Comet Caught in the Trees


Comet PANSTARRS (March 31, 2013)

Tonight’s view of the comet is a picture of Earth and sky – the comet caught in the bare trees of spring.

PANSTARRS is sure a tough comet to shoot! It remains low and skirting the treetops. Tonight, I decided to keep the camera rolling while the comet dropped into the trees. I think it made for a decent enough comet portrait that certainly tells its story.

This is a stack of six 1-minute exposures with the 200mm lens and 1.4x extender for a 280mm f/4 telephoto, on the Canon 60Da and the Kenko SkyMemo tracking platform.

Tomorrow, if skies cooperate, it’ll be a shot of the comet in the same field as the Andromeda Galaxy. I could nicely catch them both in the field of the 7x binoculars tonight. But the photo op nights are this Monday through Wednesday for the comet + galaxy portrait.

– Alan, March 31, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

The Easter Aurora


Aurora (March 29, 2013)

Here’s a celestial gift for the Easter season – a display of northern lights on Good Friday.

It wasn’t a particularly clear night but in this case the clouds added to the photos. In one direction I was shooting the Northern Lights to the northeast, while to the west at the other end of the yard I was shooting the winter sky setting, plus having a quick look at Comet PANSTARRS. It was certainly a sky filled with attractions.

Happy Easter to all and I hope spring is finally arriving where you live – assuming you are a northerner!

– Alan, March 30, 2013  / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

PANSTARRS Rises into Darkness


Comet PANSTARRS (March 28, 2013)

At last. A view of Comet PANSTARRS in a dark and moonless sky. 

Nearly three weeks after first sighting it, I was able to finally look at and shoot the comet in a fairly dark sky, though with it still embedded in deep twilight. But at least the Moon was out of the way and the sky was dark enough to allow the comet to show off its broad fan-shaped dust tail, set against the stars of Andromeda.

The comet will climb a little higher during the next two moonless weeks as it passes the Andromeda Galaxy on April 2 and 3. However, it’s still very low in the northwest and needs binoculars to sight. You have to wait until the sky is dark to spot it. And hope for no clouds low in the northwest. The comet just dodged some here.

I shot this with a 200mm telephoto for a stack of eight 30-second exposures tracking the stars. The star at left is Delta Andromedae while the one above the comet is Pi Andromedae.

– Alan, March 28, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

PANSTARRS in the Moonlight


Comet PANSTARRS in Moonlight (March 23, 2013)

Pity this comet is so low and in twilight. Tonight, it suffered the additional indignity of moonlight.

This was Comet PANSTARRS from my front yard tonight, March 23, in a view looking above the trees to the comet setting into the northwest in the bright moonlit sky.

It took binoculars to pick it out visually, and a telephoto lens to frame it photographically with enough scale to show some of the subtle tail structure, in what seems like a broad fan-shaped dusty tail.

We can only hope that next week when the Moon is out of the way, and the comet is a little higher, it will show off more of its developing tail in a darker sky.

As it is, to bring out the comet and background stars I overexposed the frames for this stack of four images, then turned down the brightness and cranked up the contrast in processing. It made for a decent enough portrait of Comet PANSTARRS amid the blue sky and faint stars of Andromeda, the constellation it is travelling through for the next two weeks.

– Alan, March 23, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

The Ghostly Glow of Gegenschein


Gegenschein from New Mexico (14mm 5DII)

The band of light at right is the familiar Milky Way. But what’s that faint stream of light to the left? It’s called the Gegenschein.

My last blog showed an image of the Zodiacal Light in the west. In fact, that glow extends up and continues all the way across the sky as a very faint stream of light at the threshold of vision called the Zodiacal Band. But at the place in the sky 180° opposite the Sun the Band intensifies to become a diffuse patch of light. It’s easy to see with the naked eye from a dark site if you know to look for it, and where it is likely to be. Last week, it was sitting below the constellation of Leo, in an area of sky that is pretty blank. So any faint glow stands out.

As with Zodiacal Light, what you are seeing is sunlight reflected off comet and asteroidal dust, but for the Gegenschein (German for “counterglow”) the light is coming from dust opposite the Sun that is scattering light back toward us and the Sun, mirror-like. The back-scattering effect makes the dust appear a little brighter at the point opposite the Sun.

Spring is a good time to spot the Gegenschein (true for the northern or southern hemisphere) as it then lies in a sparse area of sky away from the Milky Way. But you need a moonless sky and a dark site free of manmade light pollution. It and the fainter Zodiacal Band are among the sky’s most subtle sights. Again, Atmospheric Optics has more details.

A bonus with this shot are some short streaks of light below and to the right of the Gegenschein. I think those are from geostationary satellites flaring at the anti-solar point as they, too, acted as mirrors briefly catching the sunlight. Being geostationary – likely communications satellites you aimed fixed dishes at – they stayed still while the stars and tracking camera moved, and so created streaks.

– Alan, March 20, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

The Zodiacal Light from the Desert


Zodiacal Light in Evening Sky (New Mexico)

From a dark site the glow of Zodiacal Light rivals the Milky Way in brightness. 

This was the scene every night last week in the evening sky from our New Mexico observing site. The vertical glow of Zodiacal Light was a source of natural light pollution brightening the western sky. I’ve never see it more obvious in the west and this was the perfect season to see it. In March from the northern hemisphere the ecliptic – the plane of the solar system – is angled high into the western sky, almost vertical from the latitude of southern New Mexico.

The Zodiacal Light lies not in our atmosphere but comes from interplanetary space, and follows the ecliptic. What we were seeing was a glow of sunlight being reflected off fine dust particles orbiting the Sun in the inner solar system, likely spread by passing comets like PANSTARRS. I blogged about the Zodiacal Light last month, in photo taken from home in southern Alberta. You can also read about it at the excellent Atmospheric Optics website.

You don’t need to be in the desert to see it, but you do need dark skies. And no Moon in the sky.

At last week’s dark of the Moon period, Jupiter sat at the apex of the Zodiacal Light, just above the Pleiades star cluster. Near the top, right of centre, you can also see a short satellite trail, likely from a flaring Iridium satellite.

– Alan, March 19, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

VLA Dishes at Sunset


VLA at Sunset with Crepuscular Rays

The photogenic dishes of the Very Large Array aim skywards as the setting Sun casts shadows across the sky.

If these were optical telescopes I could write that the telescopes were getting ready for a night of sky viewing. But radio telescopes can observe day and night.

Still, there is something magical about catching any type of telescope in action as the Sun sets and night falls. Here, the last beams of sunlight coming from the west illuminate the dishes, while dark shadows – crepuscular rays – cast by clouds converge toward the anti-Sun point in the east.

As part of my trek around New Mexico this past week, I shot this on Sunday, March 17, about an hour before I took the image of Comet PANSTARRS over the VLA dishes – for that image I was east of the array looking back to the west and to the comet.

But for this image I was at one of the public access areas, standing under one of the dishes, looking east.

At first, all the dishes were aimed up to the zenith, stowed I assume due to the high winds that were blowing all afternoon. But then, right on cue as I began shooting, all the dishes began to move in unison. The dishes first aimed toward me, then turned to aim up to the south, as here. It was an amazing dance to watch. It gave me goosebumps. And tears.

There is likely no more iconic image of our exploration of the universe from Earth than this array of antennas listening for the faintest signals from deep space – not alien radio programs, but the natural signals emitted by atoms and molecules where stars are forming and dying.

– Alan, March 18, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer