Deep in the southern Milky Way lies one of the most spectacular regions of sky.
Located about as far south in the Milky Way as it gets you find this wonderful region in Carina and Centaurus.
The Carina Nebula (NGC 3372) at upper right is one of the finest nebulas in the sky for binoculars or any telescope.
At lower left is the Running Chicken Nebula (IC 2948) (aka the Lambda Centauri Nebula). By contrast, this nebula is mostly a photographic target, and is a challenge to see with a small telescope. But can you see the Chicken here?
The small red and magenta nebulas at centre are called NGC 3603 and NGC 3576.
The blue Southern Pleiades star cluster (IC 2602) is at bottom right.
The Pearl Cluster (NGC 3766) is above the Running Chicken at left. The cluster IC 2714 is to the right of the Chicken amid dark nebulas.
The Gem Cluster (NGC 3324) is above and right of the Carina Nebula but small and unresolved here.
The Football Cluster (NGC 3532) is top centre, though partly lost amid the rich starfield.
All told, this is one of the best areas in the sky for deep-sky wonders. But you must travel south to see it, to at least 20° North latitude.
This is a mosaic of three segments, taken with the camera in portrait orientation, stitched with Photoshop to make a square framing of the area. Each segment was a stack of 4 x 2-minute exposures at f/2.8 with the 200mm Canon L-series lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 2500.
I shot this mosaic earlier in April from my observing site at Coonabarabran, Australia.
From southern latitudes the most amazing region of the sky shines overhead late on austral autumn nights.
There is no more spectacular part of the Milky Way than the regions around its galactic centre. Or at least in the direction of the galaxy’s core.
We can’t see the actual centre of the Galaxy, at least not with the cameras and telescopes at the disposal of amateur photographers such as myself.
It takes large observatory telescopes equipped with infrared cameras to see the stars orbiting the actual centre of the Milky Way. Doing so over many years reveals stars whipping around an invisible object with an estimated 4 million solar masses packed into the volume no larger than the solar system. It’s a black hole.
By comparison, looking in that direction with our eyes and everyday cameras, we see a mass of stars in glowing clouds intersected by lanes of dark interstellar dust.
The top image shows a wide view of the Milky Way toward the galactic centre, taking in most of Sagittarius and Scorpius and their incredible array of nebulas, star clusters and rivers of dark dust, all located in the dense spiral arms between us and the galactic core.
Zooming into that scene reveals a panoramic close-up of the Milky Way around the galactic centre, from the Eagle Nebula in Serpens, at left, to the Cat’s Paw Nebula in Scorpius, at right.
This is the richest hunting ground for stargazers looking for deep-sky wonders. It’s all here, with field after field of telescopic and binocular sights in an area of sky just a few binocular fields wide.
The actual galactic core area is just right of the centre of the frame, above the bright Sagittarius StarCloud.
Zooming in again shows just that region of sky in an even closer view. The contrast between the bright star fields at left and the dark intervening dust at right is striking even in binoculars – perhaps especially in binoculars.
The visual impression is of looking into dark canyons of space plunging off bright plateaus of stars.
In fact, it is just the opposite. The dark areas are created by dust much closer to us, hiding more distant stars. It is where the stars are most abundant, in the dust-free starclouds, that we see farthest into the galaxy.
In the image above the galactic centre is at right, just above the small diffuse red nebula. In that direction, some 28,000 light years away, lurks the Milky Way’s monster black hole.
To conclude my tour of the galactic centre, I back out all the way to see the entire sky and the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, with the galactic centre nearly overhead in this view from 3 a.m. earlier this week.
Only from a latitude of about 30° South can you get this impressive view, what I consider one of the top “bucket-list” sights the sky has to offer.
The sky of December contains an amazing array of bright stars and deep-sky delights.
At this time of year we peer out toward the edge of our Galaxy, in the direction opposite to what we see in July and August. Even though we are looking away from the centre of our Galaxy, the Milky Way at this time of year contains a stunning collection of sights – for the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.
I can’t list them all here, but most are in the lead image above! The image is a mosaic of the northern winter Milky Way, including the brilliant stars and constellations in and around Orion the Hunter.
The Milky Way extends from Perseus in the north at top, to Canis Major in the south at bottom. Throughout the scene are dark lanes and dust clouds, such as the Taurus Dark Clouds at upper right.
The Milky Way is dotted with numerous red “hydrogen-alpha” regions of emission nebulosity, such as the bright Rosette Nebula at lower left and the California Nebula at upper right. The curving arc of Barnard’s Loop surrounds the east side of Orion. Orion is below centre, with Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, at lower left.
The constellation of Taurus is at upper right and Gemini at upper left. Auriga is at top and Perseus at upper right.
There’s an unusually bright area in Taurus just right of centre in the mosaic which I thought might be an image processing artifact. No. It’s the Gegenschein – a glow of sunlight reflected off comet dust directly opposite the Sun.
Two highlights of this sky that are great regions for binoculars are the Hyades cluster in Taurus ….
…and the Belt and Sword of Orion.
The Hyades – the face of Taurus – is one of the nearest and therefore largest open star clusters.
Orion the Hunter, who battles Taurus in the sky, contains the famous Orion Nebula, here overexposed in order to bring out the much fainter nebulosity in the region.
The magenta and blue arcs in the image below are photographic targets, but the bright Orion Nebula in Orion’s Sword is easy in binoculars, shining below the trio of his Belt Stars.
For us in the northern hemisphere, Orion and company are winter sights. But for those down under, in the southern hemisphere, this is the summer sky. So pardon the northern chauvinism in the title!
Either way, on a dark, moonless night, get out and explore the sky around Orion.
I shot the segments for the main mosaic at top on a very clear night on December 5, 2015 from the Quailway Cottage at Portal, Arizona. This is a mosaic of 8 segments, in two columns of 4 rows, with generous overlap. Each segment was made of 4 x 2.5-minute exposures stacked with mean combine stack mode to reduce noise, plus 2 x 2.5-minute exposures taken through the Kenko Softon filter layered in with Lighten belnd mode to add the star glows. Each segment was shot at f/2.8 with the original 35mm Canon L-series lens and the filter-modified (by Hutech) Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, riding on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. All stacking and stitching in Photoshop CC 2015. The soft diffusion filter helps bring out the star colors in this area of sky rich in brilliant giant stars.
Last night I shot into the autumn Milky Way at the Heart Nebula.
I’m currently just finishing off a month of testing the new Nikon D810a camera, a special high-end DSLR aimed specifically at astrophotographers.
I’ll post a more thorough set of test shots and comparisons in a future blog, but for now here are some shots from the last couple of nights.
Above is the setup I used to shoot the image below, shot in the act of taking the image below!
The Nikon is at the focus of my much-loved TMB 92mm refractor, riding on the Astro-Physics Mach One mount. The mount is being “auto-guided” by the wonderful “just-press-one-button” SG-4 auto-guider from Santa Barbara Instruments. The scope is working at a fast f/4.4 with the help of a field flattener/reducer from Borg/AstroHutech.
I shot a set of 15 five-minute exposures at ISO 1600 and stacked, aligned and averaged them (using mean stack mode) in Photoshop. I explain the process in my workshops, but there’s also a Ten Steps page at my websitewith my deep-sky workflow outlined.
The main advantage of Nikon’s special “a” version of the D810 is its extended red sensitivity for a capturing just such objects in the Milky Way, nebulas which shine primarily in the deep red “H-alpha” wavelength emitted by hydrogen.
It works very well! And the D810a’s 36 megapixels really do resolve better detail, something you appreciate in wide-angle shots like this one, below, of the autumn Milky Way.
It’s taken with the equally superb 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor zoom lens. Normally, you would never use a zoom lens for such a demanding subject as stars, but the 14-24mm is stunning, matching or beating the performance of many “prime” lenses.
The D810a’s extended red end helps reveal the nebulas along the Milky Way. The Heart Nebula, captured in the close-up at top, is just left of centre here, left of the “W” forming Cassiopeia.
The Nikon D810a is a superb camera, with low noise, high-resolution, and features of value to astrophotographers. Kudos to Nikon for serving our market!
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.
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!
It’s a nova needle in a Milky Way haystack – an exploding star appears in Sagittarius.
On March 15 a very observant amateur astronomer in Australia spotted a star in Sagittarius that wasn’t there the night before. It was a nova, Latin for “new.”
But this was not a new star forming, but an old star in the process of dying.
This star is likely an ancient white dwarf drawing material off a close companion. When the in-falling material builds up on the surface of the white dwarf it ignites in a nuclear explosion, causing the star to brighten, in this case by hundreds of times.
At its peak last week, Nova Sagittarii was just bright enough to see naked eye. It is now below 5th magnitude and barely naked eye. In my long exposure photo it appears lost amid the blaze of stars in the Sagittarius Milky Way.
Still, this was the brightest nova visible from the northern hemisphere in many years. Indeed, we haven’t had a really bright naked-eye nova since the 1970s.
Considering all those stars, you’d think some would blow up for us to enjoy!
Tonight Comet Lovejoy paired with the Pleiades star cluster.
Sunday, January 18 was the night to catch the ever-photogenic Comet Lovejoy at its best and closest to the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. Its long blue ion tail stretched back past the Pleiades.
I thought the tail would be passing right over the star cluster, but not so. At least not when I was shooting it at about 7:30 pm MST.
Still, the combination made a fine pairing of cosmic blue objects for the camera. The top image is with a 135mm telephoto.
This wide-angle image, with a 24mm lens, takes in many of the northern winter constellations, from Orion at bottom, to Auriga at top, with Taurus in the middle. Notice the dark tendrils of the Taurus Dark Clouds.
At right, beside the Pleiades, is the green and blue comet, with its tail reaching back past the Pleiades.
I shot both images from the dark skies of City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico, which has proven to be one of the finest places on the planet for watching Lovejoy!