On Solstice Pond


Selfie at Solstice Pond

Solstice nights have been filled with twilights, planets, and noctilucent clouds.

Astronomers tend to curse the short nights and late sunsets of summer solstice. But the bright nights do offer unique sights.

Over the last few nights I’ve set up at what I call “Solstice Pond,” a prairie slough near home ideal for shooting the aurora to the north and, at this time of year, the glow of twilight and noctilucent clouds.

Below is the view on the night before solstice, looking north toward the glow of “perpetual twilight” that lights the northern horizon at solstice time from my latitude of 50° north.

Solstice Twilight Panorama over Prairie Pond
A 120° panorama of the summer solstice twilight (at 12:30 am local time) looking north over the prairie pond near home in southern Alberta, taken June 19/20, 2018. Some very faint noctilucent clouds are at left but fading, while some very faint rays of auroral curtains are also visible in the photo but were invisible to the eye. The bright star Capella is at centre and reflected in the calm waters. Perseus is at right of centre. The red lights at right are from the wind turbines at the Wintering Hills Wind Farm. This is a stitch of 6 segments, with the 35mm lens at f/2.5 for 20 seconds each with the Canon 6DMkII at ISO 400.

From farther north the twilight would be more prominent, while above the Arctic Circle at 66° N latitude, the twilight turns to full daylight as the Sun never sets.

The view looking south this night, with the Moon just off frame at right, includes the Milky Way at centre, with Saturn embedded, flanked by bright Jupiter at right and reddish Mars at left, both casting shimmering “glitter paths” on the still waters.

Planet Panorama at a Prairie Pond
A 160° panorama looking south near summer solstice time in June 2018, with the bright planets Mars (left) and Jupiter (right) and their glitter paths on the water flanking the Milky Way and Saturn in Sagittarius above the pinkish Lagoon Nebula. The waxing Moon is setting off frame at right brightening the sky and lighting the landscape. The sky is also blue from the solstice twilight. The stars of Scorpius shine between Jupiter and the Milky Way. Some faint bands of red and green airglow are visible at left, despite the bright sky. This is a stitch of 8 segments, all for 25 seconds with the 35mm lens at f/2.2 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 800.

A few nights later (below), on June 24, the star of the solstice sky put in an appearance. Bright noctilucent clouds (NLCs) shone to the north, reflected in the pond.

These are water vapour clouds 80 kilometres high at the edge of the atmosphere – in the mesosphere – almost in space. They form over the Arctic in summer, and are high enough to remain sunlit even in the middle of the night as they catch the Sun shining over the pole.

Southern Western Canada – the Prairies where I live – is well-placed to see them, as we are far enough north to see them in our sky, but not so far north that our sky is too bright.

Noctilucent Clouds over Prairie Pond (June 24, 2018)
A fine display of noctilucent clouds (NLCs) or polar mesospheric clouds, reflected in a local prairie pond near home in southern Alberta. The display started with wisps much higher in the north but they faded as the Sun dropped lower, with the display at this extent by the time I reached my spot and took this panorama. Leo and Regulus are setting at far left in the west, as is Venus just above the horizon at left. Capella and Auriga are at centre, and circumpolar, while the stars of Perseus at right, rising. This is a panorama of 9 segments, at 15° spacings, with the 35mm lens at f/2.8 for 13 second exposures with the Canon 6D MkII at ISO 400. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

An even better display appeared two nights later, on June 26, brighter and with more structure.

The curving arc of the top of the display defines the most southerly edge where sunlight is able to reach. That edge drops lower through the first part of the night, as the Sun itself drops lower below the horizon. This causes less of the NLC display to be sunlit.

Panorama of Noctilucent Clouds (June 26, 2018)
A panorama of a fine display of noctilucent clouds across the northern horizon over an angle of about 60°. This was on June 26, 2018 at about 11:45 pm. Capella is just left of centre. The display faded as the solar illumination dropped and the clouds darkened from the top down. This was from the small pond near home in southern Alberta. This is a stitch of 7 segments, each 2 seconds at f/2.8 with the 85mm Rokinon lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 400. Stitched with ACR.

You can see this effect of the changing illumination of the clouds in this time-lapse compilation from June 26 (below).

Also notice the waving motion of the clouds. It is as if the NLC material is flowing over standing waves in the atmosphere – and it is! The waves are called “gravity waves,” and are bumps in the high atmosphere created by disturbances far below in the normal layers of the atmosphere, the stratosphere and troposphere.

The video includes two clips shot simultaneously: from a camera with a 24mm wide-angle lens, and from a camera with an 85mm moderate telephoto. Expand to view full screen in HD.

The motion, here over an hour or more, is hypnotic. The NLCs move right to left (east to west), while the dark normal weather clouds on the horizon are blowing left to right (west to east). The stars are also turning left to right. The water ripples in the wind, while ducks swim by.

It was a magical night at Solstice Pond.

– Alan, June 27, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

The Night-Shadowed Prairie


The Night Shadowed Prairie

“No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets; no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie.” – William Butler, 1873

In the 1870s, just before the coming of the railway and European settlement, English adventurer William Butler trekked the Canadian prairies, knowing what he called “The Great Lone Land” was soon to disappear as a remote and unsettled territory.

The quote from his book is on a plaque at the site where I took the lead image, Sunset Point at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

The night was near perfect, with the Milky Way standing out down to the southern horizon and the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana. Below, the Milk River winds through the sandstone rock formations sacred to the Blackfoot First Nations.

The next night (last night, July 26, as I write this) I was at another unique site in southern Alberta, Red Rock Coulee Natural Area. The sky presented one of Butler’s unmatched prairie sunsets.

Big Sky Sunset at Red Rock Coulee

This is “big sky” country, and this week is putting on a great show with a succession of clear and mild nights under a heat wave.

Waxing Crescent Moon at Red Rock Coulee

The waxing crescent Moon adds to the western sky and the sunsets. But it sets early enough to leave the sky dark for the Milky Way to shine to the south.

The Milky Way at Red Rock Coulee

This was the Milky Way on Wednesday night, July 27, over Red Rock Coulee. Sagittarius and the centre of the Galaxy lie above the horizon. At right, Saturn shines amid the dark lanes of the Dark Horse in the Milky Way.

I’m just halfway through my week-long photo tour of several favourite sites in this Great Lone Land. Next, is Cypress Hills and the Reesor Ranch.

— Alan, July 27, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

The Moons of Lost Sleep


Waning Moon in the Morning Series (with Labels)

These are the Moons only insomniacs and night shift workers get to see. These are the waning Moons of morning.

For eight mornings I’ve been up at 4 a.m. each day to catch the early Moon and collect a series of images of its waning phases.

The result is above, a series that runs from right to left in time, from the 19-day-old waning gibbous Moon, to the 26-day-old thin crescent Moon.

I ordered them that way in the composite to reflect the direction the Moon moves across the sky. As it orbits Earth and wanes, the Moon moves from west to east, or right to left, in the sky from morning to morning, at least in the northern hemisphere.

A run of clear nights and mornings made the series possible. From Alberta, as dry as it is, too many cloudy nights make a consistent Moon phase series a challenge at best.

As it was I had to contend with smoke from forest fires in B.C. which reddened the Moon on the last few mornings, a tint I had to correct for the composite above. But here below, is what the Moon really looked like one morning.

Smoky Waning Crescent Moon
The smoky orange Moon of July 17.

The last two Moons, at 25 and 26 days old (i.e. the number of days since the previous New Moon phase) exhibited the phenomenon known as Earthshine. You can see the night side of the Moon glowing gently with sunlight reflected first off the Earth.

Waning Moon and Earthshine (July 20, 2017)
Earthshine on the 25-day old Moon on July 20 at dawn.

Below, this was the Moon this morning, July 21, with it very low in the east amid the twilight sky.

Waning 26-Day Moon with Earthshine
Earthshine on the thin 26-day old Moon on July 21 at dawn.

This final morning was exceptional. The smoke had cleared off, and when I got up at 4 a.m. (reluctantly!) for the last shoot I was greeted with the best display of noctilucent clouds I had seen in many years. They covered the northeast and eastern skies in a rare “grand display.”

Noctilucent Clouds at Dawn with the Moon and Venus
Noctilucent clouds with the Moon and Venus in the dawn sky, from southern Alberta, July 21, 2017.

The thin crescent Moon is just rising at right, with Venus bright as a “morning star” at far right. This was a sky certainly worth losing sleep over.

— Alan, July 21, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

The Austral Moon of Evening


Waxing Moon in Evening Twilight Colours

From the southern hemisphere the Moon appears “upside-down” and higher each night in the northern sky as it waxes from crescent to Full.

These are scenes from the last week as the Moon rose higher into the evening sky as seen from Australia.

A northerner familiar with the sky would look at these and think these are images of the waning Moon at dawn in the eastern sky.

Waxing Crescent Moon at Cape Conran
The “upside-down” waxing crescent Moon in the evening sky from Victoria, Australia, at Cape Conran, West Cape area, on the Gippsland Coast, at latitude 37° South. Earthshine lights the dark side of the Moon. This was March 31, 2017. The Moon lights a glitter path on the water. This is a single 1.3-second exposure at f/2 with the 85mm Rokinon lens, and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 400.

But no, these are of the waxing Moon (the phases from New to Full) with the Moon in the evening sky.

From the southern hemisphere the ecliptic – the path of the planets – and the path of the Moon arcs across the northern sky. So as the Moon waxes from New to Full phase it appears to the right of the Sun, which still sets in the west. The world still spins the same way down under!

So the Moon appears upside down and with the crescent phase the “wrong” way for us northerners.

Panorama of the Waxing Moon at Sunset at Welshpool Harbour
A 240° panorama from 16 segments.

This panorama taken April 4 sweeps from northwest to southeast, but looks north at centre, to capture the scene at sunset of the waxing 8-day gibbous Moon in the northern sky as seen from the southern hemisphere.

The angle between the Sun and Moon is just over 90°, shown here by the angle between the right-angle arms of the wharf, pointed to the west at left, to the north at centre, and to the east at right.

The Sun has set just north of west, while the Moon sits 13° east of due north. The Earth’s shadow rises as the blue arc at far right to the east opposite the Sun.

Philip Island Sunset and Waxing Moon Panorama
A 240° panorama from 15 segments.

The next night, April 5, I shot this panorama from Philip Island south of Melbourne. Again, it shows the waxing gibbous Moon in the north far to the right of the setting Sun in the west (at left).

Getting used to the motion of the Sun and Moon across the northern sky, and the Moon appearing on the other side of the Sun than we are used to, is one of the challenges of getting to know the southern sky.

Things just don’t appear where nor move as you expect them to. But that’s one of the great delights of southern star gazing.

— Alan, April 8, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Arch of the Sky Above and Land Below


Harvest Moon Rising over the Red Deer River

On Friday night the Harvest Moon rose amid the arching shadow of the Earth.

This was the view on Friday, September 16 at moonrise on the Red Deer River. The view is from the Orkney Viewpoint overlooking the Badlands and sweeping curve of the river.

Above is the wide arch of the dark shadow of the Earth rising into the deepening twilight. Almost dead centre in the shadow is the Full Moon, the annual Harvest Moon.

Hours earlier the Moon passed through the shadow of our planet out at the Moon’s distance from Earth, creating a minor penumbral eclipse. No part of that eclipse, such as it was anyway, was visible from here.

But the alignment did place the Moon in the middle of our planet’s shadow projected into our atmosphere, as it does at every sunset and sunrise.

But it takes a very clear sky for the shadow to stand out as well as this in the darkening sky. I like how the curve of the shadow mirrors the curve of the river.

This is a marvellous spot for photography. I shared the site with one other photographer, at far right, who also came to capture the rising of the Harvest Moon.

The image is a 7-segment panorama with a 20mm lens, stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

— Alan, September 17, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

TWAN-black

 

The Perseids Perform


Radiant of the Perseid Meteor Shower (2016)

It was a great night for shooting meteors as the annual Perseids put on a show.

For the Perseid meteor shower I went to one of the darkest sites in Canada, Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan, a dark sky preserve and home to several rare species requiring dark nights to flourish – similar to astronomers!

This year a boost in activity was predicted and the predictions seemed to hold true. The lead image records 33 meteors in a series of stacked 30-second exposures taken over an hour.

It shows only one area of sky, looking east toward the radiant point in the constellation Perseus – thus the name of the shower.

Extrapolating the count to the whole sky, I think it’s safe to say there would have been 100 or more meteors an hour zipping about, not bad for my latitude of 49° North.

Lone Perseid in the Moonlight
A lone Perseid meteor streaking down below the radiant point in Perseus, with the sky and landscape lit by the waxing gibbous Moon, August 11, 2016. Perseus is rising in the northeast, Andromeda is at right, with the Andromeda Galaxy right of centre. Cassiopeia is at top. Taken from the 70 Mile Butte trailhead in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

The early part of the evening was lit by moonlight, which lent itself to some nice nightscapes scenes but fewer meteors.

Perseid Meteor Shower Looking North (2016)
The 2016 Perseid meteor shower, in a view looking north to the Big Dipper and with the radiant point in Perseus at upper right, the point where the meteors appear to be streaking from. This is a stack of 10 frames, shot over one hour from 1:38 a.m. to 2:37 a.m. CST. The camera was on the Star Adventurer tracker so all the sky frames aligned. The ground is from a stack of four frames, mean combined to smooth noise, and taken with the tracker motor off to minimize ground blurring, and taken at the start of the sequence. All exposures 40 seconds at f/3.2 with the 16-35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.

But once the Moon set and the sky darkened the show really began. Competing with the meteors was some dim aurora, but also the brightest display of airglow I have even seen.

It was bright enough to be visible to the eye as grey bands, unusual. Airglow is normally sub-visual.

But the camera revealed the airglow bands as green, red, and yellow, from fluorescing oxygen and sodium atoms. The bands slowly rippled across the sky from south to north.

Airglow is something you can see only from dark sites. It is one of the wonders of the night sky, that can make a dark sky not dark!

TECHNICAL:

Meteor Composite Screen ShotThe lead image is stack of 31 frames containing meteors (two frames had 2 meteors), shot from 1:13 am to 2:08 a.m. CST, so over 55 minutes. The camera was not tracking the sky but was on a fixed tripod. I choose one frame with the best visibility of the airglow as the base layer. For every other meteor layer, I used Free Transform to rotate each frame around a point far off frame at upper left, close to where the celestial pole would be and then nudged each frame to bring the stars into close alignment with the base layer, especially near the meteor being layered in.

This placed each meteor in its correct position in the sky in relation to the stars, essential for showing the effect of the radiant point accurately.

Each layer above the base sky layer is masked to show just the meteor and is blended with Lighten mode. If I had not manually aligned the sky for each frame, the meteors would have ended up positioned where they appeared in relation to the ground but the radiant point would have been smeared — the meteors would have been in the wrong place.

Unfortunately, it’s what I see in a lot of composited meteor shower shots.

It would have been much easier if I had had this camera on a tracker so all frames would have been aligned coming out of the camera. But the other camera was on the tracker! It took the other composite image, the one looking north.

The ground is a mean combined stack of 4 frames to smooth noise in the ground. Each frame is 30 seconds at f/2 with the wonderful Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 5000. The waxing Moon had set by the time this sequence started, leaving the sky dark and the airglow much more visible.

— Alan, August 13, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Rainbows, Lightning, and Sunsets, Oh My!


Lightning and Rainbow at Sunset

The sky presented a pyrotechnic display of light and colour in the sunset sky.

What a show tonight, July 18, as a thunderstorm lit the sky with bolts of lightning. As the storm retreated, the Sun broke through, ideal lighting for a rainbow. In this case I was able to capture the rainbow pierced by bolts of lightning. See below for tech details.

A little later, the sunlight got stronger and the rainbow grew to span the sky, in a beautiful display of a double rainbow lit by the red light of the setting Sun.

Double Rainbow at Sunset
A double rainbow at sunset on July 18, 2016 after a pyrotechnic thunderstorm. The low Sun is providing the red lighting, with some shafts of sunlight and shadow converging to the anti-solar point. This is a 2-frame panorama with the 16-35mm lens at 16mm, stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

As the beams of sunlight lit the clouds, it looked like the rainbow was on fire.

Fiery Rainbow at Sunset
A double rainbow at sunset with the last rays of the setting Sun lighting the clouds and making the rainbow look like its on fire. A single image with the 16-35mm lens.

It has been a stormy start to summer in Alberta, but at times the sky has put on a stunning show. That was certainly the case tonight.

Technical on the Lightning and Rainbow shot at top:

This is a stack of 35 consecutive video frames taken with HD (1920 x 1080) resolution at 30 frames per second with the Canon 6D, and extracted as an image sequence with Photoshop, then processed in Adobe Camera Raw, then stacked with Russell Brown’s Stack-A-Matic into a smart object with maximum stack mode, to accumulate the frames taken over about 1 second into one still frame.

So I could have got this with a single 1-second exposure with the lens stopped way down and a ND filter, but my timing would have had to have been very, very lucky!

— Alan, July 18, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com