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