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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
If you are successful, the cascade should look like the image below.
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!