Those Magical Yukon Night Skies

For Yukon amateur astronomers, time for viewing those amazing night skies will soon vanish, temporarily that is. At this time of year, as soon as it starts to get dark, dawn approaches shortly after.

This means you have to be ready and have a list of targets to explore for the evening observing sessions. Being prepared is 90 per cent of the battle in having a memorable session. The night sky begins to darken around midnight or 1 a.m., so you will have plenty of time to set up your gear in the late-evening twilight.

Patience and persistence are the best tools when surfing partially darkened night skies. Darker skies will certainly show more detail, but at the same time they offer a unique experience into a half-illuminated world that offers surprises and challenges.

Arriving at Miles Canyon Lookout Point, slightly before midnight, I quickly set up my gear, and was greeted by a bright sky.

The sky closest to the southern horizon was a light sky blue in colour and as you looked overhead, the sky darkened to a deep, rich blue-black colour. The first star visible was Vega in the constellation of Lyra. It was even brighter than Saturn.

Shortly after 1 a.m., Saturn was visible and putting on quite a show. At low power, this planet showed me three moons and, with rings tilted toward us a little more, the view was brighter.

Two moons were close to the rings with one moon sitting right beneath them. It looked like the moon was resting on the underside of the rings. Minutes later, the little moon disappeared behind the mighty ringed giant and disappeared from view.

That night was one of the best views I ever had of Saturn’s moons. Though it was still fairly bright, the sky was crystal clear – no clouds or moisture. The wind was a little stronger than I would have liked, but considering I didn’t see a single mosquito the entire evening, I was thrilled.

It is now a little after 2 a.m. and the constellation of Cygnus has moved up into the darker region of the morning sky. To see how good the viewing is, we zoom in on the star at the bottom of the Northern Cross, Albireo.

This beautiful, blue-gold pair of stars can be seen in binoculars, and the view in the big 14-inch telescope showed an indigo-blue star so rich in colour that only the human eye could truly appreciate it to the fullest, and only at the eyepiece.

The Hercules Star cluster resides in the constellation that bears its name and is now high in the darkest region of the morning sky.

Usually, on a dark night, this star cluster fills the eyepiece with stars spilling over. It took 200 or more power before I could resolve individual stars. Resting in a steel-blue sky made for an interesting view, though detail and contrast were not at its best.

The Ring Nebula, in the constellation of Lyra, has risen into the darkest part of the sky, allowing me to bump my telescope to 250-times magnification. This perfect little smoke ring floating in space had a greenish tinge of colour. It was easy to see the perfect donut hole in the middle, but the central star was not seen.

Time check: it is after 4 a.m. and we need coffee as the most challenging part of the morning is upon us – the hunt for Jupiter and Neptune. The morning sky is steadily brightening and there is still no sign of the king of planets. My charts and laptop planetarium program inform me that Jupiter should be visible very low on the horizon.

Moments later, creeping through the treetops, at the lowest point on the horizon, a small twinkling light can be spied. So low on the horizon that my Dobsonian telescope doesn’t even point that low.

No problem: we turn the 20 x 80 binoculars to the target and – Presto! – it is Jupiter. Being so low on the horizon means we are looking through more atmosphere, which means more distortion and lower-quality view.

Sliding out from the shoulder of Grey Mountain is a half moon, one of my favourite sights. As the moon slides out from behind the mountain, it illuminates the trees and rock formations, forming an incredible silhouette in razor-sharp detail and contrast.

In both telescopes, large and small, there is an abundance of detail to be seen from craters and mountains and lunar valleys. With the larger telescope, you could see the shadow from an overhang on the inside of the crater wall. You could actually see ledges on the inside of the crater walls … a truly majestic sight.

It is now 4:45 a.m. and Jupiter has climbed as high in the morning sky as it will get before it is washed out by morning light. With Jupiter high enough off the horizon that I can use my larger telescope, I am finally rewarded with the view I was looking for: three moons and three cloud bands, all easily seen in the eyepiece.

As I am about to pack it in, I decide to have one more peek, and as I place my eye to the eyepiece, a bird flies through the field of view … too cool!

What a truly amazing night under those Yukon Night Skies with Jupiter, Saturn, the moon and, to make the observing session more interesting, soaring birds in the morning skies, silhouetted against the steel-blue morning sky.

So, in the coming weeks, if you are wondering what that bright little light off in the distant morning sky is, now you know: it is Jupiter.

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.

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