March 2009

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 March 25th. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 13th through March 28th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.


ScienceSouth’s New Astronomy Program! The Sidewalk Astronomer.

An update of our Sidewalk Astronomer Program: Our first event was a nighttime viewing on January 27th at the Florence County Library from 6:30 to 8 pm. However, there was total cloud cover the entire time. The weather report predicted a “hole in the clouds” about 7 to 8 pm. However, they were only off by one hour. After we left the library, there were clear skies from 8 to 9:15 pm.

Our second event was a daytime viewing on January 31st, also at the Florence County Library. This time we had clear skies. Unfortunately, the Sun is just coming out of an activity minimum, so it has been very “quiet,” meaning no sunspots or major surface activity such as the solar prominences, discussed last month. However, we were lucky that day, and although there were no sunspots, we were able to view a nice set of solar prominences.

We are using two instruments for our solar sidewalk astronomy. First is a Sunspotter. This simple wooden instrument uses one lens and three small mirrors to project a large image of the Sun on to a white screen. When the Sun is active, this allows you to see sunspots as they move across the surface of the Sun, and can also be used to view transits of the planets Mercury and Venus across the Sun’s disk. Note: a Venus transit is very rare, however, there will be one in June 2012, mark your calendar.

The second instrument for solar viewing is our H1α telescope, mentioned last month. It is often referred to as simply H-alpha. This telescope sees only one wavelength of red light emitted by the hydrogen on the sun. This allows us to clearly see the solar eruptions on the Sun’s surface.

Below are the two instruments we use.


We did our solar viewing from 1-3 pm. While we were viewing, 1.3 million miles above the Earth, the SOHO satellite took an image of the Sun at 1:19 pm. Although with our simple telescope we could not see all the Sun’s surface features, or all of the prominences shown in the SOHO image below, we could clearly see the two large solar prominences seen in the lower right area of the photo.


For our night time Sidewalk Astronomer viewing in February, we had a public viewing of Comet Lulin on February 24th. To view the comet, we had to leave the “sidewalk” to go to a dark sky site at Lynches River County Park. The night was cold but clear, and the comet was only a “smudge,” but still fun to see. While waiting for the comet to rise over the tree line, we enjoyed viewing the Orion nebula, the Beehive Cluster, the Pleiades, and Venus in crescent phase.

The International Space Station (ISS):

A fun naked eye event is viewing the flyover of the International Space Station (ISS). These flyovers occur many times a month at any given location on the Earth, however, at any given location, there are not many good viewing times.


The ISS is in a low orbit 219 miles above the Earth. Due to its large size and low orbit, it is an easy naked eye object as it passes over. However, it can also be viewed with amateur telescopes, and some amazing photos have been taken. Below are three such amateur photos. Number 1 shows the space shuttle separating from the ISS. Number 2 also shows the space shuttle and the ISS, as they transited the Sun. Number 3 is a recent image done by an amateur with the help of his 5 year old daughter.


So now it’s your turn to check out the ISS. Your best source to locate the ISS throughout the year is Heavens Above website http://www.heavens-above.com/. It is best if you register and lock in your home location. Then each time you log on, just go to the ISS link and look for good flyovers. Unless you like to get up very early, you would search for evening flyovers. Next you would search the maximum altitude column. Any flyover at 50 degrees and above is preferred. Below is a typical ISS table. Note that is uses a 24-hour clock. You can see on the table that March 15th is a good fly over for Florence, SC and begins at 8:19 pm and ends at 8:24 pm, with a maximum altitude of 63 degrees. March 13th at 9 pm is another possibility. When you are at their website, just keep clicking on “next” to advance forward to find more good flyovers.

Next, click on the blue date on the left, and you can find a perceptive of the pass (1), and the position of the ISS as it moves through the stars (2). The March 15th flyover is shown below.
Naked Eye Sights: Look to the east and watch as Saturn moves higher into the spring sky. Try to view the ISS this month, it’s easy!

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Try for the ISS. If your binoculars are strong enough, you may see some shape to the bright ISS as it passes over.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Also, visit Saturn on its return to the night skies, even with the rings tipped towards us; it is still an impressive sight

See you next month.

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