March 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 March 4th. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 1st through March 10th and March 23rd through March 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.

Messier Marathon:

March is the “Messier Marathon month” for amateur astronomers. I have mentioned the Messier Objects in many of my columns. For new readers, the Messier Objects are a list of 110 celestial objects, which include galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters. The objects are usually known by their “M number;” M1, M42, M104, etc. Charles Messier composed this list was composed in the late 18th century. Messier was a comet hunter, and he recorded this list of objects that looked like comets but were not. This list helped Messier, and his fellow astronomers, avoid objects that might be confused for comets. It is ironic that today this somewhat “negative” list has become one of the most widely used lists of objects used by amateurs around the world. All 110 objects can be found with only a pair of 10 X 50 binoculars under perfect dark sky viewing conditions. However, under normal viewing conditions, about 50% of the objects can easily be seen with simple binoculars. All 110 objects can be seen at about 25 power, using a simple telescope, preferably a Dobsonian, or 25 power binoculars.

I believe the best feature of the Messier List is that while searching for the objects you will learn the stars and constellations of the entire night sky. On many occasions a new astronomer will ask me what else is there to see after they have observed the Moon and the planets. I tell them to try to locate all the Messier Objects; it is fun, and gives you a reason to go outside and enjoy your new hobby. Take the time to look at some of the images of these wonderful objects on the Internet. Below is a composite image of all of the Messier objects.

The images above are quite small, but the two images below show the beauty of some of the Messier Objects.

The Messier Objects are found throughout the night sky every month of the year. However, a rare event occurs every year in March. In mid-March, all 110 Messier Objects can be found in only one night! Of course in order to accomplish this, you also need to have a new Moon. This event is known as a Messier Marathon, and amateur astronomers around the world attempt this task on or about the new Moon closest to the first day of spring (Vernal Equinox). This year the Marathon will be run on the weekend of April 2nd. The first objects are searched for in the west just after sunset, M77, M74 and M33. Just before sunrise the last objects in your search are M72, M73 and M30. Also, it’s best to work with a partner, and it is a very busy night.

The Sombrero (M104):

Now on a personal note, I have never tried a Messier Marathon; instead I preferred to slowly work through the Messier List over a period of a few years. Sometimes it is enjoyable to find only one new Messier on a given evening. So this month, try for a somewhat difficult but beautiful Messier, M104. M104 is also called the Sombrero Galaxy; see image below.

M104 is listed as somewhat difficult because it is dim, and is not located near any bright stars. You will find it in the southeast rising about 9 pm in mid-March, so wait until later in the evening before you try to locate it. However, this year, you do have a little help, because M104 is rising along with the planet Saturn. So as you follow Saturn over the next few months, you know that M104 is nearby. The best way to locate M104 is to find the constellation Corvus; see charts below. This four star trapezoid is usually easy to locate. Find the star farthest to the left, called Algorab. Next move to the left of Algorab and slightly up until you see a small triangle known as the Star Gate. You may not be able to clearly see the Star Gate, but what should be quite obvious is a small line of about four stars to the left of the Star Gate. These “pointer” stars point directly to M104. This year use Saturn to help your search; M104 is located about halfway between Algorab and Saturn. If you have trouble finding M104, continue trying next month as it rises higher in the sky.

When you find M104 with binoculars or a small telescope, it will not look like the beautiful image shown above. Instead, it will look more like the image shown below.

People, who enjoy amateur astronomy, always get excited viewing these faint “fuzzies;” while most other people will not be impressed. Why are we excited? We are excited because we know that this fuzzy image in our scope is indeed that beautiful object shown up above. In addition, we also know that it took 30 million years for the light from M104 to travel across the heavens and reach our eyes tonight.


Naked Eye Sights: Try to start your Messier List with M42 and M45 (easy). M44 and M13 (harder).

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): See how many Messier Objects you can find this March.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Extend your list of Messiers with your telescope. Check the return of the planet Saturn in the southeast skies.


See you next month!

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