A Comet, a Hunter and a Charioteer

As the International Space Station (ISS) approaches completion, it is so bright that some observers have glimpsed it during daylight hours.

To do this, the sun must be low in the sky. To find out where to look in the sky, go the website www.heavens-above.com and dial in your location. They have an excellent chart that tells you when and where in the sky to look and how long it will be visible. There is also a picture showing you the current position of the ISS.

Comet McNaught can be found high overhead in the night sky in the Camelopardalis constellation near Ursa Minor, and is worth taking a look at if you have a small telescope. First, find Polaris; next, move a couple of finder fields south and look for a small fuzzy patch of light that resembles the head of a cue tip.

On Friday, Oct. 9, NASA intentionally crashed the Centaur booster rocket into the lunar crater, Cabeus, and shortly afterward ploughed the whole satellite into the crater. After the crash, there was a huge plume of dust and debris expelled in a dust cloud measuring six to eight kilometres wide.

These huge dust clouds, from the impact, were supposed to be visible from earth in 10-inch and larger telescopes. Unfortunately, only an orbiting satellite was able to detect them. This event could have been viewed from Whitehorse if the dust plumes were large enough and the weather was co-operating.

Unfortunately, the weather was overcast. Cosmic collisions are my favourite observing targets. I have seen a comet break up and collide with the planet Jupiter, and there are many galaxies that are colliding with each other that can be seen with even a modest telescope.

Why? you ask would NASA want to drive a perfectly good satellite into the moon?

This is not a case of “bad driving”. NASA wants to examine this debris and see if they can detect frozen ice particles.

Having a source of water in any form would dramatically help to increase the possibility of constructing a lunar base of operations. The cost of one litre of water transported to the moon is $30,000; so, would you like a litre of drinking water or a new car? Think about that the next time you go to get a big drink of water at the kitchen sink.

The latest update I have is that the NASA team of scientists is calling the experiment a smashing success, but have yet to release any information as to whether or not they have detected ice particles.

Those amazing Yukon Night Skies are full of surprises for anyone interested in viewing cosmic wonders. In the early morning skies, around 2 a.m., you will see the familiar constellation of Orion gracing our sky. This constellation holds some of the finest deep-sky objects for viewing.

Orion is home to some really big stars. The first star that is noticed is Betelgeuse, found at Orion’s left shoulder. This massive red star is 300 to 400 times the size of our sun and is so bright it can be seen from downtown Whitehorse or Vancouver. Now, as we look at the beautiful blue-white star, Rigel, found at Orion’s right foot, take a moment and realize that this star is 57,000 times brighter than our own sun.

These super-sized suns make for an impressive view in any binoculars or telescope, so take a few minutes to sit back and enjoy the view.

Everyone’s favourite deep-sky target, the massive Orion Nebula, is, as always, presenting jaw-dropping views. This nebula is so bright that it can be seen as a small cloudy patch of light below the middle belt star. In binoculars, this cloudy shape starts to take form, but in a telescope, the view is nothing short of awe-inspiring on a clear, cold Yukon night.

Tendrils of cloud snake their way across the eyepiece, and different layers of cloud are easily resolved in remarkable detail and contrast. As if that were not enough, there is a small star cluster sitting right in the middle of the nebula.

In my 14-inch reflector, yellow, green and hints of a soft pink are also seen. I have spent an entire five-hour observing session locked in on this most impressive nebula. Take a look and you will quickly understand why the Orion Nebula is called the Jewel of the Northern Sky.

After checking out Orion, take some time to locate the constellation of Taurus, in the eastern morning sky. As you are looking at the constellation, you will easily notice the brightest star, Aldebaran, due to its size, brightness and reddish colour.

Next, move a few binocular fields to the left and one binocular field up and you will see a small fuzzy patch. This small fuzzy patch is the Crab Nebula, which is a supernova remnant.

A supernova occurs when a massive star explodes. This explosion was so bright that is was seen from earth in AD 1054, long before the telescope was invented. It is said that it was so bright that it could be seen for the next two years in the night sky with unaided eyes and that it was visible during daylight hours for almost a month.

This explosion was actually recorded by the Chinese and on cave art drawings found in the American southwest.

The Crab Nebula is visible in binoculars, and in small- to medium-aperture telescopes as a small fuzzy patch. It takes a large telescope to see the cloudy complex structure that photographs show us. Overall, a disappointing target without large telescopes, due to its small size and minimal detail, but still a fascinating sight.

If nothing else, you can say that you have seen where a pulsar, the Crab Nebula Pulsar, resides, even if you cannot actually see the pulsar.

The constellation of Auriga is also found in this region of the night sky. This constellation can be found a few binocular fields above the Crab Nebula and holds three open star clusters known as M36, M37 and M38. These star clusters are visible and are easily found with even the most-basic of star charts and binoculars.

The brightest of these three open star clusters is M37. In small telescopes and large binoculars, this open cluster presents a superb splash of stars in the eyepiece. The other two star clusters appear as small cloudy patches in binoculars, but take on a whole new perspective when viewed in medium- to large-aperture telescopes. A truly wonderful field of stars closely knotted together, rich in detail and contrast.

These are a few of the amazing Yukon Night Sky treasures that await us, and many more are on the way. So take some time and a thermos of hot coffee or hot chocolate, and head outside and check out those amazing Yukon Night Skies.

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