Disappearing Skies and Planetary Photons

The clock is ticking, soon the Yukon Night Skies will disappear, and sunlight will dominate.

It seems like only yesterday that you had to rush out right after work to be at the observing site, before darkness falls … now darkness approaches after 10 p.m.

For the past week, I have enjoyed beautiful views of Venus, right off my front porch, every evening. Venus is resting low to the west northwestern horizon, and is easily visible as the brightest, and the first, object visible in this part of the evening sky.

The week before we were able to watch Venus and little Mercury slide across the horizon. Not only did this make for an impressive view, it also made for a perfect photo opportunity.

Venus will be with us for the month of May, and will offer an interesting sight on May 14 as it slides past the two stars that make up the tip of the bull’s horns, in the constellation of Taurus. Through a telescope, Venus doesn’t offer any truly spectacular views, but is always interesting as its phases change, like our own moon.

Between May 14 and 16, Venus and the moon will be hanging out together in the evening sky, about 45 minutes after sunset. This will make an excellent wide-field picture as Venus and the Moon will be framed in with giant red star Betelgeuse to the lower left, and the brilliant star Capella to the upper right.

Saturn has been putting on quite a show for those whom have access to a telescope. With the planet’s rings nearly edge on, there is now an opportunity to see more of Saturn’s moons: usually hidden by the rings. With a six or eight-inch aperture telescope you are suppose to be able to see eight moons, although I can only identify seven at best.

Saturn can be found in the southern sky, below the tail in the constellation of Leo, and in the constellation of Virgo. Like stars, planets are best viewed when they are highest in the sky. In early May, Saturn will be highest in the sky about two and a half hours after sunset; by months end, Saturn will be highest in the sky at sunset.

The brightness of Saturn will begin to diminish as the rings narrow their gap to a mere 1.7 degrees to us, as we see them. Some people describe the rings as looking like spikes, but I have always thought of them as thin pencil-like lines of light and colour. Enjoy the view, your next opportunity to see Saturn’s rings at such an extreme angle: another decade and a half.

Speaking of fading planets, Mars can be found in the southwestern evening sky, below the head of the lion, in the constellation of Leo. Noticeably brighter than any of the surrounding stars, and easily identified by its reddish colour, Mars offers little for viewing in a telescope at this time.

Now to answer a reader’s question: “What is the best setup for binocular astronomy, and what are the advantages?”

For binocular astronomy, you will need the following: a sturdy tripod (a heavy-duty camera tripod), binoculars, tripod adaptor, a comfortable bar-style chair, some star charts and a couple of books.

Let’s take a closer look at our list, first the tripod. The sturdier the tripod the better the view: I cannot stress this enough.

To give you an example, a few years ago I had a little 60-mm Tele Vue refractor. This is a high-quality instrument that performed well on a camera tripod. I decided to place the little telescope on a mount, which was designed to handle a medium-sized eight-inch telescope that I was working on. The view was shocking, normally the little refractor was usable to about 125 power. Now, after being placed on the much larger mount, at 250 power the view was sharp and contrast was excellent.

If you have a small tripod, or that is all that works for you, here is a helpful hint: take a red concrete block (the small ones with the holes in them) and using a bungee cord, hang it onto the bottom of the centre mast of the tripod. This added weight pulls the tripod tighter, making it sturdier and more stable.

Choosing binoculars depends on what you want to see. A pair of 10x50s is a perfect choice, as they offer a five-degree field of view, and 10-power magnification. They are light, and will let you glimpse bright nebula, galaxies, star clusters, planets as well as the Moon.

Other excellent choices include, 9×63 and 8×56 binoculars.

When you move up to larger binoculars like 20×80 or 25x100s you are dealing with higher magnification, but a smaller field of view. Also the exit pupil, the size of the light cone that comes from your binocular to your eye, is much smaller, making it tricky for some who wear glasses.

Are giant binoculars worth it? The answer to that question is a very resounding, yes! Owning 20x80s lets me see the moon in 3-D and plenty of galaxies and star clusters. Though deep-sky objects are small in appearance, they look awesome against the wider field of view, as compared to the narrow field of a telescope.

As for books, highly recommended is Touring the Universe through Binoculars, by Philip S. Harrington.

This book alone should give you everything that you will ever need to know about binoculars. As well as giving you an excellent target breakdown by constellation, this book is easy to use and understand.

If you have a pair of binoculars lying around, take them out one warm evening, and point them into those amazing Yukon Night Skies. There is an endless variety of deep-sky treasures waiting for you to discover them, and all you have to do is look up.

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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