Spring’s Rings and Things

This is the busiest time of the year for northern sky watchers. I like to refer to it as the changing of the guard.

Winter constellations are sliding lower into the horizon earlier each evening, soon to disappear for another year. The springtime constellations are up nice and high all night for excellent viewing, and if you are still up at 4 am you will see the summer constellations begin to climb higher off the horizon.

Saturn, the ringed gas giant, can be found in the constellation of Virgo, rising off the eastern horizon by midnight. By 2 am Saturn has moved to the southern region of the sky. With the rings angled at 8.7 degrees, the view is amazing.

For the last two years, Saturn’s moons have been lined up on one side or the other. With the rings at a greater angle from our vantage point on earth, the little moons are now sprinkled all around the ringed gas giant.

With a telescope, Saturn’s ring structure can be seen, notably Ring A, the outer ring.

Next is the Cassini Division, a dark ring that separates Ring A from Ring B; and finally, the ever-so-faint inner ring called Ring C.

Another impressive sight is the shadow of the rings on the planet’s cloud tops. Looking more like a thin pencil line, this shadow makes the view all the more interesting.

Saturn is currently about 1.3 billion kilometres from earth, and it takes 1.2 hours for the light to reach us. There is plenty to observe on Saturn for an astronomer, but a telescope is required if your wish is to see rings and moons.

What makes Saturn so inviting is its location in the night sky.

Moving your telescope or large binoculars several fields of view in a northerly direction you will arrive at the Virgo Super Cluster of galaxies. There are several groups of galaxies in the northern skies, but all of them pale in comparison to the Virgo Super Cluster.

This is every amateur astronomer’s treasure chest, as there is every type of galaxy to be seen here – and plenty of them, from beautiful face-on spirals to edge-on galaxies that look like small pieces of silver Christmas tinsel, floating in space.

There are also trailing galaxies or galaxies that appear to be joined. What is actually happening is that one galaxy is consuming the other in an act of galactic cannibalism.

On my last backyard observing session, the summer constellations of Hercules, and Lyra were visible by 2 am. It was a welcome sight to see M13, the largest globular cluster visible once again. This spherical island of 250,000 stars is about 25,000 light years from earth.

Though the skies were not dark enough to see this amazing star cluster with my unaided eye, in 10×50 binoculars the globular cluster appeared as a small greenish cloud.

In the 14-inch reflector the stars splashed across the entire eyepiece, presenting a jaw-dropping view.

Now on to a favourite: the Ring Nebula, also known as M57. Easily found in the constellation of Lyra, this nebula will require a telescope.

The best description I could give would be that it’s like a ghostly smoke ring floating in space.

A small high-quality refractor will let you see a cloudy oval shape. In a large reflector (eight inch or larger) you can see the smoke ring shape. It is made of debris expelled from the exploding star. This type of nebula is called a Planetary Nebula.

Making things even more interesting is the arrival of the constellation of Cygnus the Swan, also known as the Northern Cross, filled with nebulae and star clusters aplenty.

At the nose of the swan is the double star called Albireo. Even in a small telescope the view of the golden giant star and the blue dwarf star make for a dazzling sight.

Do you realize that in less than 10 weeks, as summer approaches, we will have no night sky again?

So now is the best time of the year to head outside, or up to the Grey Mountain Lookout Point some Saturday night and check out the view 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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