Night of the Northern Lights – #3

Aurora with Blue Curtains #2 (May 17-18, 2013)

The memorable night of Northern Lights ended with a final outburst sending blue curtains into the dawn twilight.

This is a frame from May 17-18, taken near the end of my time-lapse sequence, when the aurora kicked up again in intensity and shot towering blue curtains into the northern sky. The pink glow of dawn tinges the northeastern sky, bookending the sequence of 1200 frames and 27 gigabytes of images. Good thing I had a large capacity memory card!

Each shot was 11 seconds at ISO 1600 to try to freeze the moving curtains while still maintaining a good level of exposure.

Here, lights from a passing car at 3 a.m. illuminated the old barn.


As a postscript, I also note that this was my 300th blog post since beginning The Amazing Sky in February 2011. I hope you’ve enjoyed the views of the sky I’ve been able to publish over the last two years.

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

Night of the Northern Lights – #2

Aurora in Twilight #1 (May 17-18, 2013)

You know you are in for a good night when the aurora appears even before the sky gets dark.

I shot this in the evening twilight, as the curtains of Northern Lights began their dance in the dusk. Light from the quarter Moon also illuminates the scene. It was a mad rush to get the camera set and aimed to begin shooting. I was also looking after another camera that was shooting a dolly-shot time-lapse of the barn.

For this image I used the Canon 60Da and Canon 10-22mm lens at the widest setting. Even that was not enough to take in the whole of the display that was covering the sky.

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



Night of the Northern Lights – #1

Aurora over Old Barn Looking North #1 (May 17, 2013)

What a night this was, with a display of Northern Lights dancing across the sky as soon as it got dark. They danced all night.

I set up May 17 at my neighbourhood rustic farmstead for a night of time-lapse shooting of the old barn in the moonlight, but knowing an aurora was likely. My iPad app beeped and alerted me to that possibility only an hour or so before sunset, letting me know a storm was underway. And sure enough, as soon as it got dark, there were the curtains of green dancing all over the blue twilight sky. This frame is from 1200 I shot in a dusk to dawn time-lapse movie. It is from early in evening, with a pink glow of twilight still fringing the northwest horizon.

What marked this display was the blue and purple curtains, with those colours only really apparent in the camera images. I think those tints come from sunlight hitting the auroral curtains high in the atmosphere where the Sun is still shining. At this time of year the high atmosphere never gets dark and is always lit by sunlight streaming over the pole.

More images to come!

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

A Galaxy Floating in the Void

M109 in Ursa Major (130mm 60Da)

A galaxy 80 million light years away floats in the blackness of space near a star in the Big Dipper.

This is Messier 109, a bright spiral galaxy in Ursa Major, and within an eyepiece and camera field of the bright naked eye star Gamma Ursa Majoris. That’s the “bottom left” star in the bowl of the Big Dipper, so this is an easy galaxy to find with a telescope in the current spring sky.

Technically, this galaxy is classed as a barred spiral because of the way its spiral arms emerge from an elongated bar at the core of the galaxy. It is the brightest member of the Ursa Major Cluster of some 80 galaxies.

Springtime is galaxy time, no matter what hemisphere you live in. But for us in the northern half of the planet that means April and May. When we look up at this time of year into the evening sky we are looking out of the plane of our Milky Way galaxy and seeing into the depths of intergalactic space, populated by thousands of other galaxies. Most of the bright ones, like M109, are 20 to 100 million light years away. At its distance of 80 million light years, M109 lies a million times farther away from us than Gamma Ursa Majoris, a nearby blue star “just” 80 light years away and in our Galaxy.

I shot this last weekend though my 5-inch refractor with the Canon 60Da camera. Even with the telescope’s 800mm focal length it isn’t enough to really do justice to the intricate detail in galaxies like this. But the view does set the galaxy into its context, floating in the blackness of space.

– Alan, May 11, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Scorpius Rising on the Prairies

Sagittarius and Scorpius on the Horizon (50mm 5DII)

Scorpius and the star clouds of the Milky Way skim along the southern horizon on the western Canadian prairie.

Scorpius crawls along the horizon at right, with dark lanes of dust converging onto yellowish Antares. Just left of centre a dark horse prances above the treetops. At lower left shines the pink Lagoon Nebula.

With its intricate mix of dark dust lanes and bright star clouds this is the richest region of the Milky Way. It marks the direction toward the centre of our Galaxy. Pity it lies so low in our sky from here in western Canada, at a latitude of 50° North. Compare this view to what I saw two months ago from New Mexico and you can see the advantage of a southerly latitude for any lovers of the Milky Way.

However, I was lucky to get this shot, taken last weekend during the only decent time of the year when I can see Scorpius in a dark sky from my prairie home. The night was very clear, allowing a clean shot to the southern horizon.

– Alan, May 9, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Milky Way and the Northern Lights

Aurora and the Milky Way (May 6, 2013)

The Milky Way appears from behind the colourful curtains of the Northern Lights.

This was the scene last Saturday night, into the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning, May 5, as the summer Milky Way rose in the east while a display of aurora  played across the northern sky. The Northern Lights weren’t particularly bright this night, but the long 2-minute exposure I used to bring out the Milly Way recorded the aurora with colours and an intensity only the camera could see this night.

The green is from oxygen glowing in the lower part of the atmosphere, though still some 80 km up, where only rockets and high-altitude balloons can fly. The tops of the auroral curtains are tinged with the pinks from another type of oxygen emission possible only at the very top of our atmosphere, where molecules are few and far between and what’s left of the air that surrounds us meets the vacuum of space some 150 km up.

From Earth it’s hard to visualize just what we are seeing when we look at display like this. But check out some of the Aurora videos at  NASA’s Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. You’ll see time-lapse videos taken from the Space Station as it flies by and through the same types of aurorae with green lower bands and pink upper fringes, beautifully captured  floating high above the Earth in vertical curtains reaching up into the blackness of space.

– Alan, May 8, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer


The Milky Way of Spring on the Prairies

Summer Milky Way over Field (May 2013)

Late on a clear spring night on the Canadian Prairies the Milky Way rises over a fallow field.

Despite taking this not 200 feet from my home, this isn’t a view I see or photograph very often. In spring on the Canadian Prairies, it seems we go from dark winter nights to the bright skies of mid-summer with little in between to mark spring. Miss a dark-of-the-Moon period in late April or early May and you miss the opportunity to see and shoot this sight – the summer Milky Way rising late on a dark spring night, with Scorpius due south. In another month this same sky will be washed out by the glow of perpetual twilight around solstice.

By July or August when dark skies return, the Milky Way will be already well up at nightfall, and Scorpius on the way down past his prime for the year.

But in this shot, taken at 3 am this morning, during a welcome run of clear moonless nights, I framed Scorpius at lower right skimming the southern horizon as high as he gets from western Canada. The yellow star at lower right is Antares, the heart of the Scorpion. To the left of Scorpius, the spectacular starclouds of the summer Milky Way span the sky from Sagittarius in the southeast to Cygnus high in the east at upper left.

Around me now, farmers are beginning their work of tilling and seeding the fields. But this one will likely lay fallow this year, the furrows seeming to extend off into the distant Milky Way.

This is a stack of five 2.5-minute tracked exposures, but with the ground included from just one of the exposures, to minimize the blurring introduced by the moving camera. The lens was the wonderful 14mm Samyang, a manual lens that doesn’t register in the camera’s metadata, thus the reading at left that this was taken with a 50mm lens, the default setting when the camera doesn’t know what optics it is connected to.

– Alan, May 6, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer