Springtime Galactic Encounters

With springtime soon to arrive, Yukon astronomers are gearing up for the event of the year: galaxy hunting season.

Unlike game hunting, you don’t need tags, and there is no limit. All you need is a clear dark sky and a pair of binoculars mounted on a tripod, or a telescope.

Much like paycheques and engine blocks, bigger is better. When it comes to hunting galaxies it is all about your telescope’s aperture. Larger aperture definitely offers bigger and better views.

Astronomers call this “the hunt for the little green fuzzies.”

Yes, the unaided eye can see a couple of galaxies as oval smudges in the night sky, but a pair of 10×50 binoculars will let you glimpse a dozen galaxies.

All you need is a binocular-to-tripod adaptor (which costs about 30 dollars), a medium-weight photography tripod, some star charts and a comfortable chair.

Giant 25×100 binoculars present amazing views of galaxies. These are very large binoculars with ample magnification and plenty of light-gathering ability.

When you are viewing with both eyes through these binoculars you can see 40 per cent more contrast. This is critical as galaxies are usually small, dim and a very secretive about revealing detail.

Even using giant binoculars, though, the observer usually finds the view falling a bit short of what they expected. To see a more detailed view with more contrast requires either a high quality refractor or a reflector.

For many astronomers it can be a difficult choice: do you choose a high-quality refractor or a reflector?

The differences between these two telescopes could not be more extreme. The small, high quality refractor fits into a nice compact case that can sit on the passenger seat of your minivan, while a reflector will usually fill the back of your minivan. Pricewise, the refractor has the highest cost per aperture ratio and the reflector has the lowest.

A high quality refractor, three to four inch in size, can be purchased secondhand for about $700-800, including a tripod. That same $700-800 dollars would buy a good quality 8-10 inch dobsonian reflector.

There is no argument that the high quality refractor has superior contrast in the views. But many people find the image is still not large enough.

For this you have the reflector: a cardboard sono tube built with a large mirror on the bottom, a small mirror on the top and an eyepiece. It’s certainly not a great looking telescope compared to the high quality refractor, which is built like a high power telephoto camera lens.

Yet with an eight or 10 inch reflector telescope many galaxies no longer look like little green fuzzy patches. Now spiral arms and dark dust lanes are clearly visible and easily seen.

A wide field telescope lets you see the galaxy and the surrounding region of space, at the same time presenting almost 3D views of these galactic cities of stars.

Some galaxies appear as molted patches of cloud floating in space, while others are well defined. There are many different kinds of galaxies including face on, irregular, and spiral galaxies to name a few.

My personal favourite is what is referred to as trailing galaxies. This is what happens when two galaxies meet each other.

To the observer it appears as if the two galaxies are joined. What is really going on is cosmic cannibalism as one galaxy consumes the other.

“So what does this have to do with us and the great Yukon Night Skies?” you ask.

Well, if you have looked up recently you will have noticed a change in the night sky constellations.

In the eastern night sky the constellation of Leo is now up. This lion of a constellation has a couple of notable points. The first is that it is home to many fine galaxies; the second is that it serves as the launching point into the Virgo Super Cluster of galaxies.

To an astronomer there are dozens of galaxies to be seen in an area of space that is about three binocular fields square. This large concentration of galaxies is seen in spring because we are now looking away from the Milky Way and all of its dust.

There are also other groups of galaxies waiting to be explored up in the constellation of Ursa Major (the Big Dipper). The real challenge is finding enough time and clear weather to be able to explore all of these amazing galaxies.

So take some time, a pair of binoculars or telescope, a Sky News Magazine, and head outside and discover the wondrous world of galaxies.

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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