March is one of the most active months for Yukon amateur astronomers. And, this year, we have a visitor making our observing sessions all the more memorable.
The timing and location of this visitor is perfect. And who is this cosmic visitor you ask? The answer is the ringed gas giant, Saturn.
To locate Saturn in the evening sky, first find the constellation of Leo. Next, locate the brightest star called Regulus and move in an easterly direction until you reach the three-star triangle at the tail of Leo. As you look down in a south-eastern direction toward the constellation of Virgo, you will see a bright point of light that does not twinkle. This is Saturn.
One of the methods of identifying it as a planet is simple: stars twinkle, planets don’t. Also, Saturn is brighter than anything in that region of the night sky.
With the rings tilted toward us, there are now six of Saturn’s moons visible. Usually the rings are tilted at more of an angle, hiding two of the moons from our view.
Realize that it took a 14-inch telescope at a magnification of over 350 to see the moons, but what an awesome view.
I have finally identified the six moons of Saturn that were visible as Rhea,Tethys, Mimas, Enceladus, Dione and Titan.
Yes, Saturn is an amazing target to place in your eyepiece, offering a cosmic bundle of visually interesting sights, but its location in the night sky is what amuses me the most.
This is in the neighbourhood of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster. This is a super cluster of galaxies visible in even the most humble of telescopes. That being said, the better the optics in the telescope, and the larger the aperture, the more galaxies you will see.
Every type of galaxy you could ever want to see can be found here. From giant elliptical and spiral galaxies, with arms separated by dust lanes, to edge on or, what we call, needle galaxies. These little galaxies are edge on and vertical to our line of sight. In a medium to large telescope, they appear as a bright needle of light hanging in space.
So how many galaxies can be seen, and what aperture telescope do I need for the job? In a three- or four-inch quality refractor there are in the neighbourhood of 20 or more galaxies visible. In an eight-inch reflector there is at least 50 to 60 galaxies visible that are easily found.
In my 14-inch Dobsonian telescope, the list seems to be endless. In some regions of the Virgo Super Cluster of galaxies I need a very detailed star chart to actually identify a particular galaxy, because there are so many visible. It kind of reminds me of a jumbled parking lot seen from the air.
To have Saturn visiting this region of the night sky makes the journey to the super cluster of galaxies all the more fascinating and intriguing.
In our most amazing Yukon Night Skies on March 20, we are in for a celestial jewel of a view: there is a star cluster called the Pleiades Star Cluster (also known as the Seven Sisters) that can be found in the western region of the night sky that is easily seen by the unaided eye.
In binoculars, this star cluster appears the same shape as a miniature big dipper and has been accidentally mistaken as the little dipper by a few. As far as star clusters go, the Pleiades star cluster is one of the most beautiful and recognized of all star clusters.
Now add one crescent moon into the picture, and you have all the ingredients for a most memorable view.
The moon will not actually cover the star cluster; all the same it will be a near miss. The moon is in a crescent phase; there should not be too much moonlight to wash out the stars in the cluster.
Can it get any better? Yes it can … with earthshine. Earthshine is when sunlight is reflected from earth toward the night side of the moon, illuminating it with an eerie glow. Springtime is the best time of the year for viewing earthshine glow.
This cosmic pairing will be easily seen by the unaided eye, but the view will be greatly improved in a pair of binoculars — 10×50 or 9×63 would be perfect. Also, spotting scopes and wide-field telescopes will present a most memorable view. The best view will be from a high-quality wide-field apochromatic refractor.
While you are soaking up the photons of this amazing view, you should also grab your camera and take a few shots to show your friends. As this event will last from around 8 to about 11 p.m., there is plenty of time to take some great pictures and still enjoy the show.
Speaking of pictures, the moon and the Pleiades Star Cluster will climb off the horizon together presenting a challenging photo opportunity that will produce premium pictures. Use a mountain range, an old tree or farmhouse in the foreground of the picture to dress it up and give it some scale.
All this and so much more is happening in those amazing Yukon Night Skies. All you need is a pair of binoculars, a current issue of Sky News Magazine, a chair and you are all ready to go exploring the night sky.
So take some time, head outside and enjoy the greatest light show on earth.
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.