A Yukon Galileo Moment

As the International Year of Astronomy winds down, I am often asked, “What was it all about?” and “Was there anything to come out of it that the average person in the street could benefit from?”

The answer to that last one is a resounding, “Yes!”

Let’s take one question at a time.

The International Year of Astronomy (IYA) is a celebration of Galileo’s construction of a small, crude telescope and pointing it toward the heavens some 400 years ago. He also began to keep records of what he saw and published his theories in journals, which, by the way, just about cost him his life.

The United Nations provided major funding to various astronomy programs in countries all around the world. The idea was to interest more people in astronomy and all its wonders to people of all ages.

Another outcome from the IYA is to make people aware that we are living in times where the night sky is being overtaken by city lights. Even in Whitehorse we can see the encroaching lights from the city moving closer to our favourite observing sites. The darker the night sky, the better the observing: that is the golden rule, and light pollution is our enemy.

Now, as for the average person on the street in Whitehorse, there were several events and star parties that took place over the last year. The Parks Day and Canada Day events down at the S.S. Klondike presented an opportunity for a couple of hundred people to look through telescopes and talk about astronomy.

Members from the local astronomy club, Yukon Night Skies, were onsite to help out. Local people as well as people from as far away as Europe and Australia were all in attendance, sharing different stories and ideas. Even though the weather was not entirely co-operative, it was still a fascinating afternoon.

So, yes, the Yukon was represented in the International Year of Astronomy. Imagine that … the Yukon being involved in an international astronomical event. Things are looking up!

Another part of the IYA celebration was the Galileo Moment. A Galileo Moment is where you have that one defining experience when you look at the night sky with binoculars or a telescope. This moment can happen to anyone, from amateurs to professionals.

For some people it was seeing the rings of Saturn; for others, the craters and mountains on the moon. Other people’s imagination was fired up when they saw their first galaxy and realized there were millions and millions of stars in the glowing mass they were observing.

My Galileo Moment came as a bit of a surprise. It was in the middle of the week on a Wednesday and the sky was supposed to clear. Being that the weather had been atrocious for the last 10 days or so, I only took my little Borg refractor and 50-power eyepiece and put them on the front porch to cool down.

After an hour or so, I headed outside and set up my little telescope and tripod. With coffee in hand and my favourite chair, I was ready if the weather cleared. At first, a small hole in the clouds opened up and there were the Northern Lights, visible right in the middle of the hole in the clouds. It was one of the coolest things I have ever seen.

Suddenly, a brisk wind came from the south, and within 15 minutes the sky was cloud-free with a beautiful crescent moon rising above the horizon, silhouetting the trees in front of it. It was a magical moment to see the crescent moon, the silhouetted trees and a few bright stars in the background. The Northern Lights dancing overhead added to make the most memorable sight.

On the western horizon, Jupiter was blazing away, bright and unmistakeable. Her four moons and the cloud belts were easily seen and were crystal clear. I was amazed at how much detail was visible even at low power, and with the planet so close to the horizon.

Next, I moved on to star clusters, staring with everyone’s favourite, the Double Cluster. Two clusters of perfect pinpoint stars surrounded by the inky-black of space. I have been observing this double cluster of stars for over 15 years and this was one of the best views I have ever seen.

Upon investigating several other star clusters with the same impressive view, I came to the conclusion that the observing conditions and night sky were as good as it gets. The star clusters looked better than the pictures you would see in a book – just smaller. Awesome!

With the moon now settled below the horizon and the Northern Lights fading, the night sky turned truly night-sky black. This was the perfect time to go hunting deep-sky targets like nebulas and galaxies.

My first target was the Dumbbell Nebula in the constellation Vulpecula. This little cloud of gas floating in space looked as though it was in 3D. The surrounding star field seemed to make the image all the more impressive.

Moving onward, I set my sights on my two favourite galaxies, M81 and M82 (a.k.a. Bodes Galaxy and the Cigar Galaxy). These two galaxies never fail to present me with an impressive view.

Bodes Galaxy is a nifty little spiral or open-faced galaxy while the Cigar Galaxy resembles its name. The night was not to be an exception; both galaxies were easily visible and showed good contrast and detail.

During a coffee break I had to wonder, What was it like for Galileo and his small telescope … gazing into the night sky?

He would be able to see the craters and mountains on the moon, as well as a few planets. So much to discover and explore that it must have been a truly exhilarating experience.

Observing the night sky is a passion that spans the ages of time. People from all walks of life, young and old, have been lured by the night skies. Her cosmic treasures always fascinate us and help us to understand our place in the universe.

That was my Galileo Moment. You should definitely head outside on the next clear night with a pair of binoculars or a telescope and get one for yourself (your Galileo Moment). Bring a chair, a hot coffee and the latest issue of Sky News, and you are all set. Enjoy the view.

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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