Under the Southern Cross


I’m back home in Canada now, after 24 hours of travel from Chile. Despite having to check my carry-on bag filled with cameras and the Mac laptop for the Calama to Santiago domestic flight, all the gear arrived home intact. Now to process the 40+ gigs of images I shot. And properly reprocess some of the images worked on at the dining room table at the lodge, under the bright Chilean sun.

Here’s a shot taken the last night of shooting, of the icon of the southern sky, the Southern Cross, more formally called the constellation of Crux. Next to it, at left, are the dark clouds of the Coal Sack. To the eye, these clouds looks like a uniform dark spot in the sky. But photos, and even binoculars, reveal it as a complex mess of shapes and densities.

What stands out are the colours of the Cross stars. Most are hot blue Type B stars – energetic blue giants. But Gacrux at top is very red – it’s a cool red giant star.

Scattered amid the Cross are Coal Sack are several clumps of stars – open star clusters, such as the Jewel Box Cluster to the left and just below Becrux, the left star of the Cross. On our final night at the Atacama Lodge, we helped out at the lodge in a public stargazing session to a group of tourists from all over the world. I ran a telescope aimed at the Jewel Box and heard lots of ooohs and aaahs at the sight of its multicoloured stars.

This shot is a Mean-combine stack of five 3-minute exposures at f/2.8 with the wonderful Canon L-series 135mm telephoto, and the Canon 5D MkII camera, filter-modified, at ISO 800. The camera was on a Kenko SkyMemo tracking platform, which followed the stars during the 15 minutes worth of exposures.

– Alan, May 9, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Galactic Cathedral


We’re on our last full day in Chile, packing up and sorting out. I’ll finish off my Chile blog series with this parting shot — the entire southern Milky Way from horizon to horizon.

In this view, we’re looking straight up, with the horizon at the edges of the frame of the 15mm fish-eye lens. The glowing starclouds of Sagittarius and Scorpius, seen in close up in the previous blog post, are in the centre of the frame. The Southern Cross is at far right, the Northern Cross at far left.

This scene is a superb way to end a night of southern sky stargazing – just lying back and looking up at the entire panorama of the Galaxy. You really do get the sense that we are indeed living at the edge of the Galaxy, looking off into its bright core, and with its spiral arms wrapping around us.

It’s a galactic cathedral of stars.

– Alan, May 7, 2011 / Image  © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Starfields of Sagittarius and Scorpius


I can’t get enough of this region of sky. I can and do shoot this with every lens I have and with all kinds of framing (horizontally, vertically, or at a rakish angle, like here) and it always looks great.

These are the rich and stunning starfields toward the centre of the Milky Way in Sagittarius (bottom) and Scorpius (at top). Look for the pinkish nebulas dotted along the Milky Way, the bright starclouds, and the dark lanes of interstellar dust. It’s all part of the galactic recycling program that our Milky Way participates in, as stars explode, cast off dust and gas, which then clump into glowing nebulas and form new generations of stars.

I took this shot about 5 a.m. a couple of mornings ago, with this area directly overhead. It’s a stack of six 3-minute exposures with the 35mm lens and Canon 5D MkII camera. I took some shots through a soft focus filter to add the star glows.

– Alan, May 7, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Best Nebula in the Sky


What a great field this is to explore with binoculars. The image here takes in about the same area of sky as most binoculars and look what it contains! Arguably, the best nebula in the sky: the Carina Nebula, and the best open star cluster: the Football Cluster (aka NGC 3532) to the left of the main nebula. And then there’s the Southern Pleiades star cluster, IC 2602, below the nebula, and lots more besides.

This one field is reason enough to travel to the southern hemisphere for stargazing.

I shot this last night, May 6, 2011, using a 135mm telephoto lens at the modified Canon 5D MkII camera. The filter modification allows the camera to pick up a lot more of the faint wispy bits of glowing nebulosity. This is a stack of four 3-minute exposures, with two of the exposures shot through some thin cloud (the first we saw all week!), adding the subtle but photogenic glows around the stars.

– Alan, May 7, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Belt of Venus and Volcanoes


This was the scene we were treated to each evening at the Atacama Lodge in Chile. Quite an amazing skyline, with 5,900-metre-high Licancabur Volcano, here at sunset.

The sky colour comes from a phenomenon known as the Belt of Venus, a magenta/pinkish glow from sunlight lighting up the upper atmosphere after the Sun has set for us on the ground. The dark blue rimming the horizon is the rising shadow of the Earth.

I have punched up the colour saturation here to bring out the colours, but not so much as to be faked — the colours are real!

This is a shot with the 50mm lens and Canon 7D camera, taken on one of the nights we had dinner back at the lodge, in this case with a group of Québec amateur astronomers also here this week who were great observing friends on the field.

– Alan, May 7, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Dawn Planets, Part Two


I began my night sky shooting stint earlier this week in Chile with a shot of the dawn gathering of planets. I’ve ended it with another, taken this morning at 7 a.m., on May 7, 2011.

This scene shows four planets partaking in a rare close mutual conjunction in the morning sky. From top to bottom they are: Venus (brightest) with Mercury just to the right of Venus (both inner worlds appear close together for the next week or so), then below that pair, Jupiter, then at the bottom and faintest, Mars.

Notice how Venus, Jupiter and Mars are almost equally spaced, forming a straight line that defines the ecliptic path of the planets, here seen coming up vertically from the horizon. This is the view from 23° south latitude; from Canada these planets would be arrayed more horizontally low across the eastern horizon.

The conical peak at left is 5,900-metre-high Licancabur Volcano. The lights are tail lights of pre-dawn traffic going over the high pass over the Andes into Bolivia.

– Alan, May 7, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Dawn’s Early Light


This shot took getting up early (rather than staying up all night) to shoot the sky at 5 a.m. The main subject here is a subtle tower of light rising up vertically from the eastern horizon. That’s the Zodiacal Light, best seen from low latitudes.

The glow is from sunlight reflected off dust particles deposited in the inner solar system by passing comets. While it looks like dawn twilight coming on, the light actually comes from out in space and heralds the brightening of the sky by true twilight.

After a week of gazing in the evening sky, a number of us observers took the opportunity this morning to snooze through part of the night and get up prior to dawn to see a new set of objects. At that time of night, and at this time of year, the centre of the Milky Way sits straight overhead, and shows up here in an ultrawide shot from horizon to zenith.

I shot this with the 15mm lens at f/2.8 and the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800. It’s a stack of two 3-minute exposures.

– Alan, May 6, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Southern Crosses


The emblem of the southern hemisphere sky is here on the left: the Southern Cross, or Crux. But how many other crosses can you find in this field?

At the right is a larger version of Crux, made of two stars from Carina and two stars from Vela. So it’s not a proper constellation but an asterism well known in the southern hemisphere sky, called the False Cross.

You might also be able to pick out a third cross at lower centre, looking upside down but also made of four stars in an elongated diamond shape.

The prominent centre-stage object here is the massive Eta Carinae Nebula, sometimes just called the Carina Nebula (I’ve never determined what the proper and official name of it is). Surrounding it is an array of star clusters that make this area an absolute delight to explore with binoculars. But this week, at our stay at the Atacama Lodge, our small observing party has had fabulous views of the nebula in a big 18-inch telescope that reveals intricate structure in the swirls and eddies of its glowing clouds.

This is a stack of 6 exposures, each 3 minutes at f/4 with a 50mm Sigma lens and the Canon 5D MkII camera.

– Alan, May 6, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Southern Spectacular


Everyone from the north who sees this area of sky for the first time quickly realizes just how much better the sky is down south. This is the most spectacular region of the deep-south Milky Way, as it passes through the constellations of Carina, Crux and Centaurus.

Dead centre here is the symbol of the southern sky, the Southern Cross. To the right of it glow the reddish nebulas of Carina and Centaurus; to the left of the Cross lie the dark clouds of the Coal Sack and the pair of brilliant stars, Alpha (on the left) and Beta Centauri. Alpha is the closest bright star to our solar system.

This one field contains much of what makes the southern sky so memorable and a mecca for any backyard astronomer. You haven’t lived an astronomical life until you’ve seen this part of the Milky Way, accessible only from southern latitudes.

I took this shot last night, May 4, 2011, using a Sigma 50mm lens and a modified Canon 5D MkII camera. The image is a stack of four 6-minute exposures at f/4 and ISO 800, plus a stack of two more 6-minute exposures taken through a soft-focus filter, with those images layered into the final Photoshop image to add the star glows and make the constellation outlines, like the Southern Cross, pop out.

– Alan, May 5, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Exploring the Large Magellanic Cloud


A prime attraction of the southern hemisphere sky is an object called the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our own Milky Way, and only visible from southern latitudes. You can spend many nights just working your way through its confusing array of star  clusters and nebulas.

Here, Gary Finlay (seated) and Philip Downey (standing, checking his digital iPad star atlas) are doing just that – trying to identify the many objects you can see in one eyepiece field at a time. And the LMC is so large it covers dozens of eyepiece fields. They’re using an 18-inch reflector, which is providing us with outstanding views of not only the LMC and its many nebulas, but hundreds of other targets along the Milky Way.

I took this with a 30-second exposure at f/2.8 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 7D. The location is the small observing field adjacent to our rooms at the Atacama Lodge in Chile.

– Alan, May 4, 2011 / Image © Alan Dyer 2011

Toward the Centre of the Galaxy


This is without a doubt the most spectacular area of sky. Here we’re looking toward the centre of our Galaxy, toward the starfields of Scorpius (at right) and Sagittarius (bottom centre). The field is a riot of stars, dark lanes of dust, and patches of glowing red nebulas.

It is wonderful experience – wonder-filled! – just to lie back and scan these constellations with binoculars or a wide-field telescope. One outstanding feature are the parallel bands of dark dust that seem to form the shape of a dark prancing horse in the Milky Way.

The brightest area of the Milky Way here is the Sagittarius Starcloud, and marks the direction of the centre of our Galaxy. From here in Chile where I took this shot, this region of sky passes directly overhead, making it more prominent than at northern latitudes where the galactic core is often lost in horizon haze.

This image is a stack of four 6-minute exposures at f/4 with the 35mm lens and Canon 5D MkII camera. For one of the exposures I shot through a special soft-focus filter to add the fuzzy star glows that make it easier to see the outline of the constellations. The filter also emphasizes the colours of the stars.

The image is a segment of a 12-section panorama I shot all along the Milky Way from dusk to dawn.

– Alan, May 3, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Entangled in Dark Dust


This is a star cluster in Scorpius called NGC 6124 – it doesn’t have a name, to the best of my knowledge. But a good one might be the “Dark River Cluster.”

I’ve shot lots of stuff along the Milky Way on my various trips to the southern hemisphere, but this field was a pleasant new surprise. While I had photographed this star cluster before, previous portraits had been extreme closeups. I had not shot it with a wide field like this.

The field here takes in about the same area of sky as binoculars. One of my projects on this current trip to Chile has been to shoot binocular fields like this. And it’s a good one. The cluster is a little off the beaten track in Scorpius and tends to be ignored. But its position entangled with lanes of dark nebulosity makes it a wonderful contrast of stars and darkness.

The dark lanes are obscuring dust in the foreground, hiding the light of distant stars in the Milky Way. The cluster itself is about 18,000 light years away, quite a distance for a star cluster, and putting it a good portion of the way toward the centre of the Galaxy.

For this shot I used the Canon 7D camera and 135mm telephoto, for a stack of six 2-minute exposures at ISO 800 and f/2.8.

– Alan, May 3, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Galaxyrise


In the southern hemisphere sky we are treated to the stunning sight of the centre of the Galaxy rising each night, as the starfields of Scorpius and Sagittarius come up over the eastern horizon. In this shot, taken last night (May 2/3), we see the Milky Way’s heart rising behind some of the robotic, remotely-controlled domes and telescopes at the Atacama Lodge in Chile. Only the centre dome is operating, taking images or data under the command of someone half a world away.

Amazing technology to be sure, but … that robotic observer misses the experience of standing under the Milky Way, watching its heart rise over the Andes and swing overhead through the night. The Milky Way is so bright it lights the ground, as you can see here.

Last night our little group of 7 Canadian observers had a fantastic time exploring the southern sky with several telescopes, including an 18-inch reflector set up for us by lodge owner Alain Maury. With the help of a couple of wide-angle eyepieces we saw wonderful views of the Vela Supernova Remnant, dark nebulas in the Milky Way, and showpiece targets like Omega Centauri and the Tarantula Nebula – the list goes on! And will again tonight, as we compile another “hit-list” of targets to find tonight.

For this shot, I used the Canon 7D camera, a 15mm lens, and ISO 2500 for a 40 second exposure at f/2.8. This is one of about 500 frames taken for a time-lapse movie of “Galaxyrise.”

– Alan, May 3, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Milky Way from Chile


This was the Milky Way as it appeared toward the end of a long night of non-stop shooting from Chile. The centre of the Galaxy lies directly overhead and the Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon. This is one of the sky’s greatest sights, and this is an ideal time of year to see it. But only if you are in the magic latitude zone of 20° to 30° south.

In this shot, another skyglow stretches up from the eastern horizon at left – that’s the Zodiacal Light, so obvious from this latitude. It’s sunlight reflected off comet dust in the inner solar system, and heralds the coming dawn twilight.

My tracking platform – the device that allows a camera to follow the sky for a time exposure – is at lower right, with a second camera taking telephoto lens shots of star clusters in the Milky Way.

I took this shot with the Sigma 8mm fish-eye lens and the Canon 5D MkII camera that was on a fixed tripod – it was not tracking the sky. But the 45-second exposure at ISO 3200 was enough to bring out the Milky Way in all its glory. This frame is one of 660 or so that make up (or will once I assemble it) a time-lapse movie of the Milky Way turning about the pole and rising through the night. The fish-eye format makes it suitable for projection in a planetarium dome.

– Alan, May 2, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

A Dawn Gathering of Planets


The joys of stargazing at southern latitudes! Here’s a shot from this morning, May 2, 2011, of the gathering of four planets now coming together in the pre-dawn sky. From Canada, you won’t see this well at all. The planets will be hugging the horizon and lost in the twilight. But from here in Chile, at a latitude of 23° south, the planets are arranged vertically straight up from the horizon. Over the next couple of weeks the planets will converge as Venus and Mercury drop down to meet Jupiter and Mars – they’ll be tightest, within 6° of each other on the mornings of May 11 and 12, when Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest objects here, will be closest together.

It was very neat watching them rise this morning over the Andes, first brilliant Venus popping over the ridge, then fainter Mercury, the Jupiter, and finally, at the bottom here, Mars. Venus and Mercury pair at top, and Jupiter and Mars are together at bottom.

The conical peak at left is 5,900-metre (19,400-foot) Licancabur, an extinct volcano, one of many along the line of the Andes. I shot this from just outside our dining room at the Atacama Lodge near San Pedro de Atacama. It was the finale of an all-night session shooting the Milky Way in stills and time-lapse. All the gear worked great and the raw images look fabulous. More to come!

– Alan, May 2, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Under Chilean Skies


Welcome to paradise for astronomers! Yesterday I arrived at the Atacama Lodge near the little resort town of San Pedro de Atacama in central Chile. As you can see, we’re at the base of the Andes and some very impressive volcanoes. The next week promises outstanding skies and night after night of non-stop shooting and sightseeing of southern sky splendours. And yes, the sky really is that blue!

I’m with a small group of three other fellow Canadian stargazers and we’ve met up with three other fellows from Québec who’ve been here a few nights already. So we’re told we’re the largest gathering of Canadians in this part of Chile! My group arrived yesterday evening after 24 hours of travel, the worst of which was the hour shopping for groceries at the superstore in Calama. It was the day before a national holiday, and the crowds were worse than Xmas eve back home.

But we’re settled in now, and all the equipment arrived unscathed and is ready to go. The scopes I’m posing with are ones that live on site for the public tours conducted by Alain and Ale Maury, owners of the Lodge. We had a great evening last night of binocular viewing but tonight we’ll be ready to go with our own gear all set up, plus an 18-inch we’ll be using for the week.

There is no finer place on the planet for astronomy. Watch for more photos coming soon!

– Alan, May 1, 2011 / photo by Bob Cassgrain.