Under an Endless Open Sky


Circumpolar star trails at dawn over the historic Butala homestead at the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan, taken May 2015. This is a stack of 70 frames from a larger time-lapse sequence, from the end of the sequence in the dawn twilight. Each exposure is 40 seconds with the 14mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 60Da at ISO 1600. Stacked with Advanced Stacker Actions. The foreground comes from a stack of 8 of the final exposures, mean combined, to smooth noise.

The skies were spectacular at a pioneer homestead on the Saskatchewan prairie.

Canada’a province of Saskatchewan bills itself as the “Land of Living Skies,” and that was certainly true last week when I spent three perfect nights under some of the darkest skies in the country.

The location was the Old Man on His Back Prairie & Heritage Conservation Area, deep in dry southwest Saskatchewan, between Grasslands National Park and Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, two favourite places of mine for nightscape photography and astronomy.

The Conservation Area reclaims and preserves original short grass prairie habitat. It is named for the formation to the west that is said to resemble the profile of Napi, the creator being of Siksika legends, who after creating the world, lay back here to rest.

The land was once a working ranch first settled by the Butala family. The white pioneer house in my photos dates from that time. It was built in Montana and moved here in the 1920s.

The waxing crescent Moon and Venus (above) over the old farm house at the Visitor Centre at the Old Man on His Back Natural and Historical Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan, May 20, 2015, on a very clear night. The old house was the original house lived in by the Butala family who settled the area in the 1920s. This is a single exposure taken as part of an 850-frame time-lapse sequence with the 14mm Rokinon lens and Canon 60Da camera.

In the mid-1990s Peter and Sharon Butala transferred their land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, to create an island of original prairie amid the heavily grazed land around it.

A 360° panorama of the night sky and prairie landscape from the Visitor Centre and farmyard at the Old Man on His Back Prairie & Heritage Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan. The Milky Way arches across the eastern sky from north to south, while an aurora display (faint to the naked eye) glows in an arch of green and magenta across the northern horizon. The pioneer house was built in the 1920s and this was a working ranch until the 1990s when the land was turned over to the Nature Conservancy of Canada to turn into a natural area to preserve the short grass prairie habitat.  This a stitch of 8 segments, each a 1 minute untracked exposure at f/3.5 with the 15mm lens and ISO 4000 with the Canon 6D. Stitched with PTGui software. I shot these May 18, 2015.

For astronomers, the Area serves also as an island of darkness amid intruding light pollution. The region is very dark, with few lights and manmade sky-glows on the horizon.

My 360° panorama above shows that the greatest glows come from the arc of the aurora to the north and the arch of the Milky Way stretching across the sky. This is a stargazer’s paradise.

My 2-minute compilation of time-lapse videos and still images taken over three crystal clear nights attempts to capture the wonder of the night sky from such a dark site. Be sure to enlarge the video to full screen to view it.

It was in the little white house that Sharon Butala wrote some of her best-selling books retelling stories of her life on the prairie, notably The Perfection of the Morning, and Wild Stone Heart.

In the latter book, Sharon writes:

“At night the Milky Way glittered and gleamed above us, fathomlessly deep and numberless, the constellations wheeled slowly across the sky with the seasons, and the moon came and went, sometimes white as a maiden’s face, sometimes a looming orange sphere … under such an endless, open sky.”

– Sharon Butala, Wild Stone Heart (Harper Collins, 2000)

– Alan, May 25, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Urban and Rural Moons


The waxing crescent Moon near Venus in the spring evening sky over the skyline of Calgary, Alberta, May 21, 2015. I shot this from Tom Campbell Hill near the Telus Spark science centre. This is a single exposure with the 16-35mm lens and Canon 60Da, shot as part of a 360-frame time-lapse sequence.

The waxing Moon and Venus shine over contrasting landscapes, both urban and rural.

I shot the main image at top last night, May 21, from a site overlooking the urban skyline of Calgary, Alberta. The waxing Moon shines near Venus in the twilight sky.

By contrast I shot the image below the night before, from a location that couldn’t be more different – remote, rural Saskatchewan, on a heritage farmstead first settled in the 1920s by the Butala family. It is now the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area.

The waxing crescent Moon and Venus (above) over the old farm house at the Visitor Centre at the Old Man on His Back Natural and Historical Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan, May 20, 2015, on a very clear night. The old house was the original house lived in by the Butala family who settled the area in the 1920s. This is a single exposure taken as part of an 850-frame time-lapse sequence with the 14mm Rokinon lens and Canon 60Da camera.

Here, the crescent Moon shines a little lower, below Venus, amid the subtle colours of twilight in a crystal clear prairie sky.

However, as the top image demonstrates, you don’t need to travel to remote rural locations to see and photograph beautiful sky sights. Twilight conjunctions of the Moon and bright planets lend themselves to urban nightscapes.

– Alan, May 22, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Evening Planet Parade in May


May 21 Venus & Moon

Three planets now shine in the evening sky, including Saturn now at its best for 2015.

Look west in the early evening to sight brilliant Venus in the twilight, and slightly dimmer Jupiter above it. On the evening of Thursday, May 21, look for the waxing crescent Moon below Venus in a wide pairing of the night sky’s two brightest objects.

The Moon appears between Venus and Jupiter on Friday, May 22, and near Jupiter two nights later on Saturday, May 23.

Meanwhile over on the other side of the sky, Saturn is rising at sunset.

May 20 Saturn

As the illustration shows, look southeast after sunset to see Saturn rising along with the stars of Scorpius. Saturn now outshines all the stars of Scorpius, including the red giant star Antares, shining below Saturn.

Saturn is at opposition this weekend, meaning Sun, Earth and Saturn are now lined up with Earth directly between the Sun and Saturn. That puts Saturn as close to us as it gets for 2015, and as bright as it gets.

Being opposite the Sun, Saturn is now rising in the southeast as the Sun sets in the northwest.

A nightscape of antique farm combines illuminated by starlight, with the Milky Way behind. The galactic centre area of Sagittarius and Scorpius lie to the south, with Saturn the brightest object at right. I shot this at the Visitor Centre at the Old Man on His Back Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan. The sky is a single 30-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 24mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 6400. The ground comes from a stack of 8 exposures to smooth noise, all part of a time-lapse/star trail sequence.
A nightscape of antique farm combines illuminated by starlight, with the Milky Way behind. The galactic centre area of Sagittarius and Scorpius lie to the south, with Saturn the brightest object at right. I shot this at the Visitor Centre at the Old Man on His Back Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan. The sky is a single 30-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 24mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 6400. The ground comes from a stack of 8 exposures to smooth noise, all part of a time-lapse/star trail sequence.

Here’s a shot of Saturn, Scorpius, and the Milky Way from early this morning, May 20, taken about 2:30 a.m. when Saturn and Scorpius lay due south. From the latitude of southern Saskatchewan where I am this week, Saturn and Scorpius graze the southern horizon, even in the middle of the night.

– Alan, May 20, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Scenes at the Texas Star Party


The galactic centre region of the Milky Way in Sagittarius and Scorpius, over the upper field of the Texas Star Party, near Fort Davis, Texas, May 13, 2015. About 600 people gather here each spring for a star party under very dark skies near the MacDonald Observatory. Sagittarius is left of centre and Scorpius is right of centre with the planet Saturn the bright object at the top edge right of centre. The dark lanes of the Dark Horse and Pipe Nebula areas lead from the Milky Way to the stars of Scorpius, including Antares. The semi-circular Corona Australis is just clearing the hilltop at left of centre. This is a composite of 5 x 3 minute exposures with the camera tracking the sky for more detail in the Milky Way without trailing. Each tracked exposure was at ISO 1600. The ground comes from 3 x 1.5-minute exposures at ISO 3200 taken immediately after the tracked exposures but with the drive turned off on the tracker. All are with the 24mm lens at f/2.8 and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera. The ground and sky layers were stacked and layered in Photoshop. The tracker was the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer. High haze added the natural glows around the stars — no filter was employed here.

The stars at night shine big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.

Last week several hundred stargazers gathered under the dark skies of West Texas to revel in the wonders of the night sky. I was able to attend the annual Texas Star Party, a legendary event and a mecca for amateur astronomers held at the Prude Ranch near Fort Davis, Texas.

Some nights were plagued by clouds and thunderstorms. but here are some scenes from a clear night, with several hundred avid observers under the stars and Milky Way. Many stargazers used giant Dobsonian reflector telescopes to explore the faintest of deep-sky objects in and beyond the Milky Way.

A 360° panorama of the upper field of the Texas Star Party at the Prde Ranch near Fort Davis, TX, May 13, 2015, taken once the sky got astronomically dark. The panorama shows the field of telescopes and observers enjoying a night of deep-sky viewing and imaging. Venus is the bright object at right of centre and Jupiter is above it. The Zodiacal Light stretches up from the horizon and continues left across the sky in the Zodiacal Band to brighten in the east (left of centre) as the Gegeneschein. I shot this with a 14mm lens, oriented vertically, with each segment 60 seconds at f/2.8 and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200. The panorama is made of 8 segements at 45° spacings. The segments were stitched with PTGui software.
A 360° panorama of the upper field of the Texas Star Party at the Prde Ranch near Fort Davis, TX, May 13, 2015, taken once the sky got astronomically dark. The panorama shows the field of telescopes and observers enjoying a night of deep-sky viewing and imaging. Venus is the bright object at right of centre and Jupiter is above it. The Zodiacal Light stretches up from the horizon and continues left across the sky in the Zodiacal Band to brighten in the east (left of centre) as the Gegeneschein.
I shot this with a 14mm lens, oriented vertically, with each segment 60 seconds at f/2.8 and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200. The panorama is made of 8 segements at 45° spacings. The segments were stitched with PTGui software.
Observers at the Texas Star Party explore the wonders of the deep sky under the rising Milky Way, in May 2015. Sagittarius and Scorpius are in the background, with the centre of the Galaxy rising in the southeast. This is a single 30-second exposure at f/2 with the 24mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 4000.
Observers at the Texas Star Party explore the wonders of the deep sky under the rising Milky Way, in May 2015. Sagittarius and Scorpius are in the background, with the centre of the Galaxy rising in the southeast. This is a single 30-second exposure at f/2 with the 24mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 4000.
Expert deep-sky observers Larry Mitchell and Barbara Wilson gaze skyward with Larry’s giant 36-inch Dobsonian telescope at the Texas Star Party, May 2015. This is a single 60-second exposure with the 14mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200.
Expert deep-sky observers Larry Mitchell and Barbara Wilson gaze skyward with Larry’s giant 36-inch Dobsonian telescope at the Texas Star Party, May 2015. This is a single 60-second exposure with the 14mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200.
A deep-sky observer at the top of a tall ladder looking through a tall and large Dobsonian telescope, at the Texas Star Party, May 2015. Scorpius is rising in the background; Saturn is in the head of Scorpius as the bright star above centre. Anatares is just below Saturn. This is a single 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the 24mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 6400.
A deep-sky observer at the top of a tall ladder looking through a tall and large Dobsonian telescope, at the Texas Star Party, May 2015. Scorpius is rising in the background; Saturn is in the head of Scorpius as the bright star above centre. Anatares is just below Saturn. This is a single 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the 24mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 6400.
Circumpolar star trails over the upper field of the Texas Star Party, May 13, 2015. The star party attracts hundreds of avid stargazers to the Prude Ranch near Fort Davis, Texas each year to enjoy the dark skies. The three observing fields are filled with telescopes from the basic to sophisticated rigs for astrophotography. I aimed the camera to look north over the field to capture the stars circling around Polaris in circumpolar trails over about 1 hour. Some cloud and haze obscured parts of the sky. Lights from cities to the north add the sky glow at right. The streaks at top are from the stars of the Big Dipper. This is a stack of 55 exposures, each 1 minute long, at f/2.8 with the 14mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200. The foreground comes from a single image in the series, masked and layered in Photoshop. The images were stacked using the Long Trails tapering effect with the Advanced Stacker Actions from Star Circle Academy.
Circumpolar star trails over the upper field of the Texas Star Party, May 13, 2015. I aimed the camera to look north over the field to capture the stars circling around Polaris in circumpolar trails over about 1 hour. Some cloud and haze obscured parts of the sky. Lights from cities to the north add the sky glow at right. The streaks at top are from the stars of the Big Dipper.
This is a stack of 55 exposures, each 1 minute long, at f/2.8 with the 14mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200. The foreground comes from a single image in the series, masked and layered in Photoshop. The images were stacked using the Long Trails tapering effect with the Advanced Stacker Actions from Star Circle Academy.

I extend my thanks to the organizers for the great event, and for the opportunity to speak to the group as one of the featured evening speakers. It was great fun!

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

The Red Aurora of May 10


A strange red/magenta auroral arc overhead across the sky, with a more normal green diffuse glow to the north, as seen on May 10, 2015, in a stack of 80 frames taken over 45 minutes. The Big Dipper is overhead in the centre of the frame, Jupiter is at left in the west and Arcturus is at top to the south. I shot this from home, using an 8mm fish-eye lens to take in most of the sky, with the camera looking north. The 80 exposures were stacked and blended with Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com using the Long Trails effect. Each exposure was 32 seconds at f/3.6 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 6D. An individual exposure adds the more point-like stars at the start of the tapered star trails, and add the blue from the last twilight glow still illuminating the sky at the start of the sequence.

A strange red arc of aurora moved slowly across the sky on May 10.

All indicators looked favourable early in the evening on May 10 for a good auroral display later that night, and sure enough we got one. But it was an unusual display.

From my site in southern Alberta, the northern sky did have a diffuse glow of “normal” green aurora that never did take much form or structure.

But overhead the aurora took the form of an arc across the sky, starting as an isolated ray in the southeast initially, then reaching up to arch across the sky with what looked to the eye like a colourless band.

But the camera showed it as a red arc, with just a fringe of green curtains appearing for a few minutes.

Be sure to click HD and enlarge the video to fill your screen.

The time-lapse movie shows the sequence, over about 90 minutes, with 170 frames playing back at 12 frames per second. You can see the red arc develop, then become more narrow, then exhibit a few green curtains. Then it fades away.

Large-scale pulses also brighten the whole sky momentarily.

A strange red/magenta auroral arc overhead across the sky, with a more normal green diffuse glow to the north, as seen on May 10, 2015. The Big Dipper is overhead in the centre of the frame, Jupiter is at left in the west and Arcturus is at top to the south. I shot this from home, using an 8mm fish-eye lens to take in most of the sky, with the camera looking north. It is part of a 170-frame time-lapse sequence. Exposure was 32 seconds at f/3.6 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 6D.

The other images are individual frames taken during the evening, showing snapshots of the red arc development, as it became more narrow in structure and gained green curtain-like fringes.

Presumably the red structure was very high in the atmosphere while the green curtains attached to it that did appear hung down from the high-altitude red arc.

A strange red/magenta auroral arc overhead across the sky, with a more normal green diffuse glow to the north, as seen on May 10, 2015. The Big Dipper is overhead in the centre of the frame, Jupiter is at left in the west and Arcturus is at top to the south. I shot this from home, using an 8mm fish-eye lens to take in most of the sky, with the camera looking north. It is part of a 170-frame time-lapse sequence. Exposure was 32 seconds at f/3.6 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 6D.

I shot all images with an 8mm fish-eye lens to capture most of the sky. The camera is looking north toward Polaris, with the Big Dipper almost directly overhead near the centre of the frames.

The main image at top is a star-trail stack of 80 frames showing the sky’s circumpolar motion around Polaris and the aurora blurred and blended over 45 minutes of motion. I stacked the frames with the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com

– Alan, May 11, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Moonrise Over Calgary


Full Moonrise over Calgary

The Full Moon rises over the skyline of Calgary on a clear spring night.

This was the moonrise on Sunday, May 3, as the Full Moon rose south of the main skyline of Calgary. The timing of last night’s Full Moon promised a great shot.

The Moon rose about 15 minutes before sunset, a timing that I was hoping would lead to a shot of the skyline lighting up red with the last rays of the setting Sun in the west as the Moon rose in the east.

Alas, horizon haze obscured the setting Sun and rising Moon. The Full Moon didn’t appear until a good 30 minutes after moonrise as it rose above the haze into the pink twilight sky. Not quite what I was after, but it made a nice scene after all.

I shot this from the grounds of the CFCN TV building high on Broadcast Hill west of the city. There wasn’t an accessible site farther north with a clear sightline east that would have allowed me to place the Moon right over the city.

From this site at CFCN the Full Moon won’t rise over the downtown core until the Full Moon of September 27, the night of the total eclipse of the Moon. Photo op!

This is one frame of 430 I shot for a time-lapse sequence. To plan this and other rise and set images I use the handy app, The Photographer’s Ephemeris.

TPE Screenshot
A screen shot from TPE showing the photo’s shooting geometry

This screen shot from TPE illustrates last night’s moonrise geometry, with the moonrise line pointing just south of the downtown core as seen from the CFCN site.

I highly recommend TPE for planning any nightscape photography of the rising and setting Sun and Moon.

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

Evening Stars Over the Red Deer River


Evening Stars Over Red Deer River

Mercury and Venus shine as “evening stars” over the Red Deer River in southern Alberta.

What a fine night this was for nightscape shooting. Mercury and Venus are both now about as high as they will get for the year in the evening sky from my western Canadian latitude.

Venus is easy to spot as the brilliant object in the west. But Mercury is more elusive. You can see it here low in the twilight glow and much dimmer than Venus.

The photo illustrates how far each of the two inner planets swings away from the Sun in our skies, and why Mercury has its reputation for being difficult to sight. Also, it appears at its best for only a couple of weeks at a time. By mid-May it will be gone.

Venus, however, continues to dominate our western sky for the next two months.

I shot the main photo from the deck of a rickety wooden bridge over the Red Deer River near Dorothy, Alberta, just off Highway 10 east of Drumheller in the Badlands.

The image is a high-dynamic-range “HDR” stack of five exposures.

Venus over the Atlas Coal Mine

Shortly after taking the lead photo, I drove west to the Atlas Coal Mine to shoot it by the light of the now high and nearly Full Moon. Mercury can still be seen low and to the right of the historic tipple building. Venus shines above it.

This is a single 25-second exposure at ISO 800.

The Atlas Coal Mine is now a National Historic Site and is the last standing from what was once a booming coal mining centre in the Red Deer River Valley.

Now, mostly dinosaur fossils are unearthed here.

– Alan, May 3, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com