Sailing to the Sun


Cloud Shadows Near Sunset over the Atlantic

As we continue our sail across the Atlantic, our heading takes us southwest, directly toward the setting Sun.

This was the scene last night, a day out from the Canary Islands, as we set our course toward the eclipse intercept point. Our heading of roughly 245° takes us into the setting Sun each evening.

We’re now often under sail alone, with engines off. As Columbus and all trans-Atlantic explorers did, we’re letting the northeast trade winds blow us across the ocean. Under their steady force, we’re making a good 8 to 9 knots, sufficient to get us to the eclipse path on the appointed day and time on November 3.

Moon Amid the Rigging

On that day the Moon, seen here as a waning crescent in yesterday morning’s sky amid our square-rigged sails on the 4-masted Star Flyer, will cover the Sun for 44 seconds.

Tonight, October 28, was a magical night. Many of the eclipse tour folks gathered on the aft deck with all the lights off to lie back on deck chairs and gaze up at the Milky Way, with us now hundreds of kilometres away from any other lights.

We had the Milky Way above, while below, the ocean in our wake was exploding with flashes of bioluminescence. The night was warm and of course windless because we’re travelling with the wind. It was an amazing experience.

— Alan, October 28, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Sailing in the Wake of Columbus


Constellation Ceiling in Columbus Museum

Columbus set out from the Canary Islands, following the stars, in his voyages across the Atlantic Ocean.

Today we visited the Casa de Colon, the Columbus Museum, in the capital city of Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. It was here, in what was then the Governor’s house, that Columbus is believed to have stayed before embarking on many of his voyages across the Atlantic.

Above is the painted ceiling in one of the galleries, depicting the northern constellations and stars he would have followed to guide him across the Atlantic. You can recognize all the modern constellations and the Milky Way.

Columbus Ship Model

Tonight, we set sail ourselves across the Atlantic, in a two week voyage away from land. Our ship, the Star Flyer, chartered by Betchart Expeditions, has a mix of square and staysails that we’ll use, as Columbus did, to catch the trade winds that will blow us south and west toward the eclipse intercept point and eventually to Barbados.

16th Century Astrolabe

This is an authentic astrolabe from 1500, one of the tools Columbus would have used to navigate the high seas. Today we have GPS.

Columbus Church

Columbus Street Sign

This is the church Columbus prayed at before embarking on his voyages. It was closed the day we visited. We hope we won’t be needing its services!

– Alan, October 26, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Visiting the Royal Observatory of Spain


Royal Observatory of Spain, CadizThree days ago we were accorded the rare privilege of touring the Royal Observatory of Spain in Cadiz.

Founded in the late 18th century Spain’s Royal Observatory served (and continues to serve) the same purpose as the Greenwich Observatory in England – providing an accurate source of time for the navy and country.

Unlike Greenwich, the Royal Observatory of Spain is on a restricted access military base and is not open to the public. So it was through special arrangement that our eclipse group was able to visit and receive a guided tour as part of our day in Cadiz.

Above is the main observatory building, which today houses a telescope and laser range finding system for geodesy work. On display were a host of brass telescopes and surveying instruments from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Astrographic Refractor, Royal Observatory of Spain, Cadiz

Above, in another observatory building, we saw a classic 12-inch astrographic refractor, used to take early photos of the night sky on glass plates, as part of the international Cartes du Ciel program in the 19th century.

Time-Keeping at Royal Observatory of Spain, Cadiz

This is the readout of the precise time, being maintained by cesium clocks in a climate controlled room next door.

Library Room at Royal Observatory of Spain, Cadiz

The real treat was a tour through the Observatory’s library, a national treasure. Some 40,000 volumes date from as far back as the invention of the printing press in Gutenberg. The collection includes books on every science and engineering subject, and reports from all the historic science expeditions of the time.

Eclipse Book at Royal Observatory of Spain, Cadiz

One volume, shown here, is a 1514 book of eclipse tables.

Classic books at Royal Observatory of Spain, Cadiz

Another case held early editions, often annotated by their owners, of the seminal works by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton. We were very impressed.

Tomorrow our cruise ship docks at the Canary Islands, then we sail southwest with the trade winds to meet the shadow of the Moon on November 3 at latitude 18°06′ N and 39°19′ W.

– Alan, October 24, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer (posted from at sea north of the Canary Islands)

Stars Over the Pillars of Hercules


Sirius over the Pillars of Hercules

In ancient times these twin mountains marked the end of the known world – beyond lay a great unknown sea.

Two mornings ago, before dawn, we sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar, known in ancient times as the Pillars of Hercules. The two massive peaks guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean Ocean were supposedly created by the legendary figure of Greek mythology to separate the two continents, Europe and Africa. Beyond them was a vast and forbidding ocean that few dared to sail.

The feature image above shows Sirius and Canis Major shining above the African side of the Pillars, the mountain known as Jebel Musa. Illumination is by moonlight, twilight and streetlight.

Rock of Gibraltor

The image above shows the more famous Rock of Gibraltar, on the European side of the Straits. This is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Pillars of Hercules

This image, with the nearly Full Moon in the sky, shows our ship, the Star Flyer, approaching Jebel Musa. We departed the Mediterranean to visit Morocco, then Cadiz in Spain. We’re now heading out into the once great unknown sea, the Atlantic, for a November 3 meeting with the shadow of the Moon.

Orion in the Rigging of Star Flyer

The final image shows Orion, Sirius and Jupiter shining amid the rigging of our four-masted clipper ship, again by moonlight. We hope it’s clear skies and smooth sailing as we cross the Atlantic.

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

 

 

 

The Subtle Shading of a Penumbral Lunar Eclipse


Penumbral Eclipse of the Moon (Oct 18, 2013)

This is about as subtle as an eclipse can be – a partial penumbral eclipse of the Moon.

I was perfectly positioned to see this eclipse, such as it was. At mid-eclipse when I took this image, the Moon was due south and as high in the sky as it was going to get for the night.

My location was the hotel poolside bar and rooftop patio 10 floors up overlooking the harbour in Malaga, Spain.

Can you see the effect of the eclipse? Barely, perhaps. The Full Moon travelled through the top of the Earth’s penumbral shadow, creating a slight darkening of the lower portion of the Moon. I’ve boosted contrast a lot in processing yet the effect is still barely perceptible.

No matter. With luck, in two weeks time we’ll experience just the opposite – the most spectacular eclipse the sky has to offer, a total eclipse of the Sun.

We set sail tomorrow.

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

 

Moon Over Malaga – Two Weeks Until the Eclipse


Moon Over Malaga, Spain.

On the night of a penumbral eclipse, the Full Moon shines over the harbour on the Mediterranean at Malaga, Spain.

This was the view earlier tonight of the Full Moon from Spain, on the night of a partial penumbral eclipse.

The eclipse had not yet begun when I took this shot in the early evening. But even at mid eclipse at 1 a.m. local time, any darkening from the penumbral shadow would be very tough to photograph with anything but a very long telephoto or telescope, which I don’t have with me on this trip.

The penumbral eclipse of the Moon tonight is the complement of the total eclipse of the Sun in two weeks time. Lunar and solar eclipses usually occur in pairs. It is the total solar eclipse on November 3, half a lunar cycle from now, that is the attraction.

To see it, we leave Spain tomorrow and set sail across the Atlantic – not in this century-old German sailing ship, the Eye of the Wind – but in a modern ship the Star Flyer.

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

The Moon in Spain …


The Moon over Spain - Daytime

… shines mainly on the plane!

These were views seen from my airplane window earlier this evening as we descended into Madrid, Spain. The lighting, direction and timing were perfect for catching the crystal clear gibbous Moon shining in a beautifully clear sky (as it should be from this altitude) with a low Sun illuminating the clouds.

The view below, taken later after sunset, catches the Moon in a twilight sky, with the  shadow of the Earth sharply defined as a dark blue band above the horizon.

The Moon over Spain - Twilight

In two days, on Friday October 18, the Moon passes through the outer part of Earth’s shadow, for a mild penumbral eclipse of the Moon.

I’ll be perfectly positioned in Spain to see it, but that’s not what I’m here for. I’m off to chase not the shadow of the Earth but the shadow of the Moon, as it hits the Earth two weeks after the lunar eclipse. On November 3 worlds will align again for a total eclipse of the Sun across the Atlantic Ocean and central Africa. I’ll be on the ocean.

Internet connections willing, I’ll be blogging from shipboard about the eclipse and views of sea and sky as we cross the Atlantic from Spain to Barbados chasing moonshadows.

– Alan, October 16, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

The Pleiades – The Stellar Seven Sisters


M45, the Pleiades Cluster (92mm 5DII)

The stars of the Pleiades sit amid a dusty sky in Taurus.

These are the famous Seven Sisters of Greek legend, known as the Pleiades. They are the daughters of Atlas and Pleione, who are also represented by stars in the cluster. Many cultures around the world tell stories about these stars, but in Greek tradition their appearance signalled the summer sailing season in the Mediterranean. The Pleiades first appear at sunset in the eastern evening sky in autumn and put in their last appearance in the western sky in spring.

One story has it they were placed in the sky to recognize their devotion to their father Atlas and his unending labour in holding up the heavens. They are the half-sisters of the Hyades, another nearby cluster of stars in Taurus. Other stories describe the Pleiades as the Seven Doves that carried ambrosia to the infant Zeus.

A seldom-used name now for this cluster is the Atlantides, from the plural form of Atlas, their father. Thus, these sisters gave their name to the Atlantic Ocean, a vast and uncharted sea until the 16th century. The term “atlas,” first used by Mercator for a book of maps, comes not from the Pleiades’ father but from a real-life king in Morocco who supposedly made one of the first celestial globes.

I shot this portrait of the Sisters a few nights ago, stacking a set of five 15-minute exposures with the TMB 92mm refractor and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800. I processed the image to bring out the faint clouds of dust that pervade the area.

The Pleiades are passing through dust clouds in Taurus and lighting them up. The stars are embedded in dust, lit blue by the light of the hot stars. But even farther out you can see wisps of dust faintly illuminated by the light of the Pleiades.

The stars are thought to be about 100 million years old, quite young as stars go. They formed together in a massive nebula that has long since dissipated, and will travel together for another few hundred million years until the sister stars go their own way around the Galaxy. The stellar family that gave rise to so many legends around the world will be scattered to the stars.

– Alan, October 12, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

A Star-Filled Scene in Cassiopeia


M52 & NGC 7635 Bubble Nebula (92mm 5DII)

A star cluster and nebulas highlight a glorious starfield in Cassiopeia.

I shot this three nights ago on a very clear autumn evening. The telescope field takes in the star cluster Messier 52 at upper left, a cluster of 200 stars about 5000 light years away. It is one of the best objects of its class for viewing in small telescopes. Charles Messier found it in 1774 as part of his quest to catalog objects that might be mistaken for comets.

The brightest area of nebulosity below M52 is the Bubble Nebula, aka NGC 7635, found in 1787 by William Herschel. It’s an area of star formation marked by a central bubble of gas (just visible on the scale of my photo) being blown by the winds from a hot central star. The Bubble can be seen in amateur telescopes but is a tough target to spot.

Above the Bubble is a small bright nebula, NGC 7538.

Below the Bubble lies a larger claw-like nebula known only as Sharpless 2-157, an object that shows up only in photos.

In all, it’s a complex and beautiful field, set in the constellation of Cassiopeia the Queen.

A footnote for the technically minded: This is a stack of 5 x 15 minute exposures with a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 shooting through a TMB 92mm apo refractor at f/4.8, mounted on an Astro-Physics Mach 1 mount guided by a Santa Barbara SG-4 autoguider.

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

 

Zodiacal Light – Dawn’s Early Light


Zodiacal Light in Dawn Sky (Oct 2013)

The ghostly glow of comet dust brightens an October dawn.

This is the zodiacal light, as it appeared two mornings ago in the pre-dawn sky from my backyard in southern Alberta. This tapering glow angled up from the horizon is best spotted in the eastern sky on clear and moonless autumn mornings, like this one.

What you are seeing is sunlight reflected off dust left by passing comets in the inner solar system. So while this glow looks like it might originate in our atmosphere it really comes from dust out in interplanetary space.

This subtle glow, often called the “false dawn,” appears in the hour or so before the true dawn begins to brighten the sky too much (its purple light is just starting to light the horizon here).

Also visible here: Sirius at far right, Jupiter above centre, the Beehive star cluster below Jupiter, and Leo rising embedded in the zodiacal light, with Mars just above Regulus, Leo’s brightest star. The planets lie along the zodiacal light because the dust that causes it also lies in the same plane as the orbits of the planets, the ecliptic plane.

I shot this with a 14mm lens for a stack of four 2-minute tracked exposures, but with the horizon coming from just one of the exposures to minimize blurring from the moving camera slowly following the sky.

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

 

The Veil Nebula in Cygnus


NGC 6960 & 6992-5 Veil Nebula (92mm 5DII)

This is what’s left of a star that exploded thousands of years ago.

I shoot this object every year or two, so this is my 2013 take on the Veil Nebula. For last year’s see Star Death Site, a post from September 2012.

The Veil Nebula is a supernova remnant. The lacework arcs are what’s left of a massive star that blew itself to bits in historic times. This object, one of the showpieces of the summer sky for telescope users, is now high overhead at nightfall, off the east wing of Cygnus the swan.

I shot this a couple of nights ago using a 92mm-aperture refractor that provides a wide field of view to easily frame the 3-degree-wide extent of the nebula. The image is a stack of five 15-minute exposures with a filter-modified (i.e. red sensitive) Canon 5D MkII camera at ISO 800. Stacking the images helps reduce noise.

The colours in this object make it particularly photogenic, with a contrast of magenta and cyan. At right, a sharp-edged area of obscuring interstellar dust tints the sky brown and dims the stars.

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

Comet ISON Passes Mars


Comet ISON & Mars (Oct 8, 2013)

Comet ISON passes Mars on its inbound journey toward the Sun.

This was the scene on the morning of October 8, 2013, with Comet ISON (top), still small and faint, passing the planet Mars, the bright object at bottom. The comet was actually close to Mars in space in addition to appearing close to Mars in our sky.

Comet ISON is the much-heralded “comet of the century,” but so far has failed to live up to expectations. It may never become visible to the unaided eye. Or it could blossom into a dawn spectacle after it rounds the Sun on November 28.

Only time, and the vagaries of comets, will tell.

This image is a stack of five 5-minute exposures with a 92mm aperture refractor and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600.

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

The Cocoon Nebula in Cygnus


Cocoon Nebula IC 5146 (92mm 5DII)

A cocoon of glowing gas sits at the tip of a dark cloud of interstellar dust.

It’s been months since I’ve shot more “traditional” astrophotos, meaning images of deep-sky objects through telescopes. But the last couple of nights have been excellent, and well-timed to the dark of the Moon.

This is the Cocoon Nebula in Cygnus, aka IC 5146. It is a cloud of gas about 4,000 light years away where new stars are forming. They are lighting up the gas to glow with incandescent pink colours.

The Cocoon sits at the end of snake-like dark nebula known as Barnard 168 which, in the eyepiece of a telescope, is usually more obvious than the subtle bright nebula. Photos like mine here, with long exposures and boosted contrast and colours, make nebulas look much brighter and more colourful than they can ever appear to the eye.

For the technically curious, I shot this with a 92mm diameter apochromatic refractor, the TMB 92, and a Borg 0.85x flattener/reducer, a combination that gives a fast f-ratio of f/4.8 with a very flat wide field. I also used my now-vintage filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800. This is a stack of five 12-minute exposures, registered and median-combined in Photoshop to smooth out noise. All processing was with Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CC. The telescope was on an Astro-Physics Mach 1 mount, flawlessly autoguided with an SBIG SG-4 autoguider.

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

 

The Princess Stars


Andromeda (50mm 5DII)

The stars of Andromeda the Princess highlight the autumn sky.

Here’s an image from last night, October 4, that frames all of the constellation of Andromeda, now high in the northern autumn sky. A trio of coloured stars arcs across the centre of the image, forming the main pattern in Andromeda. In Greek legend she was the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia and was rescued by Perseus from the devouring jaws of Cetus the Sea Monster.

Above the centre star lies the constellation’s most famous feature, the Andromeda Galaxy, shining at us from 2.5 million light years away. It is the most distant object easily visible to the unaided eye.

An equal distance below the centre star of Andromeda you can see another smaller fuzzy spot. That’s the Pinwheel or Triangulum Galaxy, a dwarf spiral 2.8 million light years away, but also a member of the Local Group of galaxies that contains our Milky Way and Andromeda as its two main members.

At left, just below centre, is a large open cluster of stars, NGC 752, easily visible to the naked eye.

For this shot, as I do for most constellation portraits, I used Photoshop to layer in a shot taken through a diffusion filter (the Kenko Softon A) on top of a stack of shots taken without the filter. This allows me to add the enhanced glows around stars to bring out their colours, and to do so in a controlled fashion by varying the opacity of the filtered view. Shooting on a night with high haze or cirrus clouds has the same end effect but that’s hardly a reliable way to take constellation images. Combining filtered and unfiltered views works great, and gives the “look” made popular years ago by Japanese astrophotographer Akira Fuji.

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

 

A Red October Aurora


Red Aurora in the East (Oct 1, 2013)

A red and green aurora lights the night on the Canadian prairie.

This was certainly a surprise aurora, with conditions officially registering as “quiet” early in the evening. However, checking Spaceweather.com showed the interplanetary magnetic field was tipped far south, a good sign.

So I made a point of checking after dark and sure enough, a fairly bright aurora was present all across the northern horizon. Conditions now registered “storm!”

The main image above is looking east, back over Saskatchewan. What was remarkable was the intense red curtains above the main green arc. These were invisible to the naked eye but the camera sure picked them up.

Red Aurora in the South (Oct 1, 2013)

There was also an odd green band in the southern sky, above. Again, the green band was obvious to the naked eye, but the camera picked up an isolated red arc as well.

This is proving to be a quiet solar maximum, but the best displays often come on the downside of the cycle. So with luck we’ll be in for some good sky shows in the next couple of years.

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

 

Moon and Mars in the Morning


Moon, Mars & Regulus (Oct 1, 2013)

The waning Moon shines below Mars and beside the star Regulus in the dawn twilight.

This was the scene before sunrise this morning with the waning crescent Moon near Mars (above the Moon) and the star Regulus (left of the Moon) in Leo. Mars is getting the attention this week as Comet ISON flies near the planet and also appears near Mars in our earthly sky.

However, the comet is still very faint and needs a large telescope to see from Earth. It will be interesting to see if any of the Mars probes are able to image it, as ISON is still fainter than predicted and might be beyond their reach to detect. But if they do, they could help determine just how big ISON is and that in turn will tell us if it might survive its November 28 passage round the Sun to become a fine dawn object in December.

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