Night of the Northern Lights


All-Sky Aurora #1 (June 28, 2013)

The Northern Lights danced all night, as Earth was buffeted by winds from the Sun.

As soon as I saw the warning notices at Spaceweather.com I was hoping we would be in for a wonderful night of aurora watching. I wasn’t disappointed.

Forewarned, I headed out to the Wintering Hills Wind Farm near my home in southern Alberta. I thought it would be neat to get shots of the effects of the solar wind from beneath and beside the wind turbines of the farm. The shot above is from a time-lapse movie taken with a fish-eye lens that will look great when projected in a full-dome digital planetarium.

Northern Lights over Wind Farm #3 (June 28, 2013)

I shot with three cameras, with two aimed east to where the brightest part of the auroral arc usually sits. It was also exactly where the Moon would rise after midnight. This shot, above, captures the scene right at moonrise, which was also right when the aurora kicked into high gear as a sub-storm of solar particles rained down on our upper atmosphere. The ground lit up green with the glow of oxygen in the mesosphere, some 100 kilometres up.

Moonrise and Northern Lights

This shot, taken moments later with a longer focal length lens, grabs the waning Moon shining behind the distant wind machines, and beneath the arc of auroral curtains.

In all, I shot 50 gigabytes of raw images, both still images and frames for time-lapse movies. I’ve assembled most of them into a musical collage that honours the night. In the final sequence of the movie, it almost looks like the wind machine is facing into the brunt of the solar wind, as pulses of aurora surge from out of the east toward the turbine towering overhead.

 

The music is by a new favourite artist of mine, the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. His latest album of alt-classical/new age music is called “In a Time Lapse.” How could you not like that?! Buy it on iTunes. It’s stunning.

I hope you got to see the Night of the Northern Lights in person. If not, I trust these images and movies give you a sense of the wonder of what the solar wind can do.

– Alan, June 29, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Coal Dust Stars


Star Trails over Atlas Coal Mine v2 (June 27, 2013)

The timeless stars turn above a long-abandoned coal mine near East Coulee, Alberta.

For decades, between 1912 and 1979, homes and trains were fueled by coal from the Atlas Coal Mine, one of many in the river valley near Drumheller, Alberta.

Thousands of mine workers populated the boom towns set in the badlands of the Red Deer River. The mines and most of the people are long gone. The Atlas Coal Mine was the last to close, holding out well into the current age of natural gas for home heating and diesel for the trains.

It’s the only mine with buildings that still exist, now as a tourist attraction with daily tours of the mine, both above and below ground.

I spent the evening there last night, the only visitor, except for the owls and coyotes. I was shooting time-lapse sequences and some stills. The shot above is a composite of twenty 1-minute exposures to create the star trails.

Big Dipper over Atlas Coal Mine (June 27, 2013)

For those who prefer a more realistic scene, the short-exposure image above captures the sky more as the eye saw it, with Arcturus and the stars of the Big Dipper shining above the massive wooden tipple.

The Drumheller area is rich in history and photo ops, both for day and night shooting.

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

 

Night of the Noctilucent Clouds


Star Trails and Noctilucent Clouds (Lighten Stack)

It was a beautiful summer evening, with stars wheeling overhead in a moonlit sky and the only clouds far away and interesting.

This was one of those nights we get once or twice a summer when the much-anticipated noctilucent clouds – the clouds of summer – put on a perfect show. In my previous post I featured an image from early in the night, last night, June 26, 2013.

These are images and time-lapse movies from later in the night. The composite image above shows stars trailing over 90 minutes with the brilliant noctilucent clouds on the horizon, and fringed by a rosy glow of red twilight where the southern edge of the cloud display, which sits over the Northwest Territories, is being lit by a setting Sun with red sunlight filtering through our atmosphere as it passes over the North Pole.

Noctilucent Clouds and Thunderstorm (June 26, 2013)

This telephoto lens shot above captures a close-up of the rosy-fringed noctilucent clouds, behind a lightning-lit thunderstorm rolling through storm alley in central Alberta. The storms can stay there! We’ve had enough of them for a while!

 

My time-lapse sequence extends over about 90 minutes and opens with a wide-angle view of the display as it appeared low on the horizon. What follows are two closeup views that really show the intricate wave-like motion of these high-altitude mesospheric clouds, and their changing lighting and colours.

These are beautiful clouds drifting on the edge of space but it takes time-lapse to reveal their fluid-like motion.

– Alan, June 27, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Thunderstorm and Noctilucent Clouds


Noctilucent Clouds and Thunderstorm (June 26, 2013)

Two very different forms of clouds drift along the horizon: a thunderstorm nearby and low, and noctilucent clouds far away and high.

This was the scene last night, as another thunderstorm to the north of me rolled along the horizon drifting away to the east. A bolt of lightning illuminates the storm clouds. The thunderstorm was over central Alberta, and at the bottom of our atmosphere, in the troposphere.

Meanwhile, in the background, a beautiful display of noctilucent clouds crept along the horizon in the other direction, drifting to the west. These clouds were over the Northwest Territories, a thousand or more kilometres away to the north and 80 to 100 kilometres high, at the top of the atmosphere in the mesosphere.

The NLC display lasted all night, or for at least as long as I was able to stay up and shoot.

This is a telephoto lens shot that zooms into the brightest part of the NLC display.

– Alan, June 27, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Thunderstorm in the Moonlight


Thunderstorm in Moonlight (June 25, 2013)

A thunderstorm rolls across the northern horizon with the stars of Cassiopeia and Andromeda rising.

This was a perfect night for storm shooting. The storm was far enough away to not engulf me in rain and wind, but close enough to show detail and reveal its bolts of lightning. A waning gibbous Moon shone in the south lighting up the storm clouds to the north and turning the sky blue.

Meanwhile the stars of Cassiopeia, Perseus and Andromeda were rising behind the storm clouds, a nice contrast of Earth and sky.

I’ve been after a confluence of circumstances like this for a few years. An aurora to the northeast would have been nice as well. But you can’t have everything!

– Alan, June 25, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Bow River Returning to Normal


Calgary Skyline Panorama

The raging waters of the Bow are subsiding leaving a city to clean up the mess.

This was the scene Tuesday night, June 25, in a panorama I took from a favourite spot overlooking the skyline of Calgary, a place where many news reports emanated from over the weekend.

It is amazing how fast the floodwaters have retreated. The Bow River is still very high and swift, and some parts of the valley are still under water, but the river is quickly returning to its normal channels and size.

Tonight, people were walking and hiking along paths and bridges that three days ago were underwater or closed to all traffic. Indeed, much of what is below me in this photo, including Memorial Drive, was covered with water. Riverside neighbourhoods that were lakes are now streets again, though lined with houses soaked and damaged. Construction crews work to shore up badly eroded banks. The floods have certainly changed the riverbed of the Bow.

And still, in the sky storms and rain continue to threaten. It will be months, if not years, before everything returns to a new normal.

– Alan, June 25, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Supermoon over Bow River Floods


Supermoon Rise over Floodwaters of Bow River (June 23, 2013)

The supermoon of solstice rises over the floodwaters of the raging Bow River.

The peace of the sky contrasts with the destruction being wrought below on Earth. The Bow River is many times wider than normal and has flooded most of the valley, ruining homes and lives.

This view overlooks the Bow River in the area of Blackfoot Crossing, where I was this afternoon shooting daytime panoramas in the previous blog. I returned this evening to catch the Full Moon as it came up in twilight over the floodwaters.

Supermoon Rise over Floodwaters of Bow River #2 (June 23, 2013)

The rosy Moon contrasts with the deep blue of twilight and Earth’s shadow rising, fringed above by the pink “belt of Venus” effect, visible in the wide-angle shot.

Nearby, people were camped on the hill, refugees from their homes in the valley below now surrounded by water. Fortunately the waters are receding.

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

 

 

 

Floodwaters at Bow River Crossing


SIksika Nation and Bow River Flood Panorama #3

This is not a picture of the amazing sky but a document of what the sky can do when it decides to be merciless.

No one has seen anything like this in living memory, with homes under water and the river swollen to a lake engulfing the Bow River Valley.

These panoramas depict the heart of the Siksika First Nation, part of the Blackfoot Confederacy. It was in this valley, where the Blackfoot had traditionally held their summer camps, that Treaty 7 was signed in 1877 between Chief Crowfoot and James Macleod of the NWMP. The history of the area is presented at the beautiful Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park interpretive centre, shown in the image below. We’ve held several popular public stargazing sessions there. It was closed today, ironically due to a lack of safe water.

SIksika Nation and Bow River Flood Panorama #1

It was here at this spot in the Bow River Valley that nomadic hunters could easily cross the river. Up to this weekend a bridge, seen in the distance in the image below, had allowed modern travellers to make the crossing. But no more. The bridge is closed and may never reopen, until it is rebuilt. Today, water was roaring just below the bridge deck. And waters have receded in the last 24 hours.

SIksika Nation and Bow River Flood Panorama #2

There is some fear that a ferry downstream, the Crowfoot Ferry, one of the last river ferries in Alberta, might break loose and crash into the Bassano Dam.

Dozens of homes are underwater and hundreds of people displaced to evacuation shelters. The water came up so fast many people had just minutes to get out.

SIksika Nation and Bow River Flood Panorama #4

Those I spoke to today, including one 68-year-old resident, said they have never seen the Bow flood as bad as this. The high waters, having breached the Carseland Dam upstream from here, are now heading downstream to fill the Bassano Dam and flood the lower Bow and South Saskatchewan River through Medicine Hat. As those upstream clean up, those downstream prepare for the onslaught of water.

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

The Rising of a “Supermoon”


Supermoon Rise (June 22, 2013)

Here is the much hyped Supermoon of 2013 rising into a twilight sky on the wet Alberta prairies.

A clear night for a change, with no storms about. Though one rolled through earlier today. We don’t need any more rain! Thankfully I am high and dry on the Alberta prairie but many friends to the west are not so lucky and have been flooded out, evacuated or have been camping in their homes with power and heat off. Calgary has largely come to a standstill, with the main pastime being watching the rivers rise and fall.

Tonight, after two days of destruction from horrific floods, at least we in southern Alberta were able to enjoy a clear night and the sight of the wonderful solstice Moon rising. This is the closest Full Moon of 2013 and has received an inordinate amount of PR as the “supermoon.”

Supermoon Rise #1 (June 22, 2013)

It certainly did look fine tonight, though in truth no one could ever tell the difference between this “supermoon” and any normal Full Moon.

But perhaps this one is a little special, reminding us that the sky brings beauty as well as destruction.

– Alan, June 22, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Summer Solstice Panorama on the Prairie


Summer Solstice Panorama

This is the prairie night sky taken at the moment of summer solstice.

I shot this 360° panorama in the field near my house just before midnight on June 20, 2013, right about the official time of summer solstice. This is the longest night of the year and the brightest. The presence of the gibbous Moon contributes most of the night light, but there to the north at left you can see the glow of twilight and an aurora. At right, the waxing Moon shines in clouds, surrounded by a faint halo from ice crystals in the clouds.

Nights around solstice are always bright and filled with wonderful colours and atmospheric phenomena.

The tranquility of the solstice scene is in contrast with the horrific weather disaster taking place west of me near the mountains, as record floods from torrential rains wash away roads, railway lines, and houses. Roads are closed in and out of the mountains and entire neighbourhoods of Calgary near rivers are being evacuated.

Everyone knows somebody who is affected. For many this is indeed a very long and stressful night. I hope everyone keeps safe.

– Alan, June 21, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

A Retreating Prairie Storm


Retreating Thunderstorm at Sunset Panorama

A stunning storm cloud retreats across the prairies leaving clear skies in its wake.

The timing could not have been better. On Monday night, June 17, a thunderstorm retreated to the east at just the perfect time to catch the light of the setting Sun.

As these prairie storms often do, this one left behind clear skies, with a quarter Moon at right to the south and the Sun to the west, off frame but illuminating this amazingly sculpted cloud. Downdrafts in the thunderhead produced the mammatus clouds – the bulbous structures hanging from the thundercloud. The low Sun angle emphasizes their form.

We’ve had a lot of rain and storms lately, but when a storm puts on as fine a show as this one, I’ll take it!

This image is a 3-segment panorama using the Canon 5D MkII and 16-35mm lens at 16mm. I used Photoshop’s Photomerge and Adaptive Wide Angle filter to stitch and straighten the image.

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

The Milky Way at Solstice


Centre of Galaxy on Horizon (June 9, 2013)

The centre of the Galaxy culminates over a starlit landscape on a night near the summer solstice.

This was last weekend, on the same night I took the images of the aurora and noctilucent clouds featured in the previous two blog posts. But toward the end of the shoot, I turned south to capture this scene, of the Milky Way over a grassy prairie field.

The landscape is lit only by starlight and by the glow of twilight and aurora to the north.

In the sky, the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius are peaking as high as they get for me in southern Alberta. The red giant star Antares is to the right while the bright star clouds toward the centre of our Galaxy are just left of centre. The sky is not dark because of the glow of perpetual twilight at this time of year near solstice.

Deep sky fans will note that the star cluster M7, the southernmost Messier object, is just clearing the horizon.

Remarkably, this is a mere 15 second exposure, at ISO 1600 but with the 24mm lens wide open at f/1.4. Normally I wouldn’t shoot at that wide an aperture as the images look too distorted at the corners of the frame. But for this shot I used the Canon 60Da camera – its cropped-frame sensor records only the central area of what the lens projects so it crops out the nasty stuff at the corners of the frame that would certainly have been detracting had I used the full-frame camera.

But shooting at f/1.4 allowed even this quickie 15-second shot to grab lots of detail in the Milky Way.

– Alan, June 14, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Time-Lapse: Northern Lights and Noctilucent Clouds


Northern Lights and Noctilucent Clouds (135mm #1) (June 9, 2013)

What strange clouds these are, moving where there shouldn’t be winds, and forming where there’s barely any air.

These are noctilucent clouds, sometimes called polar mesospheric clouds. Their icy strands form around particles at the top of the atmosphere some 80 km up. There’s almost no air up there so just how these clouds form has always been a mystery. They may be condensing around meteoric dust particles. They may also be more common now than in past decades and centuries, as the upper atmosphere cools due to an odd quirk of global warming that sees the lower troposphere warm while the upper mesosphere cools.

This was the first display of NLCs I’ve seen so far this season. They can only be seen, and indeed they only form, in summer. Sunlight streams over the pole and lights these clouds all night long. They are literally “night-shining” clouds. Only from a latitude range of 45° to 60° north and around summer solstice is the geometry right to see the clouds, usually as electric blue cirrus strands moving slowly along the northern horizon.

The time-lapse movies capture their motion over 30 to 90 minutes of shooting.

 

The 40-second movie contains three clips:

• The first, a wide-angle  view of the amazing aurora that danced in fast accompaniment to the slow noctilucent clouds.

• The second clip, very short, zooms in a little more to the northern horizon. However, I cut that sequence short so I could switch lenses and take the next clip.

• The third scene is with a telephoto lens, framing the east-to-west slow motion of the clouds. I took 4-second exposures at 1-second intervals so it shows some pretty fine motion.

This was certainly one of the best NLC displays I’d seen and my best shot at capturing them.

What was especially rare was seeing them accompanied by auroral curtains actually moving among the clouds (or so it appeared). Both are up high in the near vacuum of near space, but they may have been miles apart in latitude.

– Alan, June 10, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Northern Lights & Noctilucent Clouds


Northern Lights and Noctilucent Clouds (june 9, 2013)

Colourful sky phenomena combine to provide a remarkable sky show.

What a night this was! On Sunday, June 9 the aurora kicked off with a burst in the bright twilight but really got going as the sky got dark, shooting beams of magenta and blue up from the main green arc.

Then on cue, streamers of noctilucent clouds appeared low in the north, shining with their characteristic electric blue. These are odd clouds at the edge of space lit by sunlight streaming over the Pole.

Both these apparitions of the upper atmosphere glowed above a horizon rimmed with the orange of perpetual twilight set in a deep blue background sky.

Yes, the camera has brought out the colours more intensely than the eye saw, but nevertheless it was a remarkable evening close to solstice. This is a magical time of year when all kinds of sky glows light the night.

This night the European Einstein ATV cargo craft also flew over, twice, each time about 10 minutes ahead of the even brighter Space Station that it is chasing for a docking later this week.

More images to come from this night, including time-lapses of the Lights and Clouds.

– Alan, June 10, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

The Colour of Dark


Colors of the Dark Sky Panorama

What colour is the dark night sky? Depending on conditions, it can be any colour you want.

I shot this 360° panorama last night from my backyard under what looked like a clear and fairly dark, moonless sky. Looks can certainly be deceiving. The camera picked up all kinds of colours the eye couldn’t see.

Let’s review what’s causing the colours:

• To the north just left of  centre the horizon is rimmed with a bright yellow glow from all-night perpetual twilight present around summer solstice at my mid-northern latitude.

• Above that shines a green and magenta band from a low-level aurora just visible to the naked eye.

• Much of the sky is tinted with bands of green from ever-present airglow, caused by oxygen atoms at the top of the atmosphere giving off at night some of the energy they absorbed by day. I had thought the sky would look blue from the perpetual twilight but the airglow seems to overwhelm that.

• Yellow glows around the horizon at left (west) and right (southeast) are from urban light pollution from towns 50 km away.

• Some strands of remaining cloud from a departing thunderstorm add streams of brown as they reflect lights from below.

• Finally, the Milky Way shows up in shades of yellow and pale blue, punctuated here and there by red patches of glowing hydrogen hundreds of light years away.

The only thing missing this night was a display of electric blue noctilucent clouds.

The sources of most of these colours are an anathema to observers of faint deep-sky objects. Aurora, airglow and certainly light pollution just get in the way and hide the light from the distant deep sky.

A word on technique:
I shot this panorama using an 8mm fish-lens to shoot 8 segments at 45° spacings. I used the excellent software PTGui to stitch the segments together, which it did seamlessly and flawlessly. Each segment was an untracked 1 minute exposure at ISO 3200 and f/3.5. The panorama covers 360° horizontally and nearly 180° vertically, from the ground below to the zenith above. It takes in everything except the tripod and me!

– Alan, June 8, 2013 / © Alan Dyer

All-Night Satellites


ISS Pass #2 (June 4-5, 2013)

It was a marvellous night for Space Station watching.

Right now those of us at northern latitudes in North America are enjoying the opportunity to see the International Space Station come over not once but often 2 or 3 times a night, as it is now lit by the Sun all night long (on our nights down here on Earth, that is).

Here are two shots from the night of June 4-5, 2013 taken from my home in Alberta at a latitude of 51° North.

My featured image above is from the ISS pass that began at 1:55 am, and is a stack of 4 tracked 2.5-minute exposures, so the stars are not trailed, but the ground is! On this pass, the ISS came overhead. This view is looking north, toward the all-night perpetual twilight we see on the Canadian Prairies around summer solstice. There’s also a low band of green aurora on the northern horizon.

I shot the image below on the ISS’s pass one orbit earlier at 12:18 am. This image is looking south to the ISS’s high pass across the south. It’s a composite of 4 untracked 2-minute exposures –  thus the stars are now trailing in circles around Polaris at the top of the frame.

ISS Pass #1 (June 4-5, 2013)

Both shots are horizon-to-horizon all-sky views with an 8mm fish-eye lens.

The sky isn’t dark, even in the shot taken at 2 am. At this time of year around summer solstice at northern latitudes, the sky never gets astronomically dark but is lit a deep blue by sunlight still streaming over the pole and bathing the night in a glow of perpetual twilight.

– Alan, June 5, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Time-Lapse Techniques — Creating Star Trails


Dinosaur Park Star Trails (May 26, 2013)

The stars wheel above the Cretaceous-age sediments of Dinosaur Provincial Park.

One of the most powerful techniques in the nightscape photographer’s arsenal is to stack lots of short-exposure images together to create the equivalent of one long exposure showing the motion of the stars. A creative tool to do this in Photoshop is the “Advanced Stacking Actions” from Steven Christenson who maintains a blog and eStore called Star Circle Academy.

I used one of his Actions to create the feature image above. Unlike more run-of-the-mill stacking procedures, Christenson’s nifty Actions can create star trails that look like comets or streaks fading off into the sky at their tail end. It’s a clever bit of Photoshop work achieved by stacking each successive image at slightly lower opacity.

You can use his Actions to create a single composite still image, as above, or to create a set of “intermediate” frames that can be turned into a time-lapse movie with stars turning across the sky and drawing trails behind them. My movie shows several variations. Click the Expand button on the movie to have it fill the screen and reveal the sub-titles.

In Clip #1 I stacked the original set of 360 images without any trailing, using the original frames that came from the camera, albeit with each frame processed to enhance contrast and colour.

In Clip #2 I stacked the images using the “Comet Trails” Action, one that produces very short comet-like streaks.

In Clip #3 I used the “Long Streak” Action to produce longer star trails, but the process also creates unusual cloud streaks as well. Rather neat.

In Clip #4 I used the more conventional “Lighten Mode” to create trails that accumulate over the entire sequence and never fade out. The result on this night was pretty wild and excessive, with the twilight and moonlight adding other-worldly colours.

I certainly recommend the Star Circle Academy Photoshop Actions. While there is a basic Test Set available for free, the full Advanced set is well worth the $30.

– Alan, June 1, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer