February 2019

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 4th. For February, your best viewing nights will be from February 1st to the 10th and the 24th to the end of the month. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on February 15th at 9 pm.

Lunar Eclipse:

Last month’s lunar eclipse was a great event due to the perfect sky conditions in our area.  Unfortunately, I was unable to see the three dimensional ball effect that I hoped for.  When I first noticed this effect several years ago, I was with two other people that also saw the Moon as a ball and not the normal flat object.  At this point, I have concluded that this 3-D Moon effect is a rare event, but I look forward to watching for it during future lunar eclipses.

The Skies of February:

February has the potential of giving us some excellent nighttime viewing.  One reason is the low humidity.   In general, southeastern states have higher than average humidity for many months of the year.  You may not physically feel the humidity in the fall or spring months, but a sufficient amount of water is in the atmosphere to affect your observing. 

For those amateurs who enjoy lunar, planetary or double star astronomy, the southern skies are not overly problematic during most of the year.  However, for those of us who enjoy searching out deep sky objects (DSO’s), there are very few good nights each year to enjoy the sky.  As you recall, the DSO’s include galaxies, star clusters, and nebulas of various types.  The famous Messier Objects list contains 110 DSO’s; note some astronomers insist that there are only 109 true Messier Objects.  If you consider yourself a serious amateur astronomer, then you will regularly be out observing Messier Objects.   Searching out DSO’s takes time and effort but will give you enjoyment over many years.  I have viewed 109 Messier Objects to date, my last one to view is M74, a dim face-on orientation galaxy; also appropriately named “The Phantom Galaxy”; see below. 

If you are a serious amateur astronomer, once you complete your Messier list, you can move over to the Caldwell Catalog of Objects list adding an additional 109 objects to find; see below.

Most if not all of the objects listed in both the Messier and Caldwell Catalog can be seen with binoculars starting at 7 X 50 up to 25 X 100 mm, or with Dobsonian reflectors starting at 6 inches up to 10 inches.  As with any hobby, one can always go to extremes.  Using expensive telescopes and accessories, one can venture into the DSO’s listed in the New General Catalog (NGC).  The NGC catalog lists almost 8,000 deep sky objects!  Note:  All of the Messier and Caldwell objects are assigned NGC numbers.  So if you completed both lists, you can scratch off 219 objects from the NGC list.

Uranus:

Uranus is a great target for an amateur telescopes and you will easily be able to see its pale blue-green color.  The main difficulty is locating the planet, because it is not a naked eye object except under very dark skies.  The best way to locate Uranus is when it lines up with a prominent star or planet.  Twelve months ago it lined up with the planet Mars, and again this month it makes another line up with Mars.  Beginning on February 1st Mars appears to move up towards the right side of Uranus, moving into the same field of view with 7 or 10 X 50 mm binoculars by the 3rd.  Mars and Uranus stay close within that field of view through to the 22nd.  The closest approach is on February 12th; see their positions in the field of views of 7 and 10 X 50 mm binoculars shown below.

Now that you know exactly where Uranus is, you can then turn your telescopes toward the planet.  You should easily be able to see Uranus as a small blue disk.  Of course the larger your telescope the more impressive the blue disk.  The image below is similar to what you may see through your Dobsonian.


As you observe Uranus, you might enjoy these facts.  Uranus is the first planet discovered using 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 dark skies.   If you can clearly see all seven stars of the Little Dipper, this indicates clear viewing for South Carolina, and you should see Uranus with the naked eye.  Although not possible in South Carolina, 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.

Also 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:  Keep enjoying the beautiful Orion constellation, the Pleiades, Taurus, and other constellations of winter.  Note that the constellation of Leo is rising in the east marking the return of the spring constellations.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Orion nebula, the Pleiades and lineup of Mars and Uranus.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  Check out Mars, and try for the blue ball of Uranus.

Dobsonian telescope (6 -8 inch):  Check out Mars, and try for the blue ball of Uranus.

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