Comet Hartley and Starfest

We are back from an astronomical holiday and raring to go. It is great to be back in such dark Yukon skies with no light pollution.

Upon arriving home and taking in the Yukon Night Skies, it is reassuring to see all of the familiar constellations like Cygnus, Lyra, Cassiopeia and Pegasus.

Jupiter and her moons in the southern skies around midnight, and the Milky Way majestically stretching across the night sky, makes for a wonderful welcome home.

So, what’s new in those Yukon Night Skies? Well, how about a comet?

Comet Hartley 2

This incoming snowball was discovered in 1986 by Australian astronomer Malcolm Hartley and orbits the sun every 6.4 years. Soon to be visible in the Yukon Night Skies, this comet will be easily seen from September, to about the third week in October.

At it’s brightest, around Oct. 18, Comet Hartley will be a mere 18 million kilometres from Earth. The best time for viewing Comet Hartley without a telescope will be in October between the 8th and the 11th. If you wait until later in the month, you will have the moon interfering with your view.

So how bright will Comet Hartley be? Comets are notorious for disappointing amateur astronomers everywhere, but there are some comets that live up to their brilliant reputations. Let’s hope Comet Hartley is one of these.

I will keep a close eye on this comet, as weather permits, and will keep everyone updated.

To find Comet Hartley in the Yukon Night Skies, you will need a telescope or large binoculars for the first three weeks of September as the comet moves from the constellations of Lacerta and Andromeda, and then moves into Cassiopeia in the last two or three days of September.

From there on, I am hoping the comet will be visible to the unaided eye or, at least, binoculars.

Starfest 2010

As you know, I was asked to be a keynote speaker at Starfest 2010. “So how was it, you ask?” The words “awesome” and “awe-inspiring” come to mind.

After a three-hour ride north from Toronto, with a beautiful German shepherd (known as Miss Ellie) to keep us company, we arrived at Hanover and our hotel room. We had been travelling for over 14 hours and the hotel was still half an hour from the observing site.

The next morning we were picked up by our chaperone and promptly whisked away to the observing site. It was a scenic drive through farmlands and old brick buildings.

We arrived at River Place Park, which is an RV and camping facility about the size of the Whitehorse Airport. It was enormous! I had never dreamed of seeing so many telescopes, and astronomers, both amateur and professional, in my life.

I have been to other star parties but this was a whole new experience.

There were rows upon rows of people, RVs and telescopes. We were completely overwhelmed.

We walked around and got comfortable in our surroundings. All of the vehicles were in nice neat rows with clearly marked slots. We were among rolling green grassy hills, with lots of space, an outdoor swimming pool and a hamburger and hotdog stand called the Red Light Café that stayed open until 2 a.m.

I thought that we had died and gone to heaven.

Our first lecture was at 4 p.m., so we had a few hours to walk around and talk to everyone, while enjoying all of that fantastic astronomy gear. Everyone was friendly and very interested in Yukon-style astronomy, and how it was done up there in the Great White North.

It was time to do the lecture and we were nervous. We only recently acquired a new laptop, and a new operating system, which we were unfamiliar with. The idea was to have my wonderful wife, Cathy, operate the new laptop doing a slide show, while I was up on the stage giving descriptions and telling the story of extreme astronomy in the Yukon.

To have a computer malfunction at this time would be catastrophic. In the audience were the authors of most of the books in my astronomy bookshelf. I needed this presentation to come off without a hitch … and lo and behold it did.

The presentation went for a little over an hour, and afterwards I was bombarded by questions from the audience.

Next we headed out to meet my dear old friend, Allan, whom I have only talked on the phone with and e-mailed for the last 10 or 12 years.

We found him and the group and, after a rowdy greeting, I stood back to see what was in the local field for astronomy gear. Wow! Three 16-inch truss-style Dobsonian telescopes, all homemade with extreme precision.

The Persied Meteor shower was happening that night and well into the morning. There were plenty of fireballs to see, and the temperature was about 25 degrees Celsius with a slight wind.

Living in the north means that many southern deep sky objects never get seen by amateur astronomers in the Yukon: constellations like Sagittarius and Scorpio never peek their head above our horizon. These constellations are absolutely jammed packed with nebula and star clusters making this region of the sky the ultimate hunting ground for any astronomer.

For the first time in my life, I was taken for a tour of the deep sky, and all with the best telescopes and eyepieces. Nebula, star clusters and galaxies were seen in abundance and the view was razor sharp and rich with contrast. Jupiter, Uranus, Mars, Venus and Mercury were all in the sky.

Some of these telescopes were so large you needed a small stepladder to see through the eyepiece. We observed well into the morning hours before sleep got the better of us, and we finally returned to our hotel room.

The first day is now done and we have to get ready for the next three days. The adventure gets better if you can believe that, but we will get into that in Part 2 of the Journey to Starfest 2010.

Don’t forget to get out side and enjoy the magnificent 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.

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