March 2019

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 6th. For March, your best viewing nights will be from March 1st to the 10th and the 24th to the end of the month. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on March 15th at 9 pm.

It’s Messier Marathon Month:

Each March I like to remind my readers about the Messier Marathon.

For the new readers, the Messier Objects are 110 celestial objects, which include primarily galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters.   These objects are usually known by their “M number”; M1, M42, M104, etc.  Charles Messier composed a list of these objects 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 “negative” list has become one of the most popular lists of deep sky objects used by amateurs around the world.  In last month’s column, I mentioned some other deep sky object lists that are also in use.  All 110 objects can theoretically be seen with 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. 

So what is a Messier Marathon?  The Messier Objects are found throughout the night sky every month of the year.  However, a rare event occurs each year in March, all 110 Messier Objects can be found in 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 in the northern hemisphere attempt this task on or about the new Moon closest to the first day of spring (Vernal Equinox).  This year is somewhat unique.  The March new Moon occurs on the 4th and the next new Moon occurs on April 5th.  Both new Moons are about two weeks either side of the equinox. The primary Messier Marathon will be run on the weekend of March 30th and 31st.  The secondary date is March 10th and 11th. The best locations in North America are in the southern part of the United States, including South Carolina.  Please note that a Messier Marathon is not an easy task.  It requires an excellent viewing area well away from light pollution.  If you decide to take this challenge, you could go on-line and find the locations where you can join amateurs gathered at “perfect” locations for the marathon; most likely in Texas, New Mexico or Arizona.  If you travel to these perfect locations, you still will be challenged to succeed.  For example: right after sunset, you have to find one of the most difficult targets, M74 (The Phantom Galaxy).

You will end just before sunrise with an easier target M30 globular cluster; but not so easy when you are competing with the Sun.

It is noteworthy, that even under good viewing, in autumn, M74 is the only Messier Object I have yet to see.

I am not aware of any “perfect” location in South Carolina to do the marathon.  To the best of my knowledge, the closest good location is the Deerlick Astronomy Village west of Augusta, Georgia; check it on the internet.

I myself have never tried a Messier Marathon.  I feel that it is much more fun to take your time and slowly attempt to locate all 110 Messier Object over two to three years.  Once you have enjoyed the challenge of completing this list, at a later time you may like to try to do it in only one night in March.  However, if you have not tried finding the Messier Objects, why not start from your local viewing site on the weekends of this year’s Messier Marathon.  Keep your list small but try for at least twenty or more Messiers, using binoculars only. 

International Space Station (ISS) Flyovers:

The ISS is our largest artificial satellite, and it can be fun to go outside and watch it flyover. This month there are three good ISS flyovers; on March 20, 21 and 23.  The ISS flyover chart below is for the Florence area and can be found on the website “Heavens Above”.

You can see that the format is a 24 hour clock, and all three flyovers are between 8 and 9 pm.  Note the times and the directions that it first appears and where it ends. It will be quite bright and therefore easy to locate.  Usual flyovers take about 6 minutes.  Note that the highest flyover on the 20th takes only 4 minutes and ends high (44 degrees) in the sky.  Reason: The ISS moves into the Earth’s shadow at 8:53 pm.  As you watch the ISS flyover realize that there are presently three astronauts on board looking back at you.

Naked Eye Sights:  The ISS flyovers.  The Constellation Leo will become the main constellation in the south, but you can still enjoy the beautiful Orion constellation, the Pleiades, Taurus, and other constellations of winter. 

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):  Try for some more Messier Objects on the two weekends discussed above.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):  Try for some more Messier Objects on the two weekends discussed above.

Dobsonian Telescope (6 -8 inch):  Try for some more Messier Objects on the two weekends discussed above.

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