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

Dawn Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter


Venus & Jupiter Conjunction, with Moon (August 18, 2014)

It was a fine celestial sight to begin the week, as Venus met Jupiter in the dawn sky.

This morning, August 18, Venus and Jupiter appeared just 1/2 degree apart, as close as they’ve appeared to each other since 1999.

The top image shows the wide-angle setting, with Venus and Jupiter tightly paired near the horizon, and the waning Moon above, itself in conjunction with Aldebaran in the Hyades star cluster.

Venus & Jupiter Conjunction Closeup

This zooms into the main event, the Venus-Jupiter pairing, as they were emerging from the horizon haze.

I shot this from home, off the back deck, having little ambition at 5 a.m. to venture any further afield. I had planned to shoot this from Dinosaur Park but had second thoughts on the hour drive there and back!

Waning Moon in the Hyades near Aldebaran

This zooms into the secondary show this morning, the meeting of the waning crescent Moon with the brightest star in Taurus, Aldebaran, and its companion stars in the Hyades star cluster. This is a telephoto lens shot with a fixed camera, no tracking.

Thus begins a fine two weeks of stargazing, weather permitting, as the Moon exits the sky to leave us the summer Milky Way at its best, and dual pairs of planets in the dusk and dawn sky – Mars and Saturn converging in the evening and Venus and Jupiter, now parting ways, in the morning.

– Alan, August 18, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Twilight and Moonlight at Waterfowl Lakes


Twilight at Waterfowl Lakes

Peaks of the Continental Divide reflect in the calm waters of Lower Waterfowl Lake.

These images provide a sense of what a beautiful night this was, last Monday on the Icefields Parkway in Banff.

The evening started with a super-clear twilight providing subtle shadings – from the last glow of sunset on the horizon, through the “twilight purple” above, to the deep blue of the darkening sky at top.

The purple hue comes from red sunlight still illuminating the upper atmosphere and blending with the blue sky from the usual scattering of short blue wavelengths.

The twilight scene is a high-dynamic range blend of several exposures processed with Photoshop’s HDR Pro as a 32-bit file in Adobe Camera Raw.

Star Trails over Waterfowl Lke v1

Taking different frames from the same set that I used to capture the Space Station I created this star trail scene, of the western stars setting over Mt. Cephren. Light from the one-day-past Full Moon illuminated the peaks that line the Continental Divide.

The star trail scene is a composite – of many images stacked to create the star trails, blended with a masked single image from the set to supply the landscape.

For the star trail stacking I used the excellent Advanced Stacker Plus actions from Star Circle Academy. To separate and mask out the sky from the landscape image I used Photoshop’s Quick Selection tool and its wonderful Refine Mask function.

– Alan, August 16, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Moonbow at Bow Falls


Star Trails & Moonbow over Bow Falls

A small moonbow forms in the light of the full “super moon” at Bow Falls in Banff.

This was Sunday night, August 10, on the night of the bright “super moon” that lit the landscape. In this case, I was at Bow Falls, a popular tourist spot in the townsite of Banff below the Banff Springs Hotel.

However, by night only a handful of people appeared, including two who stayed still long enough to record on one frame, above.

The sky, however, is made of many frames, exposed over an hour to add the star trails. But the landscape is from one exposure, and includes a short arc of a moonbow, a rainbow created from moonlight.

Big Dipper Star Trails over Bow Falls

In an alternative version, sans moonbow, I shot one short and several long exposures to capture the stars of the Big Dipper streaking over the falls.

These are two more examples of how magical the mountains are by moonlight. And how quiet the usually busy tourist spots are!

– Alan, August 15, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Sunset over David Thompson Country


Howse Pass Viewpoint Panorama (Partial)

The setting sun lights the clouds over the river plains of the North Saskatchewan.

This was the panoramic view two evenings ago from the Howse Pass viewpoint on the Icefields Parkway in Banff.

We’re looking south over the North Saskatchewan River near its junction with the Howse and Mistaya Rivers. The spot is near where Highway 11, the David Thompson Highway, comes in from the east to join the Parkway. It’s a modern highway now but 200 years ago this was a main canoe route for the fur trade.

The area is known as David Thompson Country, named for the great explorer, surveyor, and celestial navigator who mapped much of western Canada in the early 1800s.

Until about 1810, Thompson passed this way every year en route to the fur trade forts he set up in the B.C. interior, his main job for the North West Company.

Conflicts with the local Pikanii people, who objected to Thompson trading with and arming their traditional enemies, the Kootenais, forced Thompson to find a new route across the Rockies, the Athabasca Pass in what is now Jasper National Park.

Howse Pass Viewpoint Sunset Panorama (Full)

The top image is a 180° panorama, the bottom image is a full 360° panorama from the viewpoint. In the distance are Mt. Murchison, at left, and Mt. Cephren in the far distance, the prominent peak by Waterfowl Lakes.

I shot these with a 14mm lens, in portrait orientation, and stitched them with PTGui software. The top image is made from 6 segments, the bottom from 12 segments.

The software blended them perfectly, no small feat in such a uniform twilight sky. I’m always impressed with it!

– Alan, August 14, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Meteors and Space Stations over Mt. Cephren


Perseid Meteors over Mt. Cephren, Banff

A couple of Perseid meteors streak across the moonlit sky above Mt. Cephren in Banff National Park.

The night before the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower was very clear for the first couple of hours. On Monday, August 11, I positioned myself at the shore of Lower Waterfowl Lake, at a roadside viewpoint on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park, Alberta.

I had two cameras going, one on a fixed tripod aimed west in hope of catching some meteors in a few frames. Two did, and the main image is a composite of those two frames, as the Perseids shoot over the pyramid peak of Mt. Cephren.

Space Station over Mt. Cephren, Banff (Composite)

Later, the Space Station also flew over, accompanied by the European ATV cargo ship, captured here in a stack of 18 frames from the 555-frame time-lapse, showing their pass from west to east (bottom to top) of the composite image. The gaps are from when the shutter was closed for 1 second between the 15-second-long exposures with the 14mm ultra-wide lens.

In all, it was a warm and beautiful night, with the normally busy viewpoint all to myself all night, under the light of the nearly Full Moon.

The mountains by moonlight are truly magical.

– Alan, August 13, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Super Moonrise over Banff


Super Moonrise over Banff

A much-publicized “super moon” rises over Mt. Rundle and Banff townsite.

I joined a small crowd of moon watchers at the Mt. Norquay viewpoint last night, Sunday, August 10, to view the rising of the super moon, the closest Full Moon of 2014.

Of course, no one could possibly detect that this moon was any bigger or brighter than any other moon. Nevertheless, everyone saw an impressive sight and went away happy.

I shot this image at the end of a 700-frame time-lapse, at about 10:15 p.m. This is an HDR “high-dynamic-range” stack of 8 exposures, from dark and underexposed (to capture the bright sky around the Moon) to bright and overexposed (to capture the foreground and dark trees).

Yes, I have cranked up the HDR effect a little, to beyond “natural.” But I think the result looks striking and brings out the structure in the clouds that hid the Moon at first.

Think what you will of “super moons,” they get people outside, looking up and marvelling. In this case, the PR prompted a moonwatch party on a fine summer Sunday evening in one of the most scenic places on the planet.

– Alan, August 11, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Super Moonrise at Bow Lake


Full Moon and Flowers at Bow Lake

The nearly Full Moon rises over Bow Lake, Banff then lights up the landscape.

Saturday night was a stunning night to shoot nightscapes in Banff. Skies were mostly clear, allowing the nearly Full Moon, a day before the much-hyped “SuperMoon,” to light the landscapes.

I began last night’s shoot at Bow Lake looking south toward the rising Moon over the mountain fireweed flowers.

Twilight at Bow Lake

Shooting the other way toward Bow Glacier reveals this moonlit scene, in a frame I shot as part of the set up for a time-lapse movie. I had three cameras going, each shooting about 350 frames. The computer is processing them as I type. Still-image “nightscapes” like these are so much easier!

When I arrived I thought I wouldn’t be surprised to find other time-lapsers present, at such a great spot on a perfect night.

Sure enough, Shane Black from Ohio was setting up for a twilight shoot with much the same gear I use – a Dynamic Perception Stage Zero dolly system and eMotimo 2-axis motion controller. I was able to help Shane out by supplying a battery to power the rig when his was dying. Glad to help a fellow time-lapser! Good luck on the rest of your cross-country tour

– Alan, August 10, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Andromeda Rising


Andromeda Rising over Bow River

The stars of Andromeda and Perseus rise over the Rockies and Bow River in Banff.

It was a beautifully moonlit night last night, in Banff National Park. I shot the images for this star trail at a well-trodden viewpoint overlooking the Bow River. We’re looking east to the stars of the autumn sky in Andromeda and Perseus rising over the Front Ranges of the Rockies.

The waxing gibbous Moon behind me lights the landscape and sky.

The photo is a stack of 5 images: one a short 40-second exposure at ISO 1600 for the point-like stars, followed after a gap in time by a set of four closely-spaced 6-minute exposures at ISO 100, to give the long star trails.

Shooting a handful of long exposures is the alternative to shooting dozens or hundreds of short exposures when you’re after star trails, and you don’t have any desire to collect a set you can turn into a time-lapse movie.

Indeed, shooting any time-lapses from this spot would have been futile – the location was a busy rest stop on the Trans-Canada Highway with cars and trucks pulling in, their headlights lighting up the foreground from time to time. But for still images, the site worked fine.

– Alan, August 9, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Prairie Sunset Panorama


Prairie Sunset Panorama

What a spectacular sunset tonight. The Sun is just going down in a blaze of red, while the waxing Moon shines in the deep blue twilight.

I grabbed the camera fast when I saw this happening out my front window, and raced out to the ripening wheat field across the road.

The top image is a 360° panorama of the sky, with the Sun at right and the Moon left of centre. The zenith is along the top of the image.

I used a 14mm lens in portrait mode to cover the scene from below the horizon to the zenith, taking 7 segments to sweep around the scene.

You can see the darkening of the sky at centre, 90° away from the Sun, due to natural polarization of the skylight.

Red Sun in a Prairie Sunset

I shot this sunset image a little earlier, when the Sun was higher but still deep red in the smoky haze that has marked the sky of late. It certainly gives the scene a divine appearance!

This is a 5-exposure high-dynamic-range composite to capture the tonal range from bright sky to darker ground, the wheat field. I increased the contrast to bring out the cloud shadows – crepuscular rays.

I boosted colour vibrancy but didn’t alter the actual colours – it was a superb sky.

I used PTGui v10 to stitch the panorama at top and Photomatix Pro to stack and tone the HDR set. While Photoshop is wonderful it did not work for assembling either of these images.

– Alan, August 6, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Sagittarius and Sagebrush


Sagittarius over Sagebrush

Sagittarius and Scorpius shine above the pines and sagebrush of the summit of Mount Kobau, BC.

I’m still working through images I took last week at the Mt. Kobau Star Party. This one looks south toward Washington state amid some smoky air, toward the centre of the Galaxy.

Note the dark lanes in the Milky Way, particularly the prancing “Dark Horse.”

I shot this image the first night I was on the mountain, using a new Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracking system.

The image is a stack of five 5-minute tracked exposures with a 24mm lens. The ground is from just one of the exposures to minimize blurring of the ground from the moving camera.

It nicely captures both the sagebrush and the stars of the Milky Way, a quintessential Kobau sky scene.

– Alan, August 5, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Table Mountain Time-Lapses


Table Mountain Star Trails-Circumpolar Elastic Effect

I present a set of short time-lapse videos shot at the Table Mountain Star Party.

At the star party in Washington state last week I shot about a 3-hour-long set of images each night for assembly into time-lapse movies. Here’s the compilation.

 

Click the Enlarge button for a full-screen view.

For the first two clips I used the eMotimo motion controller to pan across the star party field looking south to the Milky Way.

For the last two clips I used a static camera aimed north to capture the turning sky around the north celestial pole. I took the same 350 frames and assembled them two ways: as a standard movie and as an “accumulating star trails” movie where the stars seem to draw themselves across the sky like a sky full of comets.

That clip cross-fades to the still image above, created with the Advanced Stacker Plus actions that automatically stacks and blends images via a choice of effects. I used the “elastic stars” effect for the still image.

Many thanks to the organizers and volunteers at the Table Mountain Star Party for the opportunity to attend and speak at the party. I was a great three nights. I highly recommend the site and event.

– Alan, August 3, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Wheatfield Moon and Planets


Wheatfield Moon and Planets

The waxing Moon begins its three-day passage past Spica, Mars and Saturn in the twilight sky.

This was the scene tonight, August 1, from a wheat field near home, as the waxing Moon appeared to the right of the star Spica in Virgo.

To the east, or left, of those two objects lies Mars, at the centre of the frame. To the left of Mars is Saturn, flanked by stars in Libra.

The Moon was near Spica tonight but will appear near Mars Saturday night and near Saturn on Sunday night.

Look low in the southwest as the sky is getting dark.

— Alan, Aug 1, 2014 / ©2014 Alan Dyer