The Colour of Dark
By: Alan Dyer
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