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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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!