Snapshot in Time

Another year is coming to a close and it is time to reflect on the great cosmic events we have seen, and all the fabulous people we have met on this galactic journey.

Most people assume astronomy, as a hobby, is sitting all alone in a field with a telescope in the middle of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes an empty field, a clear night, a telescope or pair of binoculars, and nothing but the stars to keep you company is an awesome experience. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Astronomy is a highly social network of night-sky enthusiasts that are very passionate about their hobby, offering endless amounts of free support for budding astronomers.

Technology has also made astronomy equipment dramatically more affordable and with a higher quality than ever before. Looking back 25 years to when I first got bitten by the astronomy bug, the cost for an 8-inch telescope with a motorized tracking mount, film camera, and accessories would easily set a person back the better part of $10,000. You also had to manually guide your mount for up to an hour by hand, so any miscalculations on your manual guiding would definitely result in a crappy picture.

Now, we can buy a telescope of far better quality, a computerized mount, and digital camera for about $1,500 second-hand in good condition. With the invention of the auto guider, we can lock our digital sites onto a star and the computer will follow our target all night long. The digital SLR camera has outperformed even better than the harshest critics could have predicted, and as a result we don’t have to go inside and spend time setting up a developing lab to see that we took a bad picture.

No, these days we can look at our picture on the back of our camera, or plug our camera’s memory card into our laptop, make the necessary adjustments and away we go, taking great photos.

The Internet has also proved a great resource especially for star charts and guides to local and international astronomy clubs. And for just about any problem that is astronomy- or astro-gear-related, there is a video on the topic on YouTube.

Even if you are rained out when you are heading out to a special event like an eclipse or meteor shower, all you have to do is head indoors, fire up your computer, and go on line and watch it live. It is not as much fun as actually being there, but it is an excellent alternative.

It’s been an amazing year for astronomy in the Yukon, with non-stop aurora shows brilliantly dancing across the night skies and even a meteor shower or two. Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, and little Mercury have been seen cruising around the night skies, accompanied by the outer ice planets Neptune and Uranus—we’ve had the opportunity to see all the major planets, even in binoculars.

Springtime, which is one of my favourite times of the year for observing, presented us with challenging weather. All the same when the skies did clear, it was a night sky that was so impressive it was worth taking wide-field photos.

On two particularly memorable evenings in early April this year, I had the opportunity to take three telescopes and go galaxy hunting for seven hours straight. Dozens of galaxies, star clusters, and nebula fell into view as the hours passed. My optics never froze up and even the computer was working fine. Observing well into the morning skies brought me a quick view of Venus and Mercury just before the sun came up off the horizon, making for one of the best observing sessions of the year.

Even as I am writing this column, there are amazing things happening in those Yukon night skies. Earlier this week, Jupiter and the moon were rising off the horizon together. The temperature was -34° Celsius with a 20 kph wind, so I grabbed my camera and a 400-mm lens, headed up to the roof and spun off about 30 shots. Then quickly down off the ladder into my nice toasty warm house. I always find it an impressive sight when you can see the full moon, Jupiter and her four moons in the same field of view whether in binoculars, or telescope.

So take some time and head outside and check out all those amazing Yukon Night Skies. Bring your binoculars or telescope, camera, and a Sky News magazine and settle back and just enjoy the view.

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

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