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 9th. For January, your best viewing nights will be from January 1st to the 14th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on January 15th at 9 pm.
Geminids Meteor Shower Update:
For us in Florence, South Carolina, the weather gave an unexpected bad turn. On the night of December 13th and the early hours of December 14th, the astronomy weather satellites (Clear Sky Chart data from Canada) reported relatively good atmospheric data for viewing the Geminids meteor shower. The unexpected event was that in South Carolina, December was, and continues to be, one of the warmest Decembers in many years. In addition we had wet ground, a very warm day and a cool evening. When I stepped out to check the sky at 11 pm, the fog was so thick that I could barely see more than 100 feet away. The next day, a frontal system moved through the area, blowing away most of the moisture. If you read my column last month, I noted that the Geminids could show a decent amount of meteors before and after the peak on the 14th. I went out after midnight on the next night. The sky was clear and transparent, with a few fast moving clouds. The Geminids produced 30 meteors per hour, many were large and left a debris trail behind after they burned out. Not a great shower but quite enjoyable. Note: My clothing at 1 am on December 15th; T-shirt and shorts!
The Quadrantids Meteor Shower:
Due to the washout of the Geminids shower in December, I direct you to a possibly great but challenging meteor shower early in January called the Quadrantids. This shower is seldom mentioned because of its challenging nature. It is another asteroid based meteor shower, however, the debris field of the shower is extremely narrow. Therefore, unlike the recent Geminids, which took several days for the Earth to pass through, we will pass through this shower peak in only a few hours. This narrow passage also makes it difficult to predict how good it will be. As of now, astronomers are predicting 80 to 120 meteors per hour; matching the Geminids. For most meteor showers, you can view the shower anytime from midnight to dawn. The challenge with the Quadrantids is we really aren’t sure exactly what time we will pass through the center of the debris field. Therefore, a dedicated Quadrantids observer should stay outside from midnight until dawn. In addition, we may just miss the center of field and have only a small shower. Therefore, go outside around 1 am on Monday January 4th, look to the northeast, and stay outside until 6 am, enjoy and stay warm.
If you do decide to try for the Quadrantids, while waiting between 4 am and 6am and looking to the east/northeast, you may try to spot comet Catalina. This dim comet will be near the bright star Arcturus in Bootes, and should be visible through simple binoculars as a dim fuzzy object; see dates and location chart below. It’s always fun to see a comet that no one seems to know about or hear about on the local news channels.
Global Warming and Amateur Astronomers:
Is the Earth warming up? This question has caused much disagreement over the last several years. I personally believe that the Earth may be warming up; but the real debate and science should be directed at the question; are humans the cause of global warming? Human caused global warming scientists are using carbon isotope ratios in atmospheric carbon dioxide to push their theories. Naturally caused global warming scientists are using past temperature data and the Medieval Warm Period to demonstrate that the Earth goes through cycles of hot and cold; see graph below.
If this graph is a true indicator, then we will be getting much warmer and for about 200 years! The above graph is based on factual data, but in reality, it would take temperature data collected for the next thousand years to prove that there is a true natural cyclic pattern in the Earth’s temperature.
So back to amateur astronomy. Whatever the cause is, in our area of the world, Florence, SC the temperature has been well above normal for the last six months. It is the last week of December, the outside temperature is in the low 80’s, and my raised bed garden is lush with vegetables. However, astronomy has suffered. The heat and humidity of the summer has always been bad for viewing. For years we looked forward to the cool weather of late fall and early winter to give us clear viewing nights for star parties. Instead, the higher temperatures have resulted in an abundance of nighttime fog and/or other atmospheric moisture ruining our viewing.
We now rest our hopes on this month giving us cold and dry skies. As you look toward the wonderful constellation Orion, try this nice viewing sweep through the night sky; start with binoculars. Begin at the Orion Nebula #1, then go to the Hyades open cluster #2, on to the Pleaides #3, then the Andromeda Galaxy, #4, the Double Cluster, #5, the Perseus Association #6, Clusters M38, #7, M36, #8 and M37, #9. Next move to another nice cluster M35, #10 and end at the Beehive Cluster M44, #11. Enjoy the trip.
Naked Eye Sights: The Quadrantids meteor shower. Orion, Taurus and the Pleiades,
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The “winter sweep” shown above.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Check out the targets on the “winter sweep”.