Lasers, Photons and Northern Lights

Astronomy, the Yukon night skies, and non-stop springtime action go hand in hand.

After having cloudy skies and the odd snowstorm dropping by to visit, we are finally getting a long deserved break.

It all started on a frosty Tuesday evening, with the temperature hovering around -30 degrees Celsius, and a brisk north wind at 20 kph.

Normally I would not go out in these conditions in the middle of the week, but considering it had been awhile since my last observing session, I thought it best to head out to the backyard where I have some protection from the wind and take a quick peek.

A pair of 20×80 binoculars and a camera tripod was all I needed for this observing session. The wind was biting cold, so I knew I was not going to be out long.

The sky was clear, and the view amazing. Star clusters and star chains were pinpoint-bright, and the Orion Nebula presented one of the best views that I have ever had in a pair of binoculars.

After 45 minutes I decided to head inside for warmth and coffee. As I grabbed my binoculars and camera tripod, I glanced up and there for all to see were the Northern Lights beginning to dance low on the horizon.

Quickly I put the binoculars away and exchanged them for a couple of cameras in the hopes of grabbing a few pictures. Taking aurora pictures at my house is a little complicated to say the least. I have to put a stepladder on the porch, climb halfway up and use the roof on the addition to support the camera and tripod.

And there’s no protection from the wind at all.

The light show only lasted for a couple of hours but it was exhilarating to enjoy those amazing northern lights once again.

It was not as dramatic as some we have all seen before – those nights with huge spiral curtains of light, pulsing and arcing across the night skies – but it was truly a splendour to observe. And yes, I did snag a couple of photos.

That Saturday evening the weather was actually clear, so we headed up the mountain.

Once again, however, the windchill tempered our enthusiastic attitudes. After the usual tour of the Orion Nebula, the Double Cluster, and a few other deep sky treasures with the 14-inch telescope, we decided to do some photography for a change of pace.

Using a camera and a green laser pointer designed for astronomy, we have discovered a new method of showing readers the night sky and where to look. Follow the green laser in the picture and there you will see the Orion Nebula with your binoculars.

Upon arriving home from the Grey Mountain observing site early Sunday morning, I was treated to a fairly vigorous display of northern lights, and once again was fortunate enough to have a camera close at hand.

Up the stepladder, set up the cameras, and away we go. Again the display lasted a few hours, into the quiet still morning hours, making for an excellent photo opportunity and a powerful view.

Sunday proved to be eventful as well. The evening started out with Jupiter and the crescent moon sliding across the sky right in front of my front porch! It was crystal clear, and with the earthshine, this was another perfect photo opportunity.

It does not get any better than this. For the next two hours we watched as Jupiter and finally the crescent moon slowly slid into the horizon and vanished from sight.

Later in the morning hours, we were again treated to a quick northern light show. Luckily I don’t have to work on Monday, so I grabbed the camera and tripod, headed up the stepladder and began my next photo marathon. The show was all over by around 4 am, and so was I.

What a week – northern lights aplenty, planets on parade, crystal clear skies, all at the same time. We haven’t even started on the real spring night sky splendours like galaxies and nebulae. I guess we will have to save that for the next night out on the mountain. So many stars, so little time!

If you want to join us, send an email, or look us up on Facebook (type in Yukon Night Skies into the search box). If you have time and it is a clear night head up to the Grey Mountain lookout point on a Saturday night and come and see for yourself.

Clear skies!

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

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