Winter Skies for the Cosmic Tourist

The next time you are outside at night, take a moment and look up at those dark Yukon Night Skies. High overhead you will see the constellation of Perseus, the Hero. This is the home of the infamous Double Cluster.

People are always talking about the Double Cluster and looking at it. Why? Simply put, it is one of the finest examples of star clusters in the sky. Even to the unaided eye, it can be seen as a faint glow, north of the point star of Perseus (making it easy to find).

Binoculars or a wide-field telescope present the best views because you can see both star clusters at the same time. With Perseus high overhead (high overhead a.k.a. “zenith”), the sky is darkest, presenting the best view. On a clear dark night, this can be one of the best views in the night sky.

Moving westward, locate the constellation of Andromeda. Found here is the Andromeda Galaxy. This galaxy can also be seen as a smudge to the unaided eye. If you are using large binoculars and it is a clear moonless night, you may see the two companion galaxies as well (a tripod can be a major help here). The view through a wide-field telescope under these conditions makes for a most-impressive sight.

As you move your gaze to the northern region of the night sky, locate the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The most-popular deep-sky objects found here are the galaxies known as M81 and M82. These two galaxies can be seen together in binoculars or a wide-field telescope.

To locate these two little galactic treasures, start at the point star of the Big Dipper bowl and then move your binoculars toward Capella, the brightest star in Auriga, several binocular fields. M81 is a spiral galaxy while M82 is an irregular galaxy.

Through binoculars, they appear as two small cloudy shapes. But in a telescope, even a four-inch reflector, this sight can be amazing on a clear dark night. Though these galaxies are not high overhead, the view is still great.

As we move our gaze to the eastern night skies, we find the constellation of Gemini, the Twins. The two stars known as Castor and Pollux are easily seen as the brightest stars in that region of the sky.

Locate the three stars that make up the “foot stars” and take notice of the slight glow off to the side. This is the open star cluster M35. This star cluster consists of hundreds of stars that are 2,700 light years distant. This is a beautiful star cluster that is best seen in binoculars or a telescope. This is one of the night sky’s best clusters in binoculars.

Next, we move to the southeastern region of the night sky where we find the constellation of Orion. This is a constellation that you can spend an entire evening exploring with a telescope, discovering all of its cosmic treasures.

The Orion nebula is the most-viewed object in the Northern night skies. From amateurs to professionals, and in everything from binoculars to large telescopes, there is always something for everyone to see.

To locate this nebula, first find the three belt stars and move down from the middle star. Did you notice the fuzzy glow sandwiched in-between two stars? That is the Orion Nebula and it can be seen with the unaided eye.

In binoculars, the view is of a small, cloudy smudge. But in a telescope, it is most amazing with tendrils of cloud and, in the centre, a small cluster called the Trapezium Star Cluster.

Orion also holds some very impressive stars. Starting with Betelgeuse, the reddish-coloured star that makes up the right shoulder, is a variable star that pulsates to a diameter of 300 to 400 times the size of our own sun.

If you look at the bright-white blue star that makes up Orion’s left foot, you are looking at Rigel. This star is 57,000 times more luminous than our own sun.

So what about the planets?

You will notice that Jupiter sinks lower toward the southwestern horizon, each night, as Mars rises higher. The planet Venus is hidden from our view because it is behind the sun. On Jan. 1, Jupiter sails on by Neptune, making it easy to locate, but you will need an unobstructed, elevated observing site and at least a pair of binoculars.

The ringed giant, Saturn, is now creeping over the horizon around 1 a.m. in the morning. Found in the constellation of Virgo, this planet is best viewed much higher in the sky, around 4 a.m.

As you look closer to the eastern horizon, you will notice a small red star that does not twinkle. The reason this star doesn’t twinkle is because it is not a star; it is the planet Mars.

By the end of December, Mars will be high in the sky around midnight. Mars is getting closer and is keenly awaited by astronomers around the world. From mountains and polar ice caps, there is something for anyone with a three-inch or larger telescope.

December and January promise many fascinating sites under the Yukon Night Skies. Take some time, head outside and take in some of these cosmic delights.

And as another fascinating year of amateur astronomy in the Yukon comes to a close and another begins, I take a few moments to say thank you for your support, your e-mails and your questions.

Astronomy in the Yukon is on the rise and I have heard rumours of a meeting once a month, indoors (hopefully starting in January), swapping ideas and observing tips, and helping people who are interested in getting started in astronomy. If you are interested, e-mail me at [email protected] It would be great to hear from you.

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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