A Little Persistence and A Patch of Clear Sky

So how was the Yukon Night Skies Star Party, you ask?

The plan was to go Friday and Saturday evening, if the weather co-operated – and it did not. I decided to go anyway, just in case the weather cleared or in case someone showed up because they did not receive the astro-alert e-mail.

We have learned over the years that having everyone on an e-mail list makes things dramatically easier to manage. It is also a great way to stay informed as to when and where the next Yukon Night Skies Star Party or when cancellations will be.

So, if you are interested in astronomy and have ever wondered what it would be like to look through a telescope, just send an e-mail to [email protected] and we will add you to the list.

On Friday night, the weather was mostly overcast with a few small holes to peek through. All the same, Saturn made a spectacular appearance and the planet Venus presented me with a very rare picture-perfect view.

With me was my trusty, computerized eight-inch reflector and my little Borg refractor. The advantage to this arrangement is that I can do wide-field viewing, with the Borg refractor (truly outstanding), and medium- to high-power viewing with the eight-inch reflector.

After setting up all my gear and electronics, I quickly placed Venus in the crosshairs of my small refractor. Amazingly the image was crystal clear, which I found surprising considering that this bright planet was so close to the horizon.

As you look at objects close to the horizon, you are observing through more atmosphere, so the quality of the image degrades the closer to the horizon you are viewing.

On the other hand, the reverse is true: objects that are high overhead (referred to as zenith) have less atmosphere blocking your view, so they always present a view with more contrast.

This applies to binoculars as well as to telescopes of all sizes.

Next, I grabbed my trusty eight-inch reflector and told the computer to locate Venus. With a whir from the motors, the computer promptly swung the telescope mount around and placed Venus smack dab in the middle of the eyepiece.

Using a 200-power eyepiece, the view was pristine. A perfect circle the size of a dime, and razor sharp.

You could see the whole disc of the planet with a small crescent sliver of bright light being illuminated by the sun. The cloudy atmosphere was easily seen – and with detail. This was truly one of the finest views of Venus that I have ever seen.

Even though the view only lasted half an hour, it was definitely worth it.

Our next target for the evening is the ringed gas giant, Saturn. By 11 o’clock in the evening the planet was well up off the horizon and situated in a small, clear patch of sky.

Starting with my eight-inch reflector and using a 200-power eyepiece, the view, once again, was crystal clear. The rings were nearly edge-on, looking more like an edge-on knife blade resting in front of the planet.

As I snapped the power to 325 by using one of my favourite eyepieces, the view just got bigger and better.

Now the shadow of the rings could be seen on the planet, and subtle cloud banding was evident. Image size and quality were at its best. Unfortunately, clouds soon moved in and my hole in the clouds disappeared.

The viewing of Saturn lasted an entire 10 minutes, but it was a fascinating 10 minutes.

Comet Lulin was visible in binoculars, but just barely, appearing as a fuzzy star with no apparent sign of the tail. Putting the little Borg refractor on Comet Lulin made a dramatic change to the view.

By boosting the power, to just over 100 times, the green eerie glow of the comet and tail looked more like a picture you would see in an astronomy magazine. You could even see hints of increased brightness in the head of the comet.

Moving quickly, before the clouds closed in again, I swung my eight-inch telescope toward this cosmic invader. Though the view was not as sharp, it was dramatically larger and the head of the comet showed much greater detail with the core getting much brighter toward the centre.

Once again, I only had minutes at the eyepiece because the clouds were moving in on me again.

That was it for Friday evening: a total of less than one hour of good viewing in a four-hour observing session. Having only a few planets and a comet to play with for the evening is a little limited, but certainly a worthy endeavour.

Now, let’s talk about Saturday evening – or let’s not …

At six p.m., blue patches of sky were still visible from my house, and things could be worse – it could be snowing!

Surprise! It is 7 p.m. and it is snowing.

I quickly send the astro-alert e-mail and inform everyone to stay home tonight. Mother Nature wins. Thankfully, it seems most everyone got the e-mail in time.

Forever the optimist, I loaded all my gear and headed up to Grey Mountain lookout point. The road was a little tricky, but still drivable. Upon landing at the site and opening my van door, I was hit full in the face with strong winds and blowing snow.

As we sat around, we pondered setting up a small telescope to maybe get a quick peek at Venus. With the wind so strong, we decided against it. Then, as always, it started to snow and we called it a night.

Are we discouraged?

Even with just brief moments of viewing, it was still worth the trips up and down the mountain; after all, I have gone out more than once and been skunked. All we can do is try it again and hope the weather will co-operate with us next time.

Before the next planned Yukon Night Skies Star Party, I will be doing some testing and observing up at the Grey Mountain lookout point. If you are interested, send an e-mail and you will be notified of our next outing.

That’s all for now. See you on the mountain and, remember, take some time on a quiet, clear evening, to head outside and take in those amazing Yukon Night Lights.

Clear Skies, from James “Deep Sky” Cackette.

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

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