Cosmic Invaders and Leo the Lion

The constellation of Leo the Lion definitely seems to be where all the Yukon Night Sky action is.

Starting with Ceres, the smallest dwarf planet (formerly called the largest asteroid), will be making a close pass to Earth, a mere 250 million kilometres. This is as close as this little dwarf planet will be for the next 2,000 years.

The next time Ceres comes this close will be the year 4164, so they say.

Personally, I have never expended much energy and effort into hunting dwarf planets and large asteroids. With easily seen, grand cosmic treasures such as the Orion Nebula and the Hercules globular cluster, it seems a little bit underwhelming.

At least you can say you’ve seen a dwarf planet.

Through a telescope, Ceres will appear as a small bright star. The last few days of February it will be bright enough to see with binoculars. With an equatorial diameter of only 975 kilometres, you will need a star map to locate Ceres in Northern Leo (sounds really big until you realize how far away it is).

Also in the southern regions of Leo is the planet Saturn, the ringed gas giant. The planet’s rings are opening up a little more, offering a better and brighter view. You will need a telescope to see the rings, especially when they are nearly edge on, as they are now.

On March 8, Saturn is at opposition. This means Saturn now rises off the horizon at sunset (depending on your observing location) and will begin to rise earlier each evening. It will be a welcome addition to the early-evening sky as Venus sinks lower.

Comet Lulin is sailing quickly through the constellation of Leo, as well. This dirty little cosmic snowball is getting easier to see and is relatively simple to find. Though not sporting a huge tail, nor being very large, Comet Lulin is interesting to follow across the Yukon Night Skies.

On March 5, Comet Lulin will pass within two degrees of M44 (the Beehive Cluster). This open star cluster is easily seen with the unaided eye, presenting a rare opportunity to see a deep-sky object and a comet in the same field of view.

By using a large telephoto lens or a similar telescope/camera, you have all the basic ingredients for a fabulous photograph. All you need is for the weather to co-operate, a little luck and a good unobstructed observing site.

Don’t forget coffee, a comfortable chair, a table and some tunes.

On Feb. 27, the Moon and Venus are just 1.5 degrees apart. This will be my second attempt at the ultimate photograph. With the moon in crescent phase, there should be the right amount of moonlight so as not to wash out the detail of Venus.

This is an excellent photo opportunity for anyone with a camera of any kind, digital or film. I will use film because I’m looking for an abundance of detail. Film is good at coaxing out fine detail.

I will use also use a camera and tripod, with a wide field of view, and put the horizon in the picture. Next I will take pictures with a high-power telephoto lens (around 500 mm).

Then it is time to get serious and take multiple exposures through a small refractor. When the crescent moon and Venus are closest, I’ll switch to my trusty 8-inch telescope, basically a 2,000-mm camera lens.

To the unaided eye it will appear as though Venus will touch the crescent moon.

With binoculars (the bigger, the better), the view will be amazing. Though binoculars do not have enough power to show the current phase of Venus, this cosmic pairing still promises to be an impressive sight with craters on the moon visible and this bright planet skimming by.

With a medium- or high-power telescope, Venus and the crescent moon will be outstanding. Lunar craters, mountains and seas are easily seen and, of course, because you have the added power of a telescope, the crescent phase of Venus is visible.

Having had the privilege of viewing this event before, I am looking forward to it again.

On March 2 and 3, the waxing crescent moon will occult the Pleiades Star Cluster. What this means is that the waxing crescent moon will pass in front of the Pleiades Star Cluster, momentarily winking the stars from the star cluster in and out of sight.

This awesome event will take place over two days, around midnight, low in the western night sky.

Once again we have another excellent photo opportunity with just about any camera and lens. With this event taking place near the horizon, it should be fairly simple to find something interesting for the foreground of your picture.

With Rendezvous done for another year, take some time and head outside and see those amazing Yukon Night Skies. All you need is the newest Sky News magazine, a comfy chair, coffee and a pair of binoculars or a telescope.

Last note: plans for the Yukon Night Skies Star Party on March 13 and 14, at 8 p.m. at Grey Mountain Lookout, are progressing well. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather.

Remember, if you want to get involved in the International Year of Astronomy and the Yukon Night Skies Star Party, e-mail [email protected]

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

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