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 September 15th. For September, your best viewing nights will be from September 6th to the 20th. The Star chart below is set for Florence, SC on September 15th at 10 pm.
Curiosity Arrives at Mars:
I hope some of you stayed up until 1am on August 6th to be a part of the Curiosity Mission. The TV news coverage was not the best way to see this event; however, the live Internet stream from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was excellent.
So Curiosity succeeded in making an amazing soft landing on Mars, and from this month on, for at least two years, the Curiosity rover will move across the Martian landscape looking for signs of possible ancient life forms. Below is an image taken by Curiosity showing the distant mountains it will be visiting later this year.
Other amazing photos were taken by some of our satellites, which are orbiting Mars. Below is a photo showing Curiosity and the locations of other parts of the landing craft.
Finally, an unbelievable photo taken by one of our Martian satellites just after the parachute opened on the Curiosity lander.
As readers of my column, you must be amateur astronomers, or at least have some interest in astronomy. Imagine that you set up your telescope, click Neptune on a little controller, wait a few moments, and then look through your scope at the planet Neptune. You can buy telescopes that will do this for you; they are called GoTo telescopes. Although you can find any object in the sky, you will not learn the constellations or star names along the way. The only way to become an accomplished amateur astronomer is to use charts or computer star chart programs to help you find your way around the night sky. The method that is used to locate planets, galaxies and other deep sky objects is called star hopping.
This month let’s use the star hopping method to locate the planet Uranus with a pair of binoculars. The first image below is quite cluttered, so allow me to walk you through it. This image was taken from the Starry Night astronomy program, and shows the night sky on September 20th at 10 pm, looking east. To begin the star hopping method, you always first use your naked eye to locate an easy constellation or asterism, and then move your eyes toward your target of choice, in this case, the planet Uranus. For this search, the easiest object to begin your hopping is the constellation Cassiopeia in the upper left of the image below. Next move your eyes down and to the right to locate the center of the constellation Pegasus, which is the asterism, the Great Square. Now move your eyes below and to the right the Great Square and try to locate the circular asterism in the constellation of Pisces, known as the Pisces Circlet. Notice that the image below shows the positions of the planets Uranus and Neptune. I chose Uranus, because it is closer than Neptune, and therefore brighter.
Now it is time to switch to your binoculars. For this activity, I am using 7 X 50 mm binoculars. Note in the image the red circle around the Pisces Circlet. This red circle represents the field of view seen through your binoculars. It is interesting that the Circlet just fits inside the binocular field of view.
Next find the Circlet with your binoculars; it should look like the image below.
Note to the left of the Circlet the arrow points to a star with the prosaic name of Omega Piscium. Now “hop” over to that star and place it so it is located at 12 o’clock in your field of view (always imagine your field of view as the face of a clock). You should now see the image below.
Now notice at the 5:30 position there are two pairs of stars nicely lined up. Now move your binocular field of view so these two pairs of stars are near the two o’clock position; you should now see the image below.
Now in the exact center of your field of view is the planet Uranus, just to the left of a small white star. If the skies are clear and dark, you may be able to see the blue color of the planet.
Star hopping is a little more difficult with your telescope, but I use a simple trick to make it easy. It requires a green laser. First I set up the telescope at its lowest power, and aim it in the general direction of Uranus. Next I place the laser in one of my hands that is holding the binoculars. I then find the planet Uranus with my binoculars, turn on the green laser, and point it at the planet while still looking through the binoculars, and then someone else turns the telescope until they see the laser beam. As soon as they see the beam, I turn off the laser; works great!
Naked Eye Sights: Enjoy the summer Milky Way and the summer constellations as they slowly set this month.
Binocular Sights (7 to 10 power): Try to locate Uranus with your binoculars, using the information given above. Next try to locate Neptune this month using binoculars, star charts and star hopping (not an easy task due to the lack of easy to find constellations or asterisms).
Telescope Sights (60-100mm): Try to see Uranus as a blue disk with your telescope. If possible, use the binocular/green laser method to find the planet.