View From the Hill

With all this wonderful warm weather, there is a price to pay for amateur astronomers in the Yukon.

As a springtime rule, warm weather brings cloudy and unstable skies. Every once in a while though, we get a break, and the next thing you know you are observing in clear skies with nice warm weather.

Truly a Yukon treat! Here is my record of such an evening:

It is Saturday afternoon and we are sending the e-mail to the astronomy club members and guests to meet at the Grey Mountain Lookout Point around 10 p.m. (at the time of writing the e-mail, it is snowing with an attitude).

All of the weather information websites, like Whitehorse clear sky clock and others, all agree, the skies should open up after 10 p.m. and should stay clear until at least 2 a.m.

The journey up to the observing site was uneventful. The road is in a condition that is as good as it gets, making for a smooth ride.

It is 10:30 p.m. and the 14-inch and 8-inch telescopes are set up, with my trusty binoculars close by. The night skies are slowly clearing off, and high above the city lights is our prize, the Crescent Moon resting right beside the Pleiades Star Cluster.

This was supposed to be the premier event for the evening, with the opportunity to snap some great pictures. There was some residual cloud hanging around, which was reflecting light. The light reflected from the crescent moon by this residual cloud made the Pleiades star cluster barely visible to the unaided eye. In binoculars it is a beautiful site, even if it is a bit washed out.

As for planets, we locate Mars overhead and place it in the eyepiece for viewing. Although Mars is bright, it is still quite distant, and is receding each evening. In my 8-inch reflector it appears as a small red-orange disc completely devoid of any detail.

It took the power of the 14-inch reflector to reveal the only discernible feature at this time, the southern ice cap, and it was only a thin white line in appearance. Although Mars is showing little or no surface detail, it makes for an interesting object to observe as we watch it fade in brilliance, as the weeks pass by.

The only other planet of interest in the night sky at this time is Saturn. The last time we were viewing Saturn we were able to see six moons. Would we be able to see this again?

In the 8-inch reflector, only three moons were barely visible, and with the 14-inch reflector four moons could be seen. With the rings on edge, Saturn makes for a fascinating view, revealing two moons normally hidden from view by the rings. You will need a telescope of at least 50-power magnification to be able to see the rings clearly.

It is now after midnight and the Crescent Moon and the Pleiades Star Cluster are slowly sinking into the horizon. The lower half of Orion has also fallen below the horizon presenting a peculiar sight with the three belt stars resting above the city lights in a straight line.

With the moon setting on the far horizon, I can now pursue my favourite prey, deep sky targets like galaxies, nebula and star clusters. The sky on the far horizon looks a deep inky black: a sure sign that excellent skies are on the way.

As most of you know, I have been doing cold weather trials for a new computerized hand controller and telescope combination. Tonight it would seem to be the perfect time to see how well this new cold weather gear would perform. The temperature is –15 degrees Celsius with a five-kilometre-an-hour wind.

A quick three-star alignment tells the computerized hand controller where we are, and we are all set.

The first target is the irregular galaxy in Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) called M82. I enter the target information into the hand controller and the mount takes off in pursuit of its target with a sound not unlike a jet engine, only much quieter. There is a resounding beep, informing me the mount has locked onto the target and is tracking.

Upon looking into the eyepiece, I am pleased to see this most unusual galaxy sitting smack dab in the middle of the eyepiece. There is a knotted dust lane running through the middle of this galaxy and it was easily seen. This galaxy also appears edge on (like Saturn’s rings) which also gives this galaxy a most unusual profile, more like a smoky tendril hanging in space, truly a spectacular sight.

Next on the hit list, the Owl Nebula (M97), a planetary nebula found in Ursa Major, that looks somewhat like an owls face. At the eyepiece you could see the greenish-blue overall cloud shape, though faintly, as well as the two holes in the cloud representing the owls eyes. A little smaller than the size of a dime, it’s not bad for 200X magnification.

Another unusual sight was an open star cluster known as NGC 7789. What makes this open star cluster so unusual is the amount of stars visible. The field of view is literally peppered with stars from edge to edge. It takes a bit of magnification, but it makes for an awesome view.

My interest in strangely shaped galaxies led me to a couple of oddballs south of the handle, in Ursa Major. The Cocoon Galaxy, and its companions, NGC 4485 and NGC 4490, have a shape that is similar to a pear, with the smaller galaxy seeming to be attached. I did not expect these galaxies to be so bright and well defined; I will have to remember them for future observations.

The night went on like this for several more hours under pristine sky conditions. Everyone has gone home, so it is my telescope and I, slaying dozens of deep sky targets, under pristine Yukon Night Skies.

As a matter of fact, I exhausted four-star catalogues before we called it an evening, sometime around 5 a.m.

I can’t remember the last time I did that.

Perfect skies, a great go-to telescope and mount, with endless deep-sky objects to observe: life doesn’t get any better than this! Brings to mind a saying of old: “So many stars and so little time”.

If you get an opportunity, make the journey up to the Grey Mountain Lookout Point on a clear Saturday night, you will probably find us there, then, you can see for yourself.

You could also send an e-mail to [email protected] and we will send you an e-mail to let you know when and where everyone is getting together that Saturday night.

Clear skies from James “Deep Sky” Cackette.

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