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