Mystery in the April Night Skies

It is Friday night, and everyone is waiting for a great northern light show.

The night skies are clear, and we are ready. After several hours, we are left disappointed; we have not seen even a single green spear of light, let alone a full display of aurora.

Heading down the hallway, my wife looks out the window: the show is beginning. Hurriedly we rush outside.

Wow, what a view! The Northern Lights started as a single green band shooting across the sky. Rising up from this green band of light arose twisting spears of aurora, looking very much like a graph. The spears rose and fell at different places along this green band of light for the next few hours before disappearing.

I do not know if I have ever been so mesmerized by an aurora display like that. Fascinated, I climbed the ladder and sat on the roof for the next two hours in a parka, and soaked up one of the most curious aurora sights that I have ever seen.

A few nights later, we were heading outside to see if there was any Northern Light action, and were witnesses to another truly amazing spectacle. As we were looking to the north, a large piece of something came streaking across the sky.

It looked like a meteor, but much brighter, looking similar to an Air North flight on final approach. It also left a fiery trail behind it, and just when the view couldn’t get any better, it broke into two pieces. From here, the two pieces raced toward the horizon and disappeared.

The total time for this eye-popping experience: 55 seconds.

What makes this a rather bizarre situation is that earlier in the week I had received a call from CBC Radio, they were wondering if there were meteor showers. They had received a call in regards to a couple of hunters up north, who also saw similar phenomena.

I also received an e-mail from a gentleman at Yukon College, who also saw the same event. So the question was, “What is it?”

Well it was not a plane or a satellite. It was not a meteor, and it was not a comet. It was not the International Space Station, because I have seen the ISS, and it is nowhere as big or bright, besides, it was on the other side of the planet during this event.

After a little research, the final two possibilities are man-made space junk or cosmic debris. Whatever it was, Earth’s gravity captured it, and as it broke up, upon entering the atmosphere, it disintegrated.

What a truly jaw-dropping experience!

The weekend is upon us, and it is time to head to Grey Mountain with the astronomy club and get some quality deep-sky observing done. You could not ask for more: clearing skies, no moonlight and lots of telescopes.

A few new people had come to join us and to see what was up … quite literally. They were in for a cosmic treat.

In the receding light, Venus and Mercury are resting over downtown Whitehorse, and Saturn was rising quickly, with Mars high overhead. Four planets in the sky at the same time: and easily located, how wonderful.

The night was one of the finest that I can remember in a while. Star clusters were sharp and well-defined. Galaxies easily showed their spiral arms, and planets were razor-sharp. Nebulas seemed to be brighter and more defined against the inky black night sky.

Some of my favourite deep sky objects in around the constellation of Cygnus the Swan are the Veil Nebula and the Dumbbell Nebula. By around 1:30 a.m., everyone had gone home, and Cygnus was rising higher off the horizon.

I turn up the music, got a fresh cup of coffee, grabbed my favourite eyepiece, and headed over to the 14-inch Dobsonian telescope (also known as a yard canon). The view of the Veil Nebula was astounding at a power of 200; I had to move the telescope to actually see the whole nebula.

It is also called the wedding veil, and tonight the reason was obvious. It actually looked like smoky delicate tendrils, interwoven together, forming a truly impressive sight. It took some time before I moved to my next target, the Dumbbell Nebula.

Now this little nebula can be seen in a small telescope, but makes for a really astounding view in a larger telescope. The actual dumbbell shape could easily be seen along with hints of a blue-green colour. The stars surrounding the nebula were razor sharp against the black night sky, making for the ultimate high-contrast view.

Double stars like Albireo, a beautiful orange-blue double star, and many more star chains, and star clusters, kept me busy until I noticed a glow from the horizon. It is called daylight, how disappointing! It was 5:35 a.m. and it was time to go home.

Right now, in the Yukon Night Skies, there is every kind of deep sky target, from galaxies and nebulas to open and globular star clusters, just waiting to be explored. These and many more fascinating sights await those who chance to look up.

So take some time and take a look for yourself. Better yet, head up to Grey Mountain, to the look out point on a Saturday night, and see for yourself … everyone is welcome.

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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