New Mexico New Moon


New Mexico New Moon (April 30, 2014)

The thin waxing crescent Moon returned to the evening sky tonight, seen here in the deepening blue of a New Mexico evening.

I’m in Silver City, New Mexico (altitude 5900 feet) for a few days and nights, checking out places to spend next winter, under clearer and warmer skies than back home … and with rarely any snow to shovel.

This was the scene tonight, on the ranch road with one of the prime property choices – astronomers check real estate locations by day and night!

The crescent Moon is lit by Earthshine as it sits amid the deep blue twilight. The stars of Taurus show up flanking the Moon, with the Hyades at left and Pleiades at right.

This image is a high-dynamic range stack of 6 exposures from 2 to 20 seconds, to capture the ground detail without blowing out the Moon. Lights from an approaching pickup truck nicely lit the trees during the final longest exposure.

For the technically minded, I stacked the images using Photoshop CC HDR Pro, then “tone-mapped” them using Adobe Camera Raw in 32 bit mode.

Sunset from Silver City, New Mexico

The sky was hazy all day and evening, from wind-blown dust common to the area. Fierce southerly winds were whipping up dust all day, which hung in the sky all evening as well.

The sunset was a golden yellow from all the dust in the air. Once it got dark the sky lacked the ideal desert transparency, muting the zodiacal light I saw last night from the Chiricahuas.

Not every night is perfect in the high desert!

– Alan, April 30, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Goodbye Winter Sky – 2014 Edition


Orion Setting & Zodiacal Light (24mm 6D)

After a brutal winter for most of us in the northern hemisphere, we’re glad to see the last of the winter sky.

This was the scene on Tuesday night, April 29 as the last of the winter sky descended into the evening twilight.

Here, Orion (left of centre) sets into the western sky, next to the gossamer glow of the zodiacal light (right of centre). The stars of Taurus sit amid the zodiacal light, with the Pleiades just about to set behind the ridge. Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, shines at far left.

The zodiacal light is the glow of sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system. It is a glow from interplanetary space, not from our atmosphere. Spring is the best time to see it in the evening sky, no matter your hemisphere. It also helps to be in the desert of the U.S. Southwest!

I took this parting shot of the winter sky from a favourite observing haunt from years’ past, Massai Point, at 6800 feet altitude in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. The sky was perfectly clear and the night warm and windless. I’m back in Arizona and New Mexico for a few days, checking out accommodations for a long-term stay next winter, so I won’t have to endure the snow and cold that plagued us last winter. Good bye winter sky! Good bye winter!

– Alan, April 29, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

Splendid Southern Star Clusters


NGC 2477 and NGC 2451 in Puppis (77mm 5DII)

The southern Milky Way is populated by the sky’s best clusters of stars.

Here are three of the southern sky’s best star clusters, in portraits I took earlier this month from Australia.

At top, my main image takes in a great contrasting pair of star clusters. Both lie in the constellation of Puppis, once part of the ship Argo Navis.

At left is the stunningly rich NGC 2477, so packed with stars it almost ranks as a globular cluster, not one of the sparser open clusters. At least that’s the impression it gives in the eyepiece. But instead of containing hundreds of thousands of stars, as do globulars, NGC 2477 “only” has 300 stellar members. They are just very tightly packed in one of the richest open star clusters in the sky. If it had been farther north NGC 2477 would certainly rate as one of the top 100 sky sights, and carry some memorable name after a fanciful resemblance to who knows what! Instead, it carries but a catalog number.

Next to it, at right, is NGC 2451, more typical of open clusters. It has a central bright star, this one naked eye, surrounded by 40 or so lesser stars of contrasting colour and brightness. The two clusters make a great side-by-side comparison in any low-power telescope.

NGC 6067 in Norma Star Cloud (77mm 5DII)

Much farther along the southern Milky Way is this rich open cluster (above), NGC 6067, in Norma, itself embedded in one of the richest star clouds of the southern Milky Way, the Norma Star Cloud. Here you are gazing for 6800 light years toward the cluster which shines suspended against the background of the even more distant inner arms of our spiral galaxy.

So NGC 6067 looks a little like an island of blue stars amid the dust-reddened background of more distant stars in the Milky Way — an island in a sea of stars.

– Alan, April 29, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

The Night Sky’s Two Brightest Stars


Sirius, Canopus & Gum Nebula (35mm 5DII)

The two brightest stars in the night sky shine in the southern sky.

Here are Sirius (at right) and Canopus (at bottom left), the brightest and second brightest stars in the night sky, together near the southern Milky Way.

My image also captures the huge loops of the Gum Nebula, thought to be the remains of a supernova that blew up a million years ago. It’s utterly invisible to the naked eye, but Sirius and Canopus stand out as brilliant stars even from light polluted sites.

Sirius can be seen from northern latitudes but Canopus is below the horizon for any location north of 37° North or so. I shot this image from Australia where these stars pass overhead.

Sirius is a hot blue-white star 8.6 light years away. Canopus appears slightly dimmer but only because it lies much farther away, at some 310 light years. In reality it is a supergiant yellow-white star that shines with a luminosity 15,000 times that of our Sun.

Canopus to Carina with LMC (35mm 5DII)

This image takes in Canopus at bottom right, next to the Large Magellanic Cloud, and with the southern Milky Way sweeping across the top, with the Carina Nebula and its attendant star clusters at top left and parts of the Gum Nebula at right.

Here are a few cocktail party facts about Canopus:

• In 480,000 years its motion around the Galaxy will bring Canopus close enough to Earth that it will become the brightest star in our night sky, outranking Sirius.

• The origin of its name is a mystery. One idea is that the star is named for the pilot of the ship that took Menelaus to Troy on the quest to re-capture Helen.

• Canopus, the star, was used in ancient times as a key navigation star for those sailing to southern seas, as it would have risen above the southern horizon from latitudes below 35° North back around 2000 BCE.

• Today, Canopus is charted as the brightest star in the constellation of Carina the Keel, part of the ancient constellation of Argo Navis, named for the ship sailed by Jason and the Argonauts.

— Alan, April 27, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Stellar Graveyard in Vela


Vela Supernova Remnant (77mm 5DII)

This is what’s left of a star that exploded in ancient times.

This is the Vela Supernova Remnant, an object in the southern sky in the constellation of Vela the Sail. The wispy tendrils of magenta and cyan are all that’s left of the outer layers of giant star that exploded about 12,000 years ago.

Cluttering the field at left are amorphous patches of star-forming nebulosity that are part of the much larger Gum Nebula complex.

The supernova was only about 800 light years away so it would have been a brilliant sight in the sky to neolithic observers, far outshining any other stars. But no record exists of anyone seeing it.

The star didn’t destroy itself completely – its core collapsed to form a pulsar, an ultra-dense ball of neutrons, in this case spinning about 11 times a second. The pulsar is in this field but it’s much too faint to show up in visible light.

I shot this earlier this month from Australia where Vela sails directly overhead. The field is about 6° by 4°, the amount of sky framed by high power binoculars. The brighter parts of the Vela Remnant can be picked out in large amateur telescopes – I’ve seen bits of it in my 10-inch telescope – but this is certainly a challenging object to see, even with aided eyes.

— Alan, April 23, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Star Scenes in Scorpius


Scorpius Overhead (50mm 5DII)

Scorpius, one of the most photogenic of constellations, contains a wealth of amazing sky sights.

My trip to the land down under is coming to an end but I’m still working through the dozens of deep-sky images I was able to take under the southern stars. The wide-field scene above takes in all of Scorpius, shot with the constellation sitting directly overhead in the pre-dawn hours of an austral autumn. You can trace the scorpion’s winding shape down from his head and claws at top, to his curving stinger tail at bottom.

M6 and M7 Star Clusters in Scorpius (77mm 5DII)

Off the stinger of the scorpion shine two naked-eye star clusters, Messier 6 and 7 (the close-up photo above). M6 is the Butterfly Cluster, seen here sitting in a dark region of the Milky Way at upper right. Its companion, M7, a.k.a. Ptolemy’s Cluster at left of the frame, is lost amid the bright star fields  that mark the direction of the galactic core.

NGC 6334 Cat's Paw Nebula (77mm 5DII)

In the curving tail of the scorpion lie two patches of nebulosity. At upper left is NGC 6357, but the triple-lobed NGC 6334 at bottom right is also known as the Cat’s Paw Nebula.

False Comet NGC 6231 Area (77mm 5DII)

Further up the tail of the scorpion sits this fabulous region of space that is a stunning sight in binoculars. NGC 6231 is the blue star cluster at bottom, which garnered the name The False Comet Cluster back in early 1986 when many people mistook its fuzzy naked eye glow for Comet Halley then passing through the area. The camera reveals the region filled with glowing hydrogen gas.

Antares & Rho Ophiuchi Area (77mm 5DII)

But the standout region of Scorpius lies at its heart. Here, the yellow-orange star Antares lights up a dusty nebula surrounding it, reflecting its yellow glow. At top, another dusty nebula surrounds the star Rho Ophiuchi, reflecting its blue light. Glowing hydrogen gas adds its characteristic magenta tints. This is one of the most colourful regions of the Milky Way.

I shot these images with 50mm normal and 300mm telephoto lenses two weeks ago during the OzSky Star Safari near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia. For all I used a filter-modified (by Hutech) Canon 5D Mark II camera.

— Alan, April 17, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Lunar Eclipse from Oz


Total Lunar Eclipse (April 15, 2014) #1

The eclipsed red Moon rises over the waters of Lake Macquarie on the east coast of Australia.

I was still in Australia for this eclipse and managed to see and shoot it, but only just!

Total Lunar Eclipse (April 15, 2014) #2

I was on the Central Coast of New South Wales, where clouds and rain have been prevalent all week, in part caused by departing remnants of Cyclone Ita. The prospects for seeing this eclipse from the coast looked bleak indeed.

Total Lunar Eclipse (April 15, 2014) #3

From eastern Australia, the Moon rose at sunset in mid-eclipse on our evening of April 15. I was with family in Australia and so we made an evening picnic of the event, joining a few others in the lakeside park who were there to also see the eclipsed Moon over Lake Macquarie, Australia’s largest salt water lake. I wanted to catch this eclipse over water, to see the effect above — the “glitter path” from the Moon but one turned red by the eclipsed Moon.

Total Lunar Eclipse (April 15, 2014) #4

As we were about to give up, I caught sight of the Moon as it rose into breaks in the cloud, revealing the red Moon near Spica and Mars. We saw the last of totality and the early stages of the final partial eclipse. But later in the evening clouds rolled in again and the rain poured down. Indeed, I took my last images of the eclipse with light rain falling and the cameras getting wet. This isn’t the first eclipse I’ve watched in the rain!

I shot with fixed cameras with 50mm and 135mm lenses. The top image is a 135mm telephoto shot, the other three are with the 50mm lens.

— Alan, April 16, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

The Galactic Archway of the Southern Sky


Two Styx Night Sky Panorama (Rectilinear)

The southern Milky Way arches across the sky, with the centre of the Galaxy overhead at dawn.

This was the sky at 4:30 this morning, as Venus rose in the east (to the right) amid the zodiacal light, and with the Milky Way soaring overhead. This image is a 360° panorama of the scene, with the zenith, the overhead point, at the top centre of the frame.

The location is the Two Styx Cabins, on the border of New England National Park in New South Wales, Australia. The cabin with the light on (I left it on on purpose for the photo) is where I stayed for two nights in splendid isolation.

The panorama is a stitch of 6 frames shot with an 8mm fish-eye lens, each 1-minute exposures on an untracked tripod. I used the PTGui software program to assemble the pan.

Below is an alternative rendering, in spherical format, to create the more classic “fish-eye” view, but one extending well below the horizon. So this is not one image but a stitch of six.

Two Styx Night Sky Panorama (Fish-Eye)

In this version you can more readily see the spectacle of the Milky Way at dawn in the southern hemisphere autumn months, with the bulge of the galactic core directly overhead as seen from this latitude of 30° south. It is a wonderful sight.

This is my last view of it for this trip. Till next year!

— Alan, April 11, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

The Waxing Moon of Oz


Waxing Moon in Pink Clouds #1 (Oz April 5, 2014)

The waxing Moon shines amid twilight clouds from Australia.

While it looks like a waning morning Moon, this is the waxing evening Moon, inverted compared to northern hemisphere views. I shot this two evenings ago as the crescent Moon enters the evening sky.

With the return of the Moon to the sky, my dark sky observing sessions end. Next on the agenda is the total eclipse of the Full Moon on April 15. I hope to shoot that over the ocean from the Australian coast.

— Alan, April 7, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Venus in the Zodiacal Light


Venus in Zodiacal Light (14mm 5DII)

Venus shines brightly amid the glow of Zodiacal Light below the Milky Way.

At dawn from Australia this was the last view I saw each night on my run of southern sky observing nights. This is Venus, high in the morning sky, amid the faint pillar of light called the Zodiacal Light. The glow is sunlight reflected off cometary dust in the inner solar system.

Above is the centre of the Galaxy area of Sagittarius. This scene was a wonderful way to end a night of perfect astronomy under the southern stars.

— Alan, April 7, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Mars and Spica from Oz


Mars and Spica Rising (April 5, 2014)

Mars and Spica form a contrasting pair of stars in the east, as Mars reaches its closest point to Earth.

This was the scene two nights ago, April 5, as Mars and Spica rose together in the east. Mars is now near opposition, its closest point to Earth making Mars extra bright. Its reddish tint contrasts nicely with blue-white Spica, the brightest star in Virgo.

If the arrangement of Mars and Spica looks unusual, it’s because I took this from Australia. So the relative position of Mars and Spica looks “upside down” compared to a northern hemisphere view. Moonlight from the waxing Moon light the gum trees.

— Alan, April 7, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

The Milky Way of the Deep South


Vela to Centaurus with Crux & Carina (35mm 5DII)

The Milky Way of the southern hemisphere contains some astonishing deep-sky sights.

The lead image above shows the section of the Milky Way that extends farthest south, and so is visible only from tropical latitudes in the north and, of course, from the southern hemisphere. I shot these images this past week in Australia.

The wide-angle image above takes in the southern Milky Way from Vela, at right, to Centaurus, at left. In the middle is the Southern Cross (left of centre), the Carina Nebula complex and surrounding clusters, and the False Cross at right of frame. The close-ups below zoom into selected regions of this area of the Milky Way. All are spectacular sights in binoculars or any telescope.

Coal Sack and Jewel Box (77mm 5DII) #2

This image frames the left side of Crux, the Southern Cross. The bright stars are Becrux (top) and Acrux (bottom). Just below Becrux is the compact and brilliant Jewel Box cluster, aka NGC 4755. Below it are the dark clouds of the Coal Sack, which in photos breaks up into discrete segments and patches.

 

Pearl Cluster and Lambda Centauri Nebula (77mm 5DII)

This region is a favourite of mine for images and for visual scanning in any telescope. The large nebula is the Lambda Centauri complex, also labelled the Running Chicken Nebula. Can you see its outline? Above it is the beautiful Pearl Cluster, aka NGC 3766.

 

Carina Nebula and Clusters (77mm 5DII)

This is the standout object in the deep south – the Carina Nebula complex. I’ve shot this many times before but this is my best take on it. At upper left is the Football Cluster, NGC 3532, while at upper right is the Gem Cluster, NGC 3293.

Seeing this area in person is worth the trip to the southern hemisphere. There are now many photographers up north who have shot marvellous images of Carina but using robotic telescopes. They have never actually seen the object for themselves. They print the images upside down or sideways, a sign of their detachment from the real sky.

You have to stand under the southern stars to really appreciate the magnificence of the Milky Way. All else is just data taking.

– Alan, April 5, 2014 / © Alan Dyer

 

Zooming into the Centre of the Galaxy


Sagittarius and Scorpius Milky Way (35mm 5DII)

A series of closer images zooms us into the Milky Way looking toward the centre of our Galaxy

Here are some images I took this past week at the OzSky Star Safari near Coonabarabran, Australia. The lead image above is a wide-angle lens image of all of Scorpius (above and to the right) and Sagittarius (below and to the left) straddling the Milky Way and its bright glowing core. The direction of the galactic centre is just left of centre of the image. We can’t see the actual centre of the Milky Way with our eyes and normal cameras because there are just too many stars and obscuring dust lanes in between us and the core.

The dust forms marvellous patterns across the glowing Milky Way — see the Dark Horse prancing at left? Long tendrils of dust reach from the feet of the Horse to the bright yellow star at top, Antares, the heart of Scorpius.

The Centre of the Milky Way (50mm 60Da)

This image with a longer lens zooms in closer to the bright Sagittarius Starcloud around the heart of the Galaxy. All along it you can see red and pink nebulas, from the Cat’s Paw at upper right to the Eagle Nebula at lower left. The larger pink object at centre is the Lagoon Nebula.

The next image zooms into the area at the centre of the above shot, just right of the Lagoon.

Sagittarius Starcloud (77mm 5DII)

This is the star-packed Sagittarius Starcloud. Everything you see is stars. Millions of stars.

I took this shot with a 300mm telephoto — a small telescope actually, the gear shown below. It’s what I was using most of this past week to shoot the Australian southern sky.

Borg 77mm Astrograph in Australia

This is some of my Oz gear, the equipment (except for the camera and autoguider on top) that stays in Australia for use every year or two. The mount is an Astro-Physics 400 and the scope is the Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph. I used it for the close-up photo.

The gear all worked great this time. I’ll have more photos to post shortly as my connection allows. Tonight, I am at the Parkes Radio Observatory where the internet connection is as good as it gets!

— Alan, April 4, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

Centre of the Galaxy Rising


Galactic Centre Rising from Australia #2 (15mm 60Da)

The centre of our Galaxy rises above the gum trees of Australia.

This was the scene at 3 a.m. this week at our OzSky star party, as the stars of Scorpius and Sagittarius rise into the eastern sky, a magnificent view of the bright core of the Milky Way rising into view.

The image shows the intricate lacework of dark dust that lines the Milky Way – the stardust of which we are made. The bright star at upper left is Antares, the heart of the Scorpion.

This is one of the views you travel to the southern hemisphere to see. It is an unforgettable sight, one of the best the sky has to offer.

– Alan, April 2, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Observing under the Southern Stars


OzSky Star Safari Panorama #2 (March 2014)

The Milky Way arches over our observing field at the OzSky star party in Australia.

What an amazing few nights it has been. We’ve enjoyed several clear nights under the fabulous southern Milky Way. About 40 people from around the world have had access to telescopes from 14-inch to 30-inch aperture to explore the wonders of the southern sky from a dark site near Coonabarabran, New South Wales.

I’ve seen lifetime-best views of the Tarantula Nebula, the Carina Nebula, the Horsehead Nebula, the Omega Centauri cluster, and on and on! But the views of Mars have been incredible, the best I’ve seen the planet in a decade as it is now close to Earth and high in our southern sky.

The panorama above is a stitch of 6 untracked segments taken with a Canon 60Da and 8mm fish-eye lens. Each segment is a 60-second exposure at ISO 3200.

The 360° panorama takes in the Milky Way from Canis Major setting at right, over to Scorpius and Sagittarius and the centre of the Galaxy rising at left. At top centre is the wonderful Carina and Crux area. The two Magellanic Clouds are just above the trees at centre.

At upper left is Mars, and just to the left of it is a diffuse glow – the Gegenschein, sunlight reflected of comet dust in the direction opposite the Sun. Mars is near that point now. You can just see a faint band running from the Gegenschein to the Milky Way — the Zodiacal Band of comet dust.

Observer & Telescope at OzSky Star Party #4 (March 2014)

Here, one of our observers takes in a view through a 24-inch reflector telescope under the stars of the Southern Cross, the pattern in the Milky Way behind him.

The nights have been warm and wonderful, though a little damp and dewy after midnight. However, rain is in the forecast again, a welcome relief for most local residents who want the rain. They can have it now. We’re happy!

– Alan, April 2, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer