Flaming Dustballs and a Fistful of Planets

As winter sets in, the planets are making a spectacular showing. In the morning hours, the planet Venus is clearly visible even at 7 a.m.

While waiting to take the bus to work in the morning, I happen to look to the eastern horizon and, much to my surprise, resting high above the horizon, brilliant Venus. Even in daylight this bright planet is still visible.

Enjoy the view as, by late November, Venus will be disappearing behind the sun and no longer visible.

Mars is becoming brighter as the frosty winter days get shorter and shorter. The little red planet can be found in the eastern evening sky, in the constellation of Cancer, and moves into the constellation of Leo, in December.

Every 26 months or so, Mars and the Earth pass each other: this is called opposition. This is when amateur astronomers can get their best views in a telescope, when Mars and the Earth are closest to each other.

Not all oppositions are the same; for example, the 2003 opposition brought Mars to within 56 million kilometres and made for some terrific viewing. The next opposition of Mars will be Jan. 27, 2010, but the little red planet will be 99 million kilometres away.

What this means to Mars observers is that it will be much more challenging to see planetary detail. In early December, Mars will be large enough and bright enough to offer a glimpse of the polar ice caps, usually the first surface object seen on the planet. With a good-quality telescope and stable viewing conditions, the patient observer will see subtle details like clouds and dark surface patches.

If you are out hunting planets in the evening, then you will be starting early and looking low to the south, to the constellation of Capricornus, for Jupiter. If you cannot see the constellation, don’t worry, Jupiter is many times brighter than any star in that region of the night sky, making it easily recognizable.

Jupiter is quite low in the sky and very bright, so head outside early in the evening as this king of planets drops below the horizon soon after it gets dark. As the night sky turns from dusk to night, the viewing is best. Objects that are closer to the horizon always offer a more distorted view because you are observing through more of Earth’s atmosphere.

That being said, the cloud bands and those amazing four Jovian moons are still presenting amazing views to the curious observer. Jupiter is an easy target to locate and always has something fascinating to see, even in binoculars or a spotting scope.

As for the outer planets, Uranus and Neptune, you need to be observing in the Pisces and Aquarius regions that are found in the southwestern evening sky. Uranus is seen in binoculars and small telescopes but appears only as a small green circle, at best.

Neptune can be found in the eastern part of the constellation of Capricornus, in the evening Yukon Night Skies. You will need giant binoculars, 20x100s, or a small telescope to see this elusive, distant blue planet. As for what you will see, it will be a small blue disc with no detail visible from our humble collection of telescopes … but a very cool colour of blue.

Now, for the most popular celestial event in November, the Leonid Meteor shower. So what is the Leonid Meteor shower? A comet by the name of Temple-Tuttle went sailing through our solar system, in 1466 and in 1533, leaving dust trails behind.

Now, as our planet orbits the sun, we are carried right through the comet’s dust and debris fields. As these small particles of dust enter our atmosphere at enormous speed, they burn up (this is what you are seeing).

The larger the particle of dust or debris from the comet, the brighter and longer-enduring the meteor will be. The “Leonid” part of the name derives from the fact that the meteors appear to emanate from the general direction of the constellation of Leo.

Starting on the nights of Nov. 16 and 17, the Leonid meteors will be sailing through our Yukon Night Skies. With a new moon, there will be little or no interference from moonlight – good fortune indeed.

Grab a lawn chair, some hot coffee or hot chocolate and a parka or sleeping bag. It helps to find a good, dark observing site shielded from the wind as a cold wind can make any observing session unbearable. Another wonderful thing is that you only need your eyes to enjoy this meteor shower: binoculars and telescopes are not required.

To view this amazing light show, head outside around 11 p.m. and look to the east and locate the constellation Leo. Next, shift your view higher in the sky to zenith overhead.

At first there will be a few meteors visible, and then, around 11:30 pm, there will be a surge of activity that could produce as many as 200 meteors per hour, or so they predict. When it comes to predictions, realize that is all they are – predictions!

I have witnessed many meteor showers and have heard many predictions such as these, and I certainly did not see 200 meteors. I have seen 65 meteors in an hour once, about five years ago. The next surge of meteors takes place at 1 a.m. on Nov. 17. In this outburst, they predict as many as 25 to 30 meteors per hour.

During these periods of peak activity, it makes for an excellent opportunity for trying your hand at astrophotography. All you need is a camera with a shutter setting of about 1 or 2 minutes – and a tripod.

Next, set your ISO to 400 or 800 and use a 24-millimetre to a 50-millimetre lens. Point your camera in the region of sky with the most meteors and keep shooting exposures and, if you are lucky, you might capture a Leonid zooming across your picture.

Remember when you are using a digital camera to use a large memory card 8 or 16 megabytes, if you have one. The more pictures you take, the greater the chances you have of capturing the perfect shot.

So take some time and brave the Yukon winter to go and see a truly amazing spectacle that’s always impressive, the Yukon Night Skies. As a final note, the gates to the Miles Canyon Road are closed, so the Yukon Night Skies Astronomy club will now be using the Grey Mountain Lookout for an observing site. If you have any questions, please feel free to e-mail me at [email protected]

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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