Marvelling at the Milky Way


RAO Milky Way Night Panorama

People gather at a rural observatory to gaze at the Milky Way on a summer night.

The clouds drifted through now and then but skies were mostly clear for the last of the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory‘s annual Milky Way Nights for 2014.

A tradition since 2009 and the Year of Astronomy, these dark-of-the-moon nights at the Observatory have proven hugely popular each summer despite the 10 p.m. start and 2 a.m. finish!

The main image at top shows a 360° panorama as people were gathering at the portable telescopes and lining up – in a blur – for a look inside the observatory domes.

RAO Milky Way Night #1 (Aug 30, 2014)

Roland from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada provided laser-guided star tours. How did we point out the stars and constellations before green lasers? In the hands of responsible astronomers they are a great tool for public education.

RAO Milky Way Night #4 (Aug 30, 2014)

Here he’s pointing out Vega and the stars of the Summer Triangle. Look way up!

About 400 people attended on Saturday night, the last in a trio of nights this past week. As you can see, the event attracts people of all ages. It’s even a popular date night attraction.

RAO Milky Way Night #6 (Aig 30, 2014)

At these summer stargazing sessions many people bring blankets to just lie back and look up, at a site away from the ugly glow of the city, here lighting up the clouds to the north.

It was a great night of public stargazing!

– Alan, August 31, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Mars, Saturn and the Milky Way in Twilight


Mars, Saturn & Milky Way over Ranch Corral

Mars and Saturn meet in conjunction beside the Milky Way.

As it was getting dark two nights ago, I shot this view of Mars and Saturn (the “double star” at right, with Mars below Saturn) paired together now in the evening twilight. The location was Grasslands National Park, on the Park’s main loop tour road.

At the centre of the image is Scorpius and its bright star Antares, just behind the gate of the old corral.

At left are the star clouds of the Milky Way and the galactic core. Just above the horizon are the naked-eye star clusters Messier 6 and Messier 7, the most southerly of the popular Messier objects.

The sky is blue from the last of the twilight glow.

The image is a composite of two exposures, both 1 minute but one tracking the sky and one with the drive turned off to provide the sharper foreground.

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

 

Starlight at the Old Corral


Milky Way over the 76 Ranch Corral

The Milky Way shines behind the rustic corral of the 76 Ranch in Grasslands National Park.

It’s not a gunfight at the OK Corral, but starlight at the 76 Ranch Corral. I shot this Tuesday night in the Frenchman River valley in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. 

The scene captures the summer Milky Way, some green bands of airglow, and the old corral lit by starlight and some aurora beginning to brighten to the north.

Some occasional flashes of distant spotlights from down the valley also provide foreground illumination. The lights came from ferret spotters out at night checking on the nocturnal black-footed ferret. 

The corral once belonged to the 76 Ranch, one of the largest in Canada in its day and owned by Sir John Lister-Kaye, one of many upper class Brits who came to Canada in the 1880s to make their fortune in the newly opened range lands — until drought and hard winters of the southern Prairies forced them to sell out and break up their once huge land holdings. 

This image is a composite, but of five frames all shot at the same place in quick succession. I did not fake the sky into a foreground shot at some other time and place.

Four shots are tracked, to follow the sky for pinpoint stars. I used the new Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracker.

For one shot at the end of the sequence I turned the tracker’s drive off to take a single sharp image of the foreground.

Using masking in Photoshop I removed the blurry foreground from the sky images and the blurry trailed sky from the ground image.

Each was a 3-minute exposure at ISO 1600 with the 24mm lens at f/2.5.

 

The Northern Lights at the Old Larson Ranch


Aurora at Larson Ranch Panorama

The northern lights dance, and light the pioneer homes at the old Larson Ranch in Grasslands National Park.

What a night this was! I arrived at the Larson Ranch site in the Frenchman River valley to shoot some Milky Way panoramas, when, right on cue, the aurora broke loose.

Some aurora had been there since nightfall as a diffuse arc, but about 11 p.m. local time (Central Standard Time in Saskatchewan) the curtains began to dance and pulse with activity as a sub-storm hit, raining solar particles onto our atmosphere from down the magnetic tail of the Earth.

The aurora glow lit the old pioneer buildings of the Larson Ranch, one of the stops on the scenic backroad drive through the Park.

The Larsons ran their ranch by the Frenchman, or Whitemud River, from the 1920s until 1985 when they sold their ranch to the National Park system, forming the first land for the new Grasslands National Park.

The house at left is the original home of cowboy author Will James, who lived here for a time working on ranches in the valley before moving to the United States. He was from Quebec, where he was Ernest Dufault.

I shot this 360° panorama using a 15mm lens, shooting 8 segments at 45° spacings, each a 1-minute exposure at ISO 2500 and f/3.2 with the Canon 6D. I used PTGui software to stitch the segments into a equi-rectangular projection pan.

– Alan, August 28, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Milky Way & Aurora Panorama from Grasslands National Park


Grasslands Milky Way Panorama at 76 Corral

The Milky Way and the Northern Lights arch across the sky in the Frenchman River valley of Grasslands National Park.

This 360° panorama takes in two arches of light:

• The Milky Way rising out of the northeast at left and stretching across the sky overhead at top and down into the southwest at right of centre.

• And the Northern Lights, as an arc of green and red across the northern horizon. They got brighter and higher later this night, August 26/27, as my previous post shows.

Bands of green airglow also stretch across the sky from east to west.

I shot this last night from the Frenchman River coulee, a wide valley cut at the end of the Ice Age by glacial run off, and occupied today by the meandering Frenchman River. It winds through the heart of Grasslands National Park and makes its way to the Missouri River to drain into the Gulf of Mexico, one of only a handful of rivers in Canada to do so.

The river and wide pasture land made this a choice place for a ranch. For decades this was home to the 76 Ranch, one of the largest in Canada. At right is its old wood corral, in front of the Milky Way and its “Dark Horse” structure in the dark lanes of the Milky Way. Appropriate I thought.

The only lights visible are from spotlights from researches conducting studies of the nocturnal black-footed ferret. Otherwise, the site was as dark as you’ll find it in southern Canada.

I assembled this panorama using PTGui software, from 8 segments shot with a 14mm lens in portrait orientation, all untracked 80-second exposures at ISO 4000 and f/2.8.

– Alan, August 27, 2o14 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Aurora over Grasslands Park


Aurora over Grasslands National Park #1

The Northern Lights dance over the prairie landscape of Grasslands National Park.

The aurora warnings were out for last night but I hadn’t expected to see much. But about 10:30 pm a faint arc appeared to the northeast. The display brightened about local midnight (Central Standard Time here in Saskatchewan) and became fairly active for a time.

The main arc increased in intensity and moved with fine structure and detail. The eye could see some faint, colourless curtains extending upward but the camera picks them up as red, typical of auroral curtains reaching into the top of the atmosphere.

Aurora over Grasslands National Park #2

I shot these from the Frenchman River valley, a wide coulee formed by glacial rivers and now the heart of the West Block of Grasslands National Park.

It was a beautifully dark site except for flashes of spotlights now and then (not seen in the photos here) from naturalists doing census studies of the nocturnal and endangered black-footed ferret recently re-introduced to the Park. Ironically, their lights spoiled the otherwise pristine and pitch-black night in this dark sky preserve.

– Alan, August 27, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Standing Under the Stars at Grasslands Park


Standing Under the Stars at Grasslands Park

Grasslands National Park is one of the finest places in Canada to revel in the dark night sky.

This was the scene last night, in far south Saskatchewan, under clear and super dark night skies, at long last after a week of rain, wind and wintery cold.

I’m at Grasslands National Park south of Val Marie, Saskatchewan, to shoot night sky panoramas in what must rank as Canada’s darkest Dark Sky Preserve.

The park itself is new, created only a decade and half ago. It preserves original prairie grasses and is home to unique and rare species. Bison roam here, allowing you to travel back to pre-European times as you gaze out onto a landscape much as it was for thousands of years.

But look up at night and you can gaze at a sky as it was seen for thousands of years, mostly unblemished by the artificial glows of light pollution. Grasslands National Park is a “dark sky preserve,” allowing visitors to see the stars and Milky Way as they should be seen.

I shot this 360° panorama from the Eagle Butte Loop Trail just inside the boundary of the Park. The main hill is 70 Mile Butte, a landmark to the early NorthWest Mounted Police as it lay 70 miles from their posts at Wood Mountain to the east and Eastend to the west.

This view looks out across the farmland to the west and a handful of yard lights. But little else spoils the view around the rest of the horizon. The last vestiges of evening twilight provide a backdrop for the lone silhouette.

The Milky Way arches overhead, and some bands of green airglow, a natural night sky phenomenon, stretch from east to west. The centre of the Milky Way Galaxy lies to the far right, with its glowing clouds of stars.

– Alan, August 26, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer