The Great Sky Show of 2012 Begins


The show has been underway for a while but this past weekend anyone with clear skies couldn’t help but notice some beautiful sights in the evening sky. They herald the start of a wonderful late winter and spring of evening celestial scenes.

Tonight, after a snowy weekend that brought winter back to Alberta, skies cleared enough to reveal the waxing crescent Moon next to Jupiter, with both above brilliant Venus. Over the next two weeks watch as Venus and Jupiter converge for a mutual conjunction March 12 to 13. Then on March 25 we’ll see the Moon next to Jupiter and the near Venus the following night, just a month from now.

For the next two weeks we also have Mercury at its best low in the western evening sky and Mars rising in the east at sunset as it reaches its closest point to Earth in two years. It’s a great planetary spring.

Keep looking up!

— Alan, February 26, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Chariot of the Sky


Auriga the Charioteer rides high across the northern winter sky these nights. This is a wide-field image I took last week of the constellation that now shines overhead from northern latitudes.

My image takes in all of Auriga, the pentagon-shaped charioteer of Roman mythology, as well as the feet of Gemini the twins, spanning a wide area of the winter Milky Way. Sprinkled along this bit of Milky Way you can see a few clusters of stars. They include four of the best open star clusters in the catalogue of Charles Messier: M35 in Gemini at bottom, and M36, M37 and M38 in Auriga at centre, all wonderful targets for a small telescope. Some of these targets lie in the next spiral arm out from the one we live in.

The star colours show up nicely here, with the brightest star at top appearing a little off white. That’s Capella, 42 light years away and classified as a type G “yellow” star not unlike our own Sun in temperature but much larger – a giant star. Indeed, it is really two yellow-giant stars in close orbit around each other. It’s interesting that Capella doesn’t really show up as yellow. Just like our Sun does to our eyes, Capella appears white because it still emits such a broad range of colours that even though its peak energy does fall in the yellow part of the spectrum, all the other colours remain strong enough that the star looks white to our eyes. Remember, our eyes evolved under the light of a type G star to see all the colours of the spectrum from red to blue.

Only the cool red giant stars take on a yellow or orange hue to our eyes, and to the camera. You can see a few in this image, as well as hot blue stars. The pinky red bits are nebulas in the Milky Way – clouds of hydrogen gas emitting deep red light.

When we look in this direction in the Milky Way we are looking out toward the edge of our Galaxy, exactly opposite the galactic centre.

– Alan, February 21, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Orion Over Our Fence of Mountains


For us in the northern hemisphere, Orion is the very symbol of a winter night, as he stands over snowy landscapes. I took this photo from Lake Louise, in the Rocky Mountains on a chill February night.

Robert Frost, the American poet, describes the inspiring scene of Orion climbing into a winter sky:

“You know Orion always comes up sideways.

Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,

And rising on his hands, he looks in on me

Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something

I should have done by daylight, and indeed,

After the ground is frozen, I should have done

Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful

Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney

To make fun of my way of doing things,

Or else fun of Orion’s having caught me.”

_____________________________________

— Alan, February 15, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

The Rose of Winter


While I took this shot three weeks ago, I’ve only just got around to processing it. This is a nebula-filled region of the northern winter sky in the constellation of Monoceros, the unicorn.

The highlight is the rose-like Rosette Nebula at bottom, an interstellar flower of glowing hydrogen where new stars are forming. Above it, at centre, is a mass of pink, blue and deep red nebulosity that forms the Monoceros Complex. All lie in our local corner of the Milky Way, in a spiral arm fragment called the Orion Spur, a hotbed of star formation.

This field, shot with a 135mm telephoto lens, sits to the left of Orion and spans about a hand width at arm’s length. It would take a couple of binocular fields to contain it. Next on my astrophoto agenda – shooting some close ups of selected bits of Monoceros, shots that have eluded me till now.

— Alan, February 12, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Orion over the Grand Hotel


Orion sets over Sulphur Mountain and the Banff Springs Hotel in this nightscape from last weekend, February 3.

This is where Banff National Park – indeed the Canadian National Parks system – started, with the founding of a protected enclave around the hot springs and then the hotel, operated at first by the Canadian Pacific Railway, to serve visiting tourists seeking cure-all remedies from the sulphur springs.

Orion and Sirius shine above the Banff landmark, lit, unfortunately, far too brightly by sodium vapour lights. One day the ethic espoused by commercial interests of conserving the environment will extend to the night sky. When we set up telescopes at the Hotel a couple of years ago in honour of Earth Hour, we had to physically cover some lights — they could not be turned off!

So while this shot shows some of the beauty of the night sky from a site like Banff, it also shows what anyone under the veil of all those lights misses. Half the environment of the mountains.

— Alan, February 10, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Snow Moon over the Science Centre


Here’s the Full Moon of February rising over the place I work, the science centre in Calgary, called TELUS Spark.

I took this Tuesday evening, February 7, on the night of what is sometimes called the Snow Moon. I knew the Full Moon would rise in the northeast and worked out, with the help of a useful iPad app, just where to stand on the hill above the science centre to get the Moon rising over the science centre. Though it did take a last minute move of a hundred feet to place the Moon over the front entrance!

The building glows from the light of banks of LEDs that can be programmed to slowly change colour. The parking lot lights are all nicely shielded, as any astronomically friendly place should be, to prevent light spilling upward. The odd structure to the left contains the new digital dome theatre, which opens this spring. The dome screen is being installed this month. The dome will feature a Digistar 4 projection system with two pairs of very high-end Sony 4K video projectors, for interactive star shows and full-dome movies. Maybe even laser shows!

Should be fun!

— Alan, February 8, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

The Venus Express


A train winds through the Rockies, seemingly headed for Venus!

I took this shot last Saturday night at one of my favourite photo stops in Banff, the famed Morant’s Curve on the Bow Valley Parkway. This was the spot made famous in the 1930s and 1940s by CPR photographer Nicholas Morant who hauled his large format view camera around western Canada shooting scenes of the Canadian Pacific Railway and classic steam engines at work hauling through the Rockies. At this location the train winds alongside the Bow River heading up to the continental divide marked by the line of peaks in the distance.

On this night, Venus shone brightly over the peaks surrounding Lake Louise. A westbound train heads off into the distance. In a few minutes it’ll be over the divide and descending Kicking Horse Pass into Field, B.C. and Yoho National Park. It’ll never reach Venus!

— Alan, February 7, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer