200 Billion Stars and Counting

April is upon us, and even though the weather is warm, and the sky is cloudy.

People always ask, “What is an northern astronomer to do on a cloudy night?” The first thing to do is apply the 5-Minute Astronomer Rule”.

The 5-Minute Astronomer Rule is having your binoculars or small telescope on the front porch and ready to go, with a tarp wrapped tightly around the scope and mount to protect it from the elements.

Next keep a short list of bright observing targets like, planets, the moon, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Orion Nebula and the Double Cluster.

Keep a close eye on the cloud cover above your observing site. Whenever there is a break in the clouds head outside and peek through the clouds. Make sure that your telescope or binoculars are all set up and ready to go, as you may only get a couple of minutes of observing in before the clouds come in and obscure your view.

You can also go to the Environment Canada Weather website and the Whitehorse Clear Sky Clock website and see the radar maps. With the wind speed, direction and a little luck you should be able to determine whether or not you might get some open sky to play in.

This may sound like an exercise in futility and frustration, but I have found it works very effectively. I have had fabulous views of Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, the moon, and the Orion Nebula through a hole in the clouds.

The view is nothing short of spectacular if you can include a little of the cloud in your view, it adds a 3D surreal effect that is unparalleled.

When you are outside look directly overhead and you find the constellation of Ursa Major, also known as the Big Dipper.

Ursa Major, or the Big Dipper, is directly overhead right now IMAGE:

Right now is the perfect time to explore this deep sky target rich environment, and the reason for this is because whenever you are looking straight up (also known as zenith) you are looking through the least amount of horizon, therefore less interference, giving you more contrast and detail in you eyepiece.

With a pair of humble binoculars, 7×50, or even better, 10×50, there is much to see in this constellation. Start with the second star in the handle and you will see it is actually a double star named Mizar and Alcor.

Mizar itself is a double star but you will need giant binoculars or a small telescope to see its nearby companion star.

Next go to the point star of the bowl of the Big Dipper, known as Dubhe. Moving at a 40 degree angle, a few binocular fields of view to the northwest, you will come across a couple of little fuzzy orbs resting in the night sky.

These are the galaxies M81 and M82, the night skies brightest pair of galaxies.

M81 is a face on spiral galaxy that is 53,000 light years in diameter, and is seven million light years distant. In a telescope of medium aperture, this galaxy is large, bright, with a much brighter nucleus or center. Best of all the spiral arms can also be seen.

On the other hand M82 is classified as an irregular galaxy because of its shape. In binoculars it looks like a smallish greenish-grey pencil line. In a telescope there are gnarled and twisted dust lanes to see, along with the surrounding outer shell.

This galaxy is less than half the size of its neighbour, 22,000 light years in diameter, and seven million light years from earth.

These galaxies are worth seeking out in any instrument from binoculars to telescopes, and if you have excellent vision and a good dark sky, you maybe able to see M81 with the unaided eye!

If you are used to seeing stunning images of galaxies on your computer and astronomy magazines then you are familiar with the Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as M51. Even in large 20×80 binoculars this galaxy is but a faint smudge, even in excellent seeing conditions.

In a six-inch or larger reflector, or a high-quality refractor the view is one of the finest sights in the night skies. This galactic duo of galaxies is 122,000 light years in diameter, and is 35 million light years distant. M51 is about the same size as the Andromeda Galaxy, but is much further away and may contain as many as 200 billion stars.

This galaxy is the easiest to see spiral arm structure, but does require dark skies, and high power. In larger telescopes a bridge of stars seems to connect to another galaxy which is much smaller and fainter than its famous neighbour.

So take some time on a warm clear spring night, and head outside and see for yourself. The springtime night skies are action-packed with planets, meteor showers and cosmic wonders aplenty!

Clear skies!

James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at [email protected]. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.

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