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 on September 29th. For September, your best viewing nights will be from September 1st through September 6th, and September 22nd through September 31st.
The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on September 15th at 9 pm.
September and October are often thought to be the best months for amateur astronomy. The high humidity of summer slowly leaves, giving clearer skies, but the evenings are still warm enough for enjoyable viewing. Due to these favorable conditions, many star parties are run in various places around the country. A 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. As many as 10 to 50 or more scopes may be set up in a large open field. 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 very dim distance 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 standard star parties, there are also public star parties. If you are new to astronomy, these are great events to attend. At a public star party, many if not most people come without a telescope. The amateur astronomers who have their telescopes set up let the general public view objects through their scopes, and help people learn more about astronomy. Green lasers are usually allowed, and are used to help people find various celestial objects. As you can see in the image below, green laser beams are highly visible at night. If you do attend a public star party, be sure to bring a pair of binoculars if possible. A knowledgeable amateur can point to an object with a green laser, and you just follow the beam with your binoculars to the target; a great way to find your way around the night sky.
So where do you find a star party? If you like to travel around the country, you will find many large star parties any time of year. Your best sources are magazines such as Astronomy, and Sky and Telescope, which give listings of star parties throughout the country every month. Locally, there is an astronomy club that has regular star parties at a location between Florence and Columbia. I have not visited this viewing site, but you can check it out at their website; http://www.midlandsastronomyclub.org/calendar.shtml. In the Florence area we are just initiating public star parties at Lynches River Park. To date, only one was held, last November (see image below), and one rained out this summer. Hopefully, there will be another public star party at Lynches River this fall. When the next party date is decided, it will be listed in the local newspaper, or you can contact Lynches River County Park.
We now officially have only eight planets. Besides the Earth, you can easily see five other planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Very few casual observers have ever seen the next planet beyond Saturn, Uranus. However, Uranus is visible to the naked eye, if you know where to look, and this month is a good time to see Uranus. Another plus is that at about 25 power and above, you will see Uranus as a beautiful blue disk. So where is it? Although it will be up all month, the better time to try for Uranus might be toward the end of the month, from the 22nd onward. The image below shows its position on September 25th at 10 pm, looking southeast. The best approach to locate this distant blue planet is to find the Pisces seven star “circulet.” If you can’t see this magnitude 4 asterism, then try a clearer night, or try a darker viewing site. The red circle in the second image represents the approximate viewing area of 10 power binoculars.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power):
Try for Uranus, but at 10 power, you will not see a disk. Under perfect viewing conditions you may see some blue color. For a special challenge, you might try for Neptune, which is also visible this month.
Telescope Sights (60-100 mm):
Try for Uranus, and remember to start at your lowest power. Look for the blue disk. Also, any time of the year that Jupiter is in the sky, you must check it out. You may find that it is one of those special nights that the surface bands are highly visible. Try to attend a star party.