it is to resolve the nebulosity of this object with simple binoculars. I always see it as a side view of a swan, but with a short neck; check it out.

M17A

 

After locating the Messiers in our short tour, you should continue your search for other Messiers in the southern summer sky. Try to find M11, M23, and M25, all in the region above Sagittarius. Then move over to Scorpius and try to locate M6 and M7 near the scorpion’s stinger. Also M4 and M80 near the primary star of Scorpius, Antares.  While you are in the constellation of Scorpius, wander with your binoculars throughout the region of the scorpion’s tail and lower body.  This region is filled with groupings of stars.

Naked Eye Sights:  The summer Milky Way. The planet Mercury will be at its highest above the horizon on June 12th.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Find the Messier Objects of summer.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  As you find the Messiers with your binoculars, check them out with your telescope.  Saturn will be your best target all month.

See you next month!

May 2013

// May 4th, 2013 // Comments Off on May 2013 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

Tony Martinez

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 May 9th. For May, your best viewing nights will be from May 1st to the 14th, and May 28th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on May 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

Saturn:
As I mentioned last month, the return of the planet Saturn to the evening skies is of particular importance this year because the favorable tilt of the planet versus the Earth marks the beginning of an excellent eight-year viewing period. A classic Saturn image is shown below.

converted PNM file

Of course, the image you will see through your amateur telescopes will be quite small and sometimes blurry, but still impressive. I have viewed Saturn through many telescopes over many years. Throughout this time, I have always enjoyed watching someone looking through my telescope and seeing Saturn for the first time; it is always an amazing response.

At various times ScienceSouth has free public astronomy events using the ScienceSouth Dobsonian reflector. We give people the chance to see spectacular views of the mountains and craters of the Moon. Also last year people viewed the planet Jupiter and its moons, and the upper cloud bands of Jupiter in color! Although these sights generated various amount of excitement, I never heard the big “wows” I hear when someone sees Saturn for the first time. The big ball of Jupiter looks quite nice, and the small fuzzy ball of Mars is OK, and some people even enjoy the fuzzy crescent of Venus; but Saturn is special.  You can view hundreds of images of Saturn on the Internet, but there is something magical when your see it through your own eyes. So if you have a telescope, start viewing Saturn this month in the southeastern sky.  Saturn will be in a good viewing position from mid-month onward starting about 9:30. Good viewing of Saturn will continue from now through July. However, if you have a good view of the western horizon, you can still view Saturn through August, and before it sets in September, it is then joined by a rising planet Venus.

To find Saturn this month, look to the southeast to see the pale yellow planet. If you are in doubt about its location, then turn your eyes to the north. Find the Big Dipper, and then follow the handle of the dipper to “arc to the star Arcturus” then continue on this arc/curve to the star Spica.” Saturn will be the bright object to the left and slightly below Spica.  If you have dark skies, you will be able to note the contrast of the blue star Spica with the yellow planet Saturn. Below is the position of Saturn in relation to these two prominent stars in mid-April.

Map

So what should you expect to see? With standard 7 (or 10) X 50 binoculars, Saturn will still look like a star. With 15 power binoculars (tripod needed) it will look like the star has “ears.” I regularly use 25 X 100 mm binoculars, and the rings of Saturn are clearly visible.  Therefore, any scope you use from 25 power on up will allow you to see the rings of Saturn. Below are three likely views of Saturn as seen through amateur telescopes. The smaller blurry image represents what you might see with a very inexpensive discount store telescope (best to avoid). The other two images represent views from Dobsonian reflectors ranging from 6 to 10 inches. The bottom line is if you own any telescope, you can see the rings of Saturn; wow!!

Views of Saturn

Don’t Forget the Moon:
Too often I hear a comment from people that the best time to view the Moon is when it is full. If you hear this comment, you can be sure that this person is truly new to the field of amateur astronomy. As we all know, a full Moon is too bright for viewing. Using a filter on your scope will reduce the brightness, but the view will be a disappointing flat looking surface. The only way to experience great lunar viewing is to utilize the shadows generated by the lunar mountains and craters.  With that said, the best viewing of the Moon is from its crescent stage to the first quarter Moon. If you would like to try a great lunar viewing experience watch the Moon every night over a period of 3 to 5 days in a row. As the days progress, new craters and mountain ranges will appear with the stark shadows showing them in all their glory. The below image is similar to what we can see with our 10 inch Dobsonian scope.

moon5

Whenever ScienceSouth brings out our telescopes for planetary viewing on the streets of Florence, we always try to pick nights when the Moon is moving towards its first quarter. So I suggest you try the same approach when you go out to view Saturn this month. Bring out you telescopes anytime, or several times, from May 14th through May 17th, and you will have excellent views of both Saturn and the lunar surface. In addition try sharing this wonderful sight with some of your neighbors. It is amazing how many people have never seen Saturn or the mountains and craters of the Moon through a simple telescope.

Naked Eye Sights: Saturn rises in the east as Jupiter sets in the west.  The constellation Leo the Lion will be the prominent sight as you look south.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): M44 (The Beehive Open Cluster) in Cancer.

M44

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Saturn and the Moon

See you next month!

April 2013

// April 16th, 2013 // Comments Off on April 2013 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

Tony Martinez

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.

wholeskychart

Comet Pan-STARRS
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.

PanSTARRS

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.

Andromeda

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.

Holmes

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.

1

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.

Saturn Returns:
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.

Saturnoppositions

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!

March 2013

// March 1st, 2013 // Comments Off on March 2013 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                  Tony Martinez

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 March 11th. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 1st to the 15th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

Good Comet, Bad Comet?  

This is the year of the two comets, and we hope that one or both will be exciting. This month we await the first comet, Comet Pan-STARRS.  The comet was named after the telescope group called, Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System. If it is a “good comet,” we should begin to see it in the west after sunset on March 6th to the 8th, and it may be visible to the naked eye for several days after that.

A comet is often described as a giant frozen snowball several miles across, containing water, gases and rocks. It is believed that comets are objects leftover after the formation of our solar system, and reside in an area orbiting the Sun beyond the dwarf planet Pluto. This area contains two regions known as the Kuiper Belt and the Oort cloud, shown below.

OortCloudMapa

Note, the symbols AU on this image mean astronomical units. One AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun; 93 million miles. Therefore, the Oort Cloud is 93,000,000 X 55,000 miles away!

The Kuiper Belt is like the asteroid belt in that it lies in the plane of the planets in our solar system. It is unlike the asteroid belt because it contains mainly snowball-like objects, and not rocky asteroids. It also contains three dwarf planets; Pluto, Haumea, and Makemake.

The above image does not give an accurate representation of the Oort Cloud. The Oort Cloud is not a belt of objects, but a sphere. A better image is as shown below.

Oort

If a comet’s orbit is near the plane of our solar system, then it is likely that it originated from the Kuiper Belt. If a comet’s orbit is well out of the plane of the solar system, then it originated from the Oort Cloud.  Comet Pan-STARRS’s out of plane orbit proves that it came from the Oort Cloud. In addition, Pan-STARRS is traveling in a parabolic path around the Sun; see image below.

orbits

Comets traveling in elliptical orbits are periodic comets, which return to the Sun many times. A periodic comet may come back every few years, in less than one hundred years such as Comet Halley, or can be like Comet Hale-Bopp which appeared in 1997, but won’t return for over 4000 years. Parabolic comets only pass by the Sun once.

Let’s return to the origin of the comets. As leftovers from the formation of our solar system, comets always resided in this distant place never feeling the heat of the Sun. Periodically, some unknown object hits or disturbs their orbit, and they “fall” toward the Sun. As they hurdle past the orbit of Jupiter, for the first time in 3-4 billion years they feel; heat! Once exposed to heat, comets now start to boil away gases such as carbon dioxide. As the journey toward the Sun continues additional gases and then water-ice starts to boil off.  Actually the ice does not boil away; instead it is converted directly from solid ice into gas, a process known as sublimation. As this sublimation continues, solid debris imbedded in the ice begins to crumble off, and once the comet passes by the Earth’s orbit, and approaches its closest approach to the Sun, called perihelion, the comet has now reached its most unstable state. The heat and energy of the Sun can tear the comet apart, but the most impressive effect is the comet can form a huge trail of rock, ice and gases millions of mile long; which we call the comet’s tail. An interesting property of the tail is that it always points away from the Sun. Outer space is devoid of almost all matter, so as the comet moves in its orbit, there is no friction from space itself, so the force of the solar wind can easily blow the comet’s debris away from the Sun.

Cometorbit

Also note that most comets have two tails. The really bright one, called the dust tail, curves away from the Sun just as you would expect. The second is the gas tail. The gas tail is not as bright, and the gas molecules have been ionized by the Sun. These ionized gases are charged, and the magnetic field of the Sun forces them to always point directly away from the Sun much like iron filings near a magnet. The blue tail below is the gas tail. It is quite common that the faint gas may not be readily visible to the naked eye.

Gas tail

So let’s hope for a “good” comet this month. Since this is the first time Pan-STARRS has visited the Sun we may have a surprise cometary display, no naked eye display, or the Sun may tear it apart.

Naked Eye Sights: Comet Pan-STARRS, we hope, beginning about March 6th in the west after sunset.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Comet Pan-STARRS

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Comet Pan-STARRS, best viewed at wide field and at low power through a reflecting telescope.

Experiment to try: To “see” ice sublime; changing directly from solid ice to a gas, fill an ice tray to the top with water, and place it out of the way in the back of your freezer.  Check the ice tray again when Comet ISON arrives at the end of November, and you will see how much ice sublimed in seven months.

See you next month!

 

February 2013

// February 4th, 2013 // Comments Off on February 2013 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

Tony Martinez

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 February 10th. For February, your best viewing nights will be from February 1st to the 13th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on February 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

Jupiter:
The two best planetary targets for amateur telescopes are Saturn and Jupiter. Jupiter has been a good target since early December, but you may want to aim at Jupiter again this month. There is no need to rush because you will be able to view Jupiter from now into the middle of April. Saturn will then return into view from mid-April until the end of July. Therefore, this year we will have a total of seven continuous months of good planet viewing.

Although it may be cold outside this month, the dry air should allow a clear telescopic view of Jupiter. If the skies are clear, you should be able to see the atmospheric clouds bands on Jupiter. I can see these bands with my binoculars at 25 power. However, through a standard telescope, you would be best to view them at 50 power or above. If conditions are right, you may be able to see the color of Jupiter’s clouds. They are usually seen as a rust brown color. Also note that Jupiter spins so fast that you should see changes in the clouds in only a few hours. Below is the view of Jupiter you should be able to see through good amateur telescopes, such as a 6-8 inch Dobsonian.

Jupiter

Note that in this photo, all four large Galilean Moons are visible. If you would like to view Jupiter when all four Moons are visible, search the Internet for “positions of Galilean Moons” and you will know what nights to look at Jupiter. Actually, a quick check shows that all four Galilean Moons are visible for most of this month. Another simple approach is to use either 7 or 10 X 50 power binoculars, brace the binoculars on a house, tree or tripod, and you will be able to see if all four Moons are visible before you go to set up your telescope.

Mercury:
There are five naked eye visible planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Of the five, Mercury is the most difficult to see because it is so close to the Sun. Therefore, I usually point out whenever Mercury is in a good viewing position. On the evening of February 16th, Mercury should be an easy naked eye target if you go to a location with a clear view of the western horizon. Start looking in the west just after sunset, starting from about 6:15 pm until 7:00 pm. The small object just below Mercury between 6:30 and 6:45 is the planet Mars.  See the image below:

mercury

 

Also remember there is no need to limit your viewing only to February 16th; Mercury should be easily visible a few days before and after that date.

Cascades:
An asterism is a group of stars that look like a familiar object. Examples: The Big Dipper looks like a kitchen ladle or dipper; the center of the constellation Cygnus looks like a Christian cross, and is known as the Northern Cross asterism; the center of the constellation Sagittarius is called the Teapot asterism. Note that an asterism can, but does not have to, incorporate any major stars of a constellation. Example is the Coathanger asterism inside the constellation Vulpecula. So there are many lesser known asterisms that have been discovered over the years. Some are quite small, and sometimes do not look much like the object they represent. Some of these lesser known asterisms are said to look like, a kite, a dolphin, a golfer, ET, etc. Another type of asterism is the cascade. A cascade is a group of stars that form a “chain.” If you enjoy scanning the night sky with your binoculars on a warm evening, you may find your own small cascades. How many stars are needed to form a cascade? There are no rules. So I will point out two cascades for you to find this month. The first one is small and easy to find, but seldom mentioned. The second one is a long cascade, harder to find, and often mentioned.

The first cascade has only six stars, and easy to find because it appears to hang off the Pleiades star cluster. The Pleiades or Seven Sisters is an easy naked eye object to the right of the constellation Orion, just past the “V” shape of Taurus. Below is a telescopic view of the Pleiades with the cascade pointed out. However, it always looks better viewed through a pair of 7 or 10 power binoculars; check it out.

pleiades 1

 

The second cascade is well known, and is called Kemble’s Cascade, and contains between 15 to 25 stars. This cascade was named after the man who first reported observing it in 1980, Father Lucian Kemble, a Franciscan friar and amateur astronomer from Canada. He described it to the astronomer Walter Scott Houston who decided to name the asterism Kemble’s Cascade. The bad news is that this cascade is in Camelopardalis, a constellation which is almost impossible to pick out in the sky. Below is a chart to help you in your search.

Kemble

 

If you are successful, the cascade should look like the image below.

Kemble Cascade

 

Naked Eye Sights The planet Mercury in the west right after sunset.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Try to find the Pleiades Cascade and Kemble’s Cascade.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  Try to see the Jupiter’s atmospheric bands of clouds, in color.

 

See you next month!

January 2013

// January 1st, 2013 // Comments Off on January 2013 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

                                  Tony Martinez

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 January 11th.  For January, your best viewing nights will be from January 3rd to the 15th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on January 15th at 9 pm.

wholeskychart

The “Year of the Comets?”

 A comet is like an icy snowball a few miles across containing ice, gases, and rocks. Periodically they enter into the inner solar system, and as they swing around our Sun, they can become very bright, and exhibit a long “tail” of particles blown off the surface of the comet by the Sun.

There is a high probability that you will see at least one impressive comet in your lifetime.  Actually, you may see three or four, or more! In the last century there were only two impressive comets, Arend-Roland in 1957, and Hale Bopp in the spring of 1997. There were also some modest comets like Hyakutake and West, and of course there were some highly publicized washouts like Comets Kohoutek and the return of Comet Halley in 1986.

The year 2013 may bring us the next comet to remember, but as always with comet brightness predictions, it could also end up as another dud.  This new comet was just discovered and is named Comet ISON.  ISON is a long way out, between Jupiter and Saturn, and is not expected to be close to the Earth until next Thanksgiving.  The image below shows its discovery.

ORizUF

Astronomers do not like to make early predictions of the brightness of comets, for fear of public ridicule when the comet is unimpressive.  Therefore, don’t expect to hear much about ISON in the news for several months. You may be wondering if it is so hard to predict the brightness of a comet months in advance, why are the astronomers even mentioning ISON at this time.  Although it is difficult to predict a comet’s display, it is easy to determine its exact path on its journey into the inner solar system.  Remember, the bright tail of a comet is caused by particles blown off the comet’s surface by the energy of our Sun. Therefore, what may determine how bright a comet will be, is how close it passes by the Sun. Calculations of ISON’s path place it extremely close to our Sun at the end of November. The most recent impressive Comet was Hale-Bopp in 1997.  Hale-Bopp’s closest approach to the sun was 84 million miles. Comet ISON is expected to pass about 1.2 million miles from the Sun; 70 times closer!

I will continue this discussion later this year when we have a better indication of what to expect from Comet ISON.

Observant readers may have noticed that I titled above, the year of the comets; plural.  While waiting to see if Comet ISON will be the greatest comet of our lifetimes, there is a second comet inbound this year.  Its name is Comet PanSTARRS, and it should be visible in early to mid-March.  As of now, Comet PanSTARRS is “under the Earth,”  and is only visible telescopically to observers in the southern hemisphere.  Once it goes around the Sun, we should see it, beginning about March 7th.  As always, this comet may also prove to be a washout.  The image below is the Starry Night program’s prediction of PanSTARRS as seen from ScienceSouth on March 8th.

Panstarrs

Geminids Report:

I hope that you had a chance to see the Geminids last month.  The ScienceSouth astronomers went west of Florence to find some decent dark skies. We viewed from 12 midnight to 2 am.  The Geminids meteor shower yielded between 60 and 70 meteors per hour at our location; this is considered a very good meteor shower.  We saw several very bright meteors, some that broke apart, and my personal favorite was two meteors that traveled side by side, one very bright, and one medium bright; as represented below.

Double Meteor

Another interesting aspect of this meteor shower was the locations of the various meteors.  As I have often mentioned, meteor showers appear to radiate from one area of the sky, which accounts for their names.  In this shower, they should radiate from the direction of the constellation Gemini in the east.  However, on the night of the 13th/14th, the meteors appeared everywhere in the sky, including on every horizon.  Another oddity of this Geminid shower was the large amount of meteors seen in the western sky, opposite the position of Gemini. The answer might be due to Comet Wirtanen.  This comet was discovered in 1948 and between the 10th and the 15th of December was the first time that the Earth has passed through its orbit. If Comet Wirtanen did produce its own meteor shower, it would be in the region of Pisces, and by midnight, Pisces was low on the western horizon.

Jupiter:

The two best planetary targets for amateur telescopes are Saturn and Jupiter.  You can start the New Year by turning your telescopes to Jupiter.  There is no need to rush because you will be able to view Jupiter from now into the middle of April.  Saturn will then return into view from mid-April until the end of July. Therefore, this year we will have a total of seven continuous months of good planet viewing.

Naked Eye Sights:  Orion, Taurus, Sirius and the Pleiades Cluster.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Jupiter is a good target this month. Check out Jupiter’s moons.  Move to the right of Jupiter to see the open cluster, Hyades.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  Try to see the Jupiter’s atmospheric bands of clouds, hopefully in color.

See you next month!

December 2012

// December 5th, 2012 // Comments Off on December 2012 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 December 13th. For December, your best viewing nights will be from December 4th to the 16th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on December 15th at 9 pm.

Meteor Shower: 

As you know, meteor showers occur throughout the year but are often not very impressive, averaging only 10-20 meteors per hour. The three most watched showers are the Perseids in August, the Leonids in November, and the Geminids in December. Once or twice in a lifetime, the Leonids may give a spectacular show, but in general, these three meteor showers give moderate displays. In general, the Perseids are most watched because they occur during the warm summer nights.  The Leonids are next in importance because they sometimes have large displays. The Geminids are the least viewed of the three. However, over the many years that I have been watching the night sky, on average, I have found that the Geminids have given the best meteor showers. This year, the Geminids may again shine as the best meteor shower of the year.

Besides the unknown weather factor, the only downside this year is that they will peak late on the night of the 13th and early in the morning of the 14th, during a week night (school and work).  However, the good news is that it will occur during a New Moon.  Another plus is that the Geminids yield many meteors over the few days before and after the peak. So you will probably see many meteors if you stay up late on Friday night after the peak.

As always, meteor showers are only viewed with the naked eye. The reason is that although the meteors appear to come from one area of the sky, in this case the constellation Gemini (see above), they may actually appear in almost any part of the sky. One problem that may occur when viewing meteor showers is a stiff neck. Therefore, a lounge chair is a good viewing aid. I have also sat on the hood of a car, and leaned back against the windshield. This time of year, another problem may be the cold, so bring blankets or a sleeping bag; especially if you use the cold hood of a car. Hot chocolate is another good viewing aid for the Geminids shower.

Most of my readers know that meteor showers occur when the Earth passes though the orbit of a comet. However, the Geminids are not associated with any comet. It is associated with the orbit of an asteroid called Phaethon. As such, it has a much wider debris field which is the reason it yields a good display over many days.

Finder scopes:

Last month I discussed the purchase of a telescope. An important accessory you will need for your telescope is a finder scope. No matter how good you become at visually locating objects in the night sky, you still have to be able to aim your telescope at your target. Every telescope comes equipped with some type of “finder scope.” Traditionally, these finder scopes attach to the side of your scope, and are just small low power telescopes, usually 6 to 8 power, and they usually have crosshairs in the lens to aid in locking the telescope on your target. Now the “problems”: These small finding scopes usually give an upside down and reversed image, which may or may not match the image of your telescope. In addition, and probably the most frustrating is that in general, finding scopes give a small an angle of view.

So what is the best way to aim your telescope? There are two very effective aiming devices. The simplest and cheapest is a Red Dot Finder. The better and more expensive device is a scope mounted Green Laser.

First the red dot finder. The red dot finder does not use a red laser. It uses a red LED light. The LED is somewhat hidden in the back, and a reflection of the light is seen on a plain glass section in the front. As you look through the finder, you will see the red dot on the glass surface. You then simply overlay this red dot on the dark sky, and place it on your target of choice. The red dot finder A below is about $40, and finder B about $70. Finder B has a larger field of view, and also has four different red shapes to overlay on the sky, which is a nice touch. (C below)

Second, is the Green Laser Finder. Attaching a green laser to your telescope is a great way to aim your scope. You can see exactly where your scope is pointing as you stand next to your scope and move it around; at ScienceSouth, we use a green laser on our Dobsonian telescope. The complete laser and telescope mount is shown on the left below and sells for $120. The image on the right shows how easy it is to aim a green laser mounted telescope.

Naked Eye Sights:  The Geminids meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours of December 14th. The sky will be dark, and it is expected to be a good shower. Don’t forget to look for meteors the night before and the night after the peak.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Jupiter is a good target this month. Check out Jupiter’s moons.  Move to the right of Jupiter to see the open cluster, Hyades.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  Try to see the Jupiter’s atmospheric bands of clouds, in color.

See you next month!

November 2012

// November 2nd, 2012 // Comments Off on November 2012 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 November 13th.  For November, your best viewing nights will be from November 3rd to the 17th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on November 15that 9 pm.

Note: Each November I will feature my telescope purchasing column. Of course any timely astronomy sights will also be included at the end of the column.

So you want to buy a telescope:
Every year a telescope appears on someone’s Christmas list. If you are considering your first purchase of a telescope, the following information may help you with your selection.

First suggestion:  Never buy a telescope from a department store. This suggestion also pertains to TV shopping networks. If the telescope box, or sales sign or salesperson mentions power (usually something above 200 or 300 power, then stay away! Good telescopes are defined by their light gathering ability, not by power.  In addition, the quality of the lenses is usually poor, and the tripod mounts can be quite wobbly. The shortcomings of these “bargain” telescopes my may result in frustration when using them, and may discourage instead of encourage your interest in astronomy.

So the solution is to purchase a telescope from a telescope store, most of which are online. One well-known dealer is Orion telescopes found at telescope.com, others are Meade and Celestron. If you require other sources of telescopes, go to your local bookstore and buy a copy of either “Astronomy” or “Sky and Telescope,” magazine, and check their advertisements.

So now that you know where to buy, the harder problem is what to buy. There are three basic types of telescopes: Refractors, Newtonian reflectors, and Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors. You should consider a starting price of about $200, with a better starting amount being $300.

A refractor is what one might consider a traditional shaped telescope, a long thin tube with a lens (objective) in front to gather light, and another lens (eyepiece) in the back. They are fine telescopes for viewing the moon, planets and double stars and are often bought as “starter scopes.” However, they usually don’t have sufficient light gathering ability to give good viewing of galaxies and nebulas, unless you purchase expensive high-end refractors.

A Newtonian reflector uses a mirror to gather light instead of a lens.  The telescope consists of a hollow tube open at the top with the viewing eyepiece near the top at a right angle to the tube. Amateur scopes can have as small as a 3-inch diameter mirror, but basic reflectors usually range in size from 6 to 10 inch diameter mirror. Because of their large light gathering ability, they can be used for a large range of astronomical targets, including galaxies and nebulae.

A second class of reflectors is the Dobsonian reflector, usually called a Dob.  The Dob was invented by John Dobson, and is a simple reflector that is placed in a mount on the ground, see image below.

Dobs are easy to use and quite inexpensive versus light gathering ability. Bottom line is that Dobs are known for giving the best telescope for your money. Some other considerations are, that they can be bulky to transport, and do need periodic fine adjustments to the main mirror, called collimation. Laser collimators are available to make this job easy.

Schmidt-Cassegrain reflectors were designed to give the benefits of a reflector, but minimizing the length. These telescopes tend to be, on average, the most expensive of the three telescopes types. Also of the three types, these are the telescopes that most likely come equipped with computerized finders, known as GoTo scopes. A GoTo attachment will allow you to enter in on a keypad any celestial object, and the telescope will automatically find it for you if it is visible on that particular night. Note: GoTo systems are available for other reflectors and also for refractors. I do not personally favor GoTo systems because I feel that the best way to find your way around the night sky is to find your target objects on your own.

Do you really need a telescope? If you are serious about a hobby in astronomy, it might be best if you put a pair of binoculars on your Christmas list this year, and buy the telescope next year. Reasons:  Binoculars are cheaper, most ranging between $80 and $200.  Binoculars will allow you to see a large region of the sky, and right side up! Binoculars can serve for other uses such as bird watching or sporting events. For simple astronomy, most people prefer 7 X 50 binoculars. If you get the binocular astronomy bug, you might someday upgrade to “big binoculars.” Some are shown below; I happen to own the one shown on the far right side of the photo, and it can see the Saturn’s rings!

My recommendations: If you want to start a serious venture into amateur astronomy, begin by buying a pair of binoculars, star charts, books, and astronomy software. If you must have a telescope this year, start with a Dob, minimum 6 inch, preferred 8 inch.

Naked Eye Sights:  The Leonids meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours of November 17th. The sky will be dark, but it is not expected to be a good shower.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Jupiter rises in the east this month. Check out Jupiter’s moons.  Move to the right of Jupiter to see the open cluster, Hyades.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  The return of the planet Jupiter offers a great sight.  Try to see the Jupiter’s atmospheric bands of clouds.

 

See you next month!

October 2012

// October 2nd, 2012 // Comments Off on October 2012 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 October 15th. For October, your best viewing nights will be from October 6th to the 18th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on October 15th at 10 pm.

 

Binocular Astronomy:

Although I always include a section called binocular sights at the end of my column, this month I will feature that section. In previous columns I have explained that the best approach for learning astronomy is to search the night sky with simple binoculars. The best simple binoculars for astronomy use are 7 X 50mm or 10 X 50mm; the first number is always the power, and the second number is the size of the objective lens in millimeters. I use the term “simple binoculars” to describe binoculars that are relatively inexpensive, and work well when hand held. Also, simple binoculars serve other purposes such as bird watching or viewing sporting events. If you move up to specialized binoculars, they are much larger, more expensive, and cannot be handheld. These binoculars generally range in power from 15 to 40, and the size of the objectives can be from 70 mm to 100 mm.

Last month I discussed finding the planet Uranus with only 7 power binoculars. I hope some of you tried and were successful in finding this outer planet. The outer planets can be easy binocular targets, but only if they are near some bright star or another object that can be used as a “sign post” in the sky. Last month we used the Circlet asterism in Pisces to find Uranus.

Remember, an asterism is a group of stars that have a recognizable shape; example, the Big Dipper or the Northern Cross. So let’s start our binocular tour with the famous asterism, the Pleiades star cluster, which looks like a little dipper. The Pleiades is a star cluster and is easily visible to the naked eye, but it looks best with binoculars. The Pleiades is best viewed in the winter, but I decided to mention it now because it is a great binocular object, and it is just becoming an evening target. The Pleiades will slowly rise in east throughout the month, but will not be high overhead until mid-January. The Pleiades is also known as the Seven Sisters and although the naked eye can usually only see six stars, with binoculars you will see many more. Below is the location of the Pleiades looking east at 10 pm on October 15th.

Below is the approximate view through 7 power binoculars.

Although most of you have heard of or seen the Pleiades before, there is a much lesser known but interesting asterism that you should try to find this month. This little known asterism is perfectly positioned in the southwest sky this month. The asterism has three names; the Coathanger, Collinder 399, and Brocchi’s Cluster, and it is found in the constellation Vulpecula, under and to the left of the Northern Cross. However, the stars in the Coathanger are not associated with each other as in an actual star cluster, but this asterism is merely a chance lining up of stars, ranging in distance from 200 to 1100 light years away. What you will see through your binoculars is ten stars in the shape of an upside-down coathanger. I have always found it surprising that so many amateur astronomers have never heard of this asterism.

Here is a hint to help you find it. Look to the west anytime this month and find the Northern Cross asterism; which comprises most of the constellation of Cygnus the swan.  This asterism is in the shape of a Christian cross, and in the autumn, it is positioned somewhat upright. The bottom star of the cross is a beautiful double star called Albireo.  Using 7 power binoculars, place Albireo near the 2 o’clock position in your binocular’s field of view (red circle).

Then move your binoculars slightly to the upper right, (see large arrow) and the Coathanger will pop into view; see image below.

An interesting note: The Coathanger asterism, shown below, is always seen upside down as it moves from east to west from June through November.

If you travel to the southern hemisphere, it will always be seen right-side up.

To find the Coathanger, we used the double star Albireo. Albireo is in itself an interesting binocular object. Indeed, Albireo is my favorite star. Using 7 or 10 power binoculars, on a clear night, look carefully and you will see that not only is Albireo an obvious double star, but one star is deep blue in color, and the other star is golden yellow.

The image below is through a telescope at about 100 power, but Albireo is quite impressive through any telescope beginning at only 25 power.

One final binocular thought. Sometimes when you are just scanning the night sky with binoculars, well away from the Milky Way, you suddenly see an increase in the number of stars filling your field of view. This usually means you have found a star association.  A star association is a large group of stars that are associated with each other in their motions, and sometimes gravitationally. One such association is found around Mirfak, the main star in the constellation of Perseus. Use the “W” asterism in Cassiopeia to find Mirfak, and then move your binoculars across the region to see this star association.  See chart below.

Naked Eye Sights:  The Pleiades.  The Northern Cross.  Cassiopeia W.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  See above.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm:  Check out the star Albireo.

 

See you next month!

September 2012

// August 29th, 2012 // Comments Off on September 2012 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 September 15th. For September, your best viewing nights will be from September 6th to the 20th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on September 15th at 10 pm.

Curiosity Arrives at Mars:

I hope some of you stayed up until 1am on August 6th to be a part of the Curiosity Mission. The TV news coverage was not the best way to see this event; however, the live Internet stream from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was excellent.

So Curiosity succeeded in making an amazing soft landing on Mars, and from this month on, for at least two years, the Curiosity rover will move across the Martian landscape looking for signs of possible ancient life forms. Below is an image taken by Curiosity showing the distant mountains it will be visiting later this year.

Other amazing photos were taken by some of our satellites, which are orbiting Mars. Below is a photo showing Curiosity and the locations of other parts of the landing craft.

Finally, an unbelievable photo taken by one of our Martian satellites just after the parachute opened on the Curiosity lander.

Star Hopping:

As readers of my column, you must be amateur astronomers, or at least have some interest in astronomy. Imagine that you set up your telescope, click Neptune on a little controller, wait a few moments, and then look through your scope at the planet Neptune. You can buy telescopes that will do this for you; they are called GoTo telescopes.  Although you can find any object in the sky, you will not learn the constellations or star names along the way. The only way to become an accomplished amateur astronomer is to use charts or computer star chart programs to help you find your way around the night sky. The method that is used to locate planets, galaxies and other deep sky objects is called star hopping.

This month let’s use the star hopping method to locate the planet Uranus with a pair of binoculars. The first image below is quite cluttered, so allow me to walk you through it. This image was taken from the Starry Night astronomy program, and shows the night sky on September 20th at 10 pm, looking east. To begin the star hopping method, you always first use your naked eye to locate an easy constellation or asterism, and then move your eyes toward your target of choice, in this case, the planet Uranus. For this search, the easiest object to begin your hopping is the constellation Cassiopeia in the upper left of the image below. Next move your eyes down and to the right to locate the center of the constellation Pegasus, which is the asterism, the Great Square. Now move your eyes below and to the right the Great Square and try to locate the circular asterism in the constellation of Pisces, known as the Pisces Circlet. Notice that the image below shows the positions of the planets Uranus and Neptune.  I chose Uranus, because it is closer than Neptune, and therefore brighter.

Now it is time to switch to your binoculars. For this activity, I am using 7 X 50 mm binoculars. Note in the image the red circle around the Pisces Circlet. This red circle represents the field of view seen through your binoculars. It is interesting that the Circlet just fits inside the binocular field of view.

Next find the Circlet with your binoculars; it should look like the image below.

Note to the left of the Circlet the arrow points to a star with the prosaic name of Omega Piscium. Now “hop” over to that star and place it so it is located at 12 o’clock in your field of view (always imagine your field of view as the face of a clock).  You should now see the image below.

Now notice at the 5:30 position there are two pairs of stars nicely lined up. Now move your binocular field of view so these two pairs of stars are near the two o’clock position; you should now see the image below.

Now in the exact center of your field of view is the planet Uranus, just to the left of a small white star. If the skies are clear and dark, you may be able to see the blue color of the planet.

Star hopping is a little more difficult with your telescope, but I use a simple trick to make it easy. It requires a green laser. First I set up the telescope at its lowest power, and aim it in the general direction of Uranus. Next I place the laser in one of my hands that is holding the binoculars. I then find the planet Uranus with my binoculars, turn on the green laser, and point it at the planet while still looking through the binoculars, and then someone else turns the telescope until they see the laser beam. As soon as they see the beam, I turn off the laser; works great!

Naked Eye Sights: Enjoy the summer Milky Way and the summer constellations as they slowly set this month.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Try to locate Uranus with your binoculars, using the information given above. Next try to locate Neptune this month using binoculars, star charts and star hopping (not an easy task due to the lack of easy to find constellations or asterisms).

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Try to see Uranus as a blue disk with your telescope. If possible, use the binocular/green laser method to find the planet.

August 2012

// August 3rd, 2012 // Comments Off on August 2012 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 17th. For August, your best viewing nights will be from August 8th to the 22nd. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on August 15th at 10 pm.

Curiosity Arrives at Mars:
You won’t have to stay up late to see it, and you can’t use your telescope to watch it, but it will be nice to know that in the early morning hours of August 6th , NASA’s Curiosity Rover will attempt a landing on Mars. We have had some great rovers studying the surface of Mars over the years, such as Spirit, Opportunity and Sojourner, but Curiosity is much bigger. In addition to its size, about the size of a car, Curiosity will carry much more sophisticated equipment than used on any other rover. Curiosity’s special onboard laboratory will offer our best chance to discover if any form of life is presently on Mars or if any existed in Mar’s distant past.

The following image compares the size of Curiosity on the right, with two of our previous rovers.

So, we wish Curiosity well as it enters Mar’s atmosphere at 13,000 miles per hour, and lands on the surface 6 ½ minutes later.

The Perseids Meteor shower:
The Perseids meteor shower is a favorite for many observers because it occurs during the summer, so you don’t have to worry about getting up early for school the next day. The shower should peak on Saturday night August 11th and early on Sunday morning August 12th.  This year, even the adults won’t have to worry about going to work the next day.

For the new readers, it is important to review the subject of meteor showers. Meteoroids are small pieces of rocky or metallic debris dispersed throughout the solar system. As the Earth revolves around the Sun, we run into these meteoroids, and as they enter the atmosphere, they become meteors, and the friction causes them to quickly burn up. We see them as a short streak of light, and they are usually referred to as “shooting stars.” This misnomer is a throwback to the distant past when ancient observers really had no idea what the stars were. So on any given night of the year it is likely that you will see a few meteors streak through the sky. In addition to the meteoric debris left over from the formation of the solar system, there is another more concentrated source of meteoroids; comets.

Comets are balls of ice, gases and rocks that circle the Sun in elliptical orbits, and these orbits are usually above or below the plane of the planets in the solar system. A comet’s orbit can be as short as a few years, or as long as thousands of years. As a comet circles the Sun, gases and ice particles are released, along with the release of some of the comet’s rocks. These rocks become meteoroids, however, they do not disperse into the solar system, but instead they remain in the orbit of the comet. So after several thousand years of circling the Sun, the entire orbital path of the comet is littered with meteoric debris.  Since there are hundreds of known comet orbits circling the Sun, it is logical that our Earth would pass through some of these orbits at certain times of the year, see 1 through 4 below.

When the Earth passes through one of the comet orbits, we experience a large amount of meteors known as a meteor shower. On a normal night, one might see one or two meteors per hour, but during a meteor shower, one might see from twenty to one hundred meteors per hour or more.

Rules of meteor shower viewing: No binoculars, telescopes or any optical aids are needed, just use your eyes. Due to the position of the Earth and the stars during a particular entry into the comet’s orbit, the meteors appear to be coming from a particular constellation, thus the name of the meteor shower. Therefore, the Perseids meteor shower is centered in the constellation of Perseus, which rises about midnight in the northeast on August 11th.

This brings us to another aspect of watching meteor showers; time. For most meteor showers, or for meteor viewing in general, the best viewing is after midnight.  The reason is based on the positions of the Earth and you the viewer as the Earth runs into the meteoroids. Before midnight, an observer would be on the side of the Earth opposite the direction of the Earth’s movement through space. From midnight onward, an observer would now be looking in the same direction that the Earth is moving through space. Therefore, we could easily see the meteoroids hit our atmosphere; a good analogy is like running through falling raindrops. Remember, you will still see some meteors before midnight as the graze the upper atmosphere. The sketch below may help to better explain this concept.

So lie on the ground on a blanket, or use a chaise lounge chair to view the shower, using a standard chair may result in neck pain. Look in the direction of Perseus (northeast), but be aware of your peripheral vision since meteors may also appear overhead or toward the north or south. Don’t forget to bring snacks and drinks.

Naked Eye Sights:  The Perseid Meteor Shower.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Use only to search for more Messier Objects, never for meteor showers.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  This month is your last chance to see Saturn in the southwest between 9 and 10 pm.

July 2012

// July 2nd, 2012 // Comments Off on July 2012 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 July 19th. For July, your best viewing nights will be from July 7th to the 23rd. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on July 15th at 10 pm.

Venus Transit:
The ScienceSouth team and over 130 visitors enjoyed perfect viewing for the June 5th Venus transit of the Sun outside our pavilion at Freedom Florence. Everyone was able to view the transit through our filtered 10-inch Dobsonian reflector, our H1 alpha solar scope, and on a projection screen using our Sun Spotter. We were also pleased to have Francis Marion University astronomy professor Dr. Jeanette Meyers join us. Dr. Myers brought an additional filtered 10-inch Dobsonian reflector, and also supplied everyone present with a pair of special solar viewing glasses. Visitors were told to keep these glasses in a safe place to be reused on August 21, 2017 for the total solar eclipse that will pass over central South Carolina.
The Summer Milky Way:
Each summer I remind everyone that this is a great time to be outside, hopefully at a dark sky site, scanning the summer Milky Way.  If we revisit our place in the Milky Way galaxy we see that we are about 2/3 out from the center. See image below:



As we revolve around the Sun and look out into the southern sky, in the summer we are facing into the center of the Milky Way, and in the winter, we are facing away from the center of the Milky Way. This timing of course is just a chance/random happening. Therefore in the summer, higher concentration of matter toward our galaxy’s center allows us to view more visible stars, nebulas, and star clusters.  Hopefully some of my readers have ready access to local sites where the Milky Way is visible. The only downside for our part of the country is that summer also brings humidity, which can interfere with viewing the night sky. 
If you are a serious amateur astronomer and have never seen a brilliant Milky Way, you should try to plan a vacation to a dark sky site. Many dark sky sites are in areas where other interesting sights are nearby for daytime excursions. Sometimes a dark sky site is so isolated that you have great nighttime viewing, and during the day you sleep late, barbeque, and make new friends with your fellow amateur astronomers. I used to drive 300 miles from New Jersey to an isolated dark sky site in the Allegeny Mountains of northern Pennsylvania, called Cherry Springs state park.  The image below shows the view of the Milky Way at Cherry Springs.


To find a dark sky site you can search the Internet, or look in the advertisement sections of Astronomy magazine, or Sky and Telescope magazine. One of many dark sky web pages is http://www.jshine.net/astronomy/dark_sky/. Below are some images from that site.


The blue “tear drops” are locations of private and public stargazing sites. Direct your attention to the dark blue viewing areas. Notice that the closest blue area to Florence is the Francis Marion National Forest, however, there are no sites there marked as astronomy viewing areas.  The closest good “blue” viewing area is in Georgia, called the Deerlick Astronomy Village, http://www.deerlickgroup.com/; check it out.
Another consideration is to look for dark sky sites near places where you have already planned a vacation. Finally, for the very serious amateur, you might want to plan a trip to Bolivia, South America next July for the Southern Skies Star Party;  http://www.astronomicaltours.net/SouthernSkies/. That is what you would call a true astronomy adventure! This Bolivia Star Party is still on my wish list.
However, it is time to return to Florence. Find the best local viewing site and direct your binoculars and telescopes toward the southern sky. The image below is centered on the constellation Sagittarius better known as the “Teapot” asterism. There are eleven Messier objects shown in this image, along with some NGC (New General Catalog) objects. Also note the location of the center of our Milky Way.



First scan this region with a pair of binoculars. Depending on the darkness of your viewing site, you should be able to spot several of the Messier (M) objects. Often you may only note that your target is too fuzzy to be a star. Certain objects in this image look well through a refracting telescope, such as M6 and M7. Most of the objects are best viewed through a reflector, such as a Dobsonian, or through “Big” binoculars. The most difficult Messier objects in this image are M20 and M21. Note, the Lagoon Nebula M8 is visible to the naked eye at Cherry Springs Park.
This other image is centered on the constellation Scorpius, and adds an additional four Messier objects.


Have you ever looked up at daytime clouds and saw shapes of animals or people? The “cloudy” Milky Way is really millions of stars seen at a distance. Actual clouds in the Milky Way are not white, but black and are made of dark matter blocking off the background stars. Now use your imagination and look for the “dark horse” cloud in the above three images of the Milky Way. If you have trouble locating it, see the image below.


Naked Eye Sights: The summer Milky Way
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): As always, continue looking for more Messier Objects to add to your list. In particular look toward the Milky Way’s center in the southern sky.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Use a reflector to scan the Sagittarius/Scorpius region.



June 2012

// June 1st, 2012 // Comments Off on June 2012 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 June 19th. For June, your best viewing nights will be from June 9th to the 23rd. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on June 15th at 10 pm.



Venus Transit:
It is unlikely that any one alive today will ever see this astronomical event again. On June 5th, the planet Venus will pass in front of the Sun; this known as a Venus transit. The next time this occurs will be in the year 2117, and at that time, it will not be visible over most of the United States. However, I did manage to view the last Venus transit.
I have often mentioned the “Dance of the Planets.”  This “dance” is the unique relationship each planet has with the other planets as they revolve around the Sun. In general, the planets and their moons revolve on a plane counterclockwise around the Sun. However, this plane is not perfectly flat like a CD disk. The planets and moons can move above or below the plane of the solar system. A good example is the orbit of our Moon. If our Moon was perfectly aligned to the plane of the solar system, the once a month we would have a solar and lunar eclipse. The tilt of our Moon’s orbit results in somewhat rare eclipses on any given location on Earth.
Below is a diagram of the relationship of Earth’s orbit and Venus’s orbit.



The shapes of the Earth/Venus orbits results in the following sequence of Venus transits of the Sun: Every 8 years-105 years-8 years-122 years-8 years-105 years, etc. Therefore, the last Venus transit was in June 2004, followed by this year and then in 2117.
A Venus transit is not what some people would call a “wow” event. The reason is that viewing this event requires special equipment, and it is best to visit a site where trained astronomers can allow you to safely view the Sun. Of course the transit can be followed on television, and through streaming video to your laptop, smart phone or iPad. 
The actual transit of Venus across the Sun’s surface will take about six hours.  Through any safe solar viewing equipment, Venus will look like a small black disk moving over the surface of the Sun. The image below was taken during the 2004 transit.



Below on the left is a composite time exposure of the 2004 transit, and on the right is a comparison of the two most recent transits.

Finally below is a 2004 image of the “teardrop” effect seen as Venus enter or exits the Sun.



So if you would like to see firsthand this once in a lifetime astronomical event, stop by our ScienceSouth pavilion at Freedom Florence, from 6 pm to 8 pm on Tuesday June 5th. Outside our pavilion we will have three methods of viewing the transit. First is a projection method called the Sun Spotter. With this device, at least four people can view the Sun at the same time. Second we will have a traditional Dobsonian reflecting telescope equipped with a solar filter. Finally, we will have a unique solar telescope called an H-1 alpha, which is normally used to see the solar eruptions on the Sun’s surface, called prominences.  Because the H-1 alpha can see the atmosphere above the surface of the Sun, this device should be the first to detect the arrival of the Venus transit.
If we have rain or clouds, we will have streaming video of the transit inside the pavilion. We also have a digital planetarium Star Lab inside which can follow the transit by way of computer software imaging.
While this is a great amateur event, professional astronomers will be studying this transit very carefully. This transit is of special interest to the astronomers who are searching for exo-planets; planets orbiting distant stars. The primary method used by astronomers to locate planets around distant stars is to observe the effects caused by the planets as they pass in front of the distant star. These effects include diming the star’s brightness, or small gravitational tugging. The Venus transit will act as a model to add more information about the effects of planets transiting distant stars. 
As you watch the Venus transit this month, and notice how tiny the disk of Venus is compared to the massive Sun, you can imagine what little effect an Earth-like planet would have on a distant star. This is the reason most of the exo-planets discovered are much larger than Jupiter, and orbit very close to the distant star. This also explains why we seldom find Earth-like planets revolving around distant stars; not because they don’t exist, but because we can detect them. In reality, there may be thousands of Earth-like planets revolving around thousands of stars. As the late Carl Sagen often said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  
Naked Eye Sights: Using our projection Sun Spotter, the planet Venus transit of the Sun. Warning! Do not use your own telescopes or binoculars to project images of the Sun. Children, and also adults are often attracted to telescope eyepieces, and might unknowingly place their eyes on the eyepiece, which would lead to blindness.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): As always, continue working on finding more Messier Objects to add to your list. In particular look toward the Milky Way’s center in the southern sky.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm: Only with professionally set up solar viewing scopes, the Venus transit. Also, Saturn is at a perfect position for viewing throughout this month.





May 2012

// May 9th, 2012 // Comments Off on May 2012 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 May 20th.  For May, your best viewing nights will be from May 8thto the 25th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on May 15that 9 pm.

Saturn:
The rings of Saturn are finally back in view. The ring position of Saturn will continue to improve every year, and then return to the position you see it this month in about 2021. If you bought a telescope in the last few years, this is the time to take it out. You will be rewarded with excellent Saturn viewing now and for the next nine years. This year, Saturn will be in visible in the night sky after 9:30 pm in early May, and will continue through the end of July. The image below shows the ring positions over a 28 year period.


As you know, Saturn is the favorite planetary target because of its spectacular ring system. Over the years as Saturn tilts in relation to us, we see the rings at different angles. When the viewing angle is at or near zero degrees, the beautiful ring system fades from view; this occurred during 2009 and 2010. 
As amateur astronomers, we regularly view the planets in our solar system. As we point our telescopes into the night sky, the big ball of Jupiter looks quite nice, and the small fuzzy ball of Mars is OK, you can also detect the bluish-green colors of Uranus and Neptune, and some people even enjoy the very fuzzy crescent of Venus; but Saturn is special. You can view hundreds of images of Saturn on the Internet, but there is something magical when your see it through your own eyes. So if you have a telescope, Saturn is a must view beginning this month.
To find Saturn this month, look to the southeast to find the pale yellow planet. If you are in doubt about its location, then turn your eyes to the north. Find the Big Dipper, and then follow the handle of the dipper to “arc to the star Arcturus.” Arcturus will be the brightest object in the east. If you continue the curve from the dipper’s handle, you would normally come to another bright star, Spica. However, now instead of one star, you will see a “pair of eyes!” The “eye” on your right is the star Spica, and the “eye” to your left is Saturn. So this year it is quite easy to locate the position of Saturn. If you have dark skies, you should be able to see the contrast of the blue star Spica with the yellow planet Saturn. The image below shows the position of Saturn in relation to Arcturus and Spica in mid-April; note the Big Dipper in the upper left hand corner.

So what should you expect to see? With standard 7 (or 10) X 50 binoculars, Saturn will still look like a star. With 15 power binoculars (tripod needed) it will look like the star has “ears.” I regularly use 25 X 100 mm binoculars, and the rings of Saturn are then clearly visible. Therefore, any scope you use from 25 power on up will allow you to see the rings of Saturn. Most planets supply a significant amount of light to your telescope, and this should be a positive feature. However, with some simple telescopes, the contrast between the dark night sky and the bright planet can sometimes overpower you lenses. If you have any trouble clearly seeing Saturn’s rings with your telescope, try this simple trick. Try viewing Saturn after sunset, but before it becomes really dark. Now you will see the planet without the sharp contrast with the dark sky. Below are three views of Saturn that are likely with amateur telescopes. The smaller blurry image represents what you might see with a very inexpensive discount store telescope (best to avoid). The other two images represent views from Dobsonian reflectors ranging from 6 to 8 inches. The bottom line is if you own any telescope, you can see the rings of Saturn.



Venus Transit:

Time to prepare for the Venus transit next month; June 5th. A Venus transit is the rare alignment of the planet Venus with the Sun. During a transit using solar viewing equipment one can see Venus passing across the Sun as a small disk. This event will not occur again until the year 2117. I will discuss the Venus transit in more detail next month, but because it occurs early in the month, I wanted to alert my readers of the event. 

To safely observe this rare event requires special solar viewing equipment. Locally we hope to have public viewings at Francis Marion University and at our ScienceSouth pavilion at Freedom Florence.  Although it is on Tuesday, the transit of the Sun will start about 6:20 in the evening, and can be observed through to sunset. The total transit lasts about six hours, but we can only view it for about two hours on the east coast of the United States.
Naked Eye Sights:  The brilliant Venus slowly sets in the west throughout this month; on the 22ndyou will see a nice pairing of Venus with the crescent Moon. The red/orange Mars will still be visible in the south all month, and of course, the yellow Saturn in the east. 
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): As always, continue working on finding more Messier Objects to add to your list.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm: After several years, Saturn returns as your best target throughout May and June.

See you next month!

April 2012

// April 18th, 2012 // Comments Off on April 2012 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 21st. For April, your best viewing nights will be from April 11th to the 24th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on April 15th at 9 pm.

Return to the Virgo Cluster:

Two years ago I gave a brief introduction to the Virgo Cluster. The Virgo Cluster is not a star cluster, but is a cluster of galaxies; the month of April is usually the best time to view this target. Data from the Hubble telescope estimates there are as many as 1500 galaxies associated with this cluster. This galaxy cluster is also referred to as the Virgo/Coma Bernice’s Cluster.

If you attempt to venture into this realm of galaxies, you are somewhat limited to using a reflecting telescope, preferably a 4 inch or larger Dobsonian, or large binoculars, such as 25 X 100 mm. A 100 mm binocular is actually the same size as a 4 inch telescope.However, dim objects such as galaxies are surprisingly more defined through the binoculars than with the equivalent telescope.

As always when attempting to find galaxies you must find a dark sky location. In our area of the country, five to ten miles outside of any modest size town should be sufficient for your search of the Virgo Cluster. A great viewing location is Lynches River Park. However, unless you are camping at the park, or coming to a Lynches River Star Party, you are not allowed to just bring your telescope to the park.The best choice may be to find a friend or relative who owns farm land.

Once you have chosen a good viewing location, first find the location of the Virgo Cluster, see circle below.

Next, check out the area circled with ten power binoculars. The image below is a good example of what you may see.

So where are the galaxies? With normal 7-10 power binoculars, this region looks like a simple star field. If you look carefully, you will note that several “stars” are somewhat larger and fuzzy. These small fuzzies are some of the many galaxies in the Virgo cluster. Next aim your reflecting telescope near the center of this region shown in the circle above. Starting at about 25 power, while looking through the eyepiece, slowly move your scope outward in an expanding spiral.Every few minutes check your telescope finder to make sure you have not drifted outside the Virgo Cluster region of the sky. This roaming technique is quite different from the normal careful searching for a specific target in the sky. If you have chosen a good dark sky site, and you are careful and patient, you should be able to see many small fuzzy galaxies. This next image is what you may see through your telescope. The yellow circle is the field of view at about 30 power.This image also shows the locations of various other cataloged galaxies. These objects are dimmer than the Messiers, and are assigned a NGC (New General Catalog) number.

The following image is how you could see the Virgo Cluster if you owned great astronomy equipment and used long exposure astrophotography.

What I have briefly described above is how to casually visit the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. If you are a serious Messier Object searcher, then you must revisit the Virgo cluster with more care. There are a total of fifteen Messier Objects near the center of the Virgo Cluster, and three others nearby. You will need a good star chart or computer program to start your search. Below is the star chart that I used to check off each Messier as I personally searched this region. As you can see, the chart lists Messiers, NGC objects and many too dim to be labeled objects in the Virgo region. I started with Messier 60 and ended with M49; logging fifteen Messiers in one April night’s viewing.


From M60 to M49, the black line/arrow shows the exact path I used that night as I worked my way through the cluster. I used 25 X 100 mm binoculars to locate all these objects.

Now it’s your turn.

Meteor Showers:

As you may remember there are only three major meteor showers each year, August, November and December. However, there are also minor showers. This year all three major showers occur on or near a new Moon; maximizing your viewing.

This month has a minor meteor shower called the Lyrids, and it also occurs during a new Moon. This shower peaks late at night on Sunday the 22nd, but you can also check on Saturday night. You may only see one meteor every 3-5 minutes, or as with any meteor shower we might get a surprise burst of meteors.

Remember, when viewing meteor showers; use only your eyes, no binoculars or scopes. Sit in a lounge chair to save you neck muscles.Look toward the region of the name of the shower; in this case, the constellation Lyra. In most cases, the best time to view is after midnight.

Naked Eye Sights: The brilliant Venus in the west. A red/orange Mars in the south and a yellow Saturn in the east. The only other bright object still in the sky this month is the star Sirius in the southwest.

The Lyrid meteor shower.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Follow the planet Venus April 1st through the 4th as it passes through the Pleiades Cluster (M45).

Telescope Sights (60-100mm:The Virgo Galaxy Cluster; see how many Messier Objects you can find in this region of the sky.


See you next month!

March 2012

// March 2nd, 2012 // Comments Off on March 2012 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 March 22nd. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 13th to the 26th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.

Messier Month:

It is Messier Marathon month again. As you well know, I believe that the best way to become a good amateur astronomer is to try to locate all 110 Messier Objects in the night sky. Let me begin by repeating some of the Messier overview I used in the column last March.

For new readers, the Messier Objects are a list of 110 celestial objects, which include galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. The objects are usually known by their “M number;” M1, M42, M104, etc. Charles Messier composed this list in the late 18th century. Messier was a comet hunter, and he recorded this list of objects that looked like comets but were not. This list helped Messier, and his fellow astronomers avoid objects that might be confused for comets. It is ironic that today this somewhat “negative” list has become one of the most widely used lists of objects used by amateurs around the world. All 110 objects can theoretically be seen with only a pair of 10 X 50 binoculars under perfect dark sky viewing conditions. However, under normal viewing conditions, about 50% of the objects can easily be seen with simple binoculars. All 110 objects can be seen at about 25 power, using a simple telescope, preferably a Dobsonian, or 25 power binoculars.

On occasion a new astronomer will ask me what else is there to see after they have observed the Moon and the planets. I tell them to try to locate all the Messier Objects; it is fun, and gives you a reason to go outside and enjoy your new hobby. I believe the best feature of the Messier List is that in the process of searching for the objects you will learn the stars and constellations of the entire night sky.

The Messier Objects are found throughout the night sky every month of the year. However, a rare event occurs each year in March. In mid to late March, all 110 Messier Objects can be found in only one night! Of course in order to accomplish this, you also need to have a new Moon. This event is known as a Messier Marathon, and amateur astronomers around the world attempt this task on or about the new Moon closest to the first day of spring (Vernal Equinox). This year the Marathon will be run on the weekend of March 24th. Now on a personal note, I have never tried a Messier Marathon; instead I preferred to slowly work through the Messier List over a period of a few years.

So in the spirit of Messier month, let’s try to find 10 Messier Objects in a relatively small area of the sky shown below.

The exact locations of these 10 Messiers are shown in the image below.


Always begin such a search by moving right to left, to counter the spin of the Earth. Therefore, start with the constellation Auriga. Auriga is easy to locate because of its brilliant yellow star Capella. First find the outline of Auriga, and following the image above, scan the region occupied by M38, M36 and M37 with 10 power binoculars. These Messiers are all open star clusters. If you are in a dark area, you should be able to see all three Messiers. Remember, they are all quite dim, so look with care. The image below shows M38 and M36 in the correct binocular view orientation for March. M37 will look similar, and will be found above and to the left of M36.

Next locate the shape of the Gemini “The Twins.” Move your binoculars the lower right of the constellation, and another open star cluster, M35 will be in the position of a ball being kicked by Gemini’s left foot.

Next, using the 10 Messier chart above, move to the left and try to locate the open cluster, M44, known as the “Beehive.” The Beehive is in the constellation Cancer, and this constellation is difficult to visualize. The good news is that if you can find a dark viewing site, M44 is easily visible to the naked eye.

Finally move over to the constellation Leo. Leo is a prominent spring constellation. Along the bottom of Leo are five Messiers galaxies, but they are all quite dim.

More good news; on March 17th, the planet Mars moves into the group of the three Messier galaxies; M95, M96, and M105. The circle in the image below shows the view at 25 power.

Finally we end by locating two other Messier galaxies. If you place your 10 power binocular view to match the red circle in the image below, then M65 and M66 will be in your center of field. The small image is a telescopic view.

Congratulations, ten Messiers located this month; only a hundred left to go!

Naked Eye Sights: Look to the west in the early evenings of March 10th through the 14th, and watch as the brilliant Venus appears to swing close by the bright planet Jupiter.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Use your binoculars to locate ten Messiers this month; see above.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): This is your last month to view Jupiter, however, Mars and Saturn will be great targets for the next five months. You may need your telescope at 25-40 power to see some of the Messiers described above.


See you next month!

February 2012

// February 24th, 2012 // Comments Off on February 2012 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 February 21st. For February, your best viewing nights will be from February 14th to the 27th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on February 15th at 9 pm.

There are two interesting naked eye events this month. Naked eye events are great ways to introduce your family or friends to astronomy. You only have to step outside and look up in the sky; there is no need to set up telescopes or bring out binoculars.

One event will occur on the 22nd starting in the west right after sunset. Check between 6:30 and 6:45 pm. You should be able to see a thin crescent Moon. To the left of the Moon, the star-like object is the planet Mercury. Explain to your family or friends that it is usually difficult to see Mercury because it is so close to the Sun. There are seven planets in our solar system besides the Earth, of these; only five are visible to the naked eye. Anyone who has an interest in astronomy can spot the four easily viewed planets, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Mercury is only easy to see if someone directs you to it or, as on the 22nd, you have a celestial marker. For planet viewing, this month is somewhat rare because you can see all five visible planets in one night over a period of only five hours; the description is as follows.

Once you find Mercury next to the crescent Moon, look above and you will see the bright planet Venus. Above Venus you will see the planet Jupiter, see image below.

Next, come back out at 9 pm. You will notice that Venus is about to set in the west, and Jupiter is still visible. Now turn to the east, and you will see that Mars is well above the horizon; see image below.


Finally, if you come back out at midnight, you will see the planet Saturn in the east below Mars; see image below.

If you miss this event on the 22nd, don’t worry; you can continue to see all five visible planets for several weeks. The limiting planet is Mercury, and of course Mercury is easiest to see when it is farthest away from the Sun; this will occur on March 8th. On March 8th, you can see all five visible planets over a period of only three hours. The reason I targeted February 22nd is that this is the only time that you can use the crescent Moon to help you locate Mercury. Once you realize what Mercury looks like, it will be easy for you to keep track of it over the next few weeks.

As I mentioned, this planet alignment is somewhat rare. Even rarer is to be able to see all five visible planets at the same time. This has happened in June 1946, April 2002 and next in September 2040; so mark your calendars.

The second naked eye event this month is not as special; however it is a nice visual. On the 25th of this month between 7 and 8 pm look to the west to see a beautiful view of Venus next to the crescent Moon.

Using a simple digital camera, you should be able to capture this event.

Uranus:

As mentioned above, you can view the five naked eye planets near the end of the month. In addition, you will have a chance to also add the planet Uranus to your viewing list. Now as an amateur astronomer you can check and find that Uranus is visible this month, and then using star charts and or astronomy computer programs, you can attempt to locate Uranus first with binoculars, and then with your telescope. Locating either of the last two outer planets can be made simple if the planet passes near an easy to locate object. This month on the 9th between 7 and 8 pm, Uranus will be just to the left of the bright Venus in the western sky. You will easily spot it with simple binoculars. The image below shows your view through the field of 7 X 50 mm binoculars.

Whenever either Uranus or Neptune passes close to a visible planet or a bright star, I mention it in my column. The last time this event occurred for Uranus was in June 2010 when Uranus passed close to Jupiter. The only difference in this event was that it occurred between 3 and 4 am in the morning. Many amateurs are not willing to get up at that hour to see an outer planet. However, as you can see above, not only does the Uranus/Venus event occur in the evening, but it won’t even interfere with your bedtime.

So what can you expect to see? Even with my 25 X 100 mm binoculars, I can see that Uranus is a blue planet. With a telescope, you should easily be able to see Uranus as a blue disk; similar to the image shown below.

Naked Eye Sights: See discussion above.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Use your binoculars to first locate Uranus next to Venus on February 9th. Also continue to enjoy the winter targets such as Orion and the Pleiades,

Telescope Sights (60-100mm: During the last week of the month, you can observe the five naked eye planets with your telescope. On February 9th, take the time to observe the planet Uranus as it appears close to Venus. Hopefully you will be able to see the blue color of the planet.

January 2012

// January 6th, 2012 // Comments Off on January 2012 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 January 23rd. For January, your best viewing nights will be from January 14th to the 27th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on January 15th at 9 pm.

Star Names:

Learn the names:

If your hobby is bird watching, one would expect you to know the names of several birds. Therefore, I find it amazing that many amateur astronomers know several constellation names but only a few star names. Let’s take some time this month to discuss the topic of star names.

Since most amateur astronomers know the names of many constellations, this is where you should begin to learn the names of several stars. Most constellations do not have one prominent bright star, example: Big and Little Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia, Gemini, Sagittarius, Hercules, Pegasus, and Perseus. However, many constellations do have one bright prominent star. If you know these constellations, then you should be able to name that bright star. Here is a list of common constellations and the name of the brightest star in that constellation: Leo the Lion; brightest star is Regulus, in Bootes; Arcturus, Auriga; Capella, Cynus; Deneb, Taurus; Aldebaran, Canis Major; Sirius, Scorpius; Antares, Lyra; Vega. You now have eight star names to begin your list.

In addition to memorizing the name of the brightest star in the well-known constellations above, here is another star name challenge you should try. Choosing the well-known constellations, the Big Dipper (really an asterism) and Orion; memorize all the prominent stars in these two constellations.

Let’s start with the Big Dipper. There are seven stars in the Big Dipper. Starting at the end of the handle you have Alkaid, Mizar, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak, and Dubhe. See image below.

Additional information: A line starting with Merak and going through Dubhe will point to the North Star (Polaris). Another feature of the Big Dipper stars is the star in the middle of the handle, Mizar. Mizar is a double star, and its companion is called Alcor. On a clear night you can see the faint Alcor above Mizar. If you have trouble seeing it with your eyes alone, it is easily seen with simple binoculars. Add Alcor to your list of star names; now you know eight stars in the Big Dipper.

The constellation Orion also has eight stars that you should learn. Remember, Orion the Hunter forms the shape of a man. The eight stars are as follows: Meissa is the head. His right shoulder is Betelgeuse, the left shoulder is Bellatrix, the right knee is Saiph and the left knee is Rigel. The three belt stars starting on Orion’s right side are Alnitak, Anilam and Mintaka. See image below.

Additional information: Meissa is much dimmer than the seven other stars. Betelgeuse is a red giant star, and its orange color is obvious. Rigel is a hot blue star. Note that I did not list the names of the three apparent stars in Orion’s sword. That is because the top “star” in the sword is really multiple stars imbedded in the Running Man Nebula. The center “star” is actually the Orion Nebula (M42) and the bottom “star” is also made up of multiple stars.

If you learn the names of all the stars I suggested above, you will have 24 star names in your memory bank; a good amount for a new amateur astronomer.

What do the names mean?

Every star name has a meaning, but let’s just focus on some of the stars we learned above. First note that many stars start with the letters Al. This is because many of our star names were given by ancient Arabs, and in Arabic, Al means “the.” Therefore, the star Al-debaran means “the follower” (of the Pleiades). In Orion, the three Arabic names in the belt are, Al-nitak; “the belt,” Al-nilam; “the string of pearls,” and Mintaka which is another Arabic word for belt. Of course, some Arabic star names can be quite difficult, such as Zubeneschamali; “northern claw;” ( Zoo-Ben`-Ess-Sha-Mah`-Lee).

How do you pronounce the star names?

In general, most star names are pronounced as expected from their spelling; however, there are many are not pronounced as expected. One example is the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra. Most of us say “Vay`-ga,” however, the official pronunciation is “Vee`-ga.”

I have found over the years that astronomers sometimes disagree about the “correct” pronunciation of certain stars. I do not worry that much about the pronunciations; I still prefer to say “Vay-ga.”

Many years ago, a friend asked me an interesting question; “Do any stars have a person’s common name, such as Joe, Mary, Sam, etc.” The answer is that only one star has a name that is pronounced but not spelled as a person’s name. In the autumn, when the Northern Cross (Cygnus) appears upright, the star marking the left side of the cross is called Gienah, and is pronounced like the women’s name, Gina. See below.

Naked Eye Sights: Orion is always a joy to look at high in the January sky. If you have any friends that have no knowledge of astronomy, introduce them to the constellation Orion. Jupiter is still visible in the southwest, and Venus will continue to shine brightly in the west after sunset. Venus will continue climbing higher in the sky until early May.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Check out the Orion Nebula, and the Moons of Jupiter.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm: If you received a telescope for Christmas, Jupiter is still a great target in the southwest throughout January.


See you next month!

December 2011

// December 2nd, 2011 // Comments Off on December 2011 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 December 24th. For December, your best viewing nights will be from December 17th to the 28th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on December 15th at 9 pm.

Star Party:

The November 19th at Lynches River Park turned out to be a great night. On that day a persistent cloud cover continued until just before the 7 pm star party start time. The skies then cleared followed by a short cloud cover again about 9 pm and then clearing again. The absence of clouds does not always imply great viewing conditions because other factors can cause viewing problems. These factors may include atmospheric moisture and thermal layering distortion. However, the clear skies at the Lynches River Star Party resulted in excellent viewing conditions. The favorite target for the night was the planet Jupiter, with all four Galilean moons being visible. The planet was sharp and clear with plenty of color. We usually cannot “push” our Dobsonian telescope to 150 power, due to loss of clarity/resolution, but on that night, Jupiter was still a sharp/clear image even at high power. Below is an image that approximates how we saw Jupiter during the star party, however, our view was much sharper than the image below.

We also viewed the Pleiades (M45), the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), the famous Ring Nebula (M57), the Double Cluster, the blue and gold double star Albireo, and the Orion Nebula (M42).

Lunar Eclipse?

This month you may hear a passing comment about a total lunar eclipse visible over the United States on December 10th, but it will most likely not be reported on your local news broadcasts. The Moon will be totally eclipsed at 6 am in California, therefore, 9 am in South Carolina. It is really a Pacific Ocean lunar eclipse, and as such, we won’t even see a partial eclipse.

Meteor Shower:

Readers of this column know that there are usually only three prominent meteor showers each year, the Perseids in August, the Leonids in November, and the Geminids in December. Interestingly enough, they all peak about the 12th through the 14th of their respective months. A good meteor shower should yield at least one meteor per minute, or 60 per hour. Over the last 10-15 years, the Leonids have had some good peaks, resulting in over 100-200 meteors per hour, however, this is not the norm. Usually, meteors are relatively dim and of course fleeting. Therefore, the main requirement for observing a meteor shower is a dark sky location. Now, you can control your viewing location, but you cannot control the Moon’s location or the weather. This was one of the worst years for viewing meteor showers because each of the three meteor showers mentioned above arrived on or near a full Moon. This month the Geminids peak around December 14th with an almost full Moon nearby. If you wish, you might try to go out and check the sky about 10 pm, before the Moon rises at about 10:20 pm. However, the best viewing for any meteor shower is after midnight, as the Earth turns toward the approaching meteors. Therefore, it appears that this will not be a good year for the Geminids. There is good future news though; next year, all three major meteor showers will occur at or near a new Moon.

Mars News:

November 26th marked the liftoff our NASA’s newest Mars Rover, called Curiosity. The Curiosity Rover should reach Mars next August. This rover, shown on the right in the image below is much larger than our previous two rovers.

The Curiosity is 10 feet long and weighs about 2000 pounds. Unlike previous rovers, Curiosity will require a precision landing in the Martian Gale crater. This will require a special landing vehicle to carry the rover to the exact area desired in the crater; see images below.

Curiosity will not search for life, but for chemical compounds that are known to exist in our Earth life forms. In addition, because of its extensive heavy duty equipment, it will greatly expand the knowledge of Martian geology and weather.

What to do this Month:

I mentioned above that the two possible astronomy events this month are really non-events for us. However, for the dedicated amateur astronomer, there is plenty to see this month. See below:

Naked Eye Sights: Venus will surpass Jupiter as the brightest “star like object” this month. However, throughout December, Venus will only be visible for a short time each night. On December 1st, Venus will set at 7 pm, and by December 31st, it will be visible only until 8 pm. Jupiter will therefore be the most obvious bright “star like object” throughout this month.

The beautiful constellation Orion returns for its winter visit this month, and its nearby companion, the star Sirius competes with Jupiter and Venus for the brightest star versus star-like object in the sky.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Check out the Orion Nebula, the apparent center star in Orion’s sword. At any power binocular, you should be able to the see the gaseous cloud surrounding the “star nursery” of the Orion Nebula. If viewing conditions are favorable, you may be able to see that the cloud resembles a diving eagle.

Jupiter and its moons continue to be a good target.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): After checking out the Orion Nebula with your binoculars, try the same target with your telescope. It usually looks best through a reflecting scope due the better light gathering mirror. Don’t forget to look at Jupiter and its moons.


See you next month!

November 2011

// November 18th, 2011 // Comments Off on November 2011 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 November 25th. For November, your best viewing nights will be from November 1st and 2nd and November 17th to the 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on November 15th at 9 pm.


Star Party:

Note on your calendar that there will be a free ScienceSouth Public Star Party on November 19th at Lynches River Park from 7-10 pm on the baseball field. Bring binoculars if you have them. So, what exactly is a star party?

September, October and November are often thought to be the best three months for amateur astronomy. Due to favorable viewing conditions, many star parties are run in various places around the country. The traditional star party is a gathering of amateur astronomers at a site removed from light pollution. They are usually run in parks or campgrounds and sometimes at private sites owned by colleges or astronomy clubs; plus a moderate fee is charged for use of the facility. The amateurs usually spend most of the time with their own equipment. In addition, they may also wander about to see various objects through other peoples’ scopes. Note: Star parties are a great way to check out new equipment before making a purchase. At star parties, many people are trying to seek out very dim objects, and some people are deeply involved in astrophotography. Because of this, it is very important that you do not use any white lights at all. If you need a light, only red lights are allowed and kept at a minimum. This is because red light is least likely to disturb your night vision. Also, at normal star parties, the use of green lasers is prohibited. One green laser can ruin hours of long exposure astrophotography.

In addition to the traditional star parties, there are also events called public star parties; this is the type star party we will have on the 19th at Lynches River. If you are new to astronomy, these are always great events to attend. At a public star party, many if not most people come without a telescope, and these gatherings are usually free of charge. The amateurs will have their telescopes set up to allow people to view various objects, answer questions, and in general help people learn more about astronomy. Green lasers are usually allowed, and are used by the astronomers to help people find various celestial objects. As mentioned above, if you do attend a public star party, be sure to bring a pair of binoculars if possible. A knowledgeable amateur can point to an object with a green laser, and you can just follow the beam with your binoculars to the target; a great way to find your way around the night sky. The image below was taken at our first Lynches River Star Party in November 2007.

Please check the ScienceSouth Website for any changes or weather cancellation of the November Star Party.

Dance of the Planets – Perspective:

As you are well aware, the bright planet Jupiter featured in last month’s column is still visible, and continues to be a great telescope target throughout most of the winter. In addition, the best planetary target, Saturn, is now returning as a morning target towards the end of the month, rising about an hour before sunrise. Thousands of years ago, the ancient astronomers watched as the planets rose in the evening or in the morning, and realized that there was a consistent pattern in their movements. Most ancients were probably not aware about what these moving objects really were, but it appears that at least for the ancient Mayans, they were aware that these objects, like us, were moving in orbits around the Sun.

I feel sure that most of my readers are aware that the appearances of the various planets at different places and different times throughout the years are due to the movement of our Earth around the Sun, coupled with the movements of the various planets in their orbits around the Sun. To add to your knowledge, I want to give a visual perspective of why we see the planets at different times each year.

The images below are views of the Earth and the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The view is looking down at our North Pole and is set for the night of November 15th and the morning of the 16th. The white arrow will always point to the south. The yellow line represents your horizon, and when you look up into the sky, you can only see objects that are on the same side of the yellow line as the white arrow.

The first view is sunset on the 15th. Note that Jupiter is visible low in the east, and Saturn is not visible because it is on the other side of the Earth.


The second is your view from the Earth at midnight. Now Jupiter has moved towards the southwest, and Saturn is still not visible.

The last view is near sunrise. Jupiter is behind the Earth, and is no longer visible. Saturn now comes into view, and is seen low in the eastern sky.

I hope these images gave you a better perspective of the “Dance of the Planets.”

Naked Eye Sights: Jupiter will still be the brightest “star like object” this month.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Jupiter and its moons. There are many Messier Objects visible this month, and they are great targets due to the clear skies of autumn.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm: Jupiter and its moons, and various Messier Objects.

See you next month!

October 2011

// October 21st, 2011 // Comments Off on October 2011 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 October 26th. For October, your best viewing nights will be from October 1st and 2nd and October 19th to the 29th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on October 15th at 9 pm.

Jupiter:

Jupiter returns this month and is a great target for your telescopes. The two favorite planets for small telescope observation are Saturn and Jupiter. Saturn is usually the most impressive target because of its beautiful ring system, and Saturn will return next spring. Jupiter is known for its atmospheric cloud bands, red spot (not very red), its four major moons, and its large disk size.

This month Jupiter moves into opposition with the Earth on October 28th. Opposition occurs when the planet is directly opposite the Sun as seen from Earth. (Lunar opposition is called a full Moon). At opposition, the planet is visible the entire night. Also at opposition, the planet is at its closest distance to Earth. However, due to variability in its orbit, it can be closer or farther away each year. Jupiter is 369 million miles from Earth this month, which is quite close. Jupiter can only be 3 million miles closer than it is now. However, Jupiter can be as much as 44 million miles farther from us at opposition; that is greater than the distance between the Earth and Mars! Although Jupiter opposition occurs at the end of the month, Jupiter will continue to be impressive from October into early March 2012. Therefore, Jupiter will be the brightest star like object throughout the winter. Another plus is that late fall and winter skies tend to give clearer viewing due to the lack of humidity/moisture in the atmosphere.

Telescope Viewing: The very bright Jupiter, strangely enough may result in viewing problems for amateurs. Most amateur astronomers cannot afford to purchase refracting telescopes with highest quality lenses. These high quality lenses are called apochromatic, and can easily add an additional $1000 or more to the price of a good refracting telescope. With standard quality telescopes, very bright objects do tend to cause some viewing problems. This can also occur with reflecting telescopes. Sometimes this can be resolved by “masking” the objective lens, centered masking with a refractor and off center masking of the mirror on a reflector, as shown below.

The “masks” allows only a small amount of the available light to enter your telescope. This may seem strange, because you chose your telescope to collect as much light as possible, but remember, masking is only used in special cases with very bright planets. Note that this planet brightness problem is in part due to the contrast between the bright planet and the dark sky. So another simple trick to enhance your planetary viewing is to look at the planet earlier in the night, during twilight, before total darkness arrives. This trick also works quite well when viewing Venus.

Although you can see Jupiter’s moons with binoculars, a simple telescope will allow you to also view the impressive cloud bands of Jupiter. With a simple telescope on a clear night, you may even see the bands in color!

Binocular Viewing: Jupiter is the only planet that can be enjoyed using simple seven or ten power binoculars. With low power binoculars, Jupiter will not be seen as a disk, but its four major moons, Ganymede, Callisto, Europa and Io, known as the Galilean moons, will be readily visible. These moons move quickly around the planet, therefore each night they will be seen in different positions. In addition, some nights they will disappear as they move in front or in back of the planet. So on any given night, you usually see from one to four moons. The image below approximates what I can see through my large binoculars. Note that the cloud bands are just barely visible at 25 power.

If you have a good astronomy program on your computer, you can check the positions of the four Galilean moons for any given time or night, before you venture out. However, this is not the most convenient method. The best way to check out the positions of the moons is to use a website run by the magazine “Sky and Telescope”;

http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/objects/javascript/jupiter#. This is a great site, see below.

Some key points about this site. First and most important is the time. This site uses universal time (UT), which is based in Greenwich, England. The time offset is given on the site, and for South Carolina it is -4 hours. Therefore, the image above shows the position of Jupiter’s moons on 10/20/2011 at 1:54 am minus 4 hours or 9:54 pm on the night of October 19th. Once you get used to this time setup, this site is easy to use. Note: -4 hours is for daylight savings time; in the winter, our time offset will be -5 hours.

Next, notice that the default view of the moon positions is called the direct view. This is the view you will see through binoculars. You can click on the other views based on what kind of telescope setup you have. Don’t forget to use the +- day, hour, minute recalculation boxes to adjust for your viewing times.

Naked Eye Sights: Jupiter will be the brightest “star like object” this month.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Jupiter and its moons. Check the Galilean moons positions using the Sky and Telescope website, then go out and see them for real.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm: Jupiter and its moons. Try some twilight viewing of this planet.


See you next month!

September 2011

// September 2nd, 2011 // Comments Off on September 2011 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 September 27th. For September, your best viewing nights will be from September 15th through September 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on September 15th at 9 pm.

Astronomy at ScienceSouth:

In the next several months, ScienceSouth is planning various astronomy programs. These programs will include the following.

Sidewalk Astronomy: ScienceSouth will bring out our telescopes to various places in the area to allow everyone to view the craters and mountains of the Moon, and any visible planets. Example, Jupiter will be visible from November through next February, Mars next spring, and Saturn next summer. The Sidewalk astronomy program has been run several times in the past few years at local businesses, libraries, churches and at Lynches River Park. Below are some photos from last year at our event next to Rita’s on Irby Street.

In addition the nighttime Sidewalk Astronomy programs, we also hold some daytime viewings of the Sun. We have two solar telescopes, and one solar image projector. This equipment allows us to view both sunspots, and the eruptions off the Sun’s surface called prominences.

Astronomy Nights at ScienceSouth: In addition to reaching out to the public with our Sidewalk Astronomy program, this year we plan to initiate astronomy nights at the ScienceSouth Center at Freedom Florence.

This program will also allow you to view various objects in the night sky. We will have two or more telescopes available. In addition, we encourage everyone to bring a pair of binoculars with them. As I have mentioned in previous columns, binoculars are a great introduction to astronomy. They are easy to use, and can also have many other daytime viewing uses. We have special lasers at ScienceSouth that we use to help you to find many astronomy targets with your own binoculars.

The Astronomy Night programs at ScienceSouth will have one major difference from our Sidewalk Astronomy program; we will be running the program even if it is a cloudy or rainy night! ScienceSouth has a new Star Lab planetarium through a NASA funded grant.

The Star Lab is an inflatable dome planetarium, which can easily hold twenty adults at a time. Unlike the other dome planetarium we have, this new Star Lab is digital, and is driven by a powerful computerized astronomy program. This Star Lab will allow us to show you astronomy events occurring from 100,000 BC to 100,000 AD! We can visit our solar system’s planets, and venture out to the stars our Milky Way, and even out beyond our galaxy. Note: I will feature our new Star Lab and discuss its many capabilities in a future column. In addition, at the astronomy night we will have some short presentations and some astronomy based activities to do. We will also have many different telescopes on display inside the pavilion for a telescope “show and tell.” So if it is a cloudy night, there will be plenty of fun things to do inside our ScienceSouth pavilion. If we do have a clear night, you can enjoy both outside viewing, and if you wish, you can spend some time checking out our Star Lab inside.

Astronomy Workshops: In addition to our planned events discussed above, we have tentative plans to run astronomy workshops at ScienceSouth. The astronomy workshops will be directed at people who enjoy amateur astronomy, or have considered a hobby in astronomy, but really don’t know how to proceed. Therefore, if you own a telescope, feel free to bring it to the workshop. If you only own binoculars, bring them along. If you have neither, you can bring yourself and family, and use ScienceSouth’s equipment. We will be available to teach you how to best use your equipment, and answer any basic astronomy viewing questions. If you are just starting out, we will discuss the purchasing of your first telescope.

We will also teach viewing techniques, and discuss useful astronomy software, books, etc. One key presentation will be on the Messier Objects. Locating all 110 Messier Objects in the night sky is not only challenging and fun, but is a surefire method to find your way around the night sky.

So, we hope to see everyone at some or all of our planned ScienceSouth astronomy events over the next several months. Keep checking out this column, but most importantly, check out our website at sciencesouth.org for the dates of upcoming events.

Our first astronomy program is planned for our first Science After Dark series on September 15th, 7-9 pm. Note: Our Science After Dark programs will run throughout the year, and each program will feature a different science theme. Again, check our website regularly to confirm the dates and times of our programs.

Naked Eye Sights: Note our star chart above shows that the famous

Summer Triangle is directly overhead at mid-month. This triangle is formed by the three stars: Deneb, Vega, and Altair. At the end of the month you will see a bright star-like object rising in the east in the late evening; this is the return of the planet Jupiter. Jupiter will be the visible throughout late fall and through the winter months.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): If you are looking in the region of the Summer Triangle, take time to use your binoculars to find the interesting binocular asterism, the Coathanger, between Altair and Albireo. The image below will help your search.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Staying in the Summer Triangle, revisit the Ring Nebula (M57) near Vega and the Dumbbell Nebula (M27); both were featured in July’s column.

See you next month!

August 2011

// September 2nd, 2011 // Comments Off on August 2011 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez


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 28th. For August, your best viewing nights will be from August 1st through August 5th and August 20th through August 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on August 15th at 10 pm.

Vesta:

This month I would like to challenge everyone to try to locate the asteroid Vesta. Vesta is now in an empty region of the sky, making it difficult to locate. However, the reason that I am featuring Vesta this month is that NASA’s Dawn space probe just went into orbit around this asteroid on July 17th. This is the first probe that has been placed in orbit around a main belt asteroid. Dawn will orbit Vesta for about one year, at which time it will leave Vesta and visit the largest asteroid, Ceres.

When we hear the term asteroids, we immediately think of a wide band of rocky objects between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Indeed the vast majority of the asteroids are located in this “Main Asteroid Belt.” However there are two other groups of asteroids that rotate around the Sun. The second group lies in the same orbit as Jupiter. These asteroids are called “Trojans” and “Greeks,” and are located 60 degrees behind and in front of Jupiter. The third group of asteroids is called “Near Earth Asteroids” (NEA’s).

The NEA’s are especially important to us because they are in orbits that may result in a collision with Earth. Even a small asteroid only a few miles across would cause devastating effect if it hit our planet. Several small NEA’s have been found that will make very close passes by our Earth in the next fifteen to thirty years.

Before I help you locate Vesta, I would like to discuss the origins of the main asteroid belt. Over the years there have been various theories about the formation of the asteroid belt. First, consider the layout of our solar system. The four planets closest to the Sun are rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars). Then there is a large “gap,” filled with rocky asteroids, followed by the gaseous planets, (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune). Some theories state that a rocky planet had formed between Mars and Jupiter, and the gravitational forces of Jupiter tore the new planet apart. Another theory is that the asteroids are merely rocky solar system debris that never formed a planet. I personally like the second theory, but it is seldom explained further. So let me try to elaborate. The theory concerning the formation of the inner planets is that after our Sun formed, the rocky/metallic debris that circled near the Sun was extremely hot and was therefore in a molten state. Gravitational forces caused some of these molten pieces to collide, and form larger pieces. As these larger molten pieces grew in size, they then attracted more pieces until they became a planet like our Earth. The key here is when molten or semi-molten objects collide, they can be easily combined to make larger molten “globs.” Also, because the new planets were molten, and spinning, they easily formed into spheres instead of irregular shapes. This process of planet building can take millions of years, and during this time the molten debris could cool down and become solid. The farther away the molten rocks were from the Sun, the faster they could cool down. The farthest rocky/metallic molten rocks were in the region of the asteroid belt, and being so far from the sun, they could cool down much faster than the regions that would form the Earth or Venus, etc. So the debris in the region of the asteroid belt most likely cooled down to solid rocks before they could form into larger molten pieces. Once they cooled to solid debris, when they hit other debris they would more likely bounce off then be adsorbed as did the molten pieces nearer to the Sun. Only the largest asteroid Ceres (about 500 miles across) formed into a sphere, implying that it formed in a molten state. We hope the Dawn Probe will give us better understanding into the true origin of the asteroid belt.

Now the challenge to locate Vesta. This month Vesta is in the constellation Capricorn. Capricorn is not an easy constellation to see, but it is just to the left of the constellation Sagittarius. Sagittarius is in the south, and is an easy to spot summer constellation, known as the “Teapot Asterism.”

To locate Vesta, we will use a stepwise method called star hopping. Vesta can be seen with binoculars, so we will do the star hopping with seven power binoculars. To star hop, you start with an easy to find target that fits in you binocular’s field of view (FOV), and then move step wise to other targets that can fit into your binocular’s FOV.

We will begin Step 1with the “handle” part of the Sagittarius “teapot” asterism. This handle will fit into your FOV, see below. Now slowly scan to the left until you see the Step 2 group of stars in your FOV.

Next scan more to the left and find the Step 3 right triangle. This month, Vesta will move into and though this right triangle.

Good luck in your search.

Naked Eye Sights: The well-known Perseids meteor shower peaks on the 13th, however, the full Moon will wash out all but very large meteors.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Vesta.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Once you find Vesta using binoculars, try to locate it with a telescope.

July 2011

// July 11th, 2011 // Comments Off on July 2011 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 July 1st and July 30th. For July, your best viewing nights will be from July 1st through July 7th and July 23rd through July 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on July 15th at 10 pm.

Two New Moons:

As you may have noticed above, there are two new Moons this month. When there are two full Moons in a calendar month, the second full Moon is called a “Blue Moon.” There is no generally accepted name for a second new Moon. The reason is simple; we can’t see new Moons. Probably the only people that are following the dates of the new Moons are amateur astronomers. The dark of the new Moon is helpful when searching for distant galaxies, or for observing meteor showers. So enjoy the two new Moons, but don’t expect to hear about them on the nightly news reports.

Planetary Nebulas:

Planetary nebulas have the traditional ionized gas nebulosity, but they have nothing to do with planets! These fuzzy nebulas are often round, but they can also have other interesting shapes. They are called planetary because in the mid 1800’s when they were first observed through lesser quality telescopes, they looked like gaseous planets. Later observations found them to be gaseous nebulas. However, unlike other gaseous nebulas, they tend to have elements of symmetry. Even when they are not ball-shaped, they usually have a symmetrical shape.

As telescopes became more advanced, astronomers noticed that many planetary nebulas had a small star at their center; a white dwarf. As astronomy advanced, the life cycles of many stars were observed and better understood. The mysterious planetary nebulas were determined to be the result of the death of certain stars. When one discusses star death, we tend to think of the spectacular exploding nova and supernova. However, there is a more common type of star death, which is also predicted to be the fate of our Sun. Stars like our Sun will eventually run out of hydrogen to fuse into helium, and when this happens (~5 billion years from now for the Sun) these stars will then collapse upon themselves until the helium begins to fuse, and then the star will blaze again. This second life will cause the star to greatly expand; and in the case of our star, the Sun will swallow our Earth. After the helium fusion shuts down, this type star will undergo a rapid collapse, and the rebound from this collapse will blow off a large cloud of gases resulting in the objects we call planetary nebulas, leaving behind a remnant white dwarf star, which will slowly fade away.

For the amateur astronomer, planetary nebulas were just more interesting fuzzy objects to see, the most famous being the Ring Nebula in Lyra. However, the Hubble Telescope began sending back images of many planetary nebulas, and for the first time we saw how spectacular they were. Among those planetary nebulas were:

The Cat’s Eye Nebula:

The Eskimo Nebula:

The Hourglass Nebula:

Note the clearly visible central star in each nebula. In most planetary nebula visible to amateurs, the central star is too dim to be viewed.

This month try to locate two well-known planetary nebulas that are within the reach of amateur scopes. First you must forget about the beautiful Hubble images with all their color; the best you can hope for is gray-white fuzzy images on a black sky. Your two targets are the Dumbbell Nebula in the constellation of Vulpecula, Messier 27, and the Ring Nebula in Lyra, Messier 57.

Start with the easier target the Dumbbell. Away from the city lights, you can see M27 with 10 X 50 binoculars. It is also an excellent target for big binoculars (25 X 100mm). It is also easily accessible with a Dobsonian reflector, but start at your lowest power. To locate M27, start by finding the Constellation Cygnus (The Northern Cross) in the southeast. In your mind, imagine a perfect trapezoid made with three stars in Cygnus, and an imaginary point, see below. Point your binoculars or scope at this imaginary point, and then move slightly to the right.

Look carefully because it is only a faint smudge; it looks like a small cloud. Below is what you should see at about 30-40 power. It will look the same through your binoculars, but of course it will be smaller.

The next target is the famous Ring Nebula in Lyra, M57. This planetary nebula is easier to pinpoint, but harder to see. Start with the very bright star Vega and note the parallelogram shape in Lyra.

M57 is almost on the direct line between the stars Sheliak and Sulafat.

With my 15 power binoculars, I can just see M57 as a slightly fuzzy star. With my 25 power binoculars, I can see that M27 is not a star, but a fuzzy object. For most observers, the ring shape of this planetary nebula requires 40-60 power to resolve.

Remember, sometime in the distant future, some distant observer may look back this way and observe a planetary nebula resulting from the death of our Sun.

Naked Eye Sights: The Summer Milky Way centered in the southern skies.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Try to locate M27, the Dumbbell Nebula near Cygnus the Swan. Wander through the summer Milky Way.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Try to locate M27 and the Ring Nebula M57. Check out Saturn in the southwest late in the month; it will be at its best tilt angle for this year.

June 2011

// June 2nd, 2011 // Comments Off on June 2011 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 June 1st. For June, your best viewing nights will be from June 1st through June 7th and June 21st through June 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on June 15th at 10 pm.

Back to Nine Planets?

Last month I discussed why Pluto was removed from the list of solar system planets, and I also discussed dwarf planets in general. Just recently, two astronomers have presented a new theory which claims that there is yet another planet out beyond Pluto. However, this new theory states that this new planet is not small like the dwarf planets, but is four times more massive than Jupiter! This claim has been proposed by professors Whitmire and Matese, two astrophysicists from the University of Louisiana. They have even given this planet a proposed name, Tyche. Last month I mentioned the Ort Cloud, which extends over a thousand times the distance beyond Pluto. The Ort Cloud is proposed to be the primary source of comets. The basis of this new theory is that the trajectories of the many comets leaving the Ort Cloud to head towards the Sun are not random as would be expected. These astrophysicists believe that the trajectories of many comets fit the presence of a large planet in the Ort Cloud. Presently, this new theory is considered to be a “weak” theory, and therefore has not been accepted by most astronomers due to lack of any hard evidence. To quote from the late Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” However, Whitmire and Matese believe that evidence of their ninth planet, Tyche, has already been gathered by the NASA space telescope WISE.

The NASA space telescope WISE(Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) was launched in December 2009, and had only enough liquid hydrogen coolant to last about ten months. During its short life, WISE captured over 1.5 million infrared images of the entire sky. An infrared telescope sees the heat of celestial objects. So if the planet Tyche exists, because of its size, it would be slow to cool, and therefore would still have enough heat to be detected by the WISE telescope. The search for a large planet beyond Pluto was not one of the goals for the WISE telescope, so it will be awhile before all the data will be available to check out this new planet theory.

Solar viewing:

Sometimes the hot and hazy night time skies of summer may limit you viewing to the Moon. However, the bright sunny days of summer are great for solar viewing. Any mention of viewing the Sun must begin with a serious warning: Never look at the Sun through any regular binocular or telescope; it will permanently blind you! Never try to build or make a filter to put over your binoculars or telescope. If you own or buy an old simple refracting telescope, and it has a small solar filter that screws onto your eyepiece, go throw it into the garbage immediately. Any filter located near your eyepiece will get very hot when in use and will likely shatter! The best way to view the Sun is indirectly by way of a projected image. There are three ways to set up projected images of the Sun. The simple method is to use two pieces of cardboard. Put a pinhole in one piece of cardboard, and project the Sun onto the other piece. The method is shown below:

The second is to set up your telescope so the image is projected out of your eyepiece and onto a piece of cardboard. See images below:

The third way is more costly and requires the purchase of a “Sun Spotter” apparatus. See images below:

The reason to discuss solar viewing at this time is because of the Solar cycle, also called the Solar Sunspot Cycle. Over a period of about 11 years, the Sun moves from low activity to high activity and back to low again. During times of high solar activity, there are many sunspots, solar prominences and possible solar flares; note size of Earth below.

The latest cycle began in December 2008, should peak about 2013/2014, and end in 2019. So for the first time in several years, on any given day it is likely that some solar activity will be visible. If you would like to track the activity of the Sun, go to the NASA Soho Satellite website to see daily images of the Sun; http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/data/realtime-images.html.

Also, keep track of the ScienceSouth website. At various times this year we will have public solar viewing events. ScienceSouth has special equipment that can project the solar images, directly view sunspots close up, and see the solar eruptions on the Sun’s surface.

Naked Eye Sights: View the arrival of Scorpius, Sagittarius, and the summer Milky Way in the south. Try some solar projection viewing, or visit some ScienceSouth solar viewing events.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Wander through the summer Milky Way, beginning at the southern horizon and slow scanning upwards.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): In April I featured the return of the planet Saturn. This month is the last good month to view Saturn.

So if have yet to check out Saturn, do so this month. In the first half of June, between 10 pm and midnight, Saturn will move from due south to the southwest. In the last half of the month, in the same time-frame, Saturn will move from the southwest to the west. Saturn will still be visible throughout July, but it will remain low in the western sky.

May 2011

// May 12th, 2011 // Comments Off on May 2011 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 May 3rd. For May, your best viewing nights will be from May 1st through May 9th and May 20th through May 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on May 15th at 9 pm.

Pluto and Friends:

A 10-year-old girl named Jillian recently asked me why Pluto is no longer a planet. It was a good question, and I gave Jillian the short answer. I then decided to use this column to give the long answer.

By the late 1800’s, astronomers felt that there was another planet out beyond Neptune that was causing some disturbances to the orbit of Uranus. This “Planet X” was finally discovered in 1930, and called Pluto. Later information proved that Pluto was too small to have any effect on Uranus, and thus the whole Planet X/Uranus theory was disproven. Therefore, it was only by accident that Pluto was discovered and not because of theoretical calculations. Below is an image of the actual photos they used in 1930 when they discovered Pluto.

So for seventy-six years, our solar system was listed as having nine planets. Then in 2006, Pluto was removed from planetary status; why? The short answer is that as our telescopes improved, we began to locate other “small planets” beyond Pluto: Quaor is half the size of Pluto, Sedna is almost the size of Pluto and Eris is equal or larger then Pluto. Therefore, the number of planets in our solar system could possibly increase yearly. It was much easier to demote Pluto and the new “Pluto-like” objects to dwarf planet status then to continually increase our solar system planet count. This approach would then leave us with eight permanent planets, with Mercury being the smallest at twice the size of Pluto.

Below is an image of some of the major dwarf planet compared in size to the Earth. Note that Pluto has now been found to have three moons!

Now astronomers knew that they could not just arbitrarily remove Pluto as a planet. Instead, they set up a list of three rules that would be used to describe a planet.

1. Must be in orbit around the Sun

2. Must be large enough to be a sphere due to its own gravitational force.

3. Must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

All of the newly assigned dwarf planets, including the asteroid Ceres fit the first two rules. However, neither Pluto nor any of the other mentioned dwarf planets fit the third rule. As our telescopes improved we were able to detect thousands of small objects orbiting the Sun in the region of Pluto and beyond. Now if you remember the layout of our solar system, each planet circles the Sun all alone in its orbit except for the tiny meteors we run into each day. Soon after the discovery of Pluto, some astronomers actually thought that there might be an area beyond Neptune, possibly including Pluto that contained millions of small asteroid type objects forming a “halo” around the outer planets. Gerald Kuiper studied this theory in the 1950’s, and it became known as the Kuiper Belt. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the Kuiper Belt was found, and understood. The Kuiper Belt starts beyond Neptune, and extends outward for over 2 billion miles. Like the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, the Kuiper Belt contains leftover material/debris from the formation of our solar system. However, the asteroid belt contains primarily rocky or metallic objects, while the Kuiper Belt contains mainly frozen gases and water objects. Pluto and some of our newly found dwarf planets are located in this belt. Therefore, Pluto has not cleared the neighborhood of its orbit.

Note: the Kuiper Belt is sometimes confused with the Ort Cloud. The Ort Cloud can be thought of as the source for most of our comets, and the Ort Cloud is a halo extending 1000 times farther out from the Sun beyond the Kuiper Belt!

The following images should help to explain the origin of the Kuiper Belt. After our Sun formed, it was surrounded by a disk of billions of pieces of debris that were pulled into the Sun’s gravitational neighborhood. This is called an accretion disk, and looked somewhat like the below image #1. The larger objects in the disk pulled close by smaller objects into themselves, and then became much larger objects finally forming our planets; image #2 below.

Much like a rolling snowball, the larger the planet grew, the more debris it pulled into itself, see image #3 below. Over a period of billions of years, this “gravitational vacuuming” cleared away all of the objects in the paths of the planets, as is seen in image #4. Note: the four planets shown in these images represent Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Beyond the orbit of Neptune, there were never any sufficiently large objects to initiate this planet forming and vacuuming, so all that remains is a debris field, the Kuiper Belt, with the largest object being the newly classified dwarf planet Pluto.

Naked Eye Sights: The best grouping of planets this year will occur on the eastern horizon on May 11th, just before sunrise. Four of the five visible planets will be grouped together; Mercury, Mars, Venus, and Jupiter.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): On any month that there are not any special sights, use this time to find more Messier Objects.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Spend your time observing the planet Saturn, which is moving higher into the night sky this month.

See you next month!

April 2011

// April 8th, 2011 // Comments Off on April 2011 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 3rd. For April, your best viewing nights will be from April 1st through April 9th and April 22nd through April 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on April 15th at 9 pm.

Saturn:

The return of the planet Saturn to the evening sky is a noteworthy event this year. Every year Saturn is visible at some point as the Earth makes its circuit around the Sun. However, since 2009, the evening arrival of the planet Saturn did not give the usual impressive view. As you know, Saturn is the favorite planetary target because of its spectacular ring system. Over the years as Saturn tilts in relation to us, we see the rings at differing angles. When the viewing angle is at or near zero degrees, the beautiful ring system fades from view; as occurred during 2009 and 2010. A classic Saturn image is shown below.

Of Course, the image you will see through your own amateur telescope will be quite small and sometimes blurry. To illustrate the angle extremes of amateur views of Saturn, below are two images taken through large amateur scopes; the one on the right showing zero degree ring tilt. The image on the right looks more like Jupiter than is does Saturn.

The bad news is that we have had two years of poor Saturn viewing; the good news is that the ring angle is opening back up. The better news is that Saturn will look more and more impressive each year forward peaking about 2017, but still quite impressive until 2022. The years 2024 and 2025 will be the next poor viewing years; see chart below. In reality, Saturn viewing is not as bad as it may sound. Over a period of 42 years, there are only four poor viewing years. If you purchased a telescope in 2009 or 2010, you can just consider it bad timing. You can now enjoy the rings of Saturn for several years.


I have viewed Saturn through my various telescopes all of my life, and I have also had many people look through my scopes. Throughout this time, I have always enjoyed it when someone looks through my telescope and sees Saturn for the first time; it is quite an amazing response. At various times last year, ScienceSouth had free public telescope viewing events using the ScienceSouth Dobsonian reflector and some of my own telescopes. We gave people the chance to see spectacular views of the mountains and craters of the Moon. Also last year people had a chance to view the planet Jupiter and its moons, plus they were able to see the cloud bands of Jupiter in color! Although these views generated various amount of excitement, I never heard the big “wows” I hear when someone sees Saturn for the first time. The big ball of Jupiter looks quite nice, and the small fuzzy ball of Mars is OK, and some people even enjoy the very fuzzy crescent of Venus; but Saturn is special. You can view hundreds of images of Saturn on the Internet, but there is something magical when your see it through your own eyes. So if you have a telescope, you can start viewing Saturn this month in the southeastern sky. Saturn will be in opposition on April 3rd at 8 pm. This only means that it will be at its brightest for the year. Good viewing of Saturn will continue from now through July. Saturn will leave its good evening viewing position at the end of July. As Saturn says goodbye, it will glide by the planet Venus low in the west early on the evening of August 6th.

To find Saturn this month, look to the southeast and you see the pale yellow planet. If you are in doubt about its location, then turn your eyes to the north. Find the Big Dipper, and then follow the handle of the dipper to “arc to the star Arcturus” then continue this arc and “speed on to Spica.” Saturn will be the bright object above Spica. If you have dark skies, you will be able to note the contrast of the blue star Spica with the yellow planet Saturn. Below is the position of Saturn in relation to these two prominent stars in early April.

So what should you expect to see? With standard 7 (or 10) X 50 binoculars, Saturn will still look like a star. With 15 power binoculars (tripod needed) it will look like the star has “ears.” I regularly use 25 X 100 mm binoculars, and the rings of Saturn are then clearly visible. Therefore, any scope you use from 25 power on up will allow you to see the rings of Saturn. Below are three views of Saturn that are likely for amateur telescopes. The smaller blurry image represents what you might see with a very inexpensive discount store telescope (best to avoid). The other two images represent views from Dobsonian reflectors ranging from 6 to 10 inches. The bottom line is if you own any telescope, you can see the rings of Saturn; wow!!

Naked Eye Sights: Observe the disappearance of the constellation Orion in the west throughout this month. All of our cold weather always leaves with Orion. Follow Saturn in the southeast and south throughout the month as it moves above Spica.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Continue your Messier hunt as discussed in last month’s column.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Check the return of Saturn and its rings in the southeast.


See you next month!

March 2011

// March 2nd, 2011 // Comments Off on March 2011 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 March 4th. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 1st through March 10th and March 23rd through March 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.

Messier Marathon:

March is the “Messier Marathon month” for amateur astronomers. I have mentioned the Messier Objects in many of my columns. For new readers, the Messier Objects are a list of 110 celestial objects, which include galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. The objects are usually known by their “M number;” M1, M42, M104, etc. Charles Messier composed this list was composed in the late 18th century. Messier was a comet hunter, and he recorded this list of objects that looked like comets but were not. This list helped Messier, and his fellow astronomers, avoid objects that might be confused for comets. It is ironic that today this somewhat “negative” list has become one of the most widely used lists of objects used by amateurs around the world. All 110 objects can be found with only a pair of 10 X 50 binoculars under perfect dark sky viewing conditions. However, under normal viewing conditions, about 50% of the objects can easily be seen with simple binoculars. All 110 objects can be seen at about 25 power, using a simple telescope, preferably a Dobsonian, or 25 power binoculars.

I believe the best feature of the Messier List is that while searching for the objects you will learn the stars and constellations of the entire night sky. On many occasions a new astronomer will ask me what else is there to see after they have observed the Moon and the planets. I tell them to try to locate all the Messier Objects; it is fun, and gives you a reason to go outside and enjoy your new hobby. Take the time to look at some of the images of these wonderful objects on the Internet. Below is a composite image of all of the Messier objects.

The images above are quite small, but the two images below show the beauty of some of the Messier Objects.

The Messier Objects are found throughout the night sky every month of the year. However, a rare event occurs every year in March. In mid-March, all 110 Messier Objects can be found in only one night! Of course in order to accomplish this, you also need to have a new Moon. This event is known as a Messier Marathon, and amateur astronomers around the world attempt this task on or about the new Moon closest to the first day of spring (Vernal Equinox). This year the Marathon will be run on the weekend of April 2nd. The first objects are searched for in the west just after sunset, M77, M74 and M33. Just before sunrise the last objects in your search are M72, M73 and M30. Also, it’s best to work with a partner, and it is a very busy night.

The Sombrero (M104):

Now on a personal note, I have never tried a Messier Marathon; instead I preferred to slowly work through the Messier List over a period of a few years. Sometimes it is enjoyable to find only one new Messier on a given evening. So this month, try for a somewhat difficult but beautiful Messier, M104. M104 is also called the Sombrero Galaxy; see image below.

M104 is listed as somewhat difficult because it is dim, and is not located near any bright stars. You will find it in the southeast rising about 9 pm in mid-March, so wait until later in the evening before you try to locate it. However, this year, you do have a little help, because M104 is rising along with the planet Saturn. So as you follow Saturn over the next few months, you know that M104 is nearby. The best way to locate M104 is to find the constellation Corvus; see charts below. This four star trapezoid is usually easy to locate. 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 four stars to the left of the Star Gate. These “pointer” stars point directly to M104. This year use Saturn to help your search; M104 is located about halfway between Algorab and Saturn. If you have trouble finding M104, continue trying next month as it rises higher in the sky.

When you find M104 with binoculars or a small telescope, it will not look like the beautiful image shown above. Instead, it will look more like the image shown below.

People, who enjoy amateur astronomy, always get excited viewing these faint “fuzzies;” while most other people will not be impressed. Why are we excited? We are excited because we know that this fuzzy image in our scope is indeed that beautiful object shown up above. In addition, we also know that it took 30 million years for the light from M104 to travel across the heavens and reach our eyes tonight.


Naked Eye Sights: Try to start your Messier List with M42 and M45 (easy). M44 and M13 (harder).

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): See how many Messier Objects you can find this March.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Extend your list of Messiers with your telescope. Check the return of the planet Saturn in the southeast skies.


See you next month!

February 2011

// February 14th, 2011 // Comments Off on February 2011 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 February 2nd. For February, your best viewing nights will be from February 1st through February 9th and February 22nd through February 28th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on February 15th at 9 pm.

The Constellations:

When we bring the ScienceSouth Starlab to area schools, the first question we ask the students is “Does anyone know what a constellation is?” Usually everyone raises their hand. Although many know that a constellation is a group of stars, only a few people can name more than two or three constellations.

A constellation is a group of stars that has a recognizable pattern, which appears to be constant over a period of thousands of years. The shape of a constellation is only as it appears from our viewpoint on Earth. The different stars in a constellation are usually not associated with each other in space, it is only as we perceive them in two dimensions; example, see Orion below.

When ancient people looked at the night sky, there were many more visible stars than we see today because the ancient people did not have any light pollution, or industrial fossil fuel pollution as we do today. It appears to be a natural human characteristic to find some type of order in disorder or randomness. So the ancient people chose some of the brighter stars and looked for some types of patterns. This organization of the stars into recognizable patterns was not done just for fun. The ancient people were well aware that the stars appeared to move through the sky, rising and setting throughout the night, and slowly changing from season to season. Therefore, having identifiable groups of stars allowed the ancients to measure time of night and changing seasons and the location of the viewer as they traveled about the Earth. This information was very useful for planting, harvesting, and navigation. Example: When the ancient Egyptians saw the star Sirius, in the constellation of Canis Major (The Big Dog) rise in the sky just before the sunrise, they knew that the Nile River would soon flood. This information allowed the Egyptians to plant their crops accordingly.

When the ancients identified these star groups, they gave them shapes that seemed to fit the world around them. Many constellations were seen as animals; bears, birds, sea creatures, farm animals, etc. Other constellations were seen as human-like forms usually identified with mythological beings; kings, queens, warriors, hunters, etc. Of course these constellations were all given names, which everyone would know and easily remember. The ancient Assyrians had a star based religion we know of today as astrology. As the Sun passed each month into another constellation, they felt that these stars affected their lives. Today these twelve constellations are known as the Signs of the Zodiac.

Although I have generalized the use of the words “ancient people,” the constellations were actually named over a long period of time. The oldest constellations that we still recognize today are Leo the lion and Scorpius the scorpion. These two constellations were noted on a carved stone shown below dated at about 4000 BC!

The Greek’s strong adherence to mythology added many constellation names over the period from 500 BC to 200 AD, at which time 48 constellation names were in use. The powerful Roman Empire then inherited the Greek myths, and changed the names of the constellations to the Latin names we still use today. From 700 AD to 1600 AD, the Arabs contributed many of the constellation star names we use today. Note: in Arabic the word Al means “the.” Example: the stars; Aldebaran, Algol, Alkaid, etc.

From 1600 AD onward several other constellation names were assigned, many in the Southern hemisphere. Some of these newer constellation names are not too familiar to us such as Telescopium the telescope, Pyxis the compass, and Fornax the furnace, etc. Finally, in 1930, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) finalized the constellation count at 88. In addition, the IAU placed boundaries around each constellation, so that there would be no free space between constellations. This resulted in the sky looking like puzzle pieces; see the region of Orion shown below.

These strictly defined constellation borders help astronomers describe the locations of various objects, such as distant galaxies. Note an “outside” view of our constellation boundaries shown below.


Lastly, we should realize that the constellation shapes and names we use today were all derived from the regions of Europe and the Mediterranean. The ancient peoples inhabiting North and South America, Asia, Australia and part of Africa had many other names and shapes they saw for groups of stars in the sky that applied to their cultures and religions.

Naked Eye Sights: See how many constellations you can find/identify this month.

The International Space Station will make a nice pass over Florence early in the evening of February 20th. The table below gives the times (24 hr. clock) and altitudes; maximum altitude at about 6:40 PM, right over the top of Orion. Also below is a star chart showing its passage through the stars, and a Google Earth type perspective.

Event

Time

Altitude

Azimuth

Distance (km)

Rises above horizon

18:37:39

-0°

220° (SW )

2,142

Reaches 10° altitude

18:39:39

10°

217° (SW )

1,307

Maximum altitude

18:42:28

63°

146° (SE )

393

Enters shadow

18:45:32

53° (NE )

1,352

Drops below 10° altitude

18:45:27

10°

53° (NE )

1,316

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Take your last look at Jupiter in the southwest until it returns to the sky next fall.


See you next month!

January 2011

// January 12th, 2011 // Comments Off on January 2011 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 January 4th. For January, your best viewing nights will be from January 1st through January 11th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on January 15th at 9 pm.

A Star is Born:

The theory of the birth of a star is a simple concept to explain, but can be somewhat difficult to conceive. The formation of a star is described as follows:

After the Big Bang, the primary matter existing in the universe was, and still is, hydrogen. Over billions of years, as the universe quieted down somewhat, some of the hydrogen atoms formed clumps (clouds) of hydrogen gas. These hydrogen clouds formed due to gravitational attraction. We also know that the greater the mass, the stronger the gravitational pull. So as the hydrogen gas clouds grew larger, they attracted more and more hydrogen. Eventually, these gas clouds compressed down because of gravity; essentially, they collapsed into themselves. At some point during the cloud’s compression, the gravitational force and temperature of compression became so great that two hydrogen atoms fused into element helium; a process known as nuclear fusion. Einstein taught us that when atoms split or fuse together, a tremendous amount of energy is released. Splitting a uranium atom results in the force of an atomic bomb. Fusing two hydrogen atoms together results in the even greater force called a hydrogen bomb. So when the huge hydrogen cloud compression generated the fusion of hydrogen atoms, the equivalent of billions of hydrogen bombs went off, giving off tremendous heat and light, and a star was born!

Unlike, a typical bomb, the fusion in a star is somewhat controlled with the center of the star fusing hydrogen into helium, and the huge mass of cooler hydrogen in the outer part of the star supplying more hydrogen fuel for the fusion in the center. Our Sun is a medium size star, and it should take about ten billion years for all of the hydrogen to be depleted. Our star is now about half way through its life; five billion years old.

Keeping in mind the age of our star, this month let us search out some young stars in the night sky. There are two groups of young stars that are easy to locate this time of year. The first is the well-known Pleiades Cluster; also known as the Seven Sisters. You can easily spot it above and to the right of the prominent Orion constellation. Most of the stars you see at night are billions of years old, but the stars of the Pleiades are “only” about 100 million years old. These stars are like teenagers in the sky. Our Sun is 50 times older than the Seven Sisters! The image below is the Pleiades seen through seven power binoculars.

The Pleiades bring to mind other properties of young stars. Huge hydrogen clouds often result in the formation of not one but several star births in the same region of space, and are usually surrounded by gases left over from their birth. The younger the stars, the more likely these gases are present. As you stare at the Pleiades through binoculars or a telescope, it is difficult to see any of the leftover gases. However, as shown below, at 25 power, using time exposure and filtered astrophotography, the gaseous afterbirth is quite obvious.

This time of year in addition to viewing the Pleiades “teenagers,” you can also easily see a star nursery. This nursery is the apparent center star of the sword of the constellation Orion. Simple binoculars will show that there is not a star in the center of the sword, but a fuzzy object, called the Orion Nebula (M42); see arrow below.

Remember, the younger the stars, the more obvious the leftover gases. With the Pleiades, it is easy to see the young stars, but hard to see and gases. As you look through your binoculars at the Orion Nebula, you find it is easy to see the gases leftover from star birth, but hard to see the new born stars. So your challenge for this month is to see the young stars inside the Orion Nebula. These stars are less than a million years old, which means that our Sun is about 5000 times older than the stars in the Orion Nebula. Therefore these stars are true “babies,” and this nebula is therefore thought of as a star nursery. The names of these baby stars are the Trapezium. Although there are many stars in the nursery, this name is derived from the four brightest stars, which form somewhat of a trapezoid shape.

It is not really possible to see these stars with simple binoculars. At seven to ten power, you can see that the Orion Nebula has a bright center area. At about 15 power, you can see that there is at least one or two stars in the center, but I find that only with my 25 power binoculars can I resolve them into the four star Trapezium. However, with any simple telescope from 25 power on up, you should easily locate the “baby” Trapezium stars. The below image shows the Trapezium in the Orion Nebula as seen through a 25-40 power binoculars; and yes on a clear night, the Orion Nebula will look like an eagle with its wings out spread.

Keep warm and enjoy Orion’s babies.

Naked Eye Sights: The young Pleiades cluster. Orion’s sword.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Pleiades. The Orion Nebula.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The Trapezium babies in the Orion Nebula.


See you next month!

December 2010

// December 6th, 2010 // Comments Off on December 2010 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 December 5th. For December, your best viewing nights will be from December 1st through December 11th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on December 15th at 9 pm.

Star Associations:

Again this month, I was asked another difficult question. A recent news article stated that the first planet was found in orbit around a star from another galaxy! It is extremely difficult to find planets circling nearby stars, so how can we find a planet around a star from another galaxy? The operative word here is “from” and not “in” another galaxy. In most of the news reports of this discovery, the news article did clear up the matter by stating the that star in question was indeed in our own galaxy, but this particular star was captured billions of years ago from a galaxy outside of the Milky Way. So now the real question is how does one know that a star in our Milky Way came from another galaxy?

To answer this question, it is necessary to discuss the “proper motion” of stars. Proper motion is the change of position of a star in relation to our solar system. The general concept of our Sun and other nearby stars is that we are all spinning together around the Milky Way galaxy; somewhat like leaves floating along on a river. However, many stars have some type of angular momentum in relation to us, see image below.

Remember, all the stars in the image are spinning around the Milky Way galaxy with us, but some are also moving at various angles and speeds in relation to our solar system. The cause of this erratic motion was most likely due to gravitational interaction of these stars with other stars sometime in their lifespan.

Expanding on this concept, astronomers have found that several stars in certain regions of space sometimes have a similar speed and angle of proper motion. It was also noted that they have a similar age. These star groups are called “star associations,” and it is believed that these stars were all born in a similar region of space, and are slowly moving away from their place of birth.

A well-known star association is the Perseus Association. Simply go out this month and aim your binoculars at the main star in Perseus, Mirfak, and the stars you see around Mirfak are members of the Perseus Association. Also note if you move your binoculars slightly off in any direction, you will see much less stars in your field of view. Using the chart below, you can easily find Perseus and Mirfak by using the constellation Cassiopeia (“W”) as a guidepost. This image shows the sky in mid December facing east and looking almost straight up. Also note that Mirfak is about halfway between Cassiopeia and the Pleiades.

There is another star association that is very easy to see; just look at the Big Dipper. Five of the stars of the Big Dipper are part of a star association. Only the two end stars Alkaid and Dubhe are not part of the association. The other five stars are all moving at the same speed and in the same direction.

This means that in the distant past, the Big Dipper didn’t look like a dipper, and therefore in the distant future, it will not look like a dipper. The green arrows on the image below show the proper motion of the stars in the dipper.

So if you have been following my discussion, you are likely wondering what about the news item above, and how did they know that the star and planet were from another galaxy? Sometimes the proper motion of star associations in addition to moving in the same direction are also moving much faster than common associations and contain many more stars. This type of association is known as a “star stream.” The only explanation for a star stream is that in the distant past our Milky Way galaxy captured stars from another galaxy and we are seeing this stream of captured stars as they pass through our Milky Way. The star mentioned in the news article with a planet revolving around it was a member of a star stream. The artist’s sketch below tries to give an idea of how star streams may be associated with our galaxy.


To all my readers: Have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Naked Eye Sights: Check out the Geminids meteor shower, which will peak on the evening of Dec 13th, and into the early morning of the 14th.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Perseus Association.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Jupiter is still the best target this month.


See you next month!

November 2010

// November 4th, 2010 // Comments Off on November 2010 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 November 6th. For November, your best viewing nights will be from November 1st through November 11th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on November 15th at 9 pm.

The Harvest Moon:

November is a little late for a Harvest Moon, however I was amazed to have three people come up to me over the last month to ask what is a Harvest Moon. Therefore, I would like to take the time to also give the answer to my readers.

The short and simple answer is that a Harvest Moon is the full Moon closest to the Autumnal Equinox; therefore occurring near the time that farmers harvest their fields. The rising full moon just after sunset would then allow them to extend the time of their harvesting by using the light of the full Moon.

However, there is a longer answer to this question. What few people know is that one to two days after the full Moon, the farmers can still use the Moon to extend their harvesting. This situation only occurs in the autumn, thereby extending the concept of a Harvest Moon. The reason is as follows. The Sun and all the planets are located on about the same plane. This is the reason that you always find the planets by looking in the region of the path of the Sun.

However, the plane of our Moon’s orbit is tilted versus the plane of the solar system. You know this to be true, because if the Moon’s orbit was on the same plane as the solar system, then each month we would have one solar eclipse, and one lunar eclipse. Instead, each month the Moon passes below or above the Sun, and on chance occasions, it eclipses the Sun. Now remember our Earth is tipped 23 ½ degrees, and as we circle the Sun, this effect our Earth/Sun perspective; know as the change of seasons.

Now, back to the Harvest Moon: Combining the above parameters, at any given month of the year, the angle of our Moon’s orbit versus the visible horizon will vary. This change results in an interesting effect on Moon rises. The full Moon in spring near the Vernal Equinox follows a path that results in a large angle of the Moon’s orbit to the horizon, see below.


Direct your attention to the lower left side of the image, and note how far below the horizon the Moon is located each night after the full Moon. The farther the Moon is below the horizon, the longer it will take to rise on the next night.

Now, the full Moon in the fall near the Autumnal Equinox follows a path that results in a small angle of the Moon’s orbit to the horizon, see below.

Again direct your attention to the lower left side of the image, and note how far below the horizon the Moon is located each night after the full Moon. The Moon is relatively close to the horizon on the nights following the full Moon. Therefore, on the nights following the Harvest Moon, the Moon will rise only a short time later than the previous night.

So, during Harvest, the night after the Harvest Moon, the farmer can continue harvesting in the twilight for about 20-25 minutes after Sunset, and again he will enjoy the Moonrise so he can continue his work.

After the springtime full Moon, on the next night the Sun would set, and darkness would come, and it would take about 80-90 minutes after sunset until the Moon rises.

Comet Hartley:

This was definitely not a year for comets. Remember, on most years, there are visible comets, but usually only through good wide field telescopes. For most people, we wait for comets that are visible to the naked eye, or at least visible with simple binoculars.

The only chance you will have to see a comet this year will likely be this month since Comet Hartley has just passed below the plane of the Earth’s orbit, and is now positioned to better reflect light off of its tail. Below is a telescopic view of the comet in October.

There is a great possibility that you will be able to see the comet if you go well away from the lights of the Florence area. If it does not become a naked eye sight, you should be able to follow the comet throughout November using just seven power binoculars. The image below shows the approximate path of Comet Hartley from November 1st to December 1st. Note, in general, you should look to the left of the easy to locate constellation Orion. There is one downside, the comet is not visible until late at night, and even better after midnight.

Naked Eye Sights: Jupiter will continue to be the brightest “star like object” this month. Jupiter has been moving “backwards,” to the west for some time. This is known as retrograde motion. On Nov 19th, it will “stop,” and then return to its normal easterly movement through the starry background.

If we are lucky, Comet Hartley may be visible from a dark sky site.

The Leonid meteor shower will peak from Nov 16th to 18th, and although it is not predicted to be a great shower this year, the presence of the nearly full Moon will greatly lessen any chance for a good meteor shower.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Attempt to locate Comet Hartley.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Jupiter remains the best target for this month high in the southern sky.


See you next month!

October 2010

// October 1st, 2010 // Comments Off on October 2010 // Tony's Astronomy Corner

Tony Martinez

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 October 7th. For October, your best viewing nights will be from October 1st through October 13th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on October 15th at 9 pm.

Clear Sky Clock: