Shooting with Canon’s EOS Ra Camera


IC 1805 in Cassiopeia (Traveler and EOS Ra)

I had the chance to test out an early sample of Canon’s new EOS Ra camera designed for deep-sky photography. 

Once every 7 years astrophotographers have reason to celebrate when Canon introduces one of their “a” cameras, astronomical variants optimized for deep-sky objects, notably red nebulas.

In 2005 Canon introduced the ground-breaking 8-megapixel 20Da, the first DLSR to feature Live View for focusing. Seven years later, in 2012, Canon released the 18-megapixel 60Da, a camera I still use and love.

Both cameras were cropped-frame DSLRs.

Now in 2019, seven years after the 60Da, we have the newly-released EOS Ra, the astrophoto version of the 30-megapixel EOS R released in late 2018. The EOS R is a full-frame mirrorless camera with a sensor similar to what’s in Canon’s 5D MkIV DSLR.

Here, I present a selection of sample images taken with the new EOS Ra.

Details on its performance is at my “first-look” review at Sky and Telescope magazine’s website.

IC 1805 in Cassiopeia (Traveler and EOS Ra)
The large emission nebula IC 1805 in Cassiopeia, aka the Heart Nebula. The round nebula at top right is NGC 896. The large loose star cluster at centre is Mel 15; the star cluster at left is NGC 1027. The small cluster below NGC 896 is Tombaugh 4. This is a stack of 8 x 6-minute exposures with the Canon EOS Ra mirrorless camera at ISO 1600 through the Astro-Physics Traveler apo refractor at f/6 with the Hotech field flattener. Stacked, aligned and processed in Photoshop.

Both versions of the EOS R have identical functions and menus.

The big difference is that the EOS Ra, as did Canon’s earlier “a” models, has a factory-installed filter in front of the sensor that transmits more of the deep red “hydrogen-alpha” wavelength emitted by glowing nebulas.

Normal cameras suppress much of this deep-red light as a by-product of their filters cutting out the infra-red light that digital sensors are very sensitive to, but that would not focus well.

NGC 7000 North America Nebula (105mm Apo & Canon EOS Ra)
The North America Nebula, NGC 7000, in Cygnus, taken with the new Canon EOS Ra factory-modified “astronomical” version of the Canon EOS R mirrorless camera. This is a stack of 4 x 6-minute exposures, with LENR on and at ISO 1600, through the Astro-Physics Traveler 105mm f/6 apo refractor with the Hutech field flattener.

I was sent an early sample of the EOS Ra, and earlier this autumn also had a sample of the stock EOS R.

Both were sent for testing so I could prepare a test report for Sky and Telescope magazine. The full test report will appear in an upcoming issue.

IC 1396 in Cepheus (Traveler and EOS Ra)
The large emission nebula IC 1396 in Cepheus with the orange “Garnet Star” at top, and the Elephant Trunk Nebula, van den Bergh 142, at bottom as a dark lane protruding into the emission nebula. This is a stack of 5 x 6-minute exposures with the Canon EOS Ra mirrorless camera at ISO 1600 through the Astro-Physics Traveler apo refractor at f/6 with the Hotech field flattener. Stacked, aligned and processed in Photoshop.

But my “first-look” review can be found here on the Sky and Telescope website.

Please click thru for comments on:

• How the Ra compares to previous “a” models and third-party filter-modified cameras

• How the Ra works for normal daylight photography

• Noise levels compared to other cameras

• Features unique to the EOS Ra, such as 30x Live View focusing

Messier 52 and the Bubble Nebula (Traveler and EOS Ra)
Messier 52 open cluster, at left, and the Bubble Nebula, NGC 7635 below and to the right of it, at centre, plus the small red nebula NGC 7538 at right. The open cluster at lower right is NGC 7510. All in Cassiopeia. This is a stack of 8 x 6-minute exposures at ISO 1600 with the Canon EOS Ra camera and Astro-Physics Traveler apo refractor at f/6 with the Hotech field flattener. No LENR dark frame subtraction employed as the temperature was -15° C.

UPDATE — November 25, 2019

As part of further testing I shot the Heart and Soul Nebulas in Cassiopeia through my little Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph with both the EOS Ra and my filter-modified 5D MkII (modified years ago by AstroHutech) to compare which pulled in more nebulosity. It looked like a draw.

Both images are single 8-minute exposures, taken minutes apart and developed identically in Adobe Camera Raw, but adjusted for colour balance to equally neutralize the sky background. The histograms look similar. Even so, the Ra looks a little redder overall. But keep in mind a sky or nebula can be made to appear any shade of red you like in processing.

The question is which camera shows more faint nebulosity?

The modified 5D MkII has always been my favourite camera for this type of astrophotography, picking up more nebulosity than other “a” models I’ve tested, including the Nikon D810a.

But in this case, I’d say the EOS Ra is performing as well as, if not better than the 5D MkII. How well any third-party modified camera you buy now performs will depend which, if any, filter the modifier installs in front of the sensor. So your mileage will vary.

EOS Ra and 5D MkII Comparison


For most of my other testing I shot through my much-prized Astro-Physics Traveler, a 105mm aperture f/6 apochromatic refractor on the Astro-Physics Mach1 mount.

To connect the EOS Ra (with its new RF lens mount) to my existing telescope-to-camera adapter and field flattener lens I used one of Canon’s EF-EOS R lens adapters.

EOS Ra on Scope

EOS Ra on Scope CU

The bottom line is that the EOS Ra works great!

It performs very well on H-alpha-rich nebulas and has very low noise. It will be well-suited to not only deep-sky photography but also to wide-field nightscape and time-lapse photography, perhaps as Canon’s best camera yet for those applications.

EOS Ra Front View-Face On

WHAT ABOUT THE PRICE?

The EOS Ra will sell for $2,500 US, a $700 premium over the cost of the stock EOS R. Some complain. Of course, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to buy it. This is not an upgrade being forced upon you.

As I look at it, it is all relative. When Nikon’s astronomy DSLR, the 36 Mp D810a, came out in 2015 it sold for $3,800 US, $1,300 more than the EOS Ra. It was, and remains a fine camera, if you can find one. It is discontinued.

A 36 Mp cooled and dedicated CMOS astro camera, the QHY367, with the same chip as the D810a, goes for $4,400, $1,900 more than the Ra. Yes, it will produce better images I’m sure than the EOS Ra, but deep-sky imaging is all it can do. At a cost, in dollars and ease of use.

And yes, buying a stock EOS R and having it modified by a third party costs less, and you’ll certainly get a good camera, for $300 to $400 less than an Ra. But …

• The EOS Ra has a factory adjusted white balance for ease of “normal” use — no need to buy correction filters. So there’s a $$ saving there, even if you can find clip-in correction filters for the EOS R — you can’t.

• And the Ra retains the sensor dust cleaning function. Camera modifier companies remove it or charge more to reinstall it.

• And the 30x live view magnification is very nice.

• The EOS Ra also carries a full factory warranty.

Do I wish the EOS Ra had some other key features? Sure. A mode to turn all menus red would be nice. As would an intervalometer built-in, one that works with the Bulb Timer to allow sequences of programmed multi-minute exposures. Both could be added in with a firmware update.

And providing a basic EF-EOS R lens adapter in the price would be a welcome plus, as one is essential to use the EOS Ra on a telescope.

That’s my take on it. I’ll be buying one. But then again I bought the 20Da, twice!, and the 60Da, and I hate to think what I paid for those much less capable cameras.

Canon EOS Ra and 15-35mm

BONUS TEST — The RF 15-35mm L Lens

Canon is also releasing an impressive series of top-class RF lenses for their R mirrorless cameras. The image below is an example astrophoto with the new RF 15-35mm f/2.8 L zoom lens, an ideal combination of focal lengths and speed for nightscape shooting.

Orion and Winter Stars Rising
Orion and the winter stars rising on a late October night, with Sirius just clearing the horizon at centre bottom, Capella and the Pleiades are at top. M44 cluster is at far left. Taken with the Canon 15-35mm RF lens at 15mm and f/2.8 and the EOS Ra camera at ISO 800 as part of testing. A stack of 4 x 2-minute exposures on the Star Adventurer tracker.

Below is a further set of stacked and processed images with the RF 15-35mm L lens, taken in quick succession, at 15mm, 24mm, and 35mm focal lengths, all shot wide open at f/2.8. The EOS Ra was on the Star Adventurer tracker (as below) to follow the stars.

EOS Ra on Star Adventurer

Click or tap on the images below to view a full-resolution version for closer inspection.

Autumn Milky Way (15-35mm RF at 15mm + EOS Ra).jpg
15mm — Northern autumn Milky Way with RF 15-35mm at f/2.8 and at 15mm focal length. Taken with the EOS Ra at ISO 800 for a stack of 4 x 2-minute exposures.
Autumn Milky Way (15-35mm RF at 24mm + EOS Ra).jpg
24mm — Northern autumn Milky Way with RF 15-35mm at f/2.8 and at 24mm focal length. Taken with the EOS Ra at ISO 800 for a stack of 2 x 2-minute exposures.
Autumn Milky Way (15-35mm RF at 35mm + EOS Ra).jpg
35mm — Northern autumn Milky Way with RF 15-35mm at f/2.8 and at 35mm focal length. Taken with the EOS Ra at ISO 800 for a stack of 2 x 2-minute exposures.

The RF 15-35mm lens performs extremely well at 15mm exhibiting very little off-axis aberrations at the corners.

Off-axis aberrations do increase at the longer focal lengths but are still very well controlled, and are much less than I’ve seen on my older zoom and prime lenses in this focal length range.

The RF 15-35mm is a great complement to the EOS Ra for wide-field Milky Way images.

I was impressed with the new EOS Ra. It performs superbly for astrophotography.

Again, click through to Sky and Telescope for “first look” details on the test results.

— Alan, November 6, 2019 / UPDATED Nov 25, 2019 / © 2019 AmazingSky.com 

 

Touring the Wonders of the Winter Sky


The Wonders of the Winter Sky

I present a tour of the deep-sky wonders of the winter sky.

While some might think the Milky Way is only a summer sight, the winter Milky Way is well worth a look!

In January and February we are looking outward from our location in the Milky Way, toward the Orion Spur, the minor spiral arm we live in. In it, and in the major Perseus Arm that lies beyond, lie hotbeds of star formation.

Artist's impression of the Milky Way (updated - annotated)
Courtesy European Southern Observatory

These star forming areas create a panorama of star clusters and glowing nebulas along the winter Milky Way and surrounding the constellation of Orion. The montage above shows the best of the deep-sky sights at this time or year.

(And yes, for southern hemisphere viewers I know this is your summer sky! But for us northerners, Orion is forever associated with frosty winter nights.)

The closeups below are all with a 200mm telephoto lens providing a field of view similar to that of binoculars. However, most of these nebulas are photographic targets only.


The Belt and Sword of Orion

The Belt and Sword of Orion with Barnard's Loop
This is a stack of 16 x 2- to 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 to 1250 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker as part of testing. Taken from home on January 8, 2019 during a clear couple of hours between passing haze and cloud.

This is the heart of the star formation activity, in the centre of Orion.

The bright Orion Nebula (or Messier 42 and 43) at bottom in Orion’s Sword is obvious in binoculars and glorious in a small telescope.

The Horsehead Nebula above centre and just below Orion’s Belt is famous but is a tough target to see through even a large telescope.

Barnard’s Loop at left is a wave of nebulosity being blown out of the Orion area by strong stellar winds. Any sighting of this object by eye is considered a feat of observing skill!


The Rosette Nebula and Area

Rosette and Christmas Tree Cluster with 200mm
The area of the Rosette Nebula (bottom) and Christmas Tree Cluster (top) in Monoceros with the Fornax Lightrack tracker and 200mm lens and filter modified Canon 5D MkII. This is a stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800.

The small cluster of hot young stars inside the Rosette Nebula is blowing a hole in the nebula giving it its Rosette name. Above is a loose star cluster called the Christmas Tree, surrounded by more faint nebulosity that includes the tiny Cone Nebula.


Gemini Clusters and Nebulas

The Clusters and Nebulas of Gemini
This is a stack of 10 x 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. Some light haze passing through in some exposures added the natural star glows. I left those in as part of the stack to add the glows. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker as part of testing. Taken from home on a rare fine and mild winter night, January 4, 2019.

This field of clusters and nebulosity is above Orion in Gemini, with Messier 35 the main open star cluster here at top. Below M35 is the tiny star cluster NGC 2158. The nebulosity at left between Mu and Eta Geminorum is IC 443, a remnant of a supernova explosion, and is aka the Jellyfish Nebula. The nebula at bottom is IC 2174, just over the border in Orion and aka the Monkeyhead Nebula.


Auriga Clusters and Nebulas

The Clusters and Nebulas of Auriga
This is a stack of 5 x 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker as part of testing. Diffraction spikes added with Astronomy Tools actions. Taken from home on January 4, 2019.

Above Gemini and Orion lies Auriga, with its rich field of clusters and nebulosity, with — from left to right — Messier 37, Messier 36, and Messier 38, as the main open star clusters here. Below M38 is NGC 1907. The nebulosity at right is IC 410 and IC 405, the Flaming Star Nebula.

In between them is the colourful asterism known as the Little Fish. Messier 38 is also known as the Starfish Cluster while Messier 36 is called the Pinwheel Cluster. The bright red nebula at top is Sharpless 2-235. The little nebulas at centre are NGC 1931 and IC 417.


The California Nebula

The California Nebula in Perseus
This is a stack of 5 x 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. An additional exposure taken through the Kenko Softon A filter is layered in to add the star glows to bring out their colours. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker. Taken from home on a rare fine and mild winter night, January 4, 2019.

Now we enter Perseus, more an autumn constellation but well up through most of the winter months. It contains the aptly named California Nebula, NGC 1499, at top left, with the bright star Zeta Persei. at bottom A small region of reflection nebulosity, IC 348, surrounds the star Atik, or Omicron Persei, at bottom right. The star just below NGC 1499 is Menkib, or Xi Persei, and is likely energizing the nebula.


The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters

Pleiades M45 with 200mm Lens
The Pleiades with the Fornax Lightrack tracker and 200mm lens + Canon 5D MkII in a stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800.

Obvious to the eye and central to the sky lore of many cultures is the Pleiades, aka the Seven Sisters, in Taurus the bull. It is also called Messier 45.

This is a newly formed cluster of hundreds of stars, passing through a dusty region of the Milky Way, which adds the fuzzy glows around the stars — an example of a reflection nebula, glowing blue as it reflects the blue light of the young stars.


The Hyades

The Hyades Star Cluster with NGC 1647 in Taurus
This is a stack of 5 x 2-minute exposures with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. An additional exposure taken through the Kenko Softon A filter is layered in to add the star glows to bring out their colours. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker. Diffraction spikes added with Astronomy Tools actions for artistic effect.

Below the Pleiades in Taurus lies the larger Hyades star cluster. The V-shaped cluster stars are all moving together and lie about 150 light years away. Bright yellow Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, is an intruder and lies at only half that distance, so is not a member of Hyades but is a more nearby star. The smaller, more distant star cluster NGC 1647 appears at left.


Seagull Nebula

Seagull Nebula and Sirius with 200mm
This is a stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800 (with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII and Canon 200mm lens at f/2.8). The rings of colour around Sirius are an artifact of the sensor filter, I think!

Low in my northern winter sky is the brightest star in the sky of any season, Sirius. Just above and to the east of Sirius lies the Seagull Nebula (at top left), also called IC 2177, on the Canis Major-Monoceros border. Like many of these nebulas. the Seagull is too faint to easily see even with a telescope, but shows up well in photographs.


Lambda Orionis Nebula

Lambda Orionis Nebula with 200mm
With the Fornax Lightrack tracker and 200mm lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII. A stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800 with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII and Canon 200mm lens at f/2.8.

This is the head of Orion, with the red supergiant star Betelgeuse at bottom left and the blue giant star Bellatrix right at bottom right. The brightest star at top is Meissa or Lambda Orionis, and is surrounded by a large and very faint area of hydrogen nebulosity. The open cluster around Meissa is catalogued as Collinder 69.

While the winter Milky Way might not look as bright and spectacular as the summer Milky Way of Sagittarius and Scorpius, it does contains a wealth of wonders that are treats for the eye and telescope … and for the camera.

PS.: The techniques for taking and processing images like these form the content of our new Deep Sky with Your DSLR video course now being promoted on KickStarter until the end of February, and available for purchase once it is published later this spring.

See my previous blog post for details.  Thanks and clear skies!

— Alan, February 17, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

The Amazing Sky of Carina and Centaurus


 

Carina-Centaurus Nebulas Mosaic - Version 1

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?

Carina-Centaurus Nebulas Mosaic (with Labels)

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.

— Alan, May 4, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

 

Toward the Centre of the Galaxy


Toward the Centre of the Galaxy

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.

Starclouds and Stardust – Mosaic of the Galactic Centre
This is a mosaic of 6 segments, each segment being a stack of 4 x 3-minute exposures at f/2.8 with the 135mm Canon L-Series

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.

Centre of the Galaxy Area
This is a stack of 5 x 5 minute exposures with the Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, taken from Tibuc Cottage near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia.

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.

Milky Way Overhead Through Trees
This is a stack of 5 x 6-minute tracked exposures with the 15mm fish-eye lens at f/4 and Canon 5D MKII at ISO 1600. The trees appear to be swirling around the South Celestial Pole at lower right above the Cottage.

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.

– Alan, April 17, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

The Wonder-Filled Winter Sky


Mosaic of the Wonder-filled Winter Milky Way

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 ….

The Hyades Cluster with Aldebaran
The Hyades open star cluster in Taurus with the bright star Aldebaran, not a part of the cluster iteslf. The smaller and more distant cluster NGC 1647 is at left. This is a telephoto lens image taking in a field similar to binoculars, and is a stack of 5 x 2.5-minute exposures with the 135mm lens at f/2 and Canon 5D MkII camera at ISO 800, plus two other exposures taken through the Kenko Softon filter to add the star glows. Taken from Quailway Cottage on Dec 7, 2015 using the iOptron Sky-Tracker.

…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.

Orion Belt and Sword Mosaic
A mosaic of the Sword and Belt region of Orion the Hunter, showing the diverse array of colourful nebulas in the area, including: curving Barnard’s Loop, the Horsehead Nebula below the left star of the Belt, Alnitak, and the Orion Nebula itself as the bright region in the Sword. Also in the field are numerous faint blue reflection nebulas. The reflection nebula M78 is at top embedded in a dark nebula, and the pinkish NGC 2024 or Flame Nebula is above Alnitak. The bright orange-red star at far right is W Orionis, a type M4 long-period variable star. This is a 4-panel mosaic with each panel made of 5 x 2.5-minute exposures with the 135mm Canon L-series telephoto wide open at f/2 and the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1250. The night was somewhat hazy which added natural glows on the stars. No filter was employed here. The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker for tracking but no guiding. Shot from outside Quailway Cottage near Portal, Arizona, Dec 7, 2015. All stacking and stitching performed in Photoshop CC 2015. Stacking done with median combine stack mode to eliminate geosat trails through the fields.

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.

TECHNICAL:

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.

— Alan, December 11, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Shooting the Heart Nebula


Testing the Nikon D810a

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 website with my deep-sky workflow outlined.

IC 1805 Heart Nebula (92mm D810a)
The Heart Nebula, IC 1805, in Cassiopeia, with nebula NGC 896 at upper right and star cluster NGC 1027 at left of centre. This is a stack of 15 x 5-minute exposures with the Nikon D810a as part of testing, at ISO 1600, and with the TMB 92mm apo refractor at f/4.4 with the Borg 0.85x field flattener. Taken from home Nov 29, 2015.

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 Autumn Milky Way (Perseus to Cygnus)
The Milky Way from Perseus, at left, to Cygnus, at right, with Cassiopeia (the “W”) and Cepheus at centre. Dotted along the Milky Way are various red H-alpha regions of glowing hydrogen. The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is at botton. The Double Cluster star cluster is left of centre. Deneb is the bright star at far right, while Mirfak, the brightest star in Perseus, is at far left. The Funnel Nebula, aka LeGentil 3, is the darkest dark nebula left of Deneb. This is a stack of 4 x 1-minute exposures at f/2.8 with the Nikkor 14-24mm lens wide open, and at 24mm, and with the Nikon D810a red-sensitive DSLR, at ISO 1600. Shot from home, with the camera on the iOptron Sky-Tracker.

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!

– Alan, November 30, 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

Nova Star in Sagittarius


Nova Star in Sagittarius

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!

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

Lovejoy Passes the Pleiades


Comet Lovejoy and the Pleiades (Jan 18, 2015)

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.

Comet Lovejoy in the Winter Sky (Jan 18, 2015)

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!

– Alan, January 18, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Free Sky Calendar for a Starry New Year


Sky Calendar Front Page

As a special New Year’s gift I have prepared a free Calendar of celestial events for 2015.

I have lots of photos and I maintain a personal calendar to remind me of the year’s astronomical events. So why not combine them into a pictorial sky calendar anyone can use!

So I’ve prepared a free 2015 Sky Calendar as a PDF you can download.

To get it, please visit my website page at http://www.amazingsky.com/about-alan.html and scroll to the bottom of the page for a link. It’s a 5 meg download.

The sky events listed are for North America. While most will be visible around the world the timing may be off for other locations. Many thanks for visiting and following my blog this past year. I wish everyone a happy and celestial 2015.

– Alan, December 29, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Comet and Cluster


Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) on Dec 27, 2014

Comet Lovejoy passes near the globular cluster M79 in this image from Saturday, December 27. 

Here is the comet that is making the news, as it comes into view in northern skies, now sporting a decent tail of gas streaming away from its cyan-coloured head.

Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is proving to be a fine photogenic comet and an easy target for binoculars. Visually it still looks like a large fuzzy star, though I could spy a sign of a faint tail on Saturday night, at least through binoculars.

This weekend it passed the small, faint globular cluster Messier 79, seen here at upper right. It was very close to M79 Sunday night, but alas, clouds blew in, obscuring the view from here in New Mexico.

The Moon is now in the sky with the comet, leaving no dark sky time to see the comet after moonset. That will be the case for another two weeks or so. But by mid January the Moon will be gone and the comet will be much higher in the sky, moving up through Taurus.

From a dark site, it may be easily visible to the naked eye at that time, a surprising bonus for the winter, as this comet was never expected to get this bright.

Thank you, Terry Lovejoy, for finding your comets in Australia and sending them our way!

– Alan, December 28 / © 2014 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

A Cosmic Christmas Wreath


IC 1396 & Garnet Star in Cepheus

A cosmic Christmas wreath glows in the sky, adorned by a celestial garnet.

This nebula, known as IC 1396, shines in the constellation of Cepheus the king, now high overhead on early winter evenings in the northern hemisphere. It’s a bubble of gas blown by new stars amid the interstellar wreath.

At top, shining like a Christmas light on the wreath, is an orange star. This is Mu Cephei, also known as the Garnet Star. It’s a red supergiant, roughly 1,500 times bigger than our Sun. If it replaced our Sun at the centre of our solar system it would engulf all the planets out to and including Jupiter.

Be happy Mu sits 1,000 light years away!

Happy holidays! And happy solstice. Winter arrives in the northern hemisphere at 6:03 p.m. EST on Sunday, December 21. That’s the shortest day and longest night of the year, for all those north of the equator.

– Alan, December 20, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Supernova Remnant & Star Cluster


Supernova Remnant & Star Cluster in Gemini

A bubble of glowing gas blows away from an ancient dying star, next to a cluster of new stars in Gemini.

This image, from a week ago, captures contrasting stages in the life of a star.

At left is a crescent-shaped bubble of gas called IC 443, or the Jellyfish Nebula, billowing away from the site of an ancient supernova explosion, when a giant star ended its life in a blast thousands of years ago. Estimates put its age as between 3,000 and 30,000 years.

At upper right is the bright open star cluster, Messier 35, a gathering of hundreds of comparatively new stars at the beginning of their lives. M35 lies 2,800 light years away, close enough that its stars are nicely resolved in my photo and in any small telescope. M35 is one of the showpieces of the winter northern sky.

Just below M35 you can see a fuzzy glow. It’s another star cluster, NGC 2158. However, its great distance of 11,000 light years makes it appear as a small, partially-resolved glow, a nice contrast in clusters near and far.

IC 443 Supernova Remnant in Gemini

This image focuses on IC 443, sitting between the stars Eta (right) and Mu Geminorum. The field is filled with other faint nebulosity, all part of the cycle of star birth and death.

– Alan, December 7, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

The Seven Sisters in a Silver Braid


M45 Pleiades Star Cluster, the Seven Sisters“Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,

Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.”

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

These are the famous Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, caught two nights ago in New Mexico skies. This bright star cluster stands out easily to the unaided eye in the winter sky, shining in the shoulder of Taurus.

What the eye does not see is the “silver braid” – the dim dust that surrounds the Pleiades. The stars light the dust, causing it to shine blue near the stars. Farther out, the dust is much dimmer and glows with pale tints of cyan and red.

The dust clouds were once thought to be what was leftover from the formation of the stars, now estimated to have occurred about 100 million years ago. However, current theory suggests that the natal dust of the Pleiads would have long since dispersed.

Instead, the silvery braids of dust that surround the Seven Sisters are just nearby dust clouds in Taurus that the stars are passing through, and illuminating with their hot blue light.

The Pleiades, as familiar as they are – they have been mentioned in ancient texts and myths dating back thousand of years – remain a source of scientific controversy. Astronomers argue over their distance, with different methods providing different results. But the best recent measurement puts them 440 light years away.

Technical notes: This is a stack of 10 x 12 minute exposures at ISO 400 with the Canon 5D MkII camera and 92mm TMB refractor at f/4.4. I shot the images November 16 from near Silver City, New Mexico.

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

 

Both the Heart and Soul of Cassiopeia


Heart & Soul Nebulas (IC 1805 and IC 1848) in Cassiopeia

Here are both the heart and the soul of Cassiopeia the Queen.

Two days ago I posted an image of the Soul Nebula. Now, here is the matching Heart Nebula, in a mosaic of the glorious region of the Milky Way called the Heart and Soul Nebulas located in the constellation of Cassiopeia.

They are otherwise respectively called IC 1805 and IC 1848. Amid the swirls of nebulosity are numerous clusters of stars, such as NGC 1027 just above centre. The separate patch of nebulosity at upper right is NGC 896.

I shot the frames for this 3-segment mosaic over two nights, with one segment taken from the frames that made up the previous post. Plus I shot two others to span the region of the Milky Way that is about seven degrees long, a binocular field.

Each of the 3 segments is a stack of 12 frames, with each frame a 6-minute exposure. I used the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII and shot through the TMB 92mm apo refractor at f/4.4. All processing was in Photoshop, including the mosaic assembly.

In all, it’s the best image I’ve taken of this much-shot area of the sky. It really brings out the diversity in star colours, and sky colours, from the dusty orange-brown region at left, to the inky dark dustless region at far right.

– Alan, November 18 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

The Soul of Cassiopeia


IC 1848, the Soul Nebula, in Cassiopeia

The Soul Nebula glows from within the constellation of Cassiopeia the Queen.

I shot this image last night, capturing an object prosaically known as IC 1848, but more popularly called the Soul Nebula.

It is often depicted framed with a companion nebula just “off camera” here to the right, called the Heart Nebula. Thus they are the Heart and Soul. Both shine on the eastern side of Cassiopeia the Queen.

Here I’m framing just the Soul, taking in some of the faint nebulosity to the left of the main nebula, including a tiny object called IC 289, a star-like planetary nebula at upper left.

I like this image for its variety of subtle colours, not only the reds and magentas in the bright nebula, but also in the dark sky around it from dim dust adding faint yellows, browns and even a touch of green.

The Soul Nebula lies 6,500 light years away in the Perseus Arm, the next spiral arm out from ours in the Milky Way. On northern autumn nights this region of the sky and Milky Way lies high overhead.

For the technically minded:

The image is a stack of 20 six-minute exposures, taken with a filter-modified Canon 5D Mark II at ISO 800. I was shooting through one of my favourite telescopes for deep-sky photography, the TMB (Thomas M. Back-designed) 92mm apo refractor, working at a fast f/4.4 using a Borg 0.85x field flattener and focal reducer.

I used one of Noel Carboni’s “Astronomy Tools” Photoshop actions to add the “diffraction spikes” on the stars. They are artificial (refractors don’t produce spikes on stars) but they add a photogenic touch to a rich starfield.

I shot this from the backyard of my New Mexico winter home.

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

Truly Interstellar


M26 Open Cluster and NGC 6712 Globular Cluster

We gaze into the interstellar depths of the Milky Way through uncountable stars.

In this telescopic scene we look toward the Scutum Starcloud, and next spiral arm in from ours as we gaze toward the core of the Galaxy.

The field is packed with stars, seemingly crowded together in interstellar space. In fact, light years of empty space separate the stars, even in crowded regions of the Milky Way like this.

Two dense clusters of stars stand out like islands in the sea of stars. At lower right is Messier 26, an open cluster made of a few dozen stars. Our young Sun probably belonged to a similar family of stars billions of years ago. M26 lies 5,200 light years away.

At upper left is a condensed spot of light, made of hundreds of thousands of density packed stars in the globular cluster known only as NGC 6712. Though much larger and denser than M26, NGC 6712 appears as a tiny spot because of its remoteness – 23,000 light years away, a good part of the distance toward the centre of the Galaxy.

Look carefully (and it may not be visible on screen) and you might see a small green smudge to the left of NGC 6712. That’s a “planetary nebula” called IC 1295. It’s the blown off atmosphere of an aging Sun-like star. It’s what our Sun will become billions of years from now.

At top is a vivid orange-red star, S Scuti, a giant pulsating star nearing the end of its life.

A truly interstellar scene.

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

 

 

Mars and M22


Mars and M22 Cluster

Mars shines near the globular star cluster Messier 22 in Sagittarius.

This week Mars has been passing near one of the brightest globular star clusters, M22. I caught the pair tonight, November 8, as they sank into the southwestern sky.

The two form a contrasting pair, with red Mars now 260 million kilometres away, far enough that its light takes 13 minutes to reach Earth. However, blue M22 lies so far away, toward the galactic core, that its light take 10,000 years to reach Earth.

Mars appeared closer to M22 earlier this week but tonight was the first night with a narrow window of dark sky between twilight and moonrise, allowing me to shoot the pair.

I shot the image through a telescope with a short focal length of 400mm, taking in a field of about 5 by 3 degrees, the field of high-power binoculars. The image is a stack of eight 2-minute exposures at f/4.5 with the TMB 92mm refractor and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

– Alan, November 8, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

The Head of the Celestial Scorpion


 

Scorpius Head & Antares (135mm 5DII) v2The head of Scorpius is laced with colourful nebulas, both bright and dark. 

This is an image from two nights ago, from the dark skies of southeast Arizona. It takes in the head of Scorpius, from yellow Antares at lower left as the heart of the Scorpion, to the blue stars at right that mark his head.

The remarkable feature of this region of sky is its colour. No where else in the sky do we see (or I should say, does the camera see) such a spectrum of colourful nebulas. Dark brown lanes run down from the constellation Ophiuchus at left. They meet up with a yellow patch of nebulosity caused by dust reflecting the yellow-orange light of the giant star Antares.

Hot blue stars light up other dusty patches, while the magenta nebulas are created by gas emitting light, not just reflecting light from nearby stars.

A close-up of the region, shot in Australia last month, appears in my blog post from April 17, Stars Scenes in Scorpius. The image above, shot with a 135mm telephoto lens, takes in an area of sky that typical binoculars would frame.

But the eye sees only a hint of the detail, and none of the colour, hidden in the heart of Scorpius.

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

 

Nebulas, Clusters and Starfields, Oh My!


Centre of the Galaxy Mosaic

There’s no more spectacular region of the sky than the Milky Way toward the centre of the Galaxy.

What a perfect night it was last night. After moonset between 2 and 3:30 a.m. I shot a series of images around the centre of the Galaxy area and stitched them into a big mosaic of the Milky Way.

The scene takes in the Milky Way from the Eagle and Swan nebulas at top left, down to the Messier 6 and 7 open clusters in Scorpius at bottom. Standing out is the large pink Lagoon Nebula left of centre and the huge region of dark dusty nebulosity popularly called the Dark Horse at right of centre. It’s made of smaller dark nebulas such as the Pipe Nebula and tiny Snake Nebula.

At upper left is the bright Small Sagittarius Starcloud, aka Messier 24, flanked by the open clusters M23 and M25. There are a dozen or more Messier objects in this region of sky.

The actual centre of the Milky Way is obscured by dark dust but lies in the direction just below the centre of the frame, amid one of the bright star clouds that mark this amazing region of sky.

I shot the images for this mosaic from a site near Portal, Arizona, using a 135mm telephoto lens and filter-modified Canon 5D Mark II riding on an iOptron SkyTracker to follow the stars. The mosaic is made of 6 panels, each a stack of five 3-minute exposures. They were all stacked and stitched in Photoshop CC. The full version is 8000 by 9000 pixels and is packed with detail.

I think the result is one of the best astrophotos I’ve taken! It sure helps to have Arizona skies!

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

 

 

Splendid Southern Star Clusters


NGC 2477 and NGC 2451 in Puppis (77mm 5DII)

The southern Milky Way is populated by the sky’s best clusters of stars.

Here are three of the southern sky’s best star clusters, in portraits I took earlier this month from Australia.

At top, my main image takes in a great contrasting pair of star clusters. Both lie in the constellation of Puppis, once part of the ship Argo Navis.

At left is the stunningly rich NGC 2477, so packed with stars it almost ranks as a globular cluster, not one of the sparser open clusters. At least that’s the impression it gives in the eyepiece. But instead of containing hundreds of thousands of stars, as do globulars, NGC 2477 “only” has 300 stellar members. They are just very tightly packed in one of the richest open star clusters in the sky. If it had been farther north NGC 2477 would certainly rate as one of the top 100 sky sights, and carry some memorable name after a fanciful resemblance to who knows what! Instead, it carries but a catalog number.

Next to it, at right, is NGC 2451, more typical of open clusters. It has a central bright star, this one naked eye, surrounded by 40 or so lesser stars of contrasting colour and brightness. The two clusters make a great side-by-side comparison in any low-power telescope.

NGC 6067 in Norma Star Cloud (77mm 5DII)

Much farther along the southern Milky Way is this rich open cluster (above), NGC 6067, in Norma, itself embedded in one of the richest star clouds of the southern Milky Way, the Norma Star Cloud. Here you are gazing for 6800 light years toward the cluster which shines suspended against the background of the even more distant inner arms of our spiral galaxy.

So NGC 6067 looks a little like an island of blue stars amid the dust-reddened background of more distant stars in the Milky Way — an island in a sea of stars.

– Alan, April 29, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

The Night Sky’s Two Brightest Stars


Sirius, Canopus & Gum Nebula (35mm 5DII)

The two brightest stars in the night sky shine in the southern sky.

Here are Sirius (at right) and Canopus (at bottom left), the brightest and second brightest stars in the night sky, together near the southern Milky Way.

My image also captures the huge loops of the Gum Nebula, thought to be the remains of a supernova that blew up a million years ago. It’s utterly invisible to the naked eye, but Sirius and Canopus stand out as brilliant stars even from light polluted sites.

Sirius can be seen from northern latitudes but Canopus is below the horizon for any location north of 37° North or so. I shot this image from Australia where these stars pass overhead.

Sirius is a hot blue-white star 8.6 light years away. Canopus appears slightly dimmer but only because it lies much farther away, at some 310 light years. In reality it is a supergiant yellow-white star that shines with a luminosity 15,000 times that of our Sun.

Canopus to Carina with LMC (35mm 5DII)

This image takes in Canopus at bottom right, next to the Large Magellanic Cloud, and with the southern Milky Way sweeping across the top, with the Carina Nebula and its attendant star clusters at top left and parts of the Gum Nebula at right.

Here are a few cocktail party facts about Canopus:

• In 480,000 years its motion around the Galaxy will bring Canopus close enough to Earth that it will become the brightest star in our night sky, outranking Sirius.

• The origin of its name is a mystery. One idea is that the star is named for the pilot of the ship that took Menelaus to Troy on the quest to re-capture Helen.

• Canopus, the star, was used in ancient times as a key navigation star for those sailing to southern seas, as it would have risen above the southern horizon from latitudes below 35° North back around 2000 BCE.

• Today, Canopus is charted as the brightest star in the constellation of Carina the Keel, part of the ancient constellation of Argo Navis, named for the ship sailed by Jason and the Argonauts.

— Alan, April 27, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Stellar Graveyard in Vela


Vela Supernova Remnant (77mm 5DII)

This is what’s left of a star that exploded in ancient times.

This is the Vela Supernova Remnant, an object in the southern sky in the constellation of Vela the Sail. The wispy tendrils of magenta and cyan are all that’s left of the outer layers of giant star that exploded about 12,000 years ago.

Cluttering the field at left are amorphous patches of star-forming nebulosity that are part of the much larger Gum Nebula complex.

The supernova was only about 800 light years away so it would have been a brilliant sight in the sky to neolithic observers, far outshining any other stars. But no record exists of anyone seeing it.

The star didn’t destroy itself completely – its core collapsed to form a pulsar, an ultra-dense ball of neutrons, in this case spinning about 11 times a second. The pulsar is in this field but it’s much too faint to show up in visible light.

I shot this earlier this month from Australia where Vela sails directly overhead. The field is about 6° by 4°, the amount of sky framed by high power binoculars. The brighter parts of the Vela Remnant can be picked out in large amateur telescopes – I’ve seen bits of it in my 10-inch telescope – but this is certainly a challenging object to see, even with aided eyes.

— Alan, April 23, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Star Scenes in Scorpius


Scorpius Overhead (50mm 5DII)

Scorpius, one of the most photogenic of constellations, contains a wealth of amazing sky sights.

My trip to the land down under is coming to an end but I’m still working through the dozens of deep-sky images I was able to take under the southern stars. The wide-field scene above takes in all of Scorpius, shot with the constellation sitting directly overhead in the pre-dawn hours of an austral autumn. You can trace the scorpion’s winding shape down from his head and claws at top, to his curving stinger tail at bottom.

M6 and M7 Star Clusters in Scorpius (77mm 5DII)

Off the stinger of the scorpion shine two naked-eye star clusters, Messier 6 and 7 (the close-up photo above). M6 is the Butterfly Cluster, seen here sitting in a dark region of the Milky Way at upper right. Its companion, M7, a.k.a. Ptolemy’s Cluster at left of the frame, is lost amid the bright star fields  that mark the direction of the galactic core.

NGC 6334 Cat's Paw Nebula (77mm 5DII)

In the curving tail of the scorpion lie two patches of nebulosity. At upper left is NGC 6357, but the triple-lobed NGC 6334 at bottom right is also known as the Cat’s Paw Nebula.

False Comet NGC 6231 Area (77mm 5DII)

Further up the tail of the scorpion sits this fabulous region of space that is a stunning sight in binoculars. NGC 6231 is the blue star cluster at bottom, which garnered the name The False Comet Cluster back in early 1986 when many people mistook its fuzzy naked eye glow for Comet Halley then passing through the area. The camera reveals the region filled with glowing hydrogen gas.

Antares & Rho Ophiuchi Area (77mm 5DII)

But the standout region of Scorpius lies at its heart. Here, the yellow-orange star Antares lights up a dusty nebula surrounding it, reflecting its yellow glow. At top, another dusty nebula surrounds the star Rho Ophiuchi, reflecting its blue light. Glowing hydrogen gas adds its characteristic magenta tints. This is one of the most colourful regions of the Milky Way.

I shot these images with 50mm normal and 300mm telephoto lenses two weeks ago during the OzSky Star Safari near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia. For all I used a filter-modified (by Hutech) Canon 5D Mark II camera.

— Alan, April 17, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

The Milky Way of the Deep South


Vela to Centaurus with Crux & Carina (35mm 5DII)

The Milky Way of the southern hemisphere contains some astonishing deep-sky sights.

The lead image above shows the section of the Milky Way that extends farthest south, and so is visible only from tropical latitudes in the north and, of course, from the southern hemisphere. I shot these images this past week in Australia.

The wide-angle image above takes in the southern Milky Way from Vela, at right, to Centaurus, at left. In the middle is the Southern Cross (left of centre), the Carina Nebula complex and surrounding clusters, and the False Cross at right of frame. The close-ups below zoom into selected regions of this area of the Milky Way. All are spectacular sights in binoculars or any telescope.

Coal Sack and Jewel Box (77mm 5DII) #2

This image frames the left side of Crux, the Southern Cross. The bright stars are Becrux (top) and Acrux (bottom). Just below Becrux is the compact and brilliant Jewel Box cluster, aka NGC 4755. Below it are the dark clouds of the Coal Sack, which in photos breaks up into discrete segments and patches.

 

Pearl Cluster and Lambda Centauri Nebula (77mm 5DII)

This region is a favourite of mine for images and for visual scanning in any telescope. The large nebula is the Lambda Centauri complex, also labelled the Running Chicken Nebula. Can you see its outline? Above it is the beautiful Pearl Cluster, aka NGC 3766.

 

Carina Nebula and Clusters (77mm 5DII)

This is the standout object in the deep south – the Carina Nebula complex. I’ve shot this many times before but this is my best take on it. At upper left is the Football Cluster, NGC 3532, while at upper right is the Gem Cluster, NGC 3293.

Seeing this area in person is worth the trip to the southern hemisphere. There are now many photographers up north who have shot marvellous images of Carina but using robotic telescopes. They have never actually seen the object for themselves. They print the images upside down or sideways, a sign of their detachment from the real sky.

You have to stand under the southern stars to really appreciate the magnificence of the Milky Way. All else is just data taking.

– Alan, April 5, 2014 / © Alan Dyer

 

Zooming into the Centre of the Galaxy


Sagittarius and Scorpius Milky Way (35mm 5DII)

A series of closer images zooms us into the Milky Way looking toward the centre of our Galaxy

Here are some images I took this past week at the OzSky Star Safari near Coonabarabran, Australia. The lead image above is a wide-angle lens image of all of Scorpius (above and to the right) and Sagittarius (below and to the left) straddling the Milky Way and its bright glowing core. The direction of the galactic centre is just left of centre of the image. We can’t see the actual centre of the Milky Way with our eyes and normal cameras because there are just too many stars and obscuring dust lanes in between us and the core.

The dust forms marvellous patterns across the glowing Milky Way — see the Dark Horse prancing at left? Long tendrils of dust reach from the feet of the Horse to the bright yellow star at top, Antares, the heart of Scorpius.

The Centre of the Milky Way (50mm 60Da)

This image with a longer lens zooms in closer to the bright Sagittarius Starcloud around the heart of the Galaxy. All along it you can see red and pink nebulas, from the Cat’s Paw at upper right to the Eagle Nebula at lower left. The larger pink object at centre is the Lagoon Nebula.

The next image zooms into the area at the centre of the above shot, just right of the Lagoon.

Sagittarius Starcloud (77mm 5DII)

This is the star-packed Sagittarius Starcloud. Everything you see is stars. Millions of stars.

I took this shot with a 300mm telephoto — a small telescope actually, the gear shown below. It’s what I was using most of this past week to shoot the Australian southern sky.

Borg 77mm Astrograph in Australia

This is some of my Oz gear, the equipment (except for the camera and autoguider on top) that stays in Australia for use every year or two. The mount is an Astro-Physics 400 and the scope is the Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph. I used it for the close-up photo.

The gear all worked great this time. I’ll have more photos to post shortly as my connection allows. Tonight, I am at the Parkes Radio Observatory where the internet connection is as good as it gets!

— Alan, April 4, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

Centre of the Galaxy Rising


Galactic Centre Rising from Australia #2 (15mm 60Da)

The centre of our Galaxy rises above the gum trees of Australia.

This was the scene at 3 a.m. this week at our OzSky star party, as the stars of Scorpius and Sagittarius rise into the eastern sky, a magnificent view of the bright core of the Milky Way rising into view.

The image shows the intricate lacework of dark dust that lines the Milky Way – the stardust of which we are made. The bright star at upper left is Antares, the heart of the Scorpion.

This is one of the views you travel to the southern hemisphere to see. It is an unforgettable sight, one of the best the sky has to offer.

– Alan, April 2, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Our Neighbour Galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud


Large Magellanic Cloud (77mm Borg & 5DII)

One of our nearest galactic neighbours contains an astonishing collection of nebulas and star clusters.

This is the money shot — top of my list for targets on this trip to Australia. This is the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. At “just” 160,000 light years away, the LMC is in our galactic backyard. Being so close, even the small 77mm telescope I used to take this image resolves numerous nebulas, star clusters, and a mass of individual stars. The image actually looks “noisy” from being filled with so many stars.

I’ve oriented and framed the Cloud to take in most of its main structure and objects. One can spend many nights just visually exploring all that the LMC contains. It alone is worth the trip to the southern hemisphere.

At left is the massive Tarantula Nebula, a.k.a. NGC 2070. At upper right is the LMC’s second best nebula, the often overlooked NGC 1763, also known as the LMC Lagoon. In between are many other magenta and cyan tinted nebulas.

I’ve shot this object several times but this is my best shot so far I think, and my first with this optical system in several years.

I used a Borg 77mm aperture “astrograph,” a little refractor telescope optimized for imaging. It is essentially a 330mm f/4 telephoto lens, but one that is tack sharp across the entire field, far outperforming any camera telephoto lens.

This shot is a stack of six 10-minute exposures at ISO 800 with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera. The autoguider worked perfectly. And yet, I shot this in clear breaks between bands of clouds moving though last night. The night was humid but when the sky was clear it was very clear.

Next target when skies permit: the Vela Supernova Remnant.

– Alan, March 25, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

A Dreamy Carina Nebula


Carina Nebula in Haze (77mm 5DII)

The Carina Nebula glows among the colourful southern stars.

I’ve shot this field many times over the years in visits to the southern hemisphere but never with a result quite like this. Last night the sky was hazy with high cloud but I shot anyway. The result is a “dreamy” rendition of the Carina Nebula and its surrounding clusters of stars. At upper left is the Football Cluster, NGC 3532, while at upper right is the Gem Cluster, NGC 3293.

As with my previous post, the haze brings out the star colours, filling the field with pastel shades. It is one of the finest fields in the sky, worth the trip down under.

Alas, skies have clouded up tonight with only a few bright stars and Mars shining through. And the forecast is for rain for the next few days. So I may get lots of writing done at my Aussie retreat.

As a technical note: I shot this with the little 77mm Borg Astrograph, essentially a 300mm f/4 telephoto lens that is tack sharp across a full frame camera, like the Canon 5D MkII I used here. It was riding on my Astro-Physics 400 mount and guided flawlessly with the Santa Barbara SG4 auto-guider. The image is a stack of four 8-minute exposures. All the gear, much of it stored here in Australia between my visits, is working perfectly.

– Alan, March 23, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

The Pleiades – The Stellar Seven Sisters


M45, the Pleiades Cluster (92mm 5DII)

The stars of the Pleiades sit amid a dusty sky in Taurus.

These are the famous Seven Sisters of Greek legend, known as the Pleiades. They are the daughters of Atlas and Pleione, who are also represented by stars in the cluster. Many cultures around the world tell stories about these stars, but in Greek tradition their appearance signalled the summer sailing season in the Mediterranean. The Pleiades first appear at sunset in the eastern evening sky in autumn and put in their last appearance in the western sky in spring.

One story has it they were placed in the sky to recognize their devotion to their father Atlas and his unending labour in holding up the heavens. They are the half-sisters of the Hyades, another nearby cluster of stars in Taurus. Other stories describe the Pleiades as the Seven Doves that carried ambrosia to the infant Zeus.

A seldom-used name now for this cluster is the Atlantides, from the plural form of Atlas, their father. Thus, these sisters gave their name to the Atlantic Ocean, a vast and uncharted sea until the 16th century. The term “atlas,” first used by Mercator for a book of maps, comes not from the Pleiades’ father but from a real-life king in Morocco who supposedly made one of the first celestial globes.

I shot this portrait of the Sisters a few nights ago, stacking a set of five 15-minute exposures with the TMB 92mm refractor and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800. I processed the image to bring out the faint clouds of dust that pervade the area.

The Pleiades are passing through dust clouds in Taurus and lighting them up. The stars are embedded in dust, lit blue by the light of the hot stars. But even farther out you can see wisps of dust faintly illuminated by the light of the Pleiades.

The stars are thought to be about 100 million years old, quite young as stars go. They formed together in a massive nebula that has long since dissipated, and will travel together for another few hundred million years until the sister stars go their own way around the Galaxy. The stellar family that gave rise to so many legends around the world will be scattered to the stars.

– Alan, October 12, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

A Star-Filled Scene in Cassiopeia


M52 & NGC 7635 Bubble Nebula (92mm 5DII)

A star cluster and nebulas highlight a glorious starfield in Cassiopeia.

I shot this three nights ago on a very clear autumn evening. The telescope field takes in the star cluster Messier 52 at upper left, a cluster of 200 stars about 5000 light years away. It is one of the best objects of its class for viewing in small telescopes. Charles Messier found it in 1774 as part of his quest to catalog objects that might be mistaken for comets.

The brightest area of nebulosity below M52 is the Bubble Nebula, aka NGC 7635, found in 1787 by William Herschel. It’s an area of star formation marked by a central bubble of gas (just visible on the scale of my photo) being blown by the winds from a hot central star. The Bubble can be seen in amateur telescopes but is a tough target to spot.

Above the Bubble is a small bright nebula, NGC 7538.

Below the Bubble lies a larger claw-like nebula known only as Sharpless 2-157, an object that shows up only in photos.

In all, it’s a complex and beautiful field, set in the constellation of Cassiopeia the Queen.

A footnote for the technically minded: This is a stack of 5 x 15 minute exposures with a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 shooting through a TMB 92mm apo refractor at f/4.8, mounted on an Astro-Physics Mach 1 mount guided by a Santa Barbara SG-4 autoguider.

– Alan, October 11, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

The Veil Nebula in Cygnus


NGC 6960 & 6992-5 Veil Nebula (92mm 5DII)

This is what’s left of a star that exploded thousands of years ago.

I shoot this object every year or two, so this is my 2013 take on the Veil Nebula. For last year’s see Star Death Site, a post from September 2012.

The Veil Nebula is a supernova remnant. The lacework arcs are what’s left of a massive star that blew itself to bits in historic times. This object, one of the showpieces of the summer sky for telescope users, is now high overhead at nightfall, off the east wing of Cygnus the swan.

I shot this a couple of nights ago using a 92mm-aperture refractor that provides a wide field of view to easily frame the 3-degree-wide extent of the nebula. The image is a stack of five 15-minute exposures with a filter-modified (i.e. red sensitive) Canon 5D MkII camera at ISO 800. Stacking the images helps reduce noise.

The colours in this object make it particularly photogenic, with a contrast of magenta and cyan. At right, a sharp-edged area of obscuring interstellar dust tints the sky brown and dims the stars.

– Alan, October 9, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

The Cocoon Nebula in Cygnus


Cocoon Nebula IC 5146 (92mm 5DII)

A cocoon of glowing gas sits at the tip of a dark cloud of interstellar dust.

It’s been months since I’ve shot more “traditional” astrophotos, meaning images of deep-sky objects through telescopes. But the last couple of nights have been excellent, and well-timed to the dark of the Moon.

This is the Cocoon Nebula in Cygnus, aka IC 5146. It is a cloud of gas about 4,000 light years away where new stars are forming. They are lighting up the gas to glow with incandescent pink colours.

The Cocoon sits at the end of snake-like dark nebula known as Barnard 168 which, in the eyepiece of a telescope, is usually more obvious than the subtle bright nebula. Photos like mine here, with long exposures and boosted contrast and colours, make nebulas look much brighter and more colourful than they can ever appear to the eye.

For the technically curious, I shot this with a 92mm diameter apochromatic refractor, the TMB 92, and a Borg 0.85x flattener/reducer, a combination that gives a fast f-ratio of f/4.8 with a very flat wide field. I also used my now-vintage filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800. This is a stack of five 12-minute exposures, registered and median-combined in Photoshop to smooth out noise. All processing was with Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop CC. The telescope was on an Astro-Physics Mach 1 mount, flawlessly autoguided with an SBIG SG-4 autoguider.

– Alan, October 6, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

The Princess Stars


Andromeda (50mm 5DII)

The stars of Andromeda the Princess highlight the autumn sky.

Here’s an image from last night, October 4, that frames all of the constellation of Andromeda, now high in the northern autumn sky. A trio of coloured stars arcs across the centre of the image, forming the main pattern in Andromeda. In Greek legend she was the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia and was rescued by Perseus from the devouring jaws of Cetus the Sea Monster.

Above the centre star lies the constellation’s most famous feature, the Andromeda Galaxy, shining at us from 2.5 million light years away. It is the most distant object easily visible to the unaided eye.

An equal distance below the centre star of Andromeda you can see another smaller fuzzy spot. That’s the Pinwheel or Triangulum Galaxy, a dwarf spiral 2.8 million light years away, but also a member of the Local Group of galaxies that contains our Milky Way and Andromeda as its two main members.

At left, just below centre, is a large open cluster of stars, NGC 752, easily visible to the naked eye.

For this shot, as I do for most constellation portraits, I used Photoshop to layer in a shot taken through a diffusion filter (the Kenko Softon A) on top of a stack of shots taken without the filter. This allows me to add the enhanced glows around stars to bring out their colours, and to do so in a controlled fashion by varying the opacity of the filtered view. Shooting on a night with high haze or cirrus clouds has the same end effect but that’s hardly a reliable way to take constellation images. Combining filtered and unfiltered views works great, and gives the “look” made popular years ago by Japanese astrophotographer Akira Fuji.

– Alan, October 5, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Star-Making Clouds in Cygnus


Cygnus Nebulosity (135mm 5DII)

The centre of Cygnus is laced with an intricate complex of glowing gas clouds.

This is another shot from earlier this week, under ideal skies, in a view looking straight up into Cygnus the Swan. This is a telephoto lens shot of the amazing array of nebulas in central Cygnus, around the bright star Deneb.

At left is the North America and Pelican Nebulas. At right is the Gamma Cygni complex and the little Crescent Nebula at lower right.

Here we’re looking down our local Cygnus-Orion arm of the Milky Way into a region of star formation rich in glowing hydrogen gas and dark interstellar dust. These clouds lie about 1500 to 3000 light years away. Dotting the field are hot blue stars newly formed from the raw ingredients making stars in Cygnus.

At top, the clouds have a lacework appearance, like sections of bubbles. Perhaps these are being blown across space by the high-velocity winds streaming from the young stars.

– Alan, September 13, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

A Galaxy Floating in the Void


M109 in Ursa Major (130mm 60Da)

A galaxy 80 million light years away floats in the blackness of space near a star in the Big Dipper.

This is Messier 109, a bright spiral galaxy in Ursa Major, and within an eyepiece and camera field of the bright naked eye star Gamma Ursa Majoris. That’s the “bottom left” star in the bowl of the Big Dipper, so this is an easy galaxy to find with a telescope in the current spring sky.

Technically, this galaxy is classed as a barred spiral because of the way its spiral arms emerge from an elongated bar at the core of the galaxy. It is the brightest member of the Ursa Major Cluster of some 80 galaxies.

Springtime is galaxy time, no matter what hemisphere you live in. But for us in the northern half of the planet that means April and May. When we look up at this time of year into the evening sky we are looking out of the plane of our Milky Way galaxy and seeing into the depths of intergalactic space, populated by thousands of other galaxies. Most of the bright ones, like M109, are 20 to 100 million light years away. At its distance of 80 million light years, M109 lies a million times farther away from us than Gamma Ursa Majoris, a nearby blue star “just” 80 light years away and in our Galaxy.

I shot this last weekend though my 5-inch refractor with the Canon 60Da camera. Even with the telescope’s 800mm focal length it isn’t enough to really do justice to the intricate detail in galaxies like this. But the view does set the galaxy into its context, floating in the blackness of space.

– Alan, May 11, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Conjunction of Comet and Galaxy


Comet PANSTARRS & M31 (March 31, 2013)

Tonight, April 1, we enjoyed the rare conjunction of a comet with a galaxy.

This is Comet PANSTARRS below the Andromeda Galaxy, a.k.a. M31. The two objects were less than a binocular field apart – 4 degrees – on the sky. But in real space they were separated by millions of light years. The comet was 192 million kilometres from Earth tonight and receding. But that’s a stone’s throw compared to the 2.5 million light year distance of the Andromeda Galaxy. Light was taking a mere 10 minutes to get to us from the comet, but the light from Andromeda was 2.5 million years old.

And yet, the two objects looked similar in brightness and shape to the binocular-aided eye.

I caught the two just above the horizon as they were dipping into haze and trees. The circumstances didn’t make for a technically great photo but with PANSTARRS we’ve all had to shoot despite the conditions and hope for the best.

With worsening weather prospects for the next week I suspect this will be my last look at PANSTARRS for a while.

– Alan, April 1, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

The Zodiacal Light from the Desert


Zodiacal Light in Evening Sky (New Mexico)

From a dark site the glow of Zodiacal Light rivals the Milky Way in brightness. 

This was the scene every night last week in the evening sky from our New Mexico observing site. The vertical glow of Zodiacal Light was a source of natural light pollution brightening the western sky. I’ve never see it more obvious in the west and this was the perfect season to see it. In March from the northern hemisphere the ecliptic – the plane of the solar system – is angled high into the western sky, almost vertical from the latitude of southern New Mexico.

The Zodiacal Light lies not in our atmosphere but comes from interplanetary space, and follows the ecliptic. What we were seeing was a glow of sunlight being reflected off fine dust particles orbiting the Sun in the inner solar system, likely spread by passing comets like PANSTARRS. I blogged about the Zodiacal Light last month, in photo taken from home in southern Alberta. You can also read about it at the excellent Atmospheric Optics website.

You don’t need to be in the desert to see it, but you do need dark skies. And no Moon in the sky.

At last week’s dark of the Moon period, Jupiter sat at the apex of the Zodiacal Light, just above the Pleiades star cluster. Near the top, right of centre, you can also see a short satellite trail, likely from a flaring Iridium satellite.

– Alan, March 19, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

Skies of Enchantment – Winter Milky Way Setting


Winter Milky Way over Adobe House (14mm 5DII)

In the land of enchantment, the winter Milky Way sets over our adobe house.

I’m in New Mexico, enjoying wonderfully clear skies. In the early evening the winter Milky Way runs north and south then turns to set over in the west, as it’s doing here, over the main house at the Painted Pony Resort near Rodeo, in southwest New Mexico.

Jupiter and the stars of Taurus are at upper right, and Orion is just right of centre. Above the house shine Sirius and the stars of Canis Major and Puppis. The area of red in the Milky Way just above the house is the massive Gum Nebula in Vela, an area of sky hidden from us in Canada.

For this image I combined a stack of five 5-minute tracked exposures taken with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 14mm Samyang lens wide open at f/2.8. The ground details are from two of the exposures.

This was a fabulous night with more to come this week.

– Alan, March 11, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

A Luminous Starfield


M38 & IC 405-410-417 Complex (92mm 6D)

The Starfish and the Flaming Star combine to create a rich star field in the Charioteer.

I shot this last week, using a favourite small refractor that takes in a generous field of view for a telescope. In this case, it frames the star cluster at left called the Starfish Cluster, or better known as Messier 38. At right the large number 7-shaped patch of nebulosity is the Flaming Star Nebula, known by its catalog number as IC 405. At bottom, the nameless companion nebulas are IC 417 at left and IC 410 at bottom centre.

Of note is the colourful grouping of six stars at right called the Little Fish. It’s not a proper star cluster but an asterism, a chance alignment of stars that happens to look like something imaginative. David Ratledge presents a nice list and photo gallery of similar whimsical asterisms at his Deep-Sky.co.uk website.

The entire field is a rich hunting ground for the eyepiece or camera. You can find it these nights, in winter from the northern hemisphere, straight overhead in the evening, in the middle of Auriga the Charioteer.

For this portrait I shot and stacked eight 7-minute exposures at ISO 800 using a filter-modified Canon 6D on my TMB 92mm apo refractor at f/4.8.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

– Alan, February 14, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

See, That’s the Orion Nebula!


RAO Open House (February 9, 2013)

What a hardy bunch we are in Canada, braving winter weather to see Orion and company. 

A well-bundled group of sky fans partakes in an impromptu tour of Orion and his famous nebula.

I shot this scene last night, February 9, at the first of a series of monthly stargazing nights at the local university research observatory, the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. About 120 people and volunteers gathered to take in the sights of the winter sky, as best they could as transient clouds permitted. Inside, speakers presented talks themed to the Chinese New Year, which is governed by the timing of the New Moon each year. As this was a New Moon night, people were able to stargaze under reasonably dark skies to see deep-sky sights such as the Orion Nebula.

Want to know where it is? An astronomy club member points it out rather handily with one of the best tools astronomers have for public outreach, a bright green laser pointer. Controversial and dangerous in the wrong hands, when used responsibly these laser pointers are wonderful for conducting sky tours.

As a side note, this is a 3-second exposure with a new Canon 6D camera at ISO 8000, yet the photo shows very little noise. In just 3 seconds, the Milky Way is beginning to show up! I could have gone to previously unthinkable speeds of ISO 12000+ and still had a presentable shot. This will be a superb camera for nightscapes and available light shots.

– Alan, February 10, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

The Beautiful Belt of Orion


Belt of Orion & B33 Horsehead Nebula (92mm 6D)

Everyone knows the Belt of Orion, but only the camera reveals the wealth of colours that surround it.

I shot this Friday night, February 8, under very clear sky conditions.

While I used a telescope, it had a short enough focal length, about 480mm, that the field took in all three stars in the Belt: from left to right, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. All are hot blue stars embedded in colourful clouds. The most famous is the Horsehead Nebula, running down from Alnitak at left. Above the star is the salmon-coloured Flame Nebula. All manner of bits of blue and cyan nebulas dot the field, their colour coming from the blue starlight the dust reflects.

Dimmer dust clouds more removed from nearby stars glow with browns and yellows. At left, a large swath of sky is obscured by gas and dust simmering in dull red. The entire field is peppered with young blue stars.

It is certainly one of the most vibrant regions of sky, though only long exposures and image processing bring out the colours.

This is another test shot with a new Canon 6D that has had its sensor filter modified to transmit more of the deep red light of these types of nebulas. The camera works very well indeed!

– Alan, February 8, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Snapshots of Starlife


IC 443 Jellyfish Nebula & M35 (92mm 6D)

This one image frames examples of both the beginning and end points of a star’s life.

I shot this last night, February 6, 2013, capturing a field in the constellation of Gemini the twins. At upper right is the showpiece star cluster known as Messier 35. It’s a collection of fairly young stars still hanging around together after forming from a cloud of interstellar gas tens of millions of years ago. M35 lies about 2,800 light years from Earth, on the other side of the spiral arm we live in. Just below M35 you can see another smaller and denser cluster. That’s NGC 2158, about five times farther away from us, thus its smaller apparent size. Both are objects that represent the early stages of a star’s life.

At lower left is an object known as the Jellyfish Nebula, for obvious reasons. The official name is IC 443. It’s the expanding remains of a star that blew up as a supernova anywhere from 3,000 to 30,000 years ago. What’s left of the star’s core can still be detected as a spinning neutron star. You need a radio telescope to see that object, but the blasted remains of the star’s outer layers can be seen through a large backyard telescope as a shell of gas. It is expanding into the space between stars – the interstellar medium – ploughing into other gas clouds. The shockwave from its collision with other nebulas may trigger those clouds to collapse and form clusters of new stars. And so it goes in the Galaxy.

For this portrait of stellar lifestyles, I used a 92mm apochromatic refractor and a new Canon 6D camera, one that has had its sensor filter modified to accept a greater range of deep red light emitted by hydrogen nebulas. The image is actually a stack of 12 exposures with an accumulated exposure time of 80 minutes.

– Alan, February 7, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Constellation of the Queen


Cassiopeia (135mm 5DII)

After the 7 stars of the Big Dipper and the 3 stars of Orion’s Belt, these 5 stars are likely the most well-known in the northern sky.

These are the 5 bright stars of Cassiopeia the queen, better known simply as “the W” in the sky. Her five stars come in a range of colours, from blue giant Segin at upper left to yellow giant Shedar at lower right.

Scattered around Cassiopeia you can also spot at least one bright red nebula, the “Pacman Nebula,” plus a faint patch of purple nebulosity just above central Navi, the middle star of the W also known as Gamma Cassiopeiae. A few wisps of fainter reddish nebulosity and lanes of dark dust wind around the queen’s celestial throne. The left side of the W – the back of the throne –  is also home to several clumps of stars, nice open clusters suitable for binoculars or any telescope.

I shot this portrait of the Queen on Wednesday night, February 6, on a cool and frosty winter night in my backyard. For the set of 8 images that went into this stack I used a new tracking device, the iOptron SkyTracker. It’s a nifty little battery-powered tracker, compact but very solid. And it tracks very well. For this portrait I used a 135mm telephoto lens, and most, though not all, shots were very well tracked with pinpoint stars. A few frames showed a bit of trailing, not unusual for small portable tracking mounts. At $400 the little iOptron SkyTracker is a great accessory for anyone wanting to shoot constellations and the Milky Way with wide-angle to telephoto lenses.

– Alan, February 7, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

The Natural Naked-Eye Milky Way


Centre of the Milky Way Panorama (2011)

In this image I’ve tried to render the Milky Way in a view that simulates what you see with your unaided eyes.

The result is a celestial portrait in subtle shades of black and white.

This is a photo mosaic, but processed contrary to the usual methods – eliminating colour rather than enhancing it, and reducing contrast rather than boosting it. The result is a view that I think quite nicely matches what your eyes see, though certainly from a dark site. And in this case, you would need to be in the southern hemisphere to see this sweep of the Milky Way, from Aquila at left, to the Southern Cross at right, with the bright star clouds around the centre of the Galaxy in Sagittarius and Scorpius in the middle.

I’ve removed colours except for the muted colours of stars. And I’ve tried to render the stars with an intensity and dynamic range that the eye sees but that is often lost in long exposures.

The dark lanes of dust seen here really do look like this under dark skies. The nearby Coal Sack next to the Southern Cross does look a little darker than the rest of the sky. This view also captures another effect you can see in the real sky – the brighter sky below the Milky Way plane beneath Sagittarius and Aquila – there are more stars there, which make the background sky brighter than above the Milky Way plane (along the top of the photo) where the sky is permeated by dark obscuring dust.

This scene also frames the “dark Emu” – the shape drawn in the dark lanes that looks like a flightless emu in the sky. It’s an important “constellation” in Aboriginal mythology in Australia. The emu’s head is the Coal Sack at far right, her neck the long dark lane curving up through Centaurus and Lupus, and her tail the dark lanes at left in Ophiuchus, Scutum and Aquila.

I shot the original images for this panoramic mosaic in Chile in May 2011. You can see the full colour version in my “Milky Way Mosaic” post from 2011. The colours are wonderful. But there’s something enthralling about “capturing” the view more as your eyes – and mind – remember it.

– Alan, February 3, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

An Orion Portrait from Alberta


Orion in Porttrait Format

He’s certainly the sky’s most photogenic mythological figure. Here’s my full-length portrait of Orion the hunter, captured from Alberta.

I’ve shot him many times before but this was a new combination of gear: the Canon 60Da camera and the Sigma 50mm lens, nicely framing the hunter in portrait format. This version of Orion isn’t as deep as the one I took last month from Australia. But skies were darker there, and I used my filter-modified Canon 5D MkII for his Oz portrait, a camera which picks up more faint red nebulosity than does the 60Da, Canon’s own specialized DSLR camera for astronomy. The 60Da does do a very good job though, much better than would a normal DSLR.

For this shot, as I do for many constellation images, I layered in exposures taken through a soft-focus filter, the Kenko Softon, to enlarge and “fuzzify” the stars! It really helps bring out their colours, contrasting cool, orange Betelgeuse with the hot blue-white stars in the rest of Orion.

I shot this January 4 on a fine clear winter night, the classic hunting ground for Orion.

– Alan, January 11, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Winter Stars Rising


The Winter Sky, Northern Hemisphere

Yes, it’s cold out there, but a clear evening away from city lights this week – or this winter – will reward you with the sight of a rising star-filled sky.

This is the winter sky of the northern hemisphere, rising above a snowy prairie landscape, in a shot I took Sunday night, January 6, 2013. The sky is populated by a ream of bright stars and constellations, anchored by Orion, just below centre. You can see his three Belt stars pointing down to Sirius, just peering above the horizon in the glow of a distant town. Orion’s Belt points up to Aldebaran, the V-shaped Hyades star cluster, and bright Jupiter (the brightest object in the scene, above centre), all in Taurus. Above Jupiter is the Pleiades star cluster.

The Milky Way runs down the sky from Auriga to Canis Major. This week, January 6 to 13, is a good week to see the winter Milky Way, as it’s New Moon and the sky is dark.

In this scene the camera was looking southeast about 9 p.m. Sirius has just risen. By midnight the Dog Star shines due south. I used a 15mm wide-angle lens to take in the entire sweep of the winter sky from horizon to zenith. This is a stack of four 4-minute exposures, though the landscape is from just one of the frames, to minimize the blurring caused by the camera tracking the sky. Some clouds moving in add the streaks on either side of the frame. It was a wonderful sky, while it lasted!

And I’m pleased to note that this is my 250th blog post since beginning AmazingSky.net two years ago in early 2011. I hope you have enjoyed the sky tours.

– Alan, January 6, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Jupiter Amid the Clusters of Taurus


Jupiter in Taurus (January 4, 2013)

Look up on a clear night this season (winter for us in the northern hemisphere) and you’ll see a bright object shining in Taurus the bull. That’s Jupiter.

This year Jupiter sits in a photogenic region of the sky, directly above the stars of the Hyades star cluster and yellow Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus. Above and to the west (right) of Jupiter is the blue Pleiades star cluster.

Over the course of January 2013 you’ll be able to see Jupiter move a little further west each night (to the right in this photo) away from Aldebaran and toward the Pleiades. Jupiter will stop its retrograde motion on January 30. After that it treks eastward to again pass above the Hyades and Aldebaran (returning to where it is now) in early March.

Jupiter’s proximity to Aldebaran and the Hyades makes it easy to follow its retrograde loop over the next few weeks. It’s an easy phenomenon to watch, but explaining it took society hundreds of years and the ultimate in paradigm shifts in thinking, from the self-important arrogance that Earth – and we – were the centre of the universe, to the Sun-centered view of space, with Earth demoted to being just one planet orbiting our star.

I took this image Friday night, January 4, from home as my first astrophoto upon returning to Canada from Australia. It’s a combination of two sets of images: one taken “straight & unfiltered” and one taken through a soft-focus filter to add the glows around the stars and central, brilliant Jupiter. I then blended the filtered images onto the normal images in Photoshop with the Lighten blend mode.

– Alan, January 5, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

A Truly Amazing Sky — A New Year’s Gift


Timor Cottage Panorama #3

As we end 2012 and start a new year, I wish everyone a very happy 2013 and leave you with this view of a very amazing sky.

This is a 360° panorama of the Milky Way over Timor Cottage on a very clear night in mid-December in New South Wales, Australia. May all your skies be as wonderful and as inspiring as this in the coming year.

Indeed, we have some potentially remarkable sights to look forward to, with the prospects of two bright comets in 2013: Comet PANSTARRS in March and Comet ISON in November and December.

Let’s hope for more amazing skies in 2013. Keep looking up!

– Alan, December 31, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Zooming into Canis Major – #3


NGC 2359 Thor's Helmet NebulaIn the third instalment in my trilogy of Canis Major zooms, I present this close-up of another neat nebula in the Great Hunting Dog, called Thor’s Helmet.

You can tell just by the colour that this is a different type of nebula than the typical red hydrogen gas clouds, such as the Seagull Nebula of my previous post. Yes, this is glowing gas but this nebula originates from a different source than most. Rather than being a site where stars form this is a nebula surrounding an aging star, a massive superhot star that is shedding shells of gas in an effort to lose weight – or mass as we should say.

Intense winds from the star blow the gas into bubbles, and cause it to fluoresce in shades of cyan. The central star is one of a rare stellar type called a Wolf-Rayet star, named for the pair of French astronomers who discovered this class of star in the 19th century. WR stars are likely candidates to explode as supernovas.

This particular Wolf-Rayet nebula, catalogued as NGC 2359, has a complex set of intersecting bubbles that, through the eyepiece, do take on the appearance of a Viking helmet with protruding horns, like you see in the Bugs Bunny cartoon operas! It’s a neat object to look at with as big a telescope as you can muster. And, as you can see, it’s rather photogenic as well, embedded in a rich field with faint star cluster companions.

– Alan, December 28, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Zooming into Canis Major – #2


IC 2177 Seagull Nebula Complex

Zooming in closer yet again to the field in Canis Major I showed in my previous post, I’m now framing the large nebula known as the Seagull. Perhaps you can see him flying through the stars.

The catalog number for this object is IC 2177, but the bright round nebula at right (the head of the Seagull?) is object #1 in the catalog of Australian astronomer Colin Gum. It’s also object #2327 in the familiar NGC listing that all stargazers use.

Some of this nebulosity is just visible through a small telescope, especially with the aid of a nebula filter than accentuates the emission lines – the colours – emitted by these kinds of glowing gas clouds.

This is certainly a photogenic field, with a nice mix of pinks, blues, purples and deep reds.

I used my 4-inch (105mm aperture) f/5.8 apo refractor to shoot this target, so the field is fairly narrow, framing what a telescope would show at very low power.

(FYI – The image info listed at left, automatically picked off the image’s EXIF data by the WordPress blog software, fails to record the focal length of the optics properly, as I didn’t use a standard camera lens but a telescope the camera doesn’t know about.)

I’ve been after a good shot of this object for some years, but haven’t been successful until this past observing run in Australia, in December 2012. While I can see and shoot the Seagull Nebula from home in Alberta, it’s always very low in my home sky. From Australia the challenge was framing the field with the Seagull overhead at the zenith. Just looking through the camera aimed straight up took some ground grovelling effort. Plus avoiding having the telescope hit the tripod as it tracked the object over the hour or so worth of exposures – typically 4 to 5 that I then stack to reduce noise.

– Alan, December 28, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Zooming into Canis Major – #1


M50 - M46/M47 Area Bino Field

My last post featured a wide view of Canis Major. Here, we zoom in closer to one of the most interesting regions in that constellation, filled with nebulas and clusters.

The prominent red arc is the Seagull Nebula, aka IC 2177. Above and to the right of the Seagull is a clump of stars called Messier 50, which lies over the border in the constellation of Monoceros the Unicorn.

At the lower left edge of the frame sits a pair of dissimilar star clusters, Messier 46 (the left one) and Messier 47 (the right one). M46 is a dense rich cluster of stars while M47 is brighter but looser and more scattered.

Several other non-Messier clusters punctuate the field. This is a great area of sky to explore with binoculars.

Just below centre you might see a small green-blue patch. That’s the nebula called Thor’s Helmet, or NGC 2359, a fine telescopic object.

If you get a clear night this season when the Moon is out of the way and you can head to a dark sky, Canis Major, the Hunting Dog, is a great hunting ground for deep-sky fans.

As the data at left shows, I shot this with a 135mm telephoto lens, giving a field of view similar to what binoculars would show.

– Alan, December 28, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Canis Major and the Dog Star


Canis Major from Australia (50mm 5DII)

Shining in the southern sky these nights are the stars of Canis Major, the big hunting dog of Orion the Hunter. Among them is the famous Dog Star, Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

Can you see a dog outlined in stars? Sirius marks his head – or it is sometimes depicted as a jewel in his collar. His hind legs and tail are at the bottom of the frame.

I shot this earlier this month from Australia, where Sirius and Canis Major stand high overhead. From northern latitudes you can see these stars due south low in the sky about midnight. Sirius is hard to miss, often sparkling through many colours as our atmosphere distorts its light. But as the photo shows, it is really a hot blue-white star. While it is intrinsically a bright star, much of its brilliance in our sky comes from its proximity, only 9 light years away from us.

For this portrait of the celestial canine I used a 50mm “normal” lens. The atmosphere provided some natural haze this night, to add the glows around the stars accentuating their colours.

This area of sky also contains several nebulas, notably the red arc of the Seagull Nebula to the left of Sirius. Below Sirius you can also see the star cluster Messier 41, a good target for binoculars.

Toward the left edge of the frame you can see a pair of star clusters, Messier 46 and Messier 47, two other excellent binocular objects in the Milky Way, which runs down the frame to the left of Canis Major. The dog is just climbing out of the Milky Way after a swim in this river of stars.

– Alan, December 28, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

The Christmas Tree Cluster


NGC 2264 Christmas Tree Cluster & Cone Nebula

 

The current night sky contains another seasonal sight, a cluster of stars called the Christmas Tree Cluster. Turn the image upside down and you might see it!

The bright star lies at the base of the Christmas tree and at the bottom of a tall triangle of blue and yellow stars that outlines – or decorates – the tree. At the top of the tree sits the dark Cone Nebula. The Tree also encompasses a bright blue dusty nebula reflecting the light of nearby stars and swirls of pink glowing hydrogen. At right sits a rich cluster of stars dimmed yellow by intervening dust. At bottom (south) in this photo you can also see a small V-shaped object. That’s Hubble’s Variable Nebula, a dust cloud studied by Edwin Hubble, one that varies in intensity with fluctuations in the main star embedded at its tip.

This rich area of sky lies above (north of) the subject of my previous post, the Rosette Nebula in the constellation of Monoceros the Unicorn. Very little of this is visible to the eye. The magic of photography is how it coaxes detail out of the sky that the eye alone cannot see.

– Alan, December 27, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

A Cosmic Wreath in the Sky


NGC 2237 Rosette Nebula

This is the Rosette Nebula, a celestial wreath 5,000 light years in the northern winter sky.

It is one of the most photogenic of nebulas, but is barely visible to even an aided eye as a ghostly grey arc of light around the central star cluster. Winds from the group of hot stars at the centre of the Rosette are blowing a hole in the cloud, creating the wreath-like shape of the Rosette.

While I shot this earlier this month from Australia, the Rosette lies far enough north in the constellation of Monoceros that northerners can see this cosmic wreath on any dark and clear winter night. It makes a beautiful decoration in our holiday sky.

Happy holidays to all!

– Alan, December 26, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

The Colourful Clouds of Orion – #2


The Nebulas of Orion v2

Swirls of pink, red and blue nebulas surround the Belt and Sword of Orion the Hunter.

For this closeup of Orion I used a 135mm telephoto lens under dark Australian skies to grab long exposures to reveal not only the bright Orion Nebula at bottom in Orion’s Sword, but also the Horsehead Nebula (below the left star of Orion’s Belt), Barnard’s Loop (at left) and the mass of red nebulosity between the Loop and the Belt & Sword. At right is a faint blue nebula reflecting the light of the hot blue stars in the area.

This is a gorgeous area of sky for the camera, but only the brightest nebulas, the tip of the cosmic iceberg, are visible to the eye even with the aid of a telescope.

– Alan, December 19, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

The Colourful Clouds of Orion – #1


Orion from Australia (50mm 5DII)

The constellation Orion is a hotbed of star formation, from masses of colourful clouds.

I shot this portrait of Orion the Hunter a few nights ago in Australia where Orion stands upside down compared to our view from up north. But I’ve turned around the photo here to put him right side up with head at the top and feet at the bottom.

The three stars in a row in the middle are his famous Belt stars. Below shines the nebulas that outline his Sword, among them the Orion Nebula, the subject of an earlier post last week

The giant arc is Barnard’s Loop, a bubble blown in space by the winds from hot new stars. The bubble around Orion’s head at top is a similar interstellar bubble. Most stars here are blue-white and hot, but the distinctively orange star is the red giant Betelgeuse, a good candidate for a supernova explosion.

Orion stands high in the sky at midnight these nights, summer here in Australia, but winter at home in Canada.

– Alan, December 19, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Remains of a Star: The Vela Supernova Remnant


Vela Supernova Remnant and Gum Nebulas

Amid a maze of glowing nebulas sits a tracery of magenta and cyan that was once a star.

This image takes in the Vela Supernova Remnant. You can see it as the lacework of gas in the centre of the field. Oddly enough, it sits in the middle of the vast Gum Nebula, the subject of my previous post, an object also thought to be a supernova remnant but one much older and closer. The Vela Supernova Remnant here likely comes from a supergiant star that exploded about 10,000 years ago. It, too, would have been quite a sight to the earliest of civilizations.

The field in the southern constellation of Vela also contains many other classic red and pink nebulas, but ones that are forming new stars, not the remains of dead ones. Most carry designations from astronomer Colin Gum’s catalog from the 1950s and have no numbers from the more familiar NGC or IC catalogs amateur stargazers refer to in their scanning of the skies. Yet, these Gum nebulas show up easily in photos.

I used a 135mm telephoto lens to take this image and it encompasses a field similar to what binoculars would frame. Except, it takes long exposure photos to show these nebulas. I looked last night at the Vela SNR with my 25cm reflector telescope and could just barely see the main arc of nebulosity as a grey ghost in the eyepiece. And that was under perfect dark Australian sky conditions.

– Alan, December 18, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Giant Bubble in the Southern Sky


Gum Nebula in Vela

 

The southern sky contains what must be the largest nebula in our sky, a giant bubble spanning a wide swath of the Milky Way.

This is the object known as the Gum Nebula. You can see it in my previous post, in the ultrawide view of the southern sky. Here I’m framing it with a normal 50mm lens that covers about 50° of sky. The Gum Nebula is completely invisible to the eye and shows up only on photos. It wasn’t even discovered until the 1950s, by Australian astronomer Colin Gum. It is #12 in his catalog of southern sky nebulas. I’ve always thought this was an example of an interstellar bubble, blown by intense winds from hot blue stars, of which there are many in this part of the Milky Way in Vela and Puppis. At left are the four stars of the False Cross in Carina and Vela.

But some sources claim this is a supernova remnant, the blasted remains of a star that blew up 1 to 2 million years ago. It is big because it is close by, just 450 to 1500 light years away depending on what side if the remnant you measure. If that’s the case, the star that exploded would have been quite a shadow-casting sight in our prehistoric sky, assuming it was that close to us when it blew up and was in the night sky at the time.

Either way, it is a great target for amateur photographers, and now with digital cameras it is easy to record. This night, some haze moving through added the photogenic glows around all the stars to bring out their colours.

– Alan, December 18, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

 

Ultrawide Southern Sky


Ultrawide Angle Southern Milky Way - December 2012

This horizon-to-horizon image takes in a broad sweep of the southern Milky Way from Orion to the Southern Cross.

At upper left shines bright Jupiter in Taurus and the stars of Orion, upside down. To the right of Orion is Sirius in Canis Major, the brightest star in the night sky. To the right of Sirius above the Milky Way is Canopus, the second brightest star in the night sky and one we don’t see from up north. The two satellite galaxy Magellanic Clouds are at upper right. Below them is the bright Milky Way through Carina and Crux, the Southern Cross. Alpha and Beta Centauri are just above the dark trees at right. This is the entire Milky Way you see on an early austral summer night from down under.

What stands out is the huge red bubble of gas called the Gum Nebula in Vela and Carina. It is strictly a photographic object but shows up well on red-sensitive digital cameras.

I shot this with a filter-modified Canon 5D Mark II camera and a 15mm wide-angle lens on a mount tracking the stars. It is a stack of four 6-minute exposures, shot from Australia a few nights ago under nearly perfect sky conditions.

– Alan, December 17, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

The Amazing Orion Nebula


Orion Nebula Complex, M42, M43, NGC 1973-5-7

My Australian nights are proving to be frequently and thankfully clear enough that I’ve got the luxury of shooting some familiar “home sky” objects. This is the famous Orion Nebula in the Sword of Orion, about 1500 light years away.

I’ve shot this nebula many times from the northern hemisphere but my Australian skies are darker than at home, and the nights a lot warmer than when this object is up in our winter sky.

The Orion Nebula is a complex consisting of Messier 42, the main nebula, M43, a small nebula attached to the north (above) and the bluish Running Man Nebula (can you see his dark figure?) at top that is officially catalogued as NGC 1973-5-7. Together, these make up the largest region of star formation in our corner of the Milky Way. It’s easy to see with the unaided eye on a dark night.

To shoot this, I blended three different exposures, short (4 x 1 minute), medium (4 x 5 minutes) and long (4 x 15 minutes), to preserve all the details from the intensely bright core our to the faint tendrils extending into deep space. I stacked the 4 frames taken at each of the exposure times, then blended those stacks using masks in Photoshop CS6 (and its wonderful and editable Refine Mask function) to mask out the overexposed area of the longer exposure and let the shorter exposure content shine through. The result is that the core still shows the little cluster of stars, the Trapezium, and the characteristic green tint of the core. But I applied lots of Curves to bring out the fainter bits and swirls in the periphery.

I shot this through my Astro-Physics Traveler 105mm refractor at f/5.8 using the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera, at ISO 400. This turned out to be certainly my best shot of Orion yet in my library.

– Alan, December 13, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Southern Spectacular in Carina


Carina Nebula

The Carina Nebula ranks as one of the most spectacular sights in the southern sky.

I shot this last night under perfect conditions. I’ve shot this nebula many times before but had to have a go at it again – I think this version is the best yet of many I’ve taken over the years of coming to the southern hemisphere to shoot the sky. I shot this through my 4-inch apo refractor with a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera. It’s a stack of five 12-minute exposures at ISO 400.

This massive nebula is the site of loads of star formation, and home to one massive young star, Eta Carinae, that is a prime candidate for a supernova explosion sometime soon. That will certainly stir things up in Carina. This object sits over 6,000 light years away in the next spiral arm in from ours, the Carina-Sagittarius Arm of the Milky Way.

Through the telescope it fills the field with intricate shades of grey — the colours show up only in photos – with one bright yellow star at the centre, Eta Carinae itself shrouded in the golden-hued nebula it cast off during its last explosive outburst in the 1840s.

Like the Large Magellanic Cloud, this is one object worth the trip to southern skies just to see for yourself.

– Alan, December 12, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

In the Lair of the Tarantula Nebula


NGC 2070 Tarantula Nebula area of LMC (105mm 5DII)

This is one of the most spectacular areas of the southern sky, around the lair of the Tarantula Nebula.

I shot this close up of the Large Magellanic Cloud last night, December 10, 2012 to frame the most interesting part of the LMC, the massive Tarantula Nebula. This star-forming region is much larger than any in our Milky Way, yet exists in a small dwarf galaxy that is a satellite of our Milky Way. But tidal forces from our Milky Way are torturing the Magellanic Clouds and stirring up massive amounts of star formation. If the Tarantula were as close to us as is the Orion Nebula some 1500 light years from us, the Tarantula would cover 30° of sky and cast shadows at night. Good thing perhaps that the wicked Tarantula is 160,000 light years away.

I shot this with my 105mm apo refractor. It’s a stack of 5 x 12 minute guided exposures, using the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera.

This is a wonderful region of sky to explore with any telescope. I had a great look at it through my 10-inch Dobsonian reflector last night. Well worth the trip to the southern hemisphere to see!

– Alan, December 11, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Australian Sky Panorama


Timor Cottage Panorama #1

This is the southern hemisphere sky in a 360° panorama.

From left to right in the sky, you can see:

– in the South: the two Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of the Milky Way

– in the West: the diagonal glow of Zodiacal Light

– in the North: Orion, Jupiter and the Pleiades above the outline of Timor Rock

– in the East: the southern Milky Way just rising

I shot this last night in the early evening, Sunday, December 9, from my observing site in Australia, Timor Cottage at Coonabarabran, NSW. It’s a panorama of 8 images, each a 1 minute untracked exposure with the 10-22mm lens at 10mm. I’m amazed at how well the sections join together, considering the stars are moving from one frame to the next and about 16 minutes separates the beginning and end frames.

– Alan, December 10, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Depth of Detail in the Large Magellanic Cloud


Large Magellanic Cloud (135mm)

If this was the only unique object in the southern sky that we couldn’t see from up North, then it would still be worth travelling south of the equator to see the southern sky.

This is the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our Milky Way. Being “just” 160,000 light years away (as opposed to millions of light years for most galaxies) this object is large (it fills the field of binoculars) and is rich in detail. Just look at all the pinkish nebulas dotting its ragged structure. The biggest is near the bottom, the massive Tarantula Nebula. Through a telescope there is so much to see in this object it takes careful comparisons with charts and atlases over several nights just to figure out what all the nebulas and clusters are in the eyepiece. It is a deep-sky observer’s dream object. While several professional astronomers have made their careers studying just the Magellanic Clouds.

Once classed as an irregular, ragged galaxy, the “LMC” is now thought of as a barred spiral. I think this photo suggests the two spiral arms coming off the top and bottom of the central elongated bar.

I shot this last night, under a perfect night of viewing in Coonabarabran, Australia, using a 135mm telephoto lens. The field is similar to what you see in binoculars though the long exposure (this is a stack of ten 5-minute tracked exposures) brings out more detail than the eye can see. Compare this wide view with a higher magnification shot I took two years ago from the same location. Both are good but I like this wider view better as it sets this big object into the celestial frame of the surrounding night sky.

– Alan, December 6, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Cottage Under the Southern Stars


Timor Cottage & Magellanic Clouds

 

Here’s what heaven on Earth looks like to an amateur astronomer.

It’s a cottage all to myself under some of the darkest skies on Earth, and in the southern hemisphere where all the best stuff is in the sky. This is Timor Cottage near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia, the self-proclaimed Astronomy Capital of Australia. Near Coona sits Siding Spring Observatory, home to Australia’s largest collection of optical research telescopes. I’m staying nearby, at this cottage under the stars doing my own southern sky explorations.

I was here in December 2010 but had to contend with torrential rains and floods two years ago. As you can see, the weather is much better in 2012!

This is a one minute exposure looking south, toward the most prominent objects in the southern evening sky at this time of year: the two Magellanic Clouds. They look like detached parts of the Milky Way but are separate dwarf galaxies orbiting our Galaxy and in the process of being ripped apart by our Galaxy’s tidal forces.

The red light at left is my other camera taking a shot of the Clouds through a telescope, the subject of my next blog.

It’s a perfect night when the only clouds in the sky are the Magellanic Clouds!

– Alan, December 6, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Regal Colours of Cassiopeia


 

Sitting on the border of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus is this royal cloak of pinks and reds.

Too faint to see even in a small telescope, the main cloud of nebulosity is called NGC 7822, with a companion cloud below known as Cederblad 214. Rather cold names for a stunning region of space.

I love the colours in this field. The camera I use is modified to bring out the reds of glowing hydrogen but also nicely picks up blues and purples, which mix to provide subtle shades of pink and magenta. There are even yellows and greens from dust clouds.

Yes, I’ve certainly punched up the colour and contrast quite a bit from what came out of the camera, but I tried to retain a “natural” colour balance, not skewing the palette too far to the deeply saturated monotone red I see in some images of nebulas.

I shot this Saturday night, October 6, from my backyard on a fine autumn night for stargazing and star shooting. It’s a stack of eight 12-minute exposures, “median” combined to eliminate the satellite trails that crossed several frames.

– Alan, October 6, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

City of Stars


Some 3 billion years from now we are going to collide with this galaxy.

This is the famous Andromeda Galaxy, now 2.5 million light years from us but getting closer by the day! Andromeda, a.k.a. Messier 31, is the most distant object readily visible to the naked eye. It now shines high overhead for us in the northern hemisphere.

I asked Siri, my iPad assistant, how many stars are in the Andromeda Galaxy, and she said one trillion. She’s right. Recent estimates put Andromeda’s stellar population at 3 or 4 times that of our own Milky Way Galaxy. It’s also bigger. Measuring from the outermost extremities of the disk gives a diameter of over 200,000 light years, twice the size of our home galaxy.

I took this shot last week. It’s stack of five 15-minute exposures with a new Lunt 80mm refractor. The long exposures bring out the faint halo of stars extending beyond the main bright disk, the part you see in a telescope. You can also see Andromeda’s two close companion galaxies: M32, looking like a fuzzy star below the core; and M110, the elliptical galaxy above the core and connected to the main galaxy by a bridge of faint stars.

– Alan, September 27, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Star Birth Site


In contrast to last Saturday’s post, Star Death Site, this is a place where stars are born.

This magenta cloud is where dozens of new stars are forming. One centre of star formation is the finger at right jutting into the hollowed out core of the nebula. Ultra-violet radiation from nearby hot stars is eroding away this dark finger of dust and gas, causing its rim to glow. This is a feature similar to the famous “Pillars of Creation” depicting in Hubble Space Telescope views of another nebula, the Eagle Nebula. However, this giant wreath of hydrogen 3000 light years away has no name, just the catalog number IC 1396. It’s in Cepheus, high in the northern autumn sky.

An added attraction of the scene is the orange star at top, Herschel’s Garnet Star, a.k.a. mu Cephei. This red supergiant is one of the largest stars known. If it replaced our Sun the Garnet Star would engulf all the planets out to Jupiter. Including its profuse radiation emitted in the infrared, the Garnet Star outshines the Sun by 350,000 times. It is squandering its energy so quickly this supergiant is destined to explode as a supernova, perhaps leaving behind a remnant like the Veil Nebula I described in that earlier blog from a few days ago.

These deep space wonders are all part of the great cycle of stardust that fuels the Galaxy.

– Alan, September 25, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Star Death Site


This is the graveyard of where a star died at the dawn of civilization.

The Veil Nebula, made of several fragments, is the remains of a star that exploded as a supernova some 5000 to 8000 years ago. With a telescope you can see this deep sky wonder high overhead these nights, in Cygnus the swan. A decent sized telescope, say 15 to 25cm diameter, can show a lot of the detail recorded here, but only in black-and-white. It takes a photo to pick up the magentas, from glowing hydrogen, and cyans, from oxygen being excited into shining by the shockwave created as the expanding cloud ploughs into the surrounding interstellar gas.

The whole complex is called the Veil Nebula but the segment at right passing through the star 52 Cygni is called the Witch’s Broom Nebula.

I shot this from home a couple of nights ago during a continuing run of typically fine fall weather, which usually brings the best nights of the year for astronomy. For this shot I used a new Lunt 80mm apochromatic refractor on loan for testing. It works very well! This is a stack of five 15-minute exposures.

– Alan, September 22, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Goodness Gracious! A Great Ball of Stars!


This is what half a million stars look like when packed into one big ball. 

This is the globular star cluster called Messier 22, in Sagittarius. It’s the biggest and best such object visible from Canadian latitudes, though it always sits low in our summer sky. M22 is one of 150 or so such spherical clusters of stars that orbit our Milky Way. This one sits 10,000 light years away from us, toward the centre of the Galaxy. Those half million stars are packed into a sphere 100 light years across. In our sky it appears as big as the Full Moon, though not as bright of course. But just imagine the sky if you can view it from the centre of M22. The heavens would be ablaze with stars. 

I shot this with the 130mm refractor at f/6. It’s a stack of just three 4-minute exposures with the Canon 7D. Though M22 was low above the southern horizon from the Cypress Hills where I shot this, the final image turned out pretty well. 

– Alan, August 30, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

The Northern Nebulas of the Milky Way


This is the prime celestial real estate above us now on northern summer nights.

This wide-angle shot takes in the Milky Way from Cygnus at right to Perseus at left, an area populated by lots of nebulas, both bright and dark. A couple of previous posts (The Subtle Shades of Cepheus and The Dark Clouds of Cygnus) featured close-up views of sections of this sky, the areas at centre in this wider context image in northern Cygnus and southern Cepheus.

At bottom is the elliptical glow of the Andromeda Galaxy, another “milky way” beyond ours.

I boosted the contrast and colour more than I normally do for astrophotos, to punch out the nebulas and the subtle dark lanes of dust that permeate this part of the Milky Way. I shot this last weekend from the star party in Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan. With three clear nights it was a productive weekend!

– Alan, August 26, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

The Subtle Shades of Cepheus


The Milky Way in Cepheus presents a palette of colours revealed in long exposures.

This binocular-sized field contains the large magenta nebula IC 1396, a site of star formation. On its northern (upper) edge shines the orange star Mu Cephei, otherwise known as Herschel’s Garnet Star, for its very red appearance in the eyepiece. It is a bloated red supergiant, one of the largest stars known. A few other stars in the field are younger blue giants. Faint wisps of red hydrogen fill the field (the faint crescent at right is Sharpless 129, left of centre is Sharpless 132, at top left is NGC 7380). Diagonally along the Milky Way lie dark, yellow-tinted dust clouds. The darkest patch at centre is the Barnard 169/170/171 complex. These contrast with the dust-free blue starfields of the Milky Way at left.

This is a stack of five 5-minute exposures with the 135mm telephoto and Canon 5D MkII camera, which has been filter modified to record the faint red nebulas better than a stock camera.

– Alan, August 25, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

The Dark Clouds of Cygnus


Stare into the starfields of Cygnus and ponder what lies undiscovered in our part of the Milky Way.

You are looking down the spiral arm we live in, into clouds of stars seemingly packed together. Every one of those specks is a sun like ours. With planets? Very likely, as we now know.

Amid the stars float glowing red clouds of hydrogen gas. The North America Nebula shines at lower right.

Snaking northward from the “arctic” region of the bright nebula is a river of dust that broadens into a delta of dark nebulosity. Once thought to be holes in the sky allowing us to see deeper into space, we know now that these dark nebulas are really foreground dust clouds filled with the soot of dying stars, carbon dust that absorbs starlight and obscures the more distant parts of the Milky Way.

This dust cloud is called Le Gentil 3, named for the 18th century French astronomer who first noted its position in the sky. Le Gentil’s dust cloud is one of the easiest features of the summer Milky Way to see. Look north of Deneb, the bright star at the right of the image, and with the unaided eye on a dark moonless night you’ll see what looks like a dark hole in the Milky Way. That’s Le Gentil 3.

I use this dust cloud as a measure of sky brightness. On a truly dark night, Le Gentil 3 looks darker than any other area of sky, even relatively starless regions off the Milky Way. Most of the sky brightness we see from a dark site is really starlight. But Le Gentil’s proximity and opaqueness makes it appear darker than the more distant starlit sky background.

This image covers about the width of a binocular field. I shot it from the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan this past weekend, using the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600 and Canon 135mm telephoto lens at f/2.8. It’s a stack of 10 five-minute exposures.

— Alan, August 22, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

A Cloud of Stars in Scutum


This is a binocular-sized gulp of sky in the northern summer Milky Way. Countless stars form a bright patch in the Milky Way called the Scutum Starcloud, named for the odd little constellation of Scutum the Shield that contains it.

Visible to the naked eye, this star cloud is a rich area for binoculars or a small telescope. One favourite object of stargazers lies embedded in the star cloud and can be seen here as a bright clump of stars at left of centre. That’s the Wild Duck Cluster, or Messier 11, a dense and populous cluster of stars within the already star-packed Scutum Starcloud. Look in this direction into the Milky Way and you are looking toward the next spiral arm in from ours, some 6,000 light years away.

The immensity of stars in just this small area of sky is hard to fathom. That’s why it’s called deep space!

– Alan, August 9, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Continent in the Sky


Shining overhead on northern summer nights right now is the blue supergiant star Deneb, in Cygnus. Nearby glow the magenta clouds of the North America Nebula.

This image shot with a telephoto lens takes in roughly the same field of view as a pair of binoculars. But being a long time exposure it reveals much more of the faint nebula than even the aided eye can see. However, even binoculars will show a greyish cloud near Deneb in roughly the shape of North America. It is actually a continent of stars and hydrogen gas, glowing with hydrogen’s characteristic magenta colour, a mix of deep red and blue emission lines. The gas may be electrified into glowing by the searing radiation from the star Deneb, some 1400 light years away from Earth.

I shot this on a July night, with some haze passing by during some of the exposures. The haze added the photogenic glows around the stars.

— Alan, August 8, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

A River of Starlight and Dust


 

Look up on a dark summer night in the northern hemisphere and you see a river of stars flowing across the sky.

This is the Milky Way, a glowing mass of millions of distant stars populating the spiral arms of the Galaxy we live in. Lining the arms are lanes of dark interstellar dust, seen here splitting the Milky Way in two from the bright red North America Nebula at top, down to the core of the Galaxy in Sagittarius on the horizon. The dust is the soot created in stars and blown into space to form a new generation stars and planets.

This ultra-wide-angle scene takes in almost the entire summer Milky Way from the southern horizon to beyond the zenith overhead at top. I shot this a couple of nights ago from my rural backyard on a particularly transparent and dark night. It was heaven on Earth.

— Alan, July 26, 2012 / © @ 2012 Alan Dyer

 

A Star Dies in a Distant Corner of the Sky


OK, it’s just a dot. But that dot is a massive star ending its life in a titanic supernova explosion.

Unlike all the other stars in this picture, which are close by in the foreground of our own Milky Way Galaxy, that one star indicated is 38 million light years away. It lies in another galaxy altogether, in the outer spiral arm of the galaxy M95. Discovered on March 16, Supernova SN 2012aw is now shining with the light of a hundred million suns as it blasts most of its starstuff into space.

It is these types of stellar explosions that seed the universe with the elements heavier than lead.

I took this shot Monday, April 9 through my 5-inch refractor, an instrument not ideally suited for shooting small objects like galaxies. But its wider field here does take in not just M95 but also its companion in space, the spiral M96 at left. Both are barred spiral galaxies in Leo, on the list of targets compiled by Charles Messier in the late 18th century and favourites of backyard astronomers. It’s rare to get a supernova as bright as this (anyone with a modest telescope can see it) letting off in a well-known “top 100” galaxy like M95.

Take a look on the next clear night, and contemplate the cosmic forces at work to make visible a single star across a gulf of 38 million light years.

— Alan, April 10, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Chariot of the Sky


Auriga the Charioteer rides high across the northern winter sky these nights. This is a wide-field image I took last week of the constellation that now shines overhead from northern latitudes.

My image takes in all of Auriga, the pentagon-shaped charioteer of Roman mythology, as well as the feet of Gemini the twins, spanning a wide area of the winter Milky Way. Sprinkled along this bit of Milky Way you can see a few clusters of stars. They include four of the best open star clusters in the catalogue of Charles Messier: M35 in Gemini at bottom, and M36, M37 and M38 in Auriga at centre, all wonderful targets for a small telescope. Some of these targets lie in the next spiral arm out from the one we live in.

The star colours show up nicely here, with the brightest star at top appearing a little off white. That’s Capella, 42 light years away and classified as a type G “yellow” star not unlike our own Sun in temperature but much larger – a giant star. Indeed, it is really two yellow-giant stars in close orbit around each other. It’s interesting that Capella doesn’t really show up as yellow. Just like our Sun does to our eyes, Capella appears white because it still emits such a broad range of colours that even though its peak energy does fall in the yellow part of the spectrum, all the other colours remain strong enough that the star looks white to our eyes. Remember, our eyes evolved under the light of a type G star to see all the colours of the spectrum from red to blue.

Only the cool red giant stars take on a yellow or orange hue to our eyes, and to the camera. You can see a few in this image, as well as hot blue stars. The pinky red bits are nebulas in the Milky Way – clouds of hydrogen gas emitting deep red light.

When we look in this direction in the Milky Way we are looking out toward the edge of our Galaxy, exactly opposite the galactic centre.

– Alan, February 21, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

The Rose of Winter


While I took this shot three weeks ago, I’ve only just got around to processing it. This is a nebula-filled region of the northern winter sky in the constellation of Monoceros, the unicorn.

The highlight is the rose-like Rosette Nebula at bottom, an interstellar flower of glowing hydrogen where new stars are forming. Above it, at centre, is a mass of pink, blue and deep red nebulosity that forms the Monoceros Complex. All lie in our local corner of the Milky Way, in a spiral arm fragment called the Orion Spur, a hotbed of star formation.

This field, shot with a 135mm telephoto lens, sits to the left of Orion and spans about a hand width at arm’s length. It would take a couple of binocular fields to contain it. Next on my astrophoto agenda – shooting some close ups of selected bits of Monoceros, shots that have eluded me till now.

— Alan, February 12, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Celestial Pinks and Blues


 

Who says the dark night sky isn’t colourful? Of course, to the naked eye it mostly is, with the darkness punctuated only with a few red, yellow and blues stars. But expose a camera for long enough and all kinds of colour begins to appear.

This region is above us now, in the Northern Hemisphere evening sky for mid-winter. It’s the boundary area between Taurus and Perseus. Below are the vivid blues of the hot young Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. At top, just squeezing into the frame, is the shocking pink of the California Nebula, a glowing cloud of hydrogen gas in Perseus.

But between are the subtle hues of faint nebulosity weaving all through the Perseus-Taurus border zone. Below are faint cyans and blues from dust clouds reflecting the light of the Pleiades stars. In the middle are the yellow-browns of dark dust clouds hardly emitting light at all, but snaking across the frame to end in a complex of pink and blue straddling the border collectively known as IC 348 and IC 1333. At top, the glowing hydrogen gas of the California emits a mix of red and blue wavelengths, creating the hot pink tones, but fading to a deeper red to the left as the nebula thins out to the east. Throughout, hot blue stars pepper the sky and help illuminate the dust and gas clouds which will likely form more hot stars in the eons to come.

I took this shot last Wednesday night, on one of the few clear, haze-free nights of late. This is a “piggybacked shot,” with the Canon 5D MkII camera going along for the ride on one of my tracking mounts. This final shot is a stack of five 6-minute exposures, highly processed to bring out the faint clouds barely brighter than the sky itself. The camera was equipped with a 135mm telephoto lens, giving a field of view a couple of binocular fields wide. Hold out your hand and your outstretched palm would nicely cover  this area of sky. But only the camera reveals what is actually there.

— Alan, January 29, 2012 / Image © 2012 Alan Dyer

Set the Controls for Triangulum


 

Spiral galaxies are icons of deep space. This one is a classic. This is the Triangulum Galaxy, named for its home constellation. Amateur astronomers also know it as M33, the 33rd entry in Charles Messier’s catalog of deep sky objects compiled in the 1780s. To Messier, object #33 was another fuzzy spot he and others might confuse for comets, the objects astronomers of the day were really after.

It wasn’t until 1850 that the Earl of Rosse, observing with his monster Leviathan of Parsonstown, a 72-inch reflector telescope, managed to see M33 as something more than a nebulous glow. He saw what the photo clearly shows — spiral arms swirling around a central core. However, in those days, such “spiral nebulae” were thought to be whirlpools of gas where stars and solar systems were forming.

It wasn’t until the 1920s, with the work of Edwin Hubble, that objects like M33 were proven to be other galaxies like our Milky Way, each composed of billions of stars.

We now know the Triangulum Galaxy lies about 3 million light years away, and is about half the size of our Milky Way. That makes it the third largest member of our Local Group of galaxies, after our own Milky Way and the famous Andromeda Galaxy.

For this shot of M33, taken September 25, I stacked 6 images, each a 12-minute exposure at ISO 800 and f/6, shot with my Astro-Physics 130mm refractor and Canon 7D camera. Visible along the galaxy’s spiral arms you can see some of the reddish and cyan-coloured nebulas that are sites of active star formation in M33.

— Alan, Oct 7, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Milky Way Mosaic


Centre of the Milky Way Panorama (2011)

It’s taken me a few months to get around to the task, but at last! — my mosaic of the Milky Way I shot in Chile back in May.

The panorama is made up of 6 frames, stitched and blended together, extending from Crux, the Southern Cross (at right) to Aquila the eagle (at left) — a sweep of the Milky Way from Acrux to Altair! The mosaic is centred on the core of the Galaxy in Sagittarius and Scorpius.

Panoramas like this allow you to step back a distance and take in the big picture:

— You can see the large-scale structure of the dust clouds and the odd diagonal sweep of many of the clouds cutting across the plane of the Galaxy. I’ve never heard an explanation of why the dust lanes seem to have that structure and direction. I also see a 3D effect, with the nearby dust clouds hanging in front of and obscuring the bright starclouds of the distant inner spirals arms of our Galaxy.

— Also apparent are the extensive dust clouds at left extending from Ophiuchus (at top) down into Aquila, well below the plane of the Galaxy. Most wide-angle shots of the Milky Way I see tend to process out the subtle brown clouds that extend far off the Galactic plane. And they are brown, not black.

— And what really stands out is the band of bright blue stars from Scorpius (at top centre) to the right above the Milky Way through Lupus, Centaurus then down into Crux. This is a section of Gould’s Belt, a ring of hot blue stars around the sky that runs at an angle of about 20° to the Milky Way. This ring of hot, nearby stars surrounds us in our spiral arm and is thought to be only about 65 million years old, likely caused by some disturbance in our spiral arm which set off a wave of star formation close to us.

— And … as my Australian friends will point out, you can see the entire Dark Emu, made of the dust lanes from the Coal Sack in Crux at right (his head and beak), through the curving lanes in Centaurus (his neck), then sweeping up and over the centre of the Galaxy (his body) then down into Scutum and Aquila (his two feet and his tail).

I took this panorama from the Atacama Lodge in north central Chile, using the Canon 5D MkII and Canon 35mm lens. Each of the 6 segments that went into this pan was itself a stack of 4 x 6 minute exposures, plus a fifth exposure through a soft-focus filter, all at f/4 and ISO 800. The camera was on a Kenko SkyMemo tracking platform. I assembled the pan with Photoshop CS5’s Photomerge command. This is actually only half of the full panorama mosaic, which extends for another 5 segments to the right along the Milky Way to Orion, taking in the entire southern portion of the Milky Way. But this is the best bit!

— Alan, Oct 2, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Comet and the Cluster


This was the scene Monday night and into Tuesday morning, August 1/2, as a relatively new comet to our skies passed a bright globular cluster known as M15 in Pegasus. The comet is Comet Garradd, or more formally C/2009 P1. Here it glows with the characteristic cyan tint of many comets and sports a stubby fan-shaped tail.

As comets move across the sky they often appear near prominent deep-sky objects for a night or two before moving on. Comet Garradd has a number of such encounters coming up: with the globular cluster M71 on August 26, and then near the neat Coathanger cluster September 1 through 3.

Comet Garradd can be spotted now from a dark site in big astronomy binoculars and is a fine sight in a telescope. However, it is well below the threshold of naked-eye brightness and is expected to remain so as it moves high across the summer sky from east to west and then into the western evening sky in late autumn. It is certainly well-placed for viewing, but only comet aficionados are likely to pay much attention to it. Plus astrophotographers taking advantage of photo ops like this one.

— Alan, August 2, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer


The Glowing Heart of Cygnus


Look straight up on a summer night in the northern hemisphere and you are looking into this region of sky. This is the centre — the heart — of Cygnus the swan, marked here by the bright star called Sadr, or Gamma Cygni.

While the star is easily visible to the unaided eye, the glowing clouds of gas surrounding it are not. Only long exposure images reveal the amazing swirls of nebulosity in the middle of Cygnus.

The main cloud at left, split by a dark lane of dust, is catalogued as IC 1318. The little crescent-shaped nebula at right is NGC 6888, or more appropriately, the Crescent Nebula. It formed when a hot giant star blew off its outer layers, to add to the general melee of hydrogen and other elements. But note the little blue reflection nebulas at top left. Oddly out of place!

New stars are forming in this region, located about 1500 light years away down the Cygnus arm that we live in, in the Milky Way Galaxy.

This field can be framed nicely by binoculars or a low-power telescope, but only the brightest bits of this nebulosity will show up in the eyepiece as grey ghosts, and then only with the aid of a specialized nebula filter.

I took this shot on Saturday night, July 30, 2011 with the Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph lens and Canon 5D MkII camera. Other stats are similar to the previous blog post. It’s certainly my best shot of this area of sky.

— Alan, August 1, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

 

The Eagle and the Swan


Though they are truly “nebulous,” these clouds of interstellar gas carry fanciful names — our human attempt to make sense of the vast chaotic forms that pervade deep space.

Above is the Eagle Nebula, a.k.a. Messier 16. Below lies the Swan Nebula, a.k.a. Messier 17. Through a telescope to the eye these nebulas do take on the imagined shape of interstellar birds flying along the Milky Way. But long exposure images like this bring out far more than the eye can see. The entire field, here about the width of what high-power binoculars take in, is filled with swirls of hydrogen gas, glowing in its characteristic red colour.

The Eagle Nebula lies in the constellation of Serpens the serpent, while the Swan Nebula lies just over the border in Sagittarius the archer.

I took this shot Saturday night, July 30, 2011, on one the few perfect nights of observing we get here in Canada — the night was warm, dry, with little wind and no mosquitoes. I could venture out with just a sweater on for a bit of warmth. A far cry from the parkas and down-filled boots normally needed.

This field is a first for me from Canada. I’ve shot it from Australia and Chile, where these objects lie overhead, never from home in Alberta at a latitude of 51° North. But the night was so transparent, the field was worth going after, despite it being low on the southern horizon and at its best for no more than an hour after it got dark.

To shoot the field, I used the wonderful little Borg 77mm f/4 astrographic refractor, effectively a 300mm telephoto lens but far sharper and flatter than most telephotos made for sports and wildlife. The camera was the Canon 5D MkII, a filter-modified version that has a special filter for passing more of the deep red colour of hydrogen. But the real difference here was the use of a filter at the focus of the telescope that further isolated the red wavelengths and blocked other colours that might have otherwise fogged the image, especially from a field so low on the horizon. It worked great, though does tend to render the whole field on the red side.

— Alan, July 31, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

 

Into the Heart of the Scorpion


Here we peer into the heart of Scorpius, to a place where the sky is painted with pastel hues unlike anywhere else in the heavens.

The yellow star at bottom is Antares, the cool supergiant star that marks the heart of the Scorpion. To the right is Messier 4, a globular cluster of thousands of stars. Wrapping the entire field are shrouds of dust, reflecting the yellow light of Antares and the blue light of hotter stars above, such as Rho Ophiuchi at top right. Glowing hydrogen gas clouds add the magenta hues.

The remarkable feature of this field are the dark fingers, clouds of dark interstellar stardust glowing with a dim yellowy-brown hue. In places the clouds become more opaque and intense, blocking any light from background stars. Those clouds must be close by in our galactic spiral arm because few stars lie between us and their dark masses. Estimates put them about 400 light years away.

The entire region is a busy factory of star making, one of the closest to our Sun. Chances are our solar system formed in a similar star factory 5 billion years ago, one that has long since dissolved away and dispersed around the Galaxy.

Like the previous shot, this is a Canon 7D/135mm telephoto image in a stack of six 2-minute exposures, taken from Chile in early May. I find it remarkable that with digital cameras just 2-minute exposures not only bring out the dark nebulas, but actually show them with colour and tonality. In the old days, film shots 20 minutes long only ever showed them as a mass of underexposed and featureless black.

— Alan, June 16, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Off the Stinger Stars of Scorpius


Off the tail of Scorpius lies one of the great starry regions of the Milky Way. From southern Canada the Scorpion’s Tail barely clears our horizon at this time of year, on June nights. But from farther south, Scorpius crawls high into the sky — and the sky actually gets dark at solstice, so stargazers can see the starclouds of Scorpius in all their glory.

At right, the blue stars mark the “stinger” at the end of the Scorpion’s tail. The brightest one, called Shaula, or Lambda Scorpii, is a hot blue giant star some 10,000 times more luminous than our own modest Sun. It is also a triple star, with another luminous blue star orbiting it, plus a third odd mystery star thought to be either a neutron star or perhaps a young proto-object still in the process of forming a proper “main-sequence” normal star.

To the left lie two prominent clusters of stars: at top the Butterfly Cluster (a.k.a. Messier 6), a bright group of stars sitting amid a dark bay of dust. Below it, almost lost in the stars, is Ptolemy’s Cluster (a.k.a. Messier 7), that is an obvious sight to the unaided eye – so obvious the Greek astronomer Ptolemy catalogued it in 130 AD. Several other star clusters pepper the field.

This telephoto lens shot frames the field as binoculars would show it. I took this from Chile in early May, using the Canon 7D and 135mm lens, for a stack of six 2-minute exposures at f/2.8 and ISO 1250.

— Alan, June 16, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

 

 

A Window in the Stars


In this part of the sky the Milky Way takes on a surprising palette of hues. And it’s all due to dust.

The centrepiece of this shot is a bright star cloud in Sagittarius called, well, the Sagittarius Star Cloud! But not the Large one. This is the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud, a.k.a. Messier 24, a mass of stars with a single black eye. The dark spot, called Barnard 92, is a dense and opaque cloud of dust. Stardust — clouds of carbon soot blown out by aging stars — weaves all through this scene, creating the dark canyons winding through the stars. Obscuring dust also dims much of the background stars and discolours most of this part of the Milky Way a yellowish brown. It’s the same effect that dims the setting Sun a deep orange or red, as its light shines through haze and dust in the sky.

But here, the Star Cloud looks bluish and “cleaner.” That part of the Milky Way has less dust in front of it. And yet it is much farther away than the yellow dusty starfields around it. When we look toward the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud we are looking through a dust-free window, allowing us to see unencumbered right past our Galaxy’s nearby Sagittarius-Carina spiral arm to glimpse a dense part of the more distant Norma Arm, an inner spiral arm of our Milky Way Galaxy about 12,000 to 16,000 light years away.

To the lower right of M24 is M23, a rich cluster of stars 2,000 light years away, nearby by galactic standards, and so sits suspended in front of the fainter star background. The pinkish nebula at top is Messier 17, the Swan Nebula.

I took this shot May 2 from Chile, using the Canon 7D and 135 lens, for a stack of six 2-minute exposures.

— Alan, June 7, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

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