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