With the oncoming of spring, the nights are shorter and temperatures are struggling to rise.
The Yukon night skies are also in a state of celestial change. The constellations Leo the Lion and Virgo the Virgin are now clearing the eastern horizon well before midnight.
This is a marvellous time for any deep sky observer, as this is where the Virgo Super Cluster of galaxies resides.
With a four inch or larger telescope, this region of space can provide endless hours of galaxy hunting, from late evening till early morning.
Every type of galaxy, from edge on to face on, can be found here in a multitude of shapes, sizes, and brightness.
The variety of galaxies is so great that the area is also referred to as the Galactic Zoo. The bigger the telescope, the more galaxies can be seen, and in more detail and contrast.
While you are feasting your eyes on all those galaxies in Virgo, you might also move your telescope to visit Saturn, the great ringed gas giant.
To locate Saturn, look to the southeastern horizon a few hours after sunset. It is easily recognized as there is nothing else in that region of sky that is as large or as bright.
By the end of March this planet will clear the horizon by sunset, making an awesome presence in the night sky all evening long.
Saturn has an equatorial diameter of 120,536 kilometres, roughly 10 times greater than Earth’s. It is 1,430 million kilometres from the sun, and one year, or one orbit around the sun takes 29.5 years. Its average temperature is somewhere around -140 degrees Celsius (and we thought it was cold in the Yukon!).
Saturn has 61 moons, and more are still being discovered.
I personally have seen seven moons and this was only possible because Saturn’s rings were almost edge, on revealing two hidden moons.
As evening falls look to the western horizon and you will see the brilliant planet Jupiter.
It is sinking lower and lower into the horizon each evening, so make sure that you get out and get a last-minute peek before Jupiter disappears from our night sky.
Jupiter will reappear to the west of the sun in late April in the morning sky. Even using binoculars and a steady hand or a tripod, at this time of year you can easily see the four orbiting moons.
As for the other planets in the Yukon night skies, Uranus and Neptune are too close to the sun to be seen, as is Mars. In late April, Mars will begin to distant itself from the sun’s glare.
March also presents an opportunity to spy a very small planet that makes only the rarest of appearances: Mercury.
This planet is so elusive to view because it is only 58 million kilometres from the sun, and is usually hidden in the sun’s blinding glare.
Mercury is the furthest from the sun on March 22, thereby offering the best possible view. This will be the best opportunity all year to see this nifty little planet in the evening sky.
On March 15 and March 16, Jupiter and Mercury are a mere two degrees apart, and appear very low in the western evening sky.
You will need an excellent observing site with an unobstructed view of the western horizon to see this rare planetary pairing of the largest and smallest planet in our solar system.
The Pleiades star cluster and a crescent moon are a mere two degrees apart on March 10. This is always an awesome sight and makes for an excellent photo opportunity.
On March 19 the largest full moon of 2011 is in our skies. This is the worst time to observe the moon for astronomers as there is so much glare. Even when using a lunar filter, much of the fine lunar detail is just washed out. Yet it is still a most impressive view that keeps us going back for more.
So head outside in the evening with a chair, binoculars or telescope, a Sky News magazine, and a thermos of coffee, and enjoy viewing those action packed Yukon Night Skies.
Or better yet, head up to the Grey Mountain lookout point on a clear night and enjoy the view through a telescope, or send me an email and we will add you the Astro Alert email list, which will keep you informed of club outings and locations.
James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at email@example.com
Night Lights for March
In the morning sky Venus and the crescent Moon are only 5 degrees or one binocular field apart. Excellent photo opportunity.
Low in the evening sky, Jupiter and the crescent Moon are only 5 degrees apart. Excellent photo opportunity.
The crescent Moon and the Pleiades Star Cluster are only 2 degrees apart. Excellent photo opportunity.
First quarter moon
Low in the western evening sky, Jupiter and Mercury will be only 2 degrees apart. Binoculars, cameras, telescopes are all
welcomed for this rare event!
The largest Full Moon of the year. Excellent wide-angle photo opportunity. Saturn floats nearby tonight and tomorrow night.
Equinox. Spring in the north begins.
Mercury is the furthest from the sun this evening, making it easiest to see. Use binoculars.
Last Quarter Moon
In the morning sky the crescent moon is very low, only 5 degrees above Venus.
James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.