Meteor and Windmill in the Moonlight


A rare bright meteor pierces the northern sky beside a spinning windmill in the moonlight.

I shot this Thursday night, August 30, as one frame of 300 or so shot for a time lapse sequence. Having a camera taking hundreds of frames at rapid interval, as you do for a time-lapse movie, is the only way to capture the chance and fleeting appearance of a bright meteor like this.

You can see the Big Dipper behind the machine and Polaris, the North Star, directly above the well-placed meteor.

I drove out to the new Wintering Hills Wind Farm now operating northeast of me and found a machine I could get close to. And they are huge! This is a sequence from a dolly shot I took. But the other camera was on a fixed tripod and I’ll stack those images into a long star trail scene, to get the circumpolar stars spinning alongside the windmill. But the machine was turning so fast that even 4 second exposures in bright moonlight blurred the blades more than I would have liked.

— Alan, August 31, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Goodness Gracious! A Great Ball of Stars!


This is what half a million stars look like when packed into one big ball. 

This is the globular star cluster called Messier 22, in Sagittarius. It’s the biggest and best such object visible from Canadian latitudes, though it always sits low in our summer sky. M22 is one of 150 or so such spherical clusters of stars that orbit our Milky Way. This one sits 10,000 light years away from us, toward the centre of the Galaxy. Those half million stars are packed into a sphere 100 light years across. In our sky it appears as big as the Full Moon, though not as bright of course. But just imagine the sky if you can view it from the centre of M22. The heavens would be ablaze with stars. 

I shot this with the 130mm refractor at f/6. It’s a stack of just three 4-minute exposures with the Canon 7D. Though M22 was low above the southern horizon from the Cypress Hills where I shot this, the final image turned out pretty well. 

– Alan, August 30, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Camping Under the Planets


Here’s a final scene from the recent big star party, of campers under Mars and Saturn, two planets setting into the twilight.

Saturn is just in the clouds, Mars is below, and just above the treetops is Spica, the brightest star in Virgo. The three objects were in close conjunction through mid-August but set early in the evening.

I shot this at the recent Saskatchewan Summer Star Party in Cypress Hills. Most of my blogs of the last 10 days have featured shots from the star party or of the star party. It was a super weekend for stargazing.

– Alan, August 27, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

The Northern Nebulas of the Milky Way


This is the prime celestial real estate above us now on northern summer nights.

This wide-angle shot takes in the Milky Way from Cygnus at right to Perseus at left, an area populated by lots of nebulas, both bright and dark. A couple of previous posts (The Subtle Shades of Cepheus and The Dark Clouds of Cygnus) featured close-up views of sections of this sky, the areas at centre in this wider context image in northern Cygnus and southern Cepheus.

At bottom is the elliptical glow of the Andromeda Galaxy, another “milky way” beyond ours.

I boosted the contrast and colour more than I normally do for astrophotos, to punch out the nebulas and the subtle dark lanes of dust that permeate this part of the Milky Way. I shot this last weekend from the star party in Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan. With three clear nights it was a productive weekend!

– Alan, August 26, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

The Subtle Shades of Cepheus


The Milky Way in Cepheus presents a palette of colours revealed in long exposures.

This binocular-sized field contains the large magenta nebula IC 1396, a site of star formation. On its northern (upper) edge shines the orange star Mu Cephei, otherwise known as Herschel’s Garnet Star, for its very red appearance in the eyepiece. It is a bloated red supergiant, one of the largest stars known. A few other stars in the field are younger blue giants. Faint wisps of red hydrogen fill the field (the faint crescent at right is Sharpless 129, left of centre is Sharpless 132, at top left is NGC 7380). Diagonally along the Milky Way lie dark, yellow-tinted dust clouds. The darkest patch at centre is the Barnard 169/170/171 complex. These contrast with the dust-free blue starfields of the Milky Way at left.

This is a stack of five 5-minute exposures with the 135mm telephoto and Canon 5D MkII camera, which has been filter modified to record the faint red nebulas better than a stock camera.

– Alan, August 25, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Star Gazing


Happiness is a big telescope under a dark sky.

This is Regina astronomer Vance Petriew, gazing skyward at the Milky Way in Cassiopeia. Vance is the discoverer of Comet 185/P, aka Comet Petriew. This year, his comet returned to the August sky as a faint glow in Gemini, close to where it was when Vance found it exactly 11 years to the day before this image was taken, and at the very same spot in the campsite at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park in Saskatchewan.

We all revelled in the Saskatchewan comet’s return, staying up till 4 am to see it through Vance’s 20-inch telescope, a reflector made by the small company called Obsession. (When you have an Obsession, you are a serious observer!) Enjoying the view early that morning before dawn were  Vance’s three daughters, only one of whom was around 11 years ago and then as a baby. But this year even the four-year-old was able to see Dad’s comet up close.

At the afternoon talks Vance recounted the story of how the comet’s discovery changed his life, and led to immense changes at the Park. As a result of the media and political attention the comet brought, the Park has become a Dark Sky Preserve, one of the first in Canada, leading a nationwide movement, while astronomy programming is now an integral part of the Park’s interpretive programs, as it is becoming at other provincial and national parks. There is now a permanent public observatory and lecture hall nearby in Cypress Hills, just a short walk away from where the comet was found.

Comets can have quite an impact!

— Alan, August 24, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Horizon to Horizon Milky Way


The view doesn’t get any wider than this. This fish-eye image takes in the entire night sky and summer Milky Way.

I shot this last weekend at the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party in Cypress Hills. Red lights of observers streak along the horizon around the perimeter of the circular image. At centre is the zenith, the point in the sky straight overhead.

The sky was very dark, but the sky close to the horizon is tinted with the faint glows of aurora and airglow.

The Milky Way is the main feature of the summer sky, here stretching from Sagittarius in the south at bottom to Perseus at top in the north. Wide shots like this really put the giant lanes of dust into proper context; you can see their full structure and faint tendrils extending well off the Milky Way band.

For these fish-eye shots (suitable for projection in a planetarium) I used a Sigma 8mm fish-eye lens and a full-frame Canon 5D MkII camera. This is a stack of five 5-minute exposures, all tracked. The landscape is from just one of the images, to minimize blurring of the ground.

— Alan, August 23, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

The Dark Clouds of Cygnus


Stare into the starfields of Cygnus and ponder what lies undiscovered in our part of the Milky Way.

You are looking down the spiral arm we live in, into clouds of stars seemingly packed together. Every one of those specks is a sun like ours. With planets? Very likely, as we now know.

Amid the stars float glowing red clouds of hydrogen gas. The North America Nebula shines at lower right.

Snaking northward from the “arctic” region of the bright nebula is a river of dust that broadens into a delta of dark nebulosity. Once thought to be holes in the sky allowing us to see deeper into space, we know now that these dark nebulas are really foreground dust clouds filled with the soot of dying stars, carbon dust that absorbs starlight and obscures the more distant parts of the Milky Way.

This dust cloud is called Le Gentil 3, named for the 18th century French astronomer who first noted its position in the sky. Le Gentil’s dust cloud is one of the easiest features of the summer Milky Way to see. Look north of Deneb, the bright star at the right of the image, and with the unaided eye on a dark moonless night you’ll see what looks like a dark hole in the Milky Way. That’s Le Gentil 3.

I use this dust cloud as a measure of sky brightness. On a truly dark night, Le Gentil 3 looks darker than any other area of sky, even relatively starless regions off the Milky Way. Most of the sky brightness we see from a dark site is really starlight. But Le Gentil’s proximity and opaqueness makes it appear darker than the more distant starlit sky background.

This image covers about the width of a binocular field. I shot it from the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan this past weekend, using the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600 and Canon 135mm telephoto lens at f/2.8. It’s a stack of 10 five-minute exposures.

— Alan, August 22, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

A Convergence of Worlds in the Sky


The evening planet show we’ve been enjoying all year comes to a close for a while, but in grand style with a convergence of four worlds in the dusk.

This was the scene from my front driveway, Tuesday, August 21, as the waxing crescent Moon shone near Mars (just above the Moon) and Saturn (at top right just above the clouds), and near the star Spica (to the right of the Moon). The four objects formed a somewhat lopsided square in the evening twilight. But from my latitude of 51° North, they were very low and never visible in a dark sky. Enjoying them with the eyes required binoculars to pick them out.

Saturn will disappear behind the Sun shortly, but Mars hangs around in the evening sky for a few more months, but always low and easy to miss.

— Alan, August 21, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Lost in the Milky Way


Just lie back and lose yourself in the Milky Way.

That’s what one person is doing here, under the starry skies of Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan. In summertime the Milky Way is the main attraction at night. Here, it rises from the south, a region containing the centre of our Galaxy in Sagittarius, to climb up overhead through the star clouds of Scutum and Aquila, then into Cygnus in our local spiral arm, and on into Cassiopeia at the top of the frame in the north.

As in most deep sky photos, I’ve boosted the contrast and colour to make a dramatic image. To the eye the Milky Way appears in subtle shades of grey painted with the dark brushstrokes of dust lanes winding through the bright clouds of stars. But your eye does see much of this structure.

I like these types of ultra-wide images. They capture the mind’s eye impression of what the Milky Way looks like across the vault of heaven.

This is a stack of four 5-minute exposures, all tracked on a small equatorial mount, the Kenko SkyMemo, and all taken with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and Canon’s ultra-wide 15mm lens at f/4, as you can see from the photo data at left. I retained the ground from just one image, to minimize the blurring from the slowly moving camera tracking the stars. I masked out the ground in the other 3 images. They help smooth out noise in the sky.

— Alan, August 21, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Star Party Panorama


This image depicts a 360° panorama of the field and sky at the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party.

This was my first time shooting a nighttime panorama but it was easy. Just 12 exposures taken at 30° intervals panning around on a levelled tripod, in classic planetarium panorama style. Each exposure was 30 seconds at f/2 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 5D MkII and 24mm lens. It helps to have a high-quality fast lens.

North is at centre, south on either end.

The sky contains some interesting and subtle features that show up well in a wide-angle panorama like this:

– The bright summer Milky Way is setting at left in the southwest while the fainter winter half of the Milky Way is rising opposite, at right in the northeast.

– Jupiter and the Pleiades rise at right just off the Milky Way

– A meteor streaks over the trees at centre

– At centre, to the north, glows a faint yellow and magenta aurora

– The larger green glow left of centre is, I suspect, airglow rather than aurora. It has a striated structure, particularly at right of centre above the trees where it appears as subtle green and red bands arching across the northeast.

The sky this night was dark but did have a brighter than usual background, likely due to the presence of this faint airglow that the camera picks up better than the eye.

Even so, I can see another faint glow:

– A whitish band coming up from the northeast passing through Jupiter and below the Pleaides. That’s the Zodiacal Band, an extension of the brighter Zodiacal Light and caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust in the ecliptic plane.

The location of the panorama and star party was the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park in southwest Saskatchewan, one of the darkest places in southern Canada.

— Alan, August 20, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Party Under the Stars


For astronomers this is party central – under the starclouds of the summer Milky Way.

Over the past weekend, August 16-18, I attended the annual Saskatchewan Summer Star Party, held in the Cypress Hills of southwestern Saskatchewan. Skies could not have been better.

This was the scene Friday night, with telescopes under the Milky Way. About 350 people attended, and nearly as many telescopes it seemed! This is one small section of the observing and camping field.

Cypress Hill Park has been declared a Dark Sky Preserve, in recognition of the Park’s role in preserving and presenting the dark skies that are as much a part of our natural world as are the flora and fauna of the Earth. Every year astronomers converge on the Hills to revel in their pristine skies … and party – quietly! – under the Milky Way. Wandering the field you could overhear “Hey, look at this!”, “Wow!”, “O-o-o-h!”, “I found the __ nebula!” and many more exclamations of joy and wonderment.

My image is a composite of a single untracked exposure for the sharp foreground and a stack of 5 tracked exposures for the sky and Milky Way. All were 2 minute exposures, taken moments apart. Boosting the contrast makes the Milky Way stand out with far more detail and colour than the eye can see. Nevertheless, the Milky Way was a grand sight and the main attraction over the Cypress Hills this past weekend.

– Alan, August 19, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Little Schoolhouse Under Prairie Skies


There aren’t many left now. Here on a bare prairie hilltop near where I live stands one of the last of the one-room schoolhouses.

Located near the now-vanished town of Majorville, Alberta is the Liberty School, built in 1909. I tried to look up the history of this particular school but found only references to other similar schools in the area. The stories from teachers who worked in such schools were fascinating. Amy Corbiell, a relative of one of my neighbours, taught at a nearby school in the 1930s. Imagine the scene on the prairies back then:

“Some days when the dust blew I remember it got so dark the pupils couldn’t see to work. I would light our one little coal-oil lamp and read to them until I could safely send them home.”

The lone teacher would live either in the home of one of the students. Or she would be put up in what we would now call a shack – the teacherage – next to the school. She would attend to the students ages 6 to 16, keep the pot-bellied stove going, bring in water from the hand pump outside, perhaps play the piano (if there was one), and organize the big annual Christmas concert. There might be a barn nearby for the kids to shelter their horses. Yes, they really did ride to school each day. It was a hard life by today’s soft standards.

But as Helen Courtney, another teacher from the era, remarked in her reminiscences,

“The 1930s are remembered as the depression years, the years of crop failures, and blizzard-like dust storms. They were also the times when neighbours helped neighbours, people shared what they had, extended kindness and friendship and looked hopefully toward a better future.”

My photo, taken under bright moonlight on August 4, shows the Big Dipper over the little schoolhouse, and a summer thunderstorm rolling across the far horizon.

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

 

Planetary Dawn


This was the stunning scene in the dawn sky last Sunday — Venus, the Moon and Jupiter lined up above the Rockies.

Orion is just climbing over the line of mountains at right, while the stars of Taurus shine just to the right of Jupiter at top. I shot this at the end of a productive dusk-t0-dawn night of Perseid meteor photography. Being rewarded with a scene like this is always a great way to cap a night of astronomy.

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

 

Venus Disappears


 

On the afternoon of Monday, August 13 the waning crescent Moon slid in front of Venus in broad daylight. This sequence captures the disappearance.

It was touch and go getting this as high cloud kept moving through. A few minutes earlier the Moon and Venus were in clear blue sky, but at the time of the occultation, haze whitened the sky and cut down the  contrast on an event that takes a telescope to see well. When the sky was clear it was easy to sight the Moon with unaided eyes and therefore focus your eyes on infinity. Venus next to the Moon popped into view, even naked eye. It was a rare chance to easily sight Venus in the daytime. But as it got close to the Moon Venus became harder to see naked eye, and the haze then made it impossible. But through a telescope it was just the opposite — Venus’s bright disk stood out even when the Moon was washed out and invisible.

For southern Alberta the occultation took place at 2:11 pm MDT. I missed seeing it emerge from behind the Moon. I was already inside processing this image.

It has been quite a year for Venus. It’s not over yet, as Venus continues its morning show and has close encounters with the Moon and the star Regulus this autumn.

— Alan, August 14, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Shooting Through the Stars


Two bright meteors streak across the circling stars on the peak night of the Perseid meteor shower.

Of course, as is typical of bright meteors, the really bright one, the night’s best, I missed by that much! It shot off camera toward the west. But I got most of it. When shooting meteor showers you just aim and shoot and hope for the best. With luck some meteors will decide to shoot through the camera field when the shutter is actually open — they often appear just after the shutter closes.

This is a stack of nine 1-minute exposures in rapid succession, with two frames managing to pick up a bright meteor each. Over the nine minutes of exposure time the stars trailed as they rose in the east and circled Polaris at top left.

For this sequence I set up in Banff National Park at the picnic area at the Upper Bankhead parking lot at the base of Cascade Mountain, looking east toward the constellation of Perseus and the radiant point of the meteors — Perseids all appear to shoot out of Perseus, the bright collection of stars at centre.

— Alan, August 13, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Perseid Meteors and Planets over a Mountain Lake


It was quite a night, and a wonderful dawn. This was the scene at the end of a night of falling stars.

A trio of Perseid meteors zips down at left, while at right a trio of solar system worlds rises into the pre-dawn sky. The overexposed waning Moon is flanked by Jupiter above and Venus below. Jupiter shines near the Hyades star cluster and below the Pleiades cluster.

I took this shot (it is actually a composite of three shots, each with its own meteor) on the morning of Sunday, August 12 on the peak night of the annual Perseid meteor shower, widely publicized this year due to the lack of a Moon for most of the night, and the convenience of falling on a weekend. The scene is looking east over Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park, Alberta, one of the few places in this part of the Rockies you can look east to a reasonably unobstructed sky.

Notice the glitter path on the water from not only the Moon but also Venus.

— Alan, August 13, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

A Cloud of Stars in Scutum


This is a binocular-sized gulp of sky in the northern summer Milky Way. Countless stars form a bright patch in the Milky Way called the Scutum Starcloud, named for the odd little constellation of Scutum the Shield that contains it.

Visible to the naked eye, this star cloud is a rich area for binoculars or a small telescope. One favourite object of stargazers lies embedded in the star cloud and can be seen here as a bright clump of stars at left of centre. That’s the Wild Duck Cluster, or Messier 11, a dense and populous cluster of stars within the already star-packed Scutum Starcloud. Look in this direction into the Milky Way and you are looking toward the next spiral arm in from ours, some 6,000 light years away.

The immensity of stars in just this small area of sky is hard to fathom. That’s why it’s called deep space!

– Alan, August 9, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Continent in the Sky


Shining overhead on northern summer nights right now is the blue supergiant star Deneb, in Cygnus. Nearby glow the magenta clouds of the North America Nebula.

This image shot with a telephoto lens takes in roughly the same field of view as a pair of binoculars. But being a long time exposure it reveals much more of the faint nebula than even the aided eye can see. However, even binoculars will show a greyish cloud near Deneb in roughly the shape of North America. It is actually a continent of stars and hydrogen gas, glowing with hydrogen’s characteristic magenta colour, a mix of deep red and blue emission lines. The gas may be electrified into glowing by the searing radiation from the star Deneb, some 1400 light years away from Earth.

I shot this on a July night, with some haze passing by during some of the exposures. The haze added the photogenic glows around the stars.

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

Driving to Andromeda


Are we there yet? It would take a long time to get to the end of this road.

A road in Banff appears as if it is heading toward the autumn constellations rising over the peaks of the Fairholme range in the Canadian Rockies. The stars of Andromeda (centre), Pegasus (right), Perseus (left), and Cassiopeia (above left) make up the panorama of mythological heroes populating the northern autumn sky. In the sky above the road the small smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy is visible, shining from 2.5 million light years away. A faint aurora at left adds to the moonlit scene.

I shot this Sunday, July 29, moments after taking the image in the previous blog, which was looking the other way, north toward Cascade Mountain, from the meadows north of Banff. This was a very photogenic spot.

— Alan, August 4, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Moon over Banff


This was the scene Sunday evening, July 29 with the gibbous Moon shining over Banff, Alberta.

I shot this from the viewpoint on Mt. Norquay overlooking the town of Banff, a favourite evening spot for tourists. Two just happened to wander into the scene and point at the Moon right on cue.

The mountain at left is Mt. Rundle; at right is Sulphur Mountain with its Gondola lift and hot springs, the “spa” attraction that created Banff in the 1880s and inspired the CP Railroad to build its famous Banff Springs Hotel, here in the distance on the far side of the town and still the posh place to stay when in Banff.

— Alan, August 3, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Stars over Cascade Mountain, Banff


Last Sunday night I was in Banff for a concert at the Banff Centre but ended the night with a round of nightscape shooting near the town.

I shot this from the Lake Minnewanka scenic loop road just north of the townsite. It captures the Big Dipper and Arcturus swinging down over Cascade Mountain, the iconic peak that stands as the background for so many photos of Banff. Moonlight provided ideal side-lighting.

I hope to head back to this area for next weekend’s Perseid meteor shower. The weather prospects look good!

— Alan, August 3, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Circling Stars over Pyramid Mountain


The previous post showcased one image taken last Saturday night at Patricia Lake. This is a composite of 98 such frames, producing an image of stars circling the sky.

This is the motion of the northern sky over 75 minutes, as the Big Dipper and other circumpolar stars arc around the celestial pole, just off camera here. A few faint meteors streak at left. And the makings of an aurora appears at right.

Each exposure was 45 seconds long. I used a Photoshop Action to automatically select each frame in turn and stack it on top of the previous image, then change the blend mode to Lighten and flatten the layers. The end result of the computer crunching away is an image that recreates what we used to achieve with film, by stopping down the lens and exposing a slow ISO film for an hour or more onto one frame.

I last shot this same scene a decade ago with just that technique and Fuji Velvia film, a favourite of mine back then for star trails. But these days shooting multiple short exposures digitally provides the advantage of also netting a folder-full of images suitable for a time-lapse movie, something we could never do with film cameras, unless they were modified movie cameras. I like DSLRs better.

— Alan, August 1, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer