Welcome to an exciting new year in astronomy that promises to be filled with fabulous cosmic events and happenings. The weather of late has been uncooperative at best, and just plain downright annoying the rest of the time.
In Whitehorse we were washed out by clouds for the total lunar eclipse and a meteor shower. It was only barely visible as far out as Marsh Lake. Apparently it was visible in Dawson, and some of the more remote locations like mining camps.
Venus is looking quite brilliant in the morning sky, and can be seen as late as 10 am. As of January 8, Venus was farthest from the sun, and highest in our sky. Now it is sinking lower and lower into the horizon. A welcome companion on the way to work in the morning.
In the evening hours look to the west, and just above the horizon you will see the giant of all planets, Jupiter. For the last week there has been a great view of Jupiter and her orbiting moons playing tag with our moon in the evening sky.
Enjoy the view while you can, as Jupiter is also sinking into the horizon and by the end of February will be absent from our night skies, for a while at least.
Now, for the top three objects in the night sky to see if you have access to a 4-inch or larger telescope. Not including the Orion nebula my first choice would be the Owl nebula, located at the bottom tip of the bowl, in the Big Dipper.
This little nebula appears as a greenish grey cloud that has two dark spots, giving the appearance of an owl’s face, a very cool sight.
Right nearby is the galaxy known as M108. This is an edge-on galaxy as we see it, with long and easily seen arms extending from a much brighter mottled centre. Even at 100 power this galaxy looks more like a Christmas tree ornament than a galaxy.
The third choice would be the best, the Whirlpool galaxy. This galaxy can be found under the first point star in the Big Dipper’s handle. By around 1 am, this part of the constellation is high in the sky and ripe for fabulous viewing.
The Whirlpool galaxy appears as two galaxies, but apparently this is only because of the angle at which we see it from our planet. All the same it makes for one of the best galaxies to observe, with massive spiral arms and dark dust lanes.
The constellation Orion is in its best position for viewing all this month. To locate the Great Orion Nebula, first find the three belt stars. Below the belt stars is a vertical row of stars. If you look closely you will see a slight smudge in the centre of these stars. This is the Orion nebula, and it is so massive that it can be seen with the unaided eye.
In a pair of binoculars the nebula begins to take on the appearance of a pale green cloud, and with a telescope the view is nothing short of jaw-dropping. Any telescope or spotting scope should provide plenty of spectacular views, including the Trapezium star cluster, nestled inside the nebula.
This nebula is the ultimate star factory, and the cloud that you see is being illuminated by the ultraviolet light emitted from young, hot stars.
If you are interested in stars you don’t have to look far. Orion is loaded with plenty of fascinating stars.
From the belt stars on the left hand, move upward and you will see the star named Betelgeuse, a brilliant red giant that is the largest star within 1,000 light years. This star is 15,000 times more brilliant than our own sun, and 800 times the diameter.
Returning to the belt stars, this time move to the star on the far right, and move downward to the next bright star, Rigel. This star is 50,000 times more brilliant than our own sun, and is actually a double star. This beautiful blue star is one of the most luminous stars in our galaxy.
The constellation of Orion is a treasure chest of cosmic jewels for any astronomer. Several nebulae, including the famous Flame and Orion nebula, reside here with open star clusters aplenty, and even a quadruple star. The best part is that even a small telescope can entertain an amateur astronomer’s interest for many evenings.
So take some time, a star chart, Sky News magazine and a pair of binoculars, and see for yourself what an amazing night sky we all share.
James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.