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 4th. For June, your best viewing nights will be from June 1st to the 8th, and June 23rd to June 30th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on June 15th at 9 pm. Note: A table of contents for earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.
Saturn is a wonderful planetary target for amateur telescopes, and therefore each year I repeat a Saturn column during the best months of the year to observe this planet.
The return of the planet Saturn to the evening skies is of particular importance this year because the favorable tilt of the planet versus the Earth. This view will continue to be impressive for at least 4 more years. A classic Saturn image is shown below.
Of course, the image you will see through your amateur telescopes will be quite small and sometimes blurry, but still impressive.
When observing through my 25 X 100 mm binoculars, the rings of Saturn are tiny, but clearly visible. Any scope you use at 25 power and above will allow you to see the rings of Saturn; of course views are better at 50 power or above. Below are three views of Saturn through amateur telescopes. The small blurry image represents what you might see with a very inexpensive discount store telescope. The other two images represent views from Dobsonian reflectors ranging from 6 to 10 inches.
At various times through the year ScienceSouth has free public NASA Saturday astronomy events using the ScienceSouth and Francis Marion’s Dobsonian reflectors. These NASA Saturday viewing events are not run during the summer due to the high temperatures and humidity, which adversely affects viewing. Our plans are to run some ScienceSouth Saturn observing nights this summer. We will try to choose a Saturday night when both Saturn and the early phases of the Moon are visible. The two nighttime objects that are least affected by the summer weather conditions are the Moon and the planets. Keep checking our website for dates. In past years, we have given people the chance to see spectacular views of the mountains and craters of the Moon and views of the planets. Although these sights generate various amount of excitement, I always hear the biggest “wows” when someone sees Saturn for the first time. The big ball of Jupiter looks quite nice, and the small fuzzy ball of Mars is OK, and some people even enjoy the fuzzy crescent of Venus; but Saturn is special. You can view hundreds of images of Saturn on the Internet, but there is something magical when your see it through your own eyes. So if you have a telescope, try viewing Saturn this month in the southern sky. If you don’t own a telescope come visit us and use our telescopes. Saturn will be in a good viewing position this month onward starting about 9:30. Good viewing of Saturn will continue from now through August.
To find Saturn this month, look to the southeast to see the pale yellow planet. As you may recall, most seasons of the year have a prominent easily identified constellation in the south. For summer, the constellation is Scorpius. This scorpion shaped, or “sloppy J,” stays close to the horizon throughout the summer. The planet Saturn will be found above and to the left of the brightest star in Scorpius, the red/orange star Antares; see the chart below.
When viewing bright planets through amateur telescopes, the contrast of a very bright planet against a black sky can sometimes produce a glare which may prevent a clear view of the planet. If this is a problem, try to view the planet before the sky becomes black; during twilight.
All types of telescopes can be used to view the planets, but many astronomers believe that refractors are your best choice for planets; see a refractor below.
The refractor uses two convex lenses to focus your target, like binoculars. The result of this setup is very crisp images. All reflecting telescopes, use mirrors. Mirrors excel in capturing much more light than a refractor, but in general, you lose some crispness of the image. If you want an all-around telescope you would probably choose a six to eight inch Dobsonian reflector. If you are excited about planetary and lunar viewing, you would enjoy a good refractor. Starting out amateur astronomers usually limit their expense for a good refractor; $150 to $250. What many amateurs are unaware of is that there are refracting telescopes that appear similar to theirs, but are made with superior quality lenses. These lenses are called apochromatic. Your standard lenses are achromatic. A standard apochromatic refractor would cost between $1000 and $4000 and up!
Naked Eye Sights: From the beginning of the month until the end watch toward the southeast as the most prominent constellations of summer move into the southern sky; Scorpius and Sagittarius. All through June you can see three planets in the night sky. Saturn in the southeast above the star Antares in Scorpius, Mars in the south southeast in front of Scorpius and Jupiter in the west under the constellation Leo.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Along with the summer constellations comes the center of the summer Milky Way. Scan above the center of the constellation Scorpius and move slowly upward and to the left following the Milky Way. You will see an abundance of stars, and Messier clusters and nebulae.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): The planet Saturn. Also check out nearby Mars and Jupiter in the west.
See you next month!