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 18th. For May, your best viewing nights will be from May 10th to the 22nd. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on May 15th at 9 pm.
If you have been waiting for Saturn to return, it begins this month, but good viewing begins around 11 pm. The image below shows the position of Saturn throughout May at 10 pm.
The next two months Saturn will be high in the sky earlier in the night. Most beginning amateur astronomers view the night sky from about one hour after sunset until about 10 until 11pm; depending on the season. This is because most people wish to enjoy stargazing without interfering with their need to wake up for work or school. In most of my columns I try to direct sky objects of interest to a time frame before midnight. For example, if you wanted to see the beautiful planet Saturn earlier in the year, there was great viewing at 5 am in mid-March, or at 2 am in mid-April. Most serious amateurs also tend to do their viewing before midnight. However, serious amateurs also attend star parties at least twice a year or more. During these star parties, most of us stay up the entire night, and sleep in the day. I have mentioned star parties in my columns some years ago, so I will revisit the subject again.
Star party (stär pär’tI) n. [AS. steorra + OF. partie] A congenial gathering of astronomers, photographers, scientists, and other night owls; convened in a dark place with hope of clear skies for the purpose of admiring creation.
The traditional star party is a gathering of amateur astronomers at a site removed from light pollution. They are usually run in parks or campgrounds and sometimes at private sites owned by colleges or astronomy clubs; a moderate fee is often charged for use of the facility. The amateurs usually spend most of the time with their own equipment. In addition, they may also wander about to see various objects through other peoples’ scopes. Note: Star parties are a great way to check out new equipment before making a purchase. At star parties, many people are trying to seek out dim objects, and some people are deeply involved in astrophotography. Because of this, it is very important that you do not use any white lights at all. If you need a light, only red lights are allowed and kept at a minimum. This is because red light is least likely to disturb your night vision. Also, at normal star parties, the use of green lasers is prohibited. One green laser can ruin hours of long exposure astrophotography.
In addition to the traditional star parties, there are also events called public star parties; this is the type star party we have on several Saturdays of the year either at ScienceSouth or at Francis Marion University. If you are new to astronomy, these are always great events to attend. At a public star party, many if not most people come without a telescope, and these gatherings are free of charge. The amateur astronomers will have their telescopes set up to allow people to view various objects, answer questions, and in general help people learn more about astronomy. Green lasers are usually allowed, and are used by the astronomers to help people find various celestial objects. If you do attend a public star party, be sure to bring a pair of binoculars if possible. A knowledgeable amateur can point to sky objects with a green laser. You then follow the laser to the target with your binoculars. At our star parties we have several pairs of binoculars available for loan.
The large traditional star parties are now phasing out in this part of the country as the summer heat causes humid skies or other thermal effects. When the fall approaches star parties return. There are two large star parties in driving range of Florence: The Peach State Star Gaze in Georgia in October, (observing field shown below)
and the Chiefland Star Party in /Florida in November. Both of these events are several days long. I will give more information about these gatherings in the fall columns. Closer to home is the Midlands Astronomy Club out of Columbia, SC. Check out their website. They do have some public viewing events, but most of the observing dates are for members. Some people pay the membership fees to nearby astronomy clubs primarily to be allowed to use their observing sites. You may consider this if your astronomy hobby becomes more serious.
Naked Eye Sights: Through most of this month you can see three bright planets visible at the same time; Venus, Jupiter and Saturn. The best time to observe these three planets is about 10 pm from May 10th to the end of the month. Saturn will be in the east, Jupiter in the southwest, and Venus in the west.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): As Scorpius rises follow down the scorpion and move into the rich star field of the summer Milky Way. Look to the southeast. The brightest star in Scorpius is Antares, which appears as the “heart” of the scorpion. This red/orange star marks the upper edge of the Milky Way; see image below.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Saturn after 10 or 11 pm. Try to visit a ScienceSouth/FMU observing night (public star party). If you are adventurous plan one traditional Star Party later this year, somewhere in South Carolina or the southeast.
See you next month!