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 8th. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 1st to the 12th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.
Note: Over the years I have reported interesting night time viewing targets that you could observe each month with your naked eye, binoculars, or with a simple telescope. In addition, most months would feature a general astronomy topic. These topics can be a good source of information for new amateur astronomers. The Astronomy Corner column is in a blog format, and as such, you can easily check out many previous columns; the earliest column available is May 2008. A table of contents for these earlier columns is located in the February 2016 column.
Jupiter: Jupiter has not moved considerably since March 2015. Last March it was in front of the constellation Leo, and this month it is below the back legs of Leo. On February 27th, we had public star gazing event at Francis Marion University. As we watched Jupiter rise above the tree line, we were able to observe the effects of weather on telescope viewing. In general, it is not advisable to view any object near the horizon because you would be looking through a greater amount of atmosphere. In addition, you may also see the effects of some near ground air pollution. However, in South Carolina this time of year we also have a weather effect. We often experience warm days and cold nights. If the temperature difference between night and day is too high we may see fog, but even when the night is clear such as February 27th, we experienced the dramatic change in the clarity of Jupiter as it rose higher in the night sky. This was due to the warmed daytime Earth releasing the heat back into the cold early spring nighttime sky. This caused a blurring effect such as you see when heat rises off a road surface in the summer time. At 8pm, the cloud bands of Jupiter were visible through our 10-inch Dobsonian telescope, but blurry. Between 9 and 10 pm, they sharpened up to a “wow” factor. The below image approximates what we saw that night.
Messier Marathon: Every March throughout the northern hemisphere, amateur astronomers attempt to locate all 110 Messier objects during one night. The night chosen is on the weekend closest to the spring equinox and closest to a new Moon. Therefore for this year it will be on the weekend of March 13th. This marathon is best for experienced amateur astronomers. For readers who are new to astronomy, you should try to locate the 110 Messier Objects over a period of two to three years, instead of one night.
The subject of Messier objects and the Messier Marathon is discussed fully in my March 2015 column.
The Beehive Cluster:
The Beehive star cluster is one of many open star clusters easily visible through binoculars. The Beehive is also known as M44 and Praesepe. Open clusters are groups of stars gravitationally bound but spread over a larger area than the tightly bound globular clusters. In general, using binoculars, many open star clusters are available to view, versus only a few globular clusters. In addition, some open star clusters are visible to the naked eye, the most famous being the Pleiades. Another is the Hyades which surrounds the main star in Taurus, Aldebaran. The Hyades are so broad in size that it doesn’t appear to be a cluster.
The Beehive cluster is great representative of an open star cluster, see below.
In addition it is a great indicator of the clarity of the night sky. On a truly clear night, M44 is visible to the naked eye, looking like a small smudge in the sky in front of the constellation Leo. This cluster actually is located in the constellation Cancer, however, even when M44 is visible to the naked eye, the constellation Cancer is still difficult to discern. In ancient times, sailors used the sighting of M44 as an indicator of good weather. If they could not see the Beehive at night on an open sea that usually meant a significant amount of moisture was in the atmosphere and a storm might be coming. The Latin name for this cluster is Praesepe which means a manger, and as you know, a manger is an animal feeding trough. For some reason, the ancients saw the Beehive cluster as animal food for two donkeys; the stars Asellus Borealis (northern donkey), and the star Asellus Australis (southern donkey).
To locate the Beehive cluster this month look to the south and you will easily locate the constellations Leo and Gemini and the Beehive is about half way between them as shown above. First try to see the cluster with the naked eye, next locate it with a pair of 7 to 10 power binoculars. While you are visiting the Beehive, look for the two donkeys; shown below.
Naked Eye Sights: Try to see the Beehive Cluster; if possible, travel to a site well away from city or town lights.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): The Beehive Cluster (M44), and many other Messier objects, such as M35, M36, M37, M38, etc.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Jupiter is your best telescope target this month. Allow the planet to move somewhat high in the sky before viewing. Most telescopes will be too powerful to enjoy the view of the Beehive Cluster; the absolute best view is with large binoculars from 18 to 25 power.
See you next month!