Springtime night skies offer an endless bounty of galaxies, nebula and star clusters, waiting to be explored.
Whether you prefer binoculars or a telescope, there is no other time of year when the night sky is so plentiful with deep-sky objects to observe. The problem, as always, is to have the weather co-operate with your plans.
Sometimes patience and a little luck can go a long way. So, to explain myself better, here is my story of another Grey Mountain adventure.
It is Saturday afternoon and the weather is wonderful, with little or no cloud, and nice and toasty temperatures to go with it. As the afternoon progressed, I noticed the clouds were moving in and the wind was picking up.
Deciding to chance it, I sent a rush astro-alert e-mail to everyone and loaded my big Dobsonian reflector, the little Borg refractor and gearboxes into the mini van.
Tonight was a night I wanted to spend with my Dobsonian and not wanting to spend time fussing about with computers and electronics. This was hopefully to be an evening of hard-core observing: no toys necessary.
Arriving at the Grey Mountain Lookout Point at 9:15, I was greeted by a light wind and clear skies to the north. Considering that it was still daylight, I took some time to get organized and enjoy the twilight sky.
By 10:15, the first star is out and the clouds are definitely packing in. Might as well set up my gear and see what happens; you never know when you are going to get a lucky break. Total set-up time was 10 minutes with no computers and electronics, making the job much simpler.
The time is 11 p.m. and there are a few faintly visible stars and the planet Saturn. With no moon in the night sky, my pursuit was for deep-sky objects to view – not planets.
For some reason unknown to me, Saturn sat in a perfect hole in the clouds. The view was nothing less than spectacular with three moons visible this time and the shadow of the nearly edge-on rings plainly visible on the planet. The view was very sharp and well-defined (a 14-inch telescope will do that for you).
Between 11:45 and midnight, fingers of clear sky began to move over the mountain horizon. The sky was opening up and the conditions were superb. Not wasting any time, I cruised over the Virgo Super Cluster of galaxies, hoping the sky was good enough to present me with a decent view.
I was not to be disappointed as my telescope landed on a chain of galaxies, nine of them, all in the same field of view in my eyepiece. Most were well-defined as easily seen as a spiral or edge-on galaxy.
Spending the next hour galaxy hunting in such wonderful skies was truly a treat.
Huge spiral galaxies with arms that were easily seen, not a green fuzzy smudge: outstanding detail, even at modest power. Edge-on galaxies looked like small, bright needles hanging in space, a most memorable view.
As 1 a.m. passes by, and having no idea how long my good fortune would last, I pointed the telescopes directly overhead. Ursa Major (more commonly known as the Big Dipper) was resting in the darkest part of the sky, also known as zenith. Checking out the local group of galaxies to which we belong was definitely what I signed up for this evening.
Starting my local galactic tour with the famous Whirlpool Galaxy, M51 was my first target. It was apparently the right choice as the view was full of surprises. First of all, the spiral arms were easily seen and, as I cranked up the power, the view filled the eyepiece. Two galaxies filling the entire eyepiece: such marvellous detail in the spiral arms … a real bonus.
Next, we were off to my two favourite galaxies in the constellation of Ursa Major: M81 and M82. Again I was pleasantly surprised with the wealth of detail presented to my eye.
Snapping up the power on the telescope lets me peek at the dust lanes that run through M82, a spindle-shaped galaxy that is classified as an irregular galaxy. This is one of the most interesting galaxies in the sky; the longer you look at the dust lanes through a telescope, the more detail you see.
Galaxy hunting in Ursa Major was really quite a spectacular way to spend half an hour. After bagging a half-dozen or so galaxies, my appetite was craving something I have not seen since last fall: the constellations of Lyra and Hercules. Yes, I have had a couple of sneak peeks, but having the constellation higher off the horizon dramatically improves the view.
Starting with the constellation of Lyra, we track down the Ring Nebula, M57. A perfect smoke ring in space and the central star was barely visible at higher power. You could actually see texture in the smoke ring.
Once again, the bigger the telescope, the better the view, and what a view!
It is now after 2 a.m. and the Yukon Night Skies still hold one more treasure to be explored, the Hercules Globular Cluster, M13, found in the constellation that bears its name. This is the best globular cluster in the Northern sky and can be easily seen with binoculars.
Any view of this city of stars is always memorable, but having a large telescope changes everything. Starting with low power and slowly increasing power lets you see the cluster change from a greenish cloud to individual stars that spill over the eyepiece.
Many of these stars are bright, and being able to resolve these stars to this kind of detail is an amazing sight in the eyepiece. You can actually see layers of texture in the globular cluster.
The clouds have returned, and quickly, bringing a crisp wind with it. That’s OK because I am tired and it is time to pack up and head home.
That was one of the best observing sessions I have ever had at the Grey Mountain Lookout Point. It is a convenient observing site with a well-maintained road and reasonably dark skies.
My favourite observing site, the Miles Canyon Lookout Point, will soon be open, if it is not already.
This observing site offers great skies, a view to the south and is close to town. So make sure we have your e-mail address so we can keep you informed as to where and when the next deep-sky adventure will take place. All you have to do is send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at email@example.com. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.