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 May 9th. For May, your best viewing nights will be from May 1st to the 14th, and May 28th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on May 15th at 9 pm.
As I mentioned last month, the return of the planet Saturn to the evening skies is of particular importance this year because the favorable tilt of the planet versus the Earth marks the beginning of an excellent eight-year viewing period. A classic Saturn image is shown below.
Of course, the image you will see through your amateur telescopes will be quite small and sometimes blurry, but still impressive. I have viewed Saturn through many telescopes over many years. Throughout this time, I have always enjoyed watching someone looking through my telescope and seeing Saturn for the first time; it is always an amazing response.
At various times ScienceSouth has free public astronomy events using the ScienceSouth Dobsonian reflector. We give people the chance to see spectacular views of the mountains and craters of the Moon. Also last year people viewed the planet Jupiter and its moons, and the upper cloud bands of Jupiter in color! Although these sights generated various amount of excitement, I never heard the big “wows” I hear when someone sees Saturn for the first time. The big ball of Jupiter looks quite nice, and the small fuzzy ball of Mars is OK, and some people even enjoy the fuzzy crescent of Venus; but Saturn is special. You can view hundreds of images of Saturn on the Internet, but there is something magical when your see it through your own eyes. So if you have a telescope, start viewing Saturn this month in the southeastern sky. Saturn will be in a good viewing position from mid-month onward starting about 9:30. Good viewing of Saturn will continue from now through July. However, if you have a good view of the western horizon, you can still view Saturn through August, and before it sets in September, it is then joined by a rising planet Venus.
To find Saturn this month, look to the southeast to see the pale yellow planet. If you are in doubt about its location, then turn your eyes to the north. Find the Big Dipper, and then follow the handle of the dipper to “arc to the star Arcturus” then continue on this arc/curve to the star Spica.” Saturn will be the bright object to the left and slightly below Spica. If you have dark skies, you will be able to note the contrast of the blue star Spica with the yellow planet Saturn. Below is the position of Saturn in relation to these two prominent stars in mid-April.
So what should you expect to see? With standard 7 (or 10) X 50 binoculars, Saturn will still look like a star. With 15 power binoculars (tripod needed) it will look like the star has “ears.” I regularly use 25 X 100 mm binoculars, and the rings of Saturn are clearly visible. Therefore, any scope you use from 25 power on up will allow you to see the rings of Saturn. Below are three likely views of Saturn as seen through amateur telescopes. The smaller blurry image represents what you might see with a very inexpensive discount store telescope (best to avoid). The other two images represent views from Dobsonian reflectors ranging from 6 to 10 inches. The bottom line is if you own any telescope, you can see the rings of Saturn; wow!!
Don’t Forget the Moon:
Too often I hear a comment from people that the best time to view the Moon is when it is full. If you hear this comment, you can be sure that this person is truly new to the field of amateur astronomy. As we all know, a full Moon is too bright for viewing. Using a filter on your scope will reduce the brightness, but the view will be a disappointing flat looking surface. The only way to experience great lunar viewing is to utilize the shadows generated by the lunar mountains and craters. With that said, the best viewing of the Moon is from its crescent stage to the first quarter Moon. If you would like to try a great lunar viewing experience watch the Moon every night over a period of 3 to 5 days in a row. As the days progress, new craters and mountain ranges will appear with the stark shadows showing them in all their glory. The below image is similar to what we can see with our 10 inch Dobsonian scope.
Whenever ScienceSouth brings out our telescopes for planetary viewing on the streets of Florence, we always try to pick nights when the Moon is moving towards its first quarter. So I suggest you try the same approach when you go out to view Saturn this month. Bring out you telescopes anytime, or several times, from May 14th through May 17th, and you will have excellent views of both Saturn and the lunar surface. In addition try sharing this wonderful sight with some of your neighbors. It is amazing how many people have never seen Saturn or the mountains and craters of the Moon through a simple telescope.
Naked Eye Sights: Saturn rises in the east as Jupiter sets in the west. The constellation Leo the Lion will be the prominent sight as you look south.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): M44 (The Beehive Open Cluster) in Cancer.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Saturn and the Moon
See you next month!