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 October 4th. For October, your best viewing nights will be from October 1st to the 9th, and October 24th to the 31st. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on October 15th at 9 pm.
Comet ISON Inbound:
Next month may bring us the most spectacular comet of our lifetime. Whenever a suspected bright comet is approaching, I try to locate the comet one to two months ahead of its arrival. So this month, let’s all take the challenge and try to find Comet ISON inbound.
To search for Comet ISON, you must be willing to get up early in the morning. Next, you should focus your search from the beginning of October to mid-month. During this time, have two guide posts to help you find the comet. First is the constellation Leo. Leo begins to rise in the east about 5 am early in the month. The second guide post is the planet Mars. Mars will be “in front” of Leo in early October, and by mid-month will be close to the brightest star in Leo, Regulus. Remember, you will be looking for a small smudge in the sky, with maybe a small tail, but not comet with a distinct tail. For now limit your search to using binoculars, either 7 X 50mm or 10 X 50mm. If you have 15 to 25 power binoculars on a tripod, it will be much easier to find Comet ISON.
So you must get up early, have a relatively dark sky site, a clear view to the east, and simple binoculars. As you look to the east, look for the rising of the head of the lion, Leo, and look for the easy to spot reddish planet Mars. From October 1st until the 20th, Comet ISON is following alongside of Mars, above the planet and to the left, and finally by the 20th it will move below the planet. Below are the positions of Comet ISON in relation to Mars on three dates in October at 5:30 am.
The larger red circle represents the field of view for 7 power binoculars and the smaller circle is for 10 power. The white arrow points at the planet Mars. Comet ISON is somewhat hard to see in this image, but it is the small red triangle near Mars. This image shows you that if you place Mars near the center of your binocular’s field of view, Comet ISON will also be in your field of view. If the comet is not bright enough or if your view site is not dark enough, then you will not see the comet; but it is still there, in your field of view.
Below is an image of Comet ISON taken by an amateur on August 12th. Although this image was taken through a large amateur telescope, you should be able to see a similar or better image of the comet using only simple binoculars. In the last few months it has traveled many millions of miles closer to us.
Throughout the month, the bright planet Venus is seen in the west as it moves through the constellation Scorpius and into Sagittarius. Be sure to look outside on the evening of the 8th, when Venus will shine brightly below a crescent Moon. If you have a simple digital camera, set it at its highest telescopic power. Then using a tripod, or bracing the camera on a solid object, you should be able to capture this lineup.
In its present position Venus is called the “Evening Star.” Venus has a path that causes it to rise higher each night in the west after sunset, and over a period of months retreat to set in the west. Then after a period of time, it rises in the east before sunrise (The Morning Star) and after a period of time retreats to set in the east. For a few months each year it is not visible at all. One thousand years ago, the scientists of Europe could not really explain this motion, because many scientists felt that the Earth was the center of the solar system. On this side of the Earth in Mexico a thousand years ago the Mayans plotted the path of Venus with great accuracy, and appeared to understand that it revolved around the Sun, and not around the Earth.
In the 16th century Copernicus offered evidence that the Sun was the center of the solar system, but Galileo was able to extend this proof by use of the first telescope. Galileo was able to see the planet Jupiter as a disk. However, he could never see Venus as disk, only as a crescent, or a half disk. This view was evidence that Venus was revolving around the Sun between the Earth and the Sun. You can check out Venus for the next few months as it goes through its various phases. Looking at the Venus phases in the image below, you can see why Venus appears so bright in October versus its appearance in December.
Naked Eye Sights: Throughout the month, the bright planet Venus.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Try to find Comet ISON as it moves past the star Regulus in the constellation of Leo.
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Only if you can find Comet ISON with your binoculars, you may then try to observe it through a telescope. If you can’t see it through your binoculars, it may be quite difficult to locate it with a telescope. Check out the phases of Venus.
See you next month!