October 2008

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 November 9th. For November, your best viewing nights will be from November 1st through November 14th.

The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on November 15th at 10 pm.

Observing Accessories:

For South Carolina, the month of October has the potential for being the best viewing time of the year.

Whether you go to a star party or do solo observing, it is best to have an observing plan and observing accessories. You should have the following basic accessories: a red light, a planisphere and a star chart. If you are using hand-held binoculars, a folding lounge chair is a must. If you have a laptop, running a good astronomy program, bring the laptop and a folding camp table with you. Finally, it is most useful to have some good basic observing books.

As I mentioned last month, a red light is a must if you go to a star party or for solo viewing. There are many types of red lights available, and they are now usually LEDs. In addition, it is wise to have at least two red lights plus extra batteries. If you wish to eliminate battery problems, they now sell hand crank battery-free red LED lights. In addition, there are also hands-free red lights that are worn on your head. One final note: even red light can disturb your night vision. I find it is best to use a dim red light most of the time, and have a brighter red light available when I have to walk any distance away from my observing site. Below are some examples.

Just as you might want a road map when you travel, it is useful to have maps of the sky when you observe. First of all, it is useful to have a planisphere. A planisphere is a disk consisting of two wheels that spin and allow you to set the night sky to any date or time of the year. This will allow you to have a quick view of the entire dome of the sky, and it is an excellent way to learn the constellations. Once you set the time and date, you hold it over your head while facing the direction shown on the planisphere. Plastic planispheres are best, and one example is shown below. The position of the stars will not change in a person’s lifetime, so you only have to buy one. However, the planets move quite rapidly, and therefore are not shown on the wheel. On the back of the planisphere, in addition to general instructions for use, is a listing showing which constellation each planet is in during different months of the year, usually covering a period of eight years. So, if you are an ardent planet watcher, you will have to replace your Planisphere periodically. Also note that planispheres are available for different latitudes, usually in units of ten degrees. Therefore, 30 and 40 degree planispheres cover the United States, so for South Carolina, purchase the 30 degree planisphere.

With the planisphere being useful for an overview of the sky, a star chart is designed to be more specific. The best star charts are foldable and plastic coated. They will include the exact locations of the stars, constellations, star clusters, galaxies and nebulae; and are a great way to plan a Messier object search.

I find star charts most helpful for setting up an observing plan. I simply place removable stickers on the chart listing all my planned targets for the night, and remove the stickers as I locate each object. See below.

Fun is spending the night scanning the sky with binoculars; but a stiff neck is not fun. So if you are a binocular observer, invest in a portable folding chair. They are cheap, and they are also available with attached foot rests. Add a folding camp table and your favorite hot beverage and enjoy the evening. Below is an image of one of my tables and chair. A more expensive accessory is a laptop running a good astronomy program such as “Starry Night Pro.” Don’t forget to cover the screen with a red plastic film.

Finally, although the Internet is an “infinite” source of information, it is always nice to have some good observing books to plan your night. I suggest the following to start, but there are many others available: “Turn Left at Orion” by Consolmagno and Davis, a classic for beginners. “Star Watch” by Philip Harrington, is an excellent book, divided into seasons, and then further broken down into binocular, small telescope and large telescope viewing. “NightWatch” by Terence Dickinson, covers many aspects of astronomy, but I recommend it because of the excellent set of twenty star charts; plus the book lays flat/spiral bound.

All the accessories mentioned above are available on the Internet. There are many sources, but you can begin at “telescope.com.”

Naked Eye Sights:
The bright planet Jupiter still remains in the south; however, it will soon be overshadowed by the even brighter planet Venus. Look to the west, every evening this month at about 7 pm, and you will see Venus as it moves almost horizontally west to southwest until it starts its upward turn throughout November.

Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):
I suggest you buy one of the observing books, make a plan, use maps plus stickers, and enjoy October viewing.

Telescope Sights (60-100mm):
I suggest you buy one of the observing books, make a plan, use maps plus stickers, and enjoy October viewing.

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