So Many Stars, So Little Time

The month of May brings warm weather observing – parka not required – a pleasant change of pace.

It still gets frosty, though. Last weekend at the observing site (Grey Mountain Lookout Point) the temperature dropped to minus 6 Celsius.

It was supposed to clear off later in the morning hours, so I decided to head up to the lookout point early and get all my gear set up, which can take an hour or more.

After setting up, around 10 pm, I noticed that the night sky was still bright, and not with stars.

The night sky was not dark enough for observing until midnight. This means that observing is just about over – May will be the last month for observing those fabulous springtime Yukon Night Skies till fall.

As predicted, the skies cleared off a little after midnight, and what a sky!

No moon and clear weather means it’s time to go deep sky hunting. What a fabulous evening! There were galaxies aplenty. Spirals, edge on, and irregulars: cities of stars that fill the eyepiece, and leave one with a sense of wonder and fascination.

Starting first with the constellation of Ursa Major, also known as the Big Dipper, I explored what is referred to as the The Local Group. This is the group of galaxies of which we are a member.

As Ursa Major is basically direct overhead at zenith, which is the darkest part of the sky, the contrast and detail was as good as I have ever seen.

After cruising a dozen or so galaxies I decide to move onto the Virgo Super Cluster of galaxies. Though not directly overhead this amazing cluster of galaxies was resting in a dark region of the night sky and was high enough off the horizon to present endless views of galaxies.

One of my all-time favourite galaxies is called The Eyes. It’s a pair of two galaxies that look like the eyes of a cat, but they are joined, in an act of galactic cannibalism.

Markarians Chain is a spiral of galaxies resting in space just waiting to be explored. In a 4-inch telescope with a good eyepiece, 10 galaxies are visible, though some are fairly faint.

I was using a 14-inch telescope with arguably the best eyepiece made today, the Ethos. This outrageously-priced eyepiece ($850 plus tax) is made for the job of deep sky observing of faint objects.

With its wide field of view I counted 16 easily-seen galaxies and another half a dozen fainter galaxies, all serenely floating in the eyepiece.

The best globular cluster in the northern night sky, M13 in the constellation of Hercules, was presenting a better view than a photograph in a book.

The Ring Nebula, M57 in the constellation of Lyra, was a perfect smoke ring floating in space, easily seen even at low power in the telescope.

The Northern Cross, also known as the constellation of Cygnus the Swan, lies right in the middle of the Milky Way. It is jam-packed with some of the most beautiful double stars and star clusters found anywhere in the northern night skies.

A favourite double star is Albireo, the star that represents the beak in the swan shape. This star is actually a beautiful blue and gold binary star, and is easily seen as two stars, even in small telescopes.

The North American nebula, also known as NGC 7000, was faintly visible in binoculars. This nebula gets its name from resembling the actual shape of our continent, which is very cool.

This nebula can be photographed with a simple camera and tripod under a dark sky, but to see it in binoculars certainly speaks for the clarity of our night skies.

With clear skies and good transparency it was now time to observe one of my favourite nebulae, the Veil Nebula. This nebula is aptly named as it looks like the lace from a wedding veil.

In the big reflector at 100 power magnification the view was truly wondrous. Usually I have to use a special filter to see the faint intricate lacework of this nebula, but not this morning.

The Veil Nebula was formed by a supernova explosion about 30,000 years ago, and what you are seeing is the expanding gas and debris field.

Also found in the neighbourhood are several triple stars, targets that are easy in binoculars and small telescopes. The constellation of Cygnus and the surrounding region of space is jam-packed with amazing deep sky objects whether you have binoculars or a telescope.

It was now 5 am and the sun was beginning to rise, so it was time to go home. What a blast, five hours of observing every kind of deep sky target under perfect skies – life doesn’t get any better than that.

So take some time, a copy of Sky News Magazine, a chair and a pair of binoculars, and head outside to see those amazing Yukon Night Skies before they are lost to the ever-encroaching sun of summer.

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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