March 2012

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 22nd. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 13th to the 26th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.

Messier Month:

It is Messier Marathon month again. As you well know, I believe that the best way to become a good amateur astronomer is to try to locate all 110 Messier Objects in the night sky. Let me begin by repeating some of the Messier overview I used in the column last March.

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 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 theoretically be seen 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.

On occasion 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. I believe the best feature of the Messier List is that in the process of searching for the objects you will learn the stars and constellations of the entire night sky.

The Messier Objects are found throughout the night sky every month of the year. However, a rare event occurs each year in March. In mid to late 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 March 24th. 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.

So in the spirit of Messier month, let’s try to find 10 Messier Objects in a relatively small area of the sky shown below.

The exact locations of these 10 Messiers are shown in the image below.


Always begin such a search by moving right to left, to counter the spin of the Earth. Therefore, start with the constellation Auriga. Auriga is easy to locate because of its brilliant yellow star Capella. First find the outline of Auriga, and following the image above, scan the region occupied by M38, M36 and M37 with 10 power binoculars. These Messiers are all open star clusters. If you are in a dark area, you should be able to see all three Messiers. Remember, they are all quite dim, so look with care. The image below shows M38 and M36 in the correct binocular view orientation for March. M37 will look similar, and will be found above and to the left of M36.

Next locate the shape of the Gemini “The Twins.” Move your binoculars the lower right of the constellation, and another open star cluster, M35 will be in the position of a ball being kicked by Gemini’s left foot.

Next, using the 10 Messier chart above, move to the left and try to locate the open cluster, M44, known as the “Beehive.” The Beehive is in the constellation Cancer, and this constellation is difficult to visualize. The good news is that if you can find a dark viewing site, M44 is easily visible to the naked eye.

Finally move over to the constellation Leo. Leo is a prominent spring constellation. Along the bottom of Leo are five Messiers galaxies, but they are all quite dim.

More good news; on March 17th, the planet Mars moves into the group of the three Messier galaxies; M95, M96, and M105. The circle in the image below shows the view at 25 power.

Finally we end by locating two other Messier galaxies. If you place your 10 power binocular view to match the red circle in the image below, then M65 and M66 will be in your center of field. The small image is a telescopic view.

Congratulations, ten Messiers located this month; only a hundred left to go!

Naked Eye Sights: Look to the west in the early evenings of March 10th through the 14th, and watch as the brilliant Venus appears to swing close by the bright planet Jupiter.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Use your binoculars to locate ten Messiers this month; see above.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm): This is your last month to view Jupiter, however, Mars and Saturn will be great targets for the next five months. You may need your telescope at 25-40 power to see some of the Messiers described above.


See you next month!

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