Starfest 2010, Summer Star Parties and The Solar Express

Summertime is here, and it is going to be a rip-snorting good time, astronomically speaking, that is.

Let’s get started with holidays and star parties.

If you heading out of the territories for the summer, take a few minutes before you leave, and check out the star parties in a Sky News Magazineor on the web.

Star parties are held by a group of astronomers who set up a giant party for everyone interested in the night sky, usually on a remote mountaintop. From the professional astronomers to the novice, star parties are a fabulous experience, with everyone welcome.

It is an opportunity to see all of those amazing deep-sky southern objects like galaxies, nebula and star clusters in a large variety of telescopes and binoculars, making for an unforgettable experience.

Amateur astronomers from across the country get together to exchange ideas, pictures, observing tales and exchange notes, on anything and everything astronomical.

The best way to experience the star party is to camp right on the observing site, as most people do. There are nature walks, slide show presentations, astronomy workshops and lectures.

The largest star party in Canada is Starfest, in Ontario (14 kilometres north of Mount Forest at the River Front Campground). The BBC rated Starfest as one of the top 10 star parties in the world, attracting up to 1,000 astronomers from around the world.

All of the biggest names in astronomy will be there from the author Terence Dickinson, who wrote the quintessential The Backyard Astronomers Guide (which I still use as a reference today) to David Levy, who is the co-founder of Comet Shoemaker Levy. This gentleman found the comet that smashed into Jupiter a few years back.

This year at Starfest 2010, there is going to be a new twist: I have been asked to present the Northern Lights, extreme astronomy and astronomy in the North.

How could I refuse an opportunity like this? A chance to share astronomy, Yukon style, with the rest of the world is too irresistible. I am truly honoured.

Now, I have been to a few star parties down south over the years, and I can say that they are fun, but a bit on the dry side when it comes to humour and adventure. Tales of our northern adventures will be shared in my presentation. For example:

I can remember driving out to the Carcross desert in late January, in a little three-cylinder Chevy Sprint at –40 degrees Celsius, just to lay back in a lawn chair and enjoy a four-hour Northern Lights show. We shivered all of the way there and back as the heater in the car was frozen. It was an astounding light show and, yes, it was worth it.

Seeing Comet Hale-Bopp from downtown underneath the city lights, without binoculars, made for an impressive sight. The Whirlpool galaxy was seen from my front porch with a small spotting scope … porch light on.

Yes, I definitely would love to share our clear skies and northern adventures with the southern folk.

On a closing note concerning Starfest 2010, if anyone has Northern Lights or astronomy pictures you would like to share, please forward them to me and I will take them and present them at Starfest 2010. Please include any details of the picture as well as your name for your photo credits. You can e-mail them to [email protected] .

Until we go to Starfest 2010, we will be solar observing.

Now, solar observing can be safe, you just have to pay attention and remember to never observe the sun without proper filters. The three filters of interest to us are the welders’ glass, the white light filter and the H alpha filters.

First up, the welders’ #14, the only glass that is appropriate for the job. These glass filters come in two-by-four-inch rectangles and will let you see the brightest of sunspots.

Now comes the white light filter, as they are commonly referred to. These are usually made of glass and fit on the front of the telescope. For observing the whole sun while still being able to see all of the sunspots, this is the way to go, and it is reasonably inexpensive.

The Mylar solar filter is also a white light filter. This filter also attaches to the front of the telescope and presents a similar view as a glass solar filter. The Mylar filter presents a blue image, while the glass solar filter presents a white image of the sun. By placing a yellow filter in your eyepiece, you can give the sun a more natural colour.

When doing white light solar astronomy, a $1,000 refractor does the same job as a $200 refractor. Glass filters have a slightly better contrast than Mylar filters, at least to my eyes, and with a price of only $50 to $100 to outfit a four- to eight-inch telescope, this is an excellent observing bargain.

H alpha (hydrogen alpha) filters are the ultimate in solar observing, and priced accordingly so. For around $700 to $10,000 you can be all set up to see solar flares and prominences normally invisible in a white light solar filter.

The surface of the sun is always in a state of constant change, and with this most amazing filter, it is all there for you to see. You could easily get hooked on these fabulous views.

This will be the last column I will write until darkness returns in September, so enjoy your summer, practise safe solar viewing, and enjoy the view.

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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