Heads Up! – Mercury Rising


May 6 Mercury

The next two weeks are the best in 2015 for sighting Mercury in the evening sky.

Mercury is coming into view in our evening sky, climbing as high as it can get for us in the Northern Hemisphere. This is our best chance for us to sight Mercury as an evening star in 2015.

Spring is always the best time to catch elusive Mercury. The angle of the ecliptic – the path of the planets – swings up highest above the horizon in spring, putting Mercury as high into the evening twilight as it can get. This makes it easier to sight Mercury than at other times of the year when, particularly for observers at northern latitudes, Mercury can be lost in the twilight glow and horizon haze.

When it is at its highest Mercury is surprisingly bright, appearing as a bright star easily visible to the naked eye. However, locating it at first in the twilight usually requires a scan with binoculars.

Mercury will be at its highest on May 6 when it reaches “greatest elongation.” However, it will be almost as good for a week on either side of that date.

So set aside a clear evening during the first two weeks of May to search for the inner planet. (The green line is Mercury’s path relative to the horizon with the green dots marking its position at daily intervals.)

Mercury will be shining above fainter Mars, and well below brilliant Venus, now dominating our evening spring sky. Look north of due west during the hour after sunset.

Mercury & Venus Conjunction Closeup (Jan. 10, 2015)
Mercury and Venus on January 10, 2015 from New Mexico.

This view captures Mercury at its last good evening appearance, back in early January when it appeared close to Venus, then emerging into the evening sky. You can compare their relative brightness.

By coincidence, the emergence of Mercury into our evening sky comes just as it loses its lone visitor from Earth. Since 2011, NASA’s Messenger probe has been orbiting and mapping Mercury.

On April 29, with the probe exhausted of its maneuvering fuel, Messenger is scheduled to end its mission by crashing onto the planet, adding a new crater to Mercury’s barren and volcanic surface.

A global false-color map of the mineral composition of Mercury from Messenger data.
A global false-color map of the mineral composition of Mercury from Messenger data.

This is a recent map of Mercury from Messenger. For more details, see the mission’s website.

– Alan, April 30, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Amazing Scenery on the Eight-Day Moon


Along the Terminator of the Eight-Day Moon

Incredible detail stands out along the terminator of the eight-day Moon.

This was the Moon on the evening of April 26, with the waxing Moon eight days past New and one day past First Quarter Moon. It’s a great phase to explore the surface of the Moon.

In the north the arcs of the Alps and Apennine mountain ranges encircle Mare Imbrium.

In the south, craters pepper the Highlands in stark relief. Tonight, the Straight Wall was just beginning to catch the light of the rising Sun, creating a very sharp, straight shadow.

The regions along the terminator – the boundary between light and dark – at left are seeing the first sunlight in two weeks. To the right, on the more brightly lit portion of the near side of the Moon, the dark mare areas stand out in various shades of grey. Systems of rays splash out from bright, geologically fresh crater impacts.

On the technical side, this is a mosaic of two overlapping images, one for the northern and one for the southern hemisphere, taken through a Celestron C9.25 telescope at a focal length of 2300mm. I stitched them with Adobe Camera Raw’s new (as of last week’s update) ability to stitch images into a Raw-format panorama file.

– Alan, April 26, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Conjunction Over the Old Barn


Moon & Venus over Old Barn

The Moon and Venus shine in conjunction over an old pioneer barn.

Tonight, April 21, the waxing crescent Moon passed a wide eight degrees to the left of Venus. That’s a wide conjunction to be sure, if we can even call it a conjunction!

Nevertheless, when the two brightest objects in the night sky come together it’s worth looking at and photographing.

I had planned to drive west, to the Kananaskis area of southern Alberta, to shoot the celestial scene over the Rockies. But clouds to the west thwarted those plans.

As it is, I still fought the oncoming clouds out on the plains. I chose a favourite old barn near home. It made a rustic foreground to the twilight sky.

Venus remains a brilliant “evening star” all spring and into the early summer. We’ll see a similar wide passage of the crescent Moon by Venus a month from now, on the evening of May 21.

– Alan, April 21, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – Dual Conjunctions in the Spring Sky


April 21 Moon & Venus

On the evening of April 21 the waxing Moon shines near Venus, while Mercury appears near Mars.

Say goodbye to the winter sky, as Orion and Taurus sink into the western twilight. Joining them is an array of planets, and the Moon.

Look west on April 21 and you’ll see the waxing crescent Moon near brilliant Venus, with both above the Hyades star cluster and the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus.

The thinner Moon will appear below Venus the night before, on April 21, while on April 22, the waxing Moon, then a wider crescent, will sit well above Venus.

If you have an unobstructed view to the west also look for the pairing of Mercury and Mars low in the twilight. You might need to use binoculars to pick them out.

Mercury is just beginning its best evening appearance of the year for the northern hemisphere. So if you miss it April 21, you have another couple of weeks to find it in the evening sky.

Waxing Moon Amid the Hyades (Telescope)

On the nights around April 21, also look for Earthshine lighting the dark side of the Moon. You can see the night side of the Moon because it is being illuminated by sunlight reflecting off the Earth, shining brightly in the lunar sky.

The above image is a view of Earthshine from a month ago, on March 24, when the Moon appeared in the Hyades star cluster.

Enjoy the spring sky adorned by Venus as a bright “evening star,” and joined by the Moon on April 21.

– Alan, April 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Back Under the Northern Lights


Aurora & Old Pioneer House

The aurora dances behind a pioneer homestead on the Alberta prairies.

After a stay of five months in New Mexico I arrived back in Alberta earlier this week, and was greeted tonight, April 15, with a display of Northern Lights. They’ve been very active in the last month, but I’ve seen nothing of them from where I was in New Mexico.

But here in southern Alberta, I just walk out onto my back deck and there they are! An email alert prompted me to have a look, after predictions earlier in the day called for little activity tonight. But indicators picked up nicely late in the evening.

I headed to an abandoned pioneer homestead near my acreage. A photogenic foreground always adds to the scene.

Aurora over Prairie Pond

A little further down the road is a prairie pond, ruffled a little by wind tonight, blurring the reflection I was hoping to capture.

It’s nice to be back under the Northern Lights. Bring them on!

– Alan, April 16, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – Planets Pair with Clusters


April 11 Venus & M45

Look west and south this weekend to see the two brightest planets each pairing with a bright cluster of stars.

This weekend, Venus and Jupiter each pair with a prominent open star cluster.

In the west, look for brilliant Venus, an evening “star” this spring, shining near the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters star cluster. Some know it as Messier 45.

Both Venus and the Pleiades are in Taurus the bull, whose main stars lie to the left of the Venus-Pleiades pairing. Farther to the left still, look for the distinctive stars of Orion the hunter, whose trio of Belt stars give him away.

April 11 Venus & M45 CU

As this close up shows, binoculars will nicely frame Venus and the Pleiades at once.

Venus continues to climb higher this spring while the Pleiades and the other stars of the winter sky, including Orion and Taurus, sink lower and lower. The next few nights are the best for catching Venus as it passes the Pleiades.

April 11 Jupter & M44

High in the south as it gets dark shines the other bright planet in our sky – Jupiter.

It, too pairs with a star cluster. Jupiter now shines a binocular field to the east (left) of the Beehive Cluster, also known as Messier 44. Jupiter and M44 lie in Cancer the crab, a faint constellation nestled between Leo to the east and Gemini to the west.

Jupiter has been retrograding closer to the Beehive all winter and early spring. But this weekend Jupiter sits as close to the cluster as it is going to get. For the rest of spring and summer Jupiter will move east away from the Beehive.

Look west and south as it gets dark this weekend, for the pair of planet-cluster pairings!

Clear skies and happy stargazing.

– Alan, April 9, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Nightscapes at Double Arch


Star Trails Behind Double Arch

The iconic Double Arch looks great under dark skies, moonlight, or painted with artificial light.

Last night, I returned to the Double Arch at Arches National Park, to capture a star trail series, starting from the onset of darkness at 9:30 p.m., and continuing for 2.5 hours until midnight, an hour after moonrise at 11:00 p.m. The lead image is the result.

I think it turned out rather well.

The Big Dipper is just streaking into frame at top right, as I knew it would from shooting here the night before. The bright streak at upper left is Jupiter turning into frame at the end of the sequence. Note how the shadow of the moonlit foreground arch matches the shape of the background arch.

On the technical end, the star trail composite is a stack of 160 frames, each 45 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 3200, with the Canon 6D and 14mm lens. The foreground, however, comes from a stack of 8 frames taken toward the end of the shoot, as the moonlight was beginning to light the arches. An additional 45-second exposure taken a couple of minutes after the last star trail frame adds the star-like points at the “head” of the star trail streaks.

I used the excellent Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy to do the stacking in Photoshop.

Dark Sky Behind Double Arch

Before starting the star trail set, I took some initial short-exposure nightscapes while the sky was still dark. The result is the above image, of Double Arch in a dark sky. Passing car headlights provided some rather nice accent illumination.

On such a fine night I thought others might be there as well. Arches is a very popular place for nightscape imaging.

Sure enough, 6 others came and went through the early evening before moonrise. We had a nice time chatting about gear and techniques.

As expected, a few photographers came armed with bright lights for artificially lighting the arches. I kept my camera running, knowing any illumination they shone on the foreground wouldn’t affect my star trails, and that I’d mask in the foreground from frames taken after moonrise.

Photographer Lighting Double Arch

Here’s one frame from my star trail sequence where one photographer headed under the arch to light it for his photos. It did make for a nice scene – a human figure adds scale and dimension.

However, I always find the light from the LED lamps too artificial and harsh, and comes from the wrong direction to look natural. I also question the ethics of blasting a dark sky site with artificial light.

On a night like this I’d rather wait until moonrise and let nature provide the more uniform, warmer illumination with natural shadows.

Big Dipper over Double Arch

As an example, I took this image the night before using short exposures in the moonlight to capture the Big Dipper over Double Arch. When I shot this at 11 p.m. I had the site to myself. Getting nature to provide the right light requires the photographer’s rule of “waiting for the light.”

– Alan, April 7, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Orion Over and Through Turret Arch


Orion Star Trails Through Turret Arch

What a fabulous night for some nightscapes at Arches National Park, Utah.

I’m at Arches National Park for two nights, to shoot the stars over its amazing eroded sandstone landscape.

I started the night last night, April 6, shooting Orion over Turret Arch while the sky was still lit by deep twilight. That image is below. It shows Orion and the winter sky, with bright Venus at right, setting over the aptly-named Turret Arch.

I scouted the location earlier in the day and measured in person, as expected from maps, that the angles would be perfect for capturing Orion over the Arch.

But better still would be getting Orion setting through the Arch. That’s the lead photo at top.

I shot the star trail image later in the evening, over half an hour. It uses a stack of 5 exposures: a single, short 30-second one for the initial point-like stars, followed by a series of four 8-minute exposures to create the long star trails. The short exposure was at ISO 4000; the long exposures at ISO 250. All are with the Rokinon 14mm lens.

Orion Over Turret Arch

Arches is a popular and iconic place for nightscape photography.

I thought I’d likely not be alone, and sure enough another pair of photographers showed up, though they were armed with lights to illuminate the Arches, as many photographers like to do.

I shot this from afar, as they lit up the inside of Turret Arch where I had been earlier in the night.

Photographer Lighting Turret Arch

I prefer not to artificially illuminate natural landscapes, or do so only mildly, not with bright spotlights. We traded arches! – while I shot Turret, the other photography couple shot next door at the North and South Window Arches, and vice versa. It all worked out fine.

Later in the night, after moonrise, I shot next door at the famous Double Arch. Those moonlit photos will be in tomorrow’s blog.

It was a very productive night, and a remarkable experience shooting at such a location on a warm and quiet night, with only a fellow photographer or two for company.

– Alan, April 7, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Moonlighting at Monument Valley


Moonrise Behind the Mittens at Monument Valley (#1)

The Full Moon rises behind the famous Mitten buttes at Monument Valley.

I spent a fabulous weekend capturing sunsets and nightscapes at the iconic Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border, the photogenic outdoor set of dozens movies over the decades.

On the eve of the total lunar eclipse I shot the nearly Full Moon rising behind the West (left) and East (centre) Mittens and Merrick Butte (at right). On the evening of Friday, April 3 the Moon rose and sat amid the sunlit clouds with the Sun still up.

The alignment that would place the Moon directly opposite the Sun to create the eclipse was still 11 hours away.

Note how the butte’s shadows point almost, but not quite directly, at the nearly Full Moon. They point at the place in the sky the Moon would be before dawn at the end of that night.

Indeed, on eclipse morning on Saturday, April 4 the Moon set exactly as the Sun rose (see my photos in my previous blog).

But on eclipse eve the Moon rose 30 minutes before the Sun set, providing a chance to catch the Moon behind the still sunlit red buttes.

Moonrise Behind the Mittens at Monument Valley (#2)

I shot this image about 20 minutes after sunset on April 3, so the foreground is now in shadow but the Moon appears in a more richly tinted twilight sky.

Orion and Venus Setting at Monument Valley

Later on April 3 I captured this scene, with the Tear Drop and Rock Door Mesas now lit by a bright Full Moon, and with the stars of the winter sky setting into the west. Canis Major and Orion are at left, while Taurus, including the Pleiades star cluster and brilliant Venus, are at right.

The Orion & Venus image is a 2-panel panorama.

Moonbeams at Monument Valley

On the evening of April 4, clouds thwarted plans for a long star trail sequence above a moonlit foreground.

Instead, I shot toward the Moon and clouds, to capture subtle moonbeams radiating out from the Moon, now some 14 hours after the eclipse, rising behind Merrick Butte. I shot this from the dusty Loop Road that winds through the valley floor.

Big Dipper over West Mitten, Monument Valley

Instead of lots of images for a star trail composite, I was content to shoot this one image, catching the Big Dipper in a brief hole in the drifting clouds, hanging in the sky over the West Mitten butte. The foreground is lit by the partly obscured Full Moon. The long exposure streaks the moving clouds.

Night or day, it’s hard not to take a great photo here, clouds or not!

Sunset Panorama at Monument Valley

On my final evening at Monument Valley, high winds common to the area, blowing dust, and the closed Loop Road, scuttled plans again for long star trail sequences from the valley floor.

So on Easter Sunday, April 5, I settled for a panorama from the classic viewpoint showing the setting Sun lighting the buttes and mesas of Monument Valley.

It is an amazing place, but one that still requires patience to wait out the clouds and dust storms.

– Alan, April 6, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Red Moon over the Red Rocks of Monument Valley


Lunar Eclipse Sequence from Monument Valley

What a great site to watch the Moon turn red in a total eclipse.

I can’t recall a more scenic total eclipse of the Moon. I planned this site as best I could from Google maps and other apps, and the location proved ideal.

As the Moon went into the Earth’s shadow it set into the notch between the two peaks of this mesa at Monument Valley, Utah. It was a stunning celestial sight seen from one of the most dramatic scenic sites on the planet.

This was the total lunar eclipse on the morning of April 4, 2015, an eclipse that was barely total with just 4 minutes of totality with the Moon within Earth’s umbral shadow. The top of the Moon, grazing the edge of our planet’s shadow, always appeared bright white, as expected.

The lead image is a composite of many exposures: short ones for the partial phases that flank a longer exposure for the single image of totality and and even longer exposure for the sky and landscape, all taken over the course of 2.5 hours with a fixed camera – don’t bump the tripod!

Lunar Eclipse over Monument Valley Mesa

I shot this image with the second camera riding on a tracking platform. It is a bend of three exposures: two long ones for the sky and ground and a short exposure to retain the Moon and avoid it turning into a white overexposed blob.

The long sky exposure was taken with the tracker on, to keep the stars as pinpoints, while for the ground exposure I turned the tracker motor off to keep the ground sharp. I layered and masked these with Photoshop.

Lunar Eclipse at Dawn from Monument Valley

The last image is a single image only, just one exposure, taken a few minutes after the end of totality as the sky was quickly brightening with the blue of dawn. It captures the naked-eye scene.

I shot all these from my B&B for the weekend, the Tear Drop Arch B&B, named for the arch on the mesa at left in these images. I chose the spot to provide a scenic foreground to the western-sky eclipse without having to drive miles in the pre-dawn hours. I was moments away from bed as the sun rose and the eclipsed Moon set.

Next lunar eclipse: September 27, 2015, in the evening for North America.

– Alan, April 4, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Ancient Solar Observatory at Fajada Butte


Sun over Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon

Sunlight and shadows at Fajada Butte served to mark the seasons a thousand years ago.

In the distance is Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. It is one of the most famous sites in archaeoastronomy. A thousand years ago, people of the Chaco Culture used it to observe the Sun.

Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon

At a site now off limits to preserve its integrity, a set of three rocks cast shadows and daggers of sunlight onto a carved spiral petroglyph.

Fajada Butte Sign At Chaco Canyon

People used the position of the projected beams of light as a calendar to mark time through the year. In truth, simply watching the changing position of the rising and setting Sun along the horizon, which was also done here at Chaco Canyon, would have worked just as well.

Fajada Butte Viewpoint at Chaco Canyon

I visited the site today, as part of a trek north through New Mexico, Arizona and into Utah. Chaco Canyon is one of the preeminent sites for archaeoastronomy, demonstrating how well people a thousand years ago (the site was occupied from the mid 800s to the mid 1100s) observed the sky.

For example, a half-day hike takes you to a famous pictograph on a rock face showing a bright star near the crescent Moon, a drawing some have interpreted as being an observation of the supernova of 1054 AD.

Grand Kiva at Chetro Ketl, Chaco Canyon

In its height, thousands of people lived in the pueblos at Chaco Canyon and surrounding area. This is the Great Kiva at the Chetro Ketl pueblo. Wood columns used to hold a wood roof over this structure to make a space for ceremony and ritual.

Iridescent Clouds at Chaco Canyon

I did a little solar observing myself while there. While walking through the maze of rooms at Pueblo Bonito I looked up to see iridescent clouds near the Sun, created by diffraction of sunlight from fine ice crystals.

Public Observatory at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

In keeping with the site’s astronomical heritage, the Visitor Centre at the Chaco Culture Historical Park has a well-equipped observatory with several top-class telescopes (a 25-inch Obsession Dobsonian among them) and an outdoor theatre for regular stargazing sessions each weekend. This is a world-class Dark Sky Preserve and a World Heritage Site.

– Alan, April 2, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer  / www.amazingsky.com