With the middle of winter upon us, the Yukon Night Sky is alive with amazing sights for the cosmic tourist.
Dark skies and stable air makes for excellent opportunities to explore and discover this vast universe around us.
From galaxies and nebulas, to star clusters and planets, there is an abundance of deep sky treasures that one can easily see with the most humble of binoculars or spotting scopes. Try it and you will see.
This column is here to give you the best of what the Yukon Night Sky has to offer (well known as the Northern Hit List). Anyone with a pair of binoculars or spotting scope and a little motivation is in for a truly cosmic treat. Of course access to a telescope vastly improves the view.
Top of the hit list is the Orion Nebula, probably the most fantastic deep sky object in the Yukon Night Skies.
Around midnight or so, Orion has risen high enough off the horizon and is in clear dark sky. Easily recognizable are the three belt stars. Just go straight down and you will see a bright cluster with a fuzzy patch in the middle. That little fuzzy patch is the Orion Nebula.
Pretty cool … and pretty bright, considering that this nebula is about 1,500 light years distant.
Smoky clouds of wispy tendrils make for an impressive view in the eyepiece indeed. With a medium-sized telescope, the view is nothing short of astonishing.
In the middle of this nebula is the Trapezium Star Cluster. Small telescopes at medium to high power should show the four bright stars that form this little star cluster. This is truly the best deep sky nebula, especially if you happen to own a large aperture dobsonian telescope, like my 14-inch yard cannon.
I have spent endless hours just exploring this amazing star factory.
Directly overhead you will find the constellation of Andromeda, home of the great Andromeda Galaxy.
Also easily seen with the unaided eye, this galaxy is 2.5 million light years distant. A mere cosmic stone’s throw.
The view is best if you have a dark observing site and tripod mounted binoculars or spotting scope (this does much to improve the view).
There is not a lot of detail in small scopes and binoculars, more of a small fuzzy cloud. If you are lucky and have dark skies, you might even get a glance at the two very small companion galaxies.
The Pleiades Star Cluster can be found in the eastern evening sky and can be seen with the unaided eye. Looking like a miniature version of the Big Dipper, this star cluster is best viewed in binoculars. The view is bright and also photographs real easy.
A little lower down from the Pleiades Star Cluster is the Hyades Star Cluster. Just find the bright orange star, Aldebaran, in the constellation of Taurus and you are there. Lots of double stars reside here just waiting to be discovered. This is an absolutely gorgeous view in binoculars and spotting scopes.
High overhead can be found the famous Double Cluster, just below the constellation of Cassiopeia. If you know where to look, it can be seen with just the eye. These two tight knots of stars are in the Top 10 best deep sky targets of all time.
Wide field and good optics make it look like diamonds on glass. I have looked at this cluster hundreds of times and it always thrills and leaves you with a sense of wonder. This is truly a cosmic beauty.
Low on the eastern horizon can be found the constellation Gemini. The two brightest stars are called Pollux and Castor, a beautiful blue white double star, one of the night skies best.
From Castor, move east and you will find M35, an impressive open cluster that sprinkles stars across the eyepiece of your binoculars from 2,800 light years distant.
While we are in the neighbourhood, let’s check out the Beehive Cluster, well known as M44, in the constellation of Cancer. This star cluster is easily seen by the unaided eye and looks great in binoculars. Individual stars are easily seen in this 1.5-degree wide cluster.
The Yukon Night Skies brightest pair of galaxies can be found north of the constellation of Ursa Major. First, find the last star in the bowl of the dipper and then sweep your binoculars diagonally northward. What you will see is two little fuzzy patches just half a degree apart. Very cool in telescopes, and these two little galaxies can be seen in 7×50 binoculars from the city.
It is best viewed later in the month as the Big Dipper rises higher off the horizon.
Our next deep sky object on the hit list is what I call the Auriga Triple Shot. To locate this triple shot of star clusters, first locate the bright star Capella, in the constellation Auriga (very bright and possibly the brightest star in the galaxy and very big).
From this point, sweep downward on an angle and you will locate our first star cluster, M38, a loose cluster of stars, which appear as a misty patch.
Directly below is the star cluster M36 that also presents the same view. The best star cluster in this group is M37. Moving down, and to the left, you will find what you are seeking, a bright cluster of stars shimmering in your eyepiece.
Last but not least is the star cluster known as NGC 7789, just off and to the right of the top point star in the constellation of Cassiopeia. In binoculars, it is a small knot of brightness, but in a high-quality spotting scope the stars swarm across the eyepiece.
These are my Top 10 favourites of the Yukon Night Skies. There are, of course, the planets, which are very busy this month, and the always so brilliant and fascinating moon.
Take time some evening, grab your binoculars or spotting scope, chair and a copy of Sky News and check out the Yukon’s Top 10 Deep Sky Delights.
Clear Skies, from James “Deep Sky” Cackette.
Dec. 10 The Moon occults (passes in front of) the Pleiades Star Cluster. Happens after midnight.
Dec. 12 Full Moon.
Dec. 13 Geminid meteor shower. Poor show due to a nearly full Moon.
Dec. 19 Last quarter Moon.
Dec. 26 Venus and Neptune close together in the evening sky.
Dec. 27 New Moon.
Dec. 28 Mercury, Jupiter and a thin crescent Moon make an excellent grouping in the evening sky.
Above Whitehorse Dec. 13 at midnight. Sky chart courtesy of www.heavens-above.com.
James “Deep Sky” Cackette can be reached at [email protected]. See his photo adventures on Facebook at Yukon Night Skies.