SkyNews Magazine | Astronomy & Stargazing Magazine of Canada
SkyNews, the magazine of astronomy and stargazing, is your guide to observing the night sky. On our website you can find out what's up in the sky this week and a collection of resources for amateur astronomers.
Catalogued as M51, the famed Whirlpool Galaxy is located in the unremarkable constellation Canes Venatici, though most observers associate it with the Big Dipper since the galaxy is found just below Alkaid, the last star in the Dipper’s handle. It’s the object’s visual appearance through a 12-inch or larger telescope that gives rise to its unofficial name, the Whirlpool Galaxy. M51 can be seen from Canadian latitudes all year round, but it’s positioned directly overhead on late-spring evenings.
This exquisite Whirlpool portrait was captured by Sainte-Anne de Kent, New Brunswick, imager Emile Cormier. He recorded 2½ hours of exposure data shot through LRGB filters with a ZWO ASI1600MM imaging camera and Astro-Tech AT8RC 8-inch f/8 Ritchey-Chrétien astrographic telescope for the image.
One of the great delights of observing and imaging Jupiter is that the planet often undergoes rapid, dramatic changes—it’s never the same from one apparition to the next. As the photo above (captured on April 30, 2019) shows, Jupiter’s equatorial zone is quite dark and sports an orangey-brown colour, while the south tropic zone (the prominent white band) is unusually broad. Both these regions are markedly different from their appearance a year ago. Who can say how the planet will look by the end of its current showing?
This remarkably detailed Jupiter portrait was created by Ontario astrophotographer Manuel Guerrero while on an imaging expedition to Isla Barú, Colombia (latitude 10° north), where the planet reaches an altitude greater than 55° in the predawn hours. Manuel used a Celestron C14-AF XLT 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (fitted with a Tele Vue 2× Powermate Barlow lens), a QHY290M monochrome planetary camera, and a set of Optolong RGB and IR filters to obtain the data for this image.
M81 is a wonderfully symmetrical spiral situated in Ursa Major, and is half of the well known M81/M82 galaxy pair. Both objects are well placed for evening viewing in the spring sky. M81 closely matches what many people picture when they hear the phrase, “spiral galaxy.” As this detailed image reveals, M81’s tidy spiral arms are studded with many pinkish star-formation regions.
Stan Noble captured M81 from his home observatory in Aneroid, Saskatchewan, with a Celestron EdgeHD 800 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (working at f/7 with a reducer lens) and a ZWO ASI294MC Pro imaging camera. The final image is a stack of 85, 2-minute exposures.
Eta Aquarid meteors streak at dawn, and Jupiter drifts into the evening sky.
Jupiter dominates the view in this Barry Burgess photo captured on the morning of April 7, 2019, from Medway Point, on Nova Scotia`s rocky south shore.
The view facing due south at approximately 4 a.m., local daylight time.
This is a big week for Jupiter, since it becomes an evening-sky planet for the first time since last November. But this is just a technicality—Jupiter rises only slightly before midnight, local daylight time. The evening sky still holds only one planet at a time because Mars sets in the west-northwest as Jupiter rises in the east-southeast. Mars is a magnitude 1.6 object in northern Taurus, while Jupiter gleams at magnitude -2.5 in Ophiuchus. Big Jove reaches the meridian a little after 4 a.m., well ahead of morning twilight. The dawn sky also features Saturn and Venus. Rising at 1:30 a.m. in Sagittarius, magnitude 0.5 Saturn trails a little behind its bigger, brighter brother. The ringed planet culminates at sunrise. Venus is still clinging to its title as the reigning morning “star.” It’s bright (magnitude -3.8), but very low in the east, clearing the horizon less than one hour before the Sun.
Venus and the Moon as seen in 7×50 binoculars.
Look due east during morning twilight to catch a glimpse of Venus and the thin crescent Moon rising together. This will be a challenging observation unless you have an unobstructed view, as the Moon (the lower of the two) will be less than five degrees above the horizon at 6 a.m., local daylight time. If you look later both objects will be higher, but the sky will also be brighter. The twosome will squeeze into the field of view of typical 10×50 binoculars (barely), so the wider field of 7×50s will be a better choice.
New Moon occurs today at 6:45 p.m., EDT.
Facing east-southeast at the start of morning twilight.
This morning the Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks under near-ideal conditions with the Moon out of the picture. The display is one of the richest of the year, with a zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) of 60 meteors per hour. But that first word, “zenithal,” is the one to note. The radiant of the Eta Aquarids is nowhere near the zenith for observers at Canadian latitudes. That means the number of meteors you can expect to see, even under dark-sky conditions, is much less. Still, it’s worth venturing out in the hour before dawn to catch as many Eta Aquariids as you can.
Use this chart to locate the double stars described below. The circle represents the field of view in 10×50 binoculars or a telescope finderscope. (Click on the image for a full-size version.)
The May 3 – 5 weekend is essentially moonfree, giving deep-sky observers a chance to take in lots of spring sky sights. For most telescope enthusiasts, that means galaxies—and there are certainly plenty to choose from in Leo, Virgo and Coma Berenices. However, if you observe with binoculars or a small scope and have to contend with urban light pollution, you may find double stars a more rewarding quarry. There are quite a few pairs that show well in modest equipment—including three doubles in northeastern Boötes.
A steady view is the key to using binoculars for double-star observing. Image-stabilized binoculars are best, but tripod-mounted regular binos are a good option too. At minimum you’ll want to observe from a seated position with your arms braced.
Let’s begin with the easiest pair to find: Delta (δ) Boötis. This double consists of a 3.6-magnitude primary and 7.9-magnitude companion separated by 104 arc seconds. That’s a generous amount of space between components, but the brightness difference makes this a challenging set. I can see the fainter star in my 10×50 binos, though. Next, shift northeast one finderscope field to pick up Mu (μ) Boötis. Its suns have about the same spacing as Delta’s, but because the brightness difference is much less (magnitudes 4.3 and 6.5), the split is easier. The final target is Nu (ν) Boötis. Nu consists of two fifth-magnitude stars separated by more than 600 arc seconds. That sounds pretty ho-hum, right? But when you compare the stars, you’ll notice a lovely colour contrast. One star is orange, the other pale blue—a combination mirroring Albireo, the famed double in Cygnus.
For even more Boötes doubles, have a look at this post by David A. Rodger.
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Located in southern Cepheus is a large patch of faint nebulosity catalogued as IC1396. It extends south from the deep-red star Mu Cephei, also known as Herschel’s Garnet star. Within that complex of nebulosity there’s a feature known as the Elephant Trunk Nebula (sometimes referred to as IC1396A), believed to be a region of starbirth, similar to the famous “Pillars of Creation” within the Eagle Nebula (M16) in Sagittarius.
Daniel Beaulieu captured this detailed image of the Elephant Trunk from his backyard in Quebec City, Quebec, with a Celestron EdgeHD 800 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (working at f/7 with a reducer lens), Astrodon LRGB filters and Atik 383L+ monochrome CCD camera. The total exposure time was 234 minutes.
For much of the country, winter has become a distant memory. But if you look west in the fading evening twilight, you can still catch sight of that season’s prime constellations, including Orion. However, it’s time to say goodbye to the famed celestial hunter, at least for now. And we can think of no better way to do so than with one more photo of Orion’s most alluring attraction—its star-studded Sword, featuring the magnificent Orion Nebula, M42.
Jason Schella captured this fine, wide-field photo of the region last winter from his backyard in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He used a Celestron NexStar Evolution 8 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope (working at f/6.3 with a focal reducer) and a ZWO ASI294MC Pro imaging camera to acquire the 22½ hours exposure data used for the shot.
From an astronomical perspective, there’s a lot to unpack in this sunset photo. First, there’s the obvious fact that we’re looking at the nearest star—the only one we can study in detail. Second, the Sun’s motion across the sky, from sunrise to sunset, is the result of our planet rotating daily on its axis. Photographer Cathleen Mewis cleverly includes a glass sphere in the foreground to encourage an astronomical appreciation of what is otherwise a routine event. The sphere acts like a lens, and produces an inverted, wide-angle rendering of the scene.
Cathleen used a Canon EOS Rebel T5i DSLR camera fitted with a Tokina AT-X 116 PRO DX-II 11-16mm f/2.8 zoom lens (set to 13 mm and f/20) for this 1/160-second exposure shot at ISO 400. She photographed the sunset from a location near the town of Colonsay, roughly 50 kilometres east of Saskatoon.
Spring is in the air, and a young astronomer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of observing.
BONUS ECLIPSE SkyNews editor Gary Seronik captured this trio of images showing (from right to left) the beginning, middle and end of totality of the January 20, 2019, lunar eclipse.
I always look forward to the May/June issue of SkyNews. There’s something about browsing Christine Kulyk’s annual Star Party Calendar (on page 34) that gets the observing juices flowing. Needless to say, the steadily improving weather helps too. Anticipating the enjoyment that lies ahead goes hand in hand with fondly recollecting what came before. For me, the January 20 total lunar eclipse stands out with particular vividness because I didn’t think I was going to be able to view it.
The problem, of course, was the weather. I recognize that winter in the southern interior of British Columbia, where I live, isn’t nearly as menacing as in other parts of the country. Many of the eclipse reports we received from observers in the Prairies and eastern Canada included horrific tales of bone-chilling cold and brutally powerful winds. Those intrepid souls who ventured out on eclipse night despite the life threatening conditions have my greatest admiration and respect! Most of us here in British Columbia usually escape the icy embrace of the dreaded Polar Vortex. Instead, our nemesis is pervasive overcast. It’s no joke—in winter, we can (and do!) go weeks without seeing a single star.
As eclipse day progressed, the sky remained completely overcast. Indeed, the outlook had been so bleak all week, I was convinced it wasn’t worth setting up my scope. And yet there was a tiny glimmer of hope in the latest forecast—clearing was expected, though not until well after the eclipse was over. In the afternoon, I put the gear outside to cool down “just in case.” After dinner, as the sky darkened, I looked to the east for any sign of the rising full Moon. To my surprise, I could detect it. Sort of. It was merely an ill-defined bright patch in the cloud cover. Better than nothing, I thought. The situation had upgraded marginally from “hopeless” to “very unlikely.”
Throughout the early evening, I slipped outside every 10 minutes or so to monitor conditions. Sure enough, things became less dire—as the penumbral phase of the eclipse got under way, the Moon slowly improved from a luminous blob to a fuzzy disc, and some parts of the sky were beginning to look distinctly patchy. Hope turned into a kind of guarded excitement. Ten minutes later, the lunar disc was sufficiently distinct that I could almost make out the dark maria regions. Good enough! I pulled the cover off the scope thinking that if things went well, I might be able to get some “arty” photos of a hazy, red Moon.
Remarkably, just before the lunar disc touched the darkest region of the Earth’s shadow—the umbra—the clouds seemed to give up their attempt to ruin the eclipse and quickly dissipated. With one exception: A persistent streak remained stubbornly parked in front of the Moon as if piloted by some malevolent, anti-astronomer intelligence. It really was a remarkable thing to witness. I admit, some curse words were uttered. Then more. They say getting angry never solves anything, but this time, it seemed to do the trick—the recalcitrant cloud faded away just as the last bit of bright Moon slipped into the umbral shadow.
Amazingly, the rest of the eclipse was clear sailing. I snapped away happily as the Moon progressed deeper and deeper into the Earth’s shadow. About half an hour after the start of totality, our satellite transformed into a dark, rusty brown disc floating amid the stars of western Cancer. I could scarcely believe my good fortune. Another half hour later, totality came to an end with surprising swiftness. As the first sliver of silvery Moon emerged from the umbra, I thought, wow—I got to see the entire span of totality! Whodathunkit?
While it’s true this full-Moon fade-out didn’t generate the same level of euphoria for me as the August 2017 total solar eclipse, I was perhaps a touch more appreciative because the outcome seemed so much less certain. And let’s be honest—when it comes to winter observing in Canada, you have to be grateful for what you get. And sometimes—not often, but sometimes—you get more than you have any right to expect. That said, I’m glad our next total lunar eclipse (in 2022) occurs in May. You don’t want to push your luck more than absolutely necessary.
Howard J. Simkover captured this view of Mars and Pleiades cluster on the evening of April 1, 2019. The planet remains in Taurus, west of Aldebaran, this week.
The view facing south-southeast at the start of morning astronomical twilight.
All five naked-eye planets are currently visible, but only Mars is an evening object. The peach-hued world is drifting eastward through Taurus, slowly gaining elevation as it climbs towards the ecliptic’s most northerly point, in Gemini. Mars currently shines at magnitude 1.5 and sits 7 degrees to the right of first-magnitude Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus. Shortly after 1 a.m., local daylight time, Jupiter rises and leads the parade of morning planets. Gleaming at magnitude –2.3, big Jove is difficult to miss. It culminates at roughly 5:30 a.m., while the sky is still reasonably dark. Next in line is Saturn, which clears the east-southeast horizon around 3 a.m. The ringed wonder is situated in eastern Sagittarius, and at magnitude 0.5, easily outshines all the stars in the region. As dawn approaches, our final two planets appear. Easiest to spot is Venus. The brilliant morning “star” rises less than one hour before the Sun, yet, at magnitude –3.9, can be seen easily in bright twilight. Slightly lower and a few degrees to the left of Venus is Mercury. The innermost world is mid-way through its least favourable morning showing for 2019 (see April 11, below). If you miss Mercury this time, you’ll have a much better chance to catch it at dusk in mid-June.
The Moon is new today at 4:50 a.m., EDT.
The view facing east-southeast, 30 minutes before sunrise.
This morning, Mercury is at greatest elongation. It shines at magnitude 0.3 and rises some 48 minutes before the Sun. Owing to the shallow angle the ecliptic makes to the horizon at dawn at this time of year, the planet was actually slightly higher in twilight last week. Use your binoculars to hunt for Mercury roughly 5 degrees to the left and slightly below much brighter Venus.
The Moon is at first-quarter phase at 3:06 p.m., EDT.
Base image by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Courtesy NASA
Evenings over the April 12 – 14 weekend are lit by a waxing gibbous Moon riding high on the ecliptic as it visits Gemini, Cancer and Leo. On Friday night (April 12), you have a fine opportunity to investigate the Straight Wall—one of the Moon’s most interesting formations. Also known by its Latin name, Rupes Recta, the Straight Wall appears as an improbably narrow black line etched onto the lunar surface when viewed shortly after first-quarter phase. Indeed, under less favourable conditions, the feature all but fades into the background.
The Straight Wall is a 120-kilometre-long fault—a dividing line between two sections of terrain that have shifted relative to one another. In this case, a vertical shift has produced an apparent cliff. But the starkness of lunar shadow play is deceptive here. As far as cliffs go, this one isn’t as dramatic as it looks. Although it rises some 450 meters above the mare floor, you could walk up the Straight Wall—its face is only inclined by about 25°. But as you scan its length with your telescope, you might have a hard time convincing yourself that what you’re viewing is really just a steep hill!
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Inspired by the April 10 press release featuring the first ever image of a black hole, Nepean, Ontario, astrophotographer Oleg Bouevitch headed into his backyard that night, aimed his telescope at the heart of the Virgo galaxy cluster, and photographed M87. The result is presented above. M87 is positioned near the centre of the frame, but dozens of additional galaxies also show up. Most conspicuous is a curving row of galaxies in the upper right—part of an assemblage known as Markarian’s Chain. Although M87 is currently getting all the press, in fact every galaxy in this picture likely has a supermassive black hole at its centre—black holes are simply part of the architecture of all large galaxies.
To capture this image, Oleg used a Takahashi FSQ 106 EDX III astrographic telescope and a FLI ML16200 monochromatic CCD camera to acquire a total of 279 minutes exposure data shot through LRGB filters.