As the month of February begins, many people resort to moving indoors and miss one of the greatest light shows ever to be seen. The night skies are alive with cosmic happenings waiting to be discovered and explored.
In the early evening hours, look to the eastern horizon and locate the constellation of Cancer. Here you will find Mars, unmistakable with its red glow and sheer brightness in comparison to neighbouring stars.
Mars was at its brightest on Jan. 29, so still plenty bright enough to present a respectable view.
You will need at least a six-inch or larger telescope to see any surface detail. On the northern region, the polar ice cap is visible as a thin white line across the top. On the southern polar region, the same view is seen, but the white colour is not as clean, and the image appears to be soft. This is because it is not the southern polar cap, but clouds.
That is amazing; I have seen this before but never this clear and detailed. Apparently, clouds can occasionally be seen on the far eastern and western horizons as well, usually forming at the Martian sunrise and sunset, though I have never seen this myself. It is definitely something one would like to see or even photograph.
Sometimes, using a little blue filter can help make the clouds stand out more, making them easier to see. Unfortunately, there are no Martian dust storms predicted. For most people, they prefer no giant dust storms because it destroys any chance of seeing any surface detail, like a monster volcano and Great Rift Valley.
Myself, I was amazed at the size of the dust storm, and to actually be able to see this with an eight-inch telescope from Earth.
From Feb. 6 to 8, Mars will make a reasonably close pass to M44, also known as the Beehive Star Cluster. On a clear, cold, dark, moonless night, this open star cluster can be easily seen in the eastern sky. Use Mars as your guide because the red planet will move within three degrees of the star cluster.
This will make a visually pleasing view to the unaided eye but, in binoculars and small spotting scopes and wide-field refractors, the view becomes more impressive. As a pair of 10 x 50 binoculars have a five-degree field of view, you will be able to see both Mars and the open star cluster at the same time. Rust-coloured Mars slowly sliding by an open star cluster is truly a sight to see.
With Mars passing so close to an open star cluster, and the event taking place reasonably high off of the horizon, it presents an excellent photo opportunity. Currently, I am test-driving a 15-million-pixel Canon 50D digital SLR camera and am looking forward to trying it out in those amazing Yukon Night Skies.
Saturn is also making itself known in the night sky. Found in the constellation of Virgo in the eastern region of sky, you will have to be up around the midnight hour to view those most awesome rings and moons. You will need at least 50-power magnification to see the rings as anything more than a fuzzy orb. Even a small telescope can show amazing details of the ring systems; and, the bigger and better the telescope, the more fascinating the view.
Saturn is the most memorable of the planets for most people. More people have turned on to astronomy because of this ringed gas giant and all its spectacular views.
If you are looking for something different to seek in the night sky, how about an asteroid? All you need is a pair of binoculars or spotting scope and you can see Asteroid Vesta. On Feb. 18, Vesta will be at it’s brightest.
To locate asteroid Vesta, look to the eastern sky and locate the constellation of Leo the Lion. Next, locate the brightest star, Regulus, which is a simple task as it is many times brighter than neighbouring stars. Move your field of view in a northerly direction until you land at the double star called Algieba.
On Feb. 16, asteroid Vesta is one quarter of a degree under this cool double star making it easy to find.
So, after all this, what can you see? The last time I took a peek even in my big telescope, at high power, on a clear night, all I could see was a small pinpoint of light that looked like a distant star.
You have to realize that although asteroid Vesta is 530 kilometres in diameter and classified as one of the big four, it is also very distant. If nothing else, you can always say you have actually seen an asteroid … how many people can say that?
Though the weather has been trying on our patience, there have been a few brief moments of clear viewing, mostly done with my little refractor late at night. With the warmer weather, we are getting more cloudy nights. When it is clear — I have to admit I certainly don’t mind –10 verses the usual –30 — it makes observing a much more enjoyable experience.
So take some time, a lawn chair, a pair of binoculars and a Sky News magazine, and head outside to check out those amazing Yukon Night Skies.
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.