Let’s start today’s column with Comet Lulin, which is blazing its way across the Yukon Night Skies. This small and bright comet is really moving quickly across the night sky and can still be seen in binoculars.
Moving steadily westward and heading from the constellation of Cancer into the constellation of Gemini. On March 5, Comet Lulin was sailing within two degrees of the Beehive Cluster.
Unfortunately, the weather did not co-operate and the opportunity to see a comet and a naked-eye open-star cluster vanished. Seeing a comet and a deep-sky object is a most memorable view.
We still have another opportunity in March as Comet Lulin meets the Eskimo Nebula in the evening sky. The Eskimo nebula is a planetary nebula that looks like a small, cloudy patch with a bright central star.
Through a telescope, the view should be outstanding.
Enjoy your views of this comet as it will soon fade in brightness and will not return for another thousand years, if ever again.
Next, we move on to the planets. In the early evening, the sky is ruled by Venus. Once again, enjoy the view as Venus is sinking lower toward the horizon each evening. At the beginning of March, Venus was above the horizon for three hours; by March 20, it will be above the horizon for only one hour. And as March ends and April begins, Venus will be rising in the morning.
Resting in the southern part of the constellation of Leo is the ringed planet, Saturn. Leo the Lion can be located in the eastern evening sky; and locating Saturn is a snap: it is the brightest object in that region of space.
By mid-evening, Saturn is now up nice and high in the sky and presents wondrous views. Just not the view you expected. At a mere three-degree angle, the rings look more like a knife blade resting in front of the planet.
The middle to the end of March presents an opportunity to see the elusive zodiacal light. The cause of this glowing light is sunlight reflecting off dust from passing comets.
To see this mystical light, head outside an hour or so after the sun sets, on a moonless night. When you are looking west, look for a glowing cloud sometimes shaped like a pillar. The colour ranges from soft, opaque white to a very cool blue-grey. Zodiacal light is not as bright or as massive as the Northern Lights, but still presents an amazing site.
If you are pursuing comet Lulin, there are interesting deep-sky objects lurking around the neighbourhood, just waiting to be discovered.
Take your binoculars or small telescope, a set of star charts and a comfortable lawn chair and head outside. After about 15 minutes, when your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, locate the constellation of Cancer and the bright open cluster of stars known as the Beehive Cluster.
To the unaided eye, this cluster looks like a small, fuzzy patch, but with binoculars this changes as individual stars are now easily seen.
Next, bring your binoculars straight down several fields of view and you will notice a small, fuzzy patch. This is M67. Even with binoculars, you cannot resolve this little cloud into individual stars: that is a job for a telescope.
When you consider that this little star cluster is 2,500 light years distant, it is amazing that we can see it at all.
Our next object of interest is the star Castor, right above Pollux, the brightest star in the constellation of Gemini. Both these stars are easily identified and sometimes referred to as The Twins.
In a telescope, Castor is one of the finest double stars in the night sky. Actually, this star consists of six stars: three sets of binary stars.
From Castor, move your binoculars down diagonally several fields of view and you will spy another fuzzy patch. This is M35, another open star cluster that can be seen with the unaided eye. In binoculars, there are a few stars visible; but in a small telescope, the view is a beautiful sprinkling of stars against a very dark night sky.
If you are up to challenging your binocular-observing skills, then M33, known also as the Pinwheel Galaxy, is for you.
This huge galaxy is located in a remote region of space between the constellation of Andromeda and Triangulum. A clear and moonless night is required for this event, and so is having your binoculars mounted on a solid tripod.
The quickest way to locate the Pinwheel Galaxy is to find the constellation of Andromeda and the Andromeda Galaxy. As you move your binoculars down, you will see the bright star Mirach.
Keep moving downward about the same distance and up just a nudge and you are there. This galaxy will appear as a very faint patch of brightness, even in my 10×50 binoculars. This should come as no surprise as the Pinwheel Galaxy is 2,400,000 light years distant.
It takes very dark skies and a large aperture telescope to see the spiral arms that emanate from this galaxy.
Plan a night out under the stars and enjoy the show: all you need is a set of binoculars, some star charts or an astronomy magazine and a lawn chair. The Yukon Skies are filled with amazing celestial treasures just waiting to be explored.