It is Friday evening, the sky is crystal clear and the temperature is a balmy –23 degrees.
Add to that a 30-kilometre wind from the south, and you have a wind chill of –39 degrees.
For most people this is a good time to stay indoors and sip a nice warm cup of hot chocolate. Personally, I find this to be the perfect time to test my new deep-cold winter gear and see how well everything is working.
One of the main problems with observing those amazing Yukon Night Skies in the middle of winter is keeping your computerized hand controller warm enough so it will function properly.
I have been working on this problem for a couple of months with limited results. Tucking the hand controller into your parka is only a partial fix, so we obviously needed a more-permanent solution.
The affordable solution presented itself the other night.
Take one small Pelican case (slightly larger than the controller) and insert a solid block of foam (I used a small block of three-inch-deep memory foam), then remove the waterproof liner and cut a small rectangle in the end of the Pelican case for the cables to pass through.
Next, slice either end of the foam and then cut a small pocket in the middle of the foam. Place hand warmers in the incisions and – Presto! – close the lid and away you go.
We were pleasantly surprised when this worked far beyond our expectations, even after several hours of hanging in the open air, exposed to a brutal –39 degree wind chill.
I usually do not head outside until the very early morning hours, as I prefer the 1 to 5 a.m. shift. The temperature and humidity seem to be much more stable, allowing for higher magnification on your telescope. This, in turn, makes it easier to see distant galaxies, nebula and star clusters.
The Yukon winter night skies are fabulously clear and packed with deep-sky objects to observe, so I certainly do not mind building heaters for my astronomy gear.
So, we put on our deep-winter parkas and insulated coveralls and headed outside. With no moon in the sky, and the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, we knew we had a perfect evening of deep-sky observing ahead of us.
The first target of the evening is the great Orion Nebula. Even at low power (58 power), this great nebula just about splashes right across the eyepiece, presenting the eye with an amazing view of stellar gas clouds and the little star cluster called the Trapezium Star Cluster.
As we crank the power up to 200 times, the view is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Through the telescope, the nebula flows from one side to the other, with cloudy tendrils that snake their way across the eyepiece.
The Trapezium Star Cluster is now better defined, showing individual stars. When you see this in the eyepiece, it is easy to understand why it is called the great Orion Nebula.
Our next deep-sky objects of interest are M81 and M82, my favourite pair of galaxies, found in Ursa Major (the Big Dipper).
I have always enjoyed this view because you have the opportunity to see both galaxies in the same field of view, in the eyepiece, at the same time. Both these galaxies are found high overhead in the darkest part of the sky, which of course dramatically increases contrast.
After a couple of hours of observing, it was just too cold for this humble astronomer to continue trolling for little “fuzzies” in the night sky, so we headed indoors to a warm cup of coffee and to let my face thaw.
Upon arriving indoors, I decided to check my e-mail; and low and behold, our planned star party, Yukon Night Skies, had been posted on the International Year of Astronomy website: www.astronomy2009.ca.
On the front page of the website, click on events and activities, and then click on Yukon.
Next, set the dates from today until March 15 and the information will appear.
Several local amateur astronomers have already checked-in to offer a hand, and we are looking for more volunteers. Weather permitting, we plan to take pictures and post them on the International Year of Astronomy website, to show the world how to have a star party, Yukon style.
This is our opportunity to show the world what the amazing Yukon Night Skies are all about, and all of the great people involved to make it happen.
So head outside and check out that absolutely fascinating Yukon Night Sky.