Welcome to 2009, the International Year of Astronomy. This event celebrates Galileo’s first look at the night sky with a telescope, over 400 years ago.

Imagine the rush of excitement and discovery he must have experienced seeing, for the first time, the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter and an endless bounty of lunar highlights such as mountains and craters and vast lunar seas.

Can you remember the first time you saw Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons or the craters of our own Moon, through a telescope? I certainly remember, and it left a strong impression on this humble backyard astronomer, and this is my story.

Many years ago, when I was 10 or 11, my brother received a small three-inch refractor for Christmas. On weekends, we went to my parents cabin in Manning Park (about a two-hour drive from Vancouver), in southern British Columbia.

Incidentally, this location is about a mile from M.R. Ken Hewitt-Whites’ remote-observing site. Ken is a writer, author and avid astronomer whose columns I enjoy enormously. His columns can be found in Sky News magazine.

Anyways, nearby was an old emergency aircraft landing strip. As far as light pollution was concerned, the nearest power source was a mere 30 miles away. The skies were dark and clear, with the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. And, in winter, the stars were so bright that they actually illuminated the snow-covered ground.

The view of the night sky was pristine. Planets were small but razor sharp in the eyepiece, and star clusters spilled over the field of view. Galaxies actually showed some detail and nebulas seemed to fill the sky. When looking at the Moon, your eye would tear up, it was so bright.

Remember it? How could I possibly forget?

This is what the International Year of Astronomy is all about: young and old, experiencing that same thrill and rush of excitement, viewing the night sky and all its treasures.

Starting on March 13 and 14, around 8 p.m., Yukoners are invited to a Yukon Star Party. We will hold this event at Grey Mountain lookout, as it is easy to get to and the observing can be most excellent.

Anyone who has a telescope or wants to volunteer, or is just plain interested in astronomy, should contact me, James Cackette, at yukonnightskies@yahoo.ca.

This is an opportunity to show the world what incredible Yukon night skies we enjoy and why they should protect their own dark skies.

Our night skies are alive with celestial happenings, so lets catch up on the local night-sky activity.

Venus is putting on a great show, at the moment, and is easily visible as early as 4 p.m. With phases like our moon, Venus is an observational treat. In January and February, the disc grows in size and appears as a mini quarter moon.

In March, as Venus swings around the other side of the Sun, the phase will look like a thin miniature crescent moon. By around 6 p.m., she sits high in the western sky and looks like an airplane about to land. From my observing location, Venus disappears off the horizon around 8 p.m.

Around midnight, the ringed giant, Saturn, rises in the east (just south of the constellation Leo) and presents an interesting and unique view. With the rings of Saturn nearly edge on, this planet takes on a whole-new dimension.

You can still see the rings, but they look like a knife blade slicing right through the middle. With a high-power telescope, we can see more of the planet because its rings are not blocking the view.

Besides planets, the sky is filled with galaxies waiting to be explored. The other evening I went out at about 2 a.m. and was pleasantly surprised to find the weather at a balmy 3 degrees (not –38), with reasonably clear skies. The wind was a bit strong at 10 kph, but did not affect my new mount in the least.

I admit, having a computer-controlled telescope makes hunting galaxies short work. In a span of a couple of hours I had observed dozens of galaxies, many which were new to me. Nebulas and star clusters were a click away on the hand controller.

Though the sky was not optimal for observing, I cannot remember the last time I had seen so many deep-sky treasures in one observing session.

So let’s get involved with the International Year of Astronomy, and get outside and check out those amazing Yukon Night Skies.

Clear Skies, from James “Deep Sky” Cackette.

James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at yukonnightskies@yahoo.ca. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.