Springtime Star Party: The Clock is Ticking

The month of May is a time of furious activity for Northern amateur astronomers. We are closing in on the time when the night sky will soon disappear only to be replaced by our local star, the sun.

The exciting part of this time of the year is that the temperature is warm and our favourite observing sites, such as Miles Canyon, are open for Yukon amateur astronomers to take full advantage of.

The Miles Canyon Lookout Point is a textbook observation site.

Upon arriving at the lookout point, you will notice that the city is to the north and the city light is blocked by a rising bank of trees that present minimal light pollution.

The view to the south is huge. The only objects in your field of view are the distant mountains. You are also high off of the water, so water vapour is not a problem for telescopes, binoculars and optics.

More than once, when I have gone to the lookout point, I could see the Milky Way stretch from horizon to horizon. Massive star fields and star clouds are easily seen with the unaided eye and, in binoculars, you can see layers of stars. Awesome indeed.

Laptops can now be used out in the open and your hand controller for your telescope can now be freed from its custom-made warmer case. The hand controller for the telescope is now much easier to use and to read: how I do like spring!

On the local planetary scene, there is lots of action.

As evening sets, look to the southwest for the constellation of Leo. Saturn is easily found because it is the brightest object in that part of the sky. The best time for viewing Saturn will be about 2 a.m. as it will be high off the horizon by this hour.

Until May 10, we have an opportunity to see stray meteorites from the Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower. Although this meteor shower is best viewed in southern skies, there will be a few meteorites sliding through our wondrous Yukon Night Skies. This shower produces large meteors with long trails following them – a most-impressive site.

The cause of this meteor shower is cast-off dust that was once part of Comet Halley, and now the Earth’s orbit is moving us through this dust. When these little dust particles hit our atmosphere and burn up, they are cruising at nearly 150,000 miles per hour.

As springtime advances, there is a changing of the constellations (a.k.a. the changing of the guard): Lyra, Hercules and Cygnus are now making an appearance in our night skies. These constellations are full of deep-sky treasures for any curious night-sky explorer armed with binoculars or a telescope.

The first springtime favourite cosmic jewels to explore is the globular clusters in the constellation Hercules: the most famous of these is M13, truly an amazing spectacle to observe.

With binoculars, you will see a green fuzzy cloud, but with a small telescope, some stars start to resolve. This can be a stunning view as this globular cluster rests in an impressive field of stars.

With medium- and large-aperture telescopes, the view is not one that you will soon forget. The eyepiece is absolutely filled with brilliant suns that seem to go on forever. It is truly one of the greatest sights in astronomy. Even a camera cannot do this view justice; it must be seen with the eye.

There is also another interesting globular cluster in the constellation of Hercules: M92. This cluster can be found up and to the left of M13. Although visible with binoculars, as a small greenish smudge, this cluster is best viewed with a four-inch or larger telescope. It requires high power and still night air but, when it happens, the view is pristine.

This cluster is compact and compressed toward the centre, making high power a must. Fortunately, this little globular star cluster can take high power very well. Although smaller in size and brightness than its famous brother, the view, in some ways, is far-more interesting.

With the constellations of Hercules and Lyra ascending higher off the horizon each evening, Cygnus will soon follow and rise higher in the night sky. Cygnus and the surrounding area of space offer the richest treasure-hunting for amateur astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere.

Nebulas and gas clouds abound here in all of their beauty. An all-time favourite of mine, the Veil Nebula, is appropriately named. Cloudy tendrils interlace and snake their way across the eyepiece and present your eye with a view that is truly spectacular.

Numerous, beautiful double and triple stars can be found in this region of space, of which Albireo is one of the more famous and impressive. First, locate Cygnus (a.k.a. the Northern Cross). Then move your binoculars or telescope to the very bottom of the cross and you will find you are looking at Albireo, a beautiful orange-and-blue double star.

Moving your binoculars down and to the right, you will spy another cosmic oddball, the Coathanger Star Cluster.

When viewed using binoculars or a wide field telescope, this star cluster resembles its name in appearance. A perfect coat-hanger shape and outline floating in space – rather bizarre, indeed. Surrounded by a rich star field, the view brings a smile to my face every time I see it.

As I move my telescope to the left, several degrees, I will find the globular cluster M71. It is not very big, or very bright, and the stars are very loosely sprinkled across the eyepiece. This is one of the smallest globular clusters in the night sky and looks more like an open cluster.

Now, for the grand slam of deep-sky targets, M27, commonly known as the Dumbbell Nebula. This is the brightest planetary nebula in the sky.

Visible as a small smudge in 7 x 50 binoculars, the view is best in larger instruments. From refractors to reflectors, the view is always jaw-dropping. Under clear skies and with good optics, you can easily see the dumbbell shape. Hints of colours are also apparent when viewing this cosmic jewel.

These are some of the highlights that are found in this region of space. Open-star clusters, and star chains abound in this bountiful constellation. The surrounding area is a true springtime observing bonus.

The next Yukon Night Skies Star Party will be Saturday, May 16, at the Miles Canyon Lookout Point, starting around 11 p.m. Highlights will include Saturn and, hopefully, clear skies. Send an e-mail to [email protected] and stay informed as to where and when the next gathering under the night skies will take place.

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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