June 2011

Tony Martinez

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 June 1st. For June, your best viewing nights will be from June 1st through June 7th and June 21st through June 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on June 15th at 10 pm.

Back to Nine Planets?

Last month I discussed why Pluto was removed from the list of solar system planets, and I also discussed dwarf planets in general. Just recently, two astronomers have presented a new theory which claims that there is yet another planet out beyond Pluto. However, this new theory states that this new planet is not small like the dwarf planets, but is four times more massive than Jupiter! This claim has been proposed by professors Whitmire and Matese, two astrophysicists from the University of Louisiana. They have even given this planet a proposed name, Tyche. Last month I mentioned the Ort Cloud, which extends over a thousand times the distance beyond Pluto. The Ort Cloud is proposed to be the primary source of comets. The basis of this new theory is that the trajectories of the many comets leaving the Ort Cloud to head towards the Sun are not random as would be expected. These astrophysicists believe that the trajectories of many comets fit the presence of a large planet in the Ort Cloud. Presently, this new theory is considered to be a “weak” theory, and therefore has not been accepted by most astronomers due to lack of any hard evidence. To quote from the late Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” However, Whitmire and Matese believe that evidence of their ninth planet, Tyche, has already been gathered by the NASA space telescope WISE.

The NASA space telescope WISE(Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) was launched in December 2009, and had only enough liquid hydrogen coolant to last about ten months. During its short life, WISE captured over 1.5 million infrared images of the entire sky. An infrared telescope sees the heat of celestial objects. So if the planet Tyche exists, because of its size, it would be slow to cool, and therefore would still have enough heat to be detected by the WISE telescope. The search for a large planet beyond Pluto was not one of the goals for the WISE telescope, so it will be awhile before all the data will be available to check out this new planet theory.

Solar viewing:

Sometimes the hot and hazy night time skies of summer may limit you viewing to the Moon. However, the bright sunny days of summer are great for solar viewing. Any mention of viewing the Sun must begin with a serious warning: Never look at the Sun through any regular binocular or telescope; it will permanently blind you! Never try to build or make a filter to put over your binoculars or telescope. If you own or buy an old simple refracting telescope, and it has a small solar filter that screws onto your eyepiece, go throw it into the garbage immediately. Any filter located near your eyepiece will get very hot when in use and will likely shatter! The best way to view the Sun is indirectly by way of a projected image. There are three ways to set up projected images of the Sun. The simple method is to use two pieces of cardboard. Put a pinhole in one piece of cardboard, and project the Sun onto the other piece. The method is shown below:

The second is to set up your telescope so the image is projected out of your eyepiece and onto a piece of cardboard. See images below:

The third way is more costly and requires the purchase of a “Sun Spotter” apparatus. See images below:

The reason to discuss solar viewing at this time is because of the Solar cycle, also called the Solar Sunspot Cycle. Over a period of about 11 years, the Sun moves from low activity to high activity and back to low again. During times of high solar activity, there are many sunspots, solar prominences and possible solar flares; note size of Earth below.

The latest cycle began in December 2008, should peak about 2013/2014, and end in 2019. So for the first time in several years, on any given day it is likely that some solar activity will be visible. If you would like to track the activity of the Sun, go to the NASA Soho Satellite website to see daily images of the Sun; http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/data/realtime-images.html.

Also, keep track of the ScienceSouth website. At various times this year we will have public solar viewing events. ScienceSouth has special equipment that can project the solar images, directly view sunspots close up, and see the solar eruptions on the Sun’s surface.

Naked Eye Sights: View the arrival of Scorpius, Sagittarius, and the summer Milky Way in the south. Try some solar projection viewing, or visit some ScienceSouth solar viewing events.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Wander through the summer Milky Way, beginning at the southern horizon and slow scanning upwards.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): In April I featured the return of the planet Saturn. This month is the last good month to view Saturn.

So if have yet to check out Saturn, do so this month. In the first half of June, between 10 pm and midnight, Saturn will move from due south to the southwest. In the last half of the month, in the same time-frame, Saturn will move from the southwest to the west. Saturn will still be visible throughout July, but it will remain low in the western sky.

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