Chasing Meteors


Geminid Meteor Radiant in Gemini

Meteors were raining down the sky on the peak night of the Geminid meteor shower.

Back in August, when I wrote my column for the November-December issue of our Canadian magazine SkyNews, I noticed how good the circumstances were this year for the annual Geminid meteor shower. Normally one of the best showers of the year, if not the best, the Geminids were really going to perform in 2017.

The Moon was near new so its light would not interfere. For western North America, the peak of the shower was also timed for midnight on the night of December 13/14, just when the radiant of the shower was high in the sky.

Raining Geminid Meteors
The Geminids rain down the sky from the radiant in Gemini high overhead on peak night.

So in August when I saw the favourable combination of circumstances, I decided a meteor chase was in order. While the shower would be visible from home, Geminid peak night in December is often bitterly cold or cloudy at home in Alberta.

So I planned a trek to Arizona, for the shower and the winter sky.

While skies at home proved decent after all, it was still a chase worth making, with the shower visible under the perfectly clear and dry skies of southeast Arizona.

My chosen site was the Quailway Cottage near the Arizona Sky Village, the chosen dark sky site for many amateur astronomers, and at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains. Skies are dark!

Sky Dust - Interplanetary and Interstellar
The Zodiacal Light (left) and Milky Way over the Chiricahuas.

The Zodiacal Light was brilliant in the southwest sky for several hours after sunset. A tough sighting at this time of year from most sites, this glow was obvious in the Arizona sky. It is sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system.

Geminid Meteor Shower in the Winter Milky Way
Geminids streaking from Gemini as the winter sky rises.

On the peak night, the visual impression was of meteors appearing at a rate of at least one a minute, if not more frequently.

Geminid Meteor Radiant in Gemini
A tracked composite looking up toward Orion and Gemini.

The images here are all composites of dozens of exposures taken over 2 to 5 hours, stacking many meteors on one frame. So they do provide an exaggerated record of the shower. Meteors weren’t filling the sky! But you certainly did not have to wait long for one to appear, making this one of the best meteor showers in many years.

Geminid Meteors over the Chiricahuas
Geminids falling over the Chiricahuas as Orion sets at the end of the peak night.

Most of the Geminids were of average brightness. I didn’t see, nor did the camera catch many very bright “bolides,” the really brilliant meteors that light up the ground.

Bright Geminid Meteor Descending
A bright Geminid pierces Ursa Major.

Nevertheless, this was a night to remember, and a fine way to end what has been a superlative year of stargazing, with a total solar eclipse, great auroras, and for me, a wonderful stay under southern skies on an April trip to Australia.

All the best of the season to you and your family and friends. Clear skies!

Here’s to 2018, which begins with a total eclipse of the Moon on January 31.

— Alan, December 23, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

The Perseids Perform


Radiant of the Perseid Meteor Shower (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TECHNICAL:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Capturing the Quadrantids


Quadrantid Meteor Shower Composite

The Quadrantid meteors streaked out of the northern sky on a fine winter’s night.

The temperature was mild and skies clear in the early evening for the annual Quadrantid meteor shower. This is a prolific but short-lived shower with a brief peak. The cold and low altitude of its radiant point keeps this shower from becoming better known.

This was the first year I can recall shooting it. I had some success during a 2-hour shoot on January 3, from 9 to 11 pm MST.

The result above is a stack of 14 images, the best out of 600 shot that recorded meteors. The ground and sky comes from one image with the best Quad of the night, and the other meteor images were masked and layered into that image, with no attempt to align their paths with the moving radiant point.

However, over the 2 hours, the radiant point low in the north would not have moved too much, as it rose higher into the northern sky.

Most of the meteors here are Quads, but the very bright bolide at left, while it looks like it is coming from the radiant, it is actually streaking toward the radiant, and is not a Quadrantid. But oh so close! I left it in the composite for the sake of the nice composition!

Light clouds moving in added the natural star glows around the Big Dipper stars.

All frames were 10 seconds at f/2 with the 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.

— Alan, January 4, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

New Year’s Eve Sky: Aurora, Orion, and a Comet


New Year's Eve Winter Sky

The New Year’s sky was filled with Northern Lights, a panorama of stars, and a comet at dawn.

It was a busy night for stargazing as 2015 turned to 2016. A fine display of Northern Lights kicked off the celebrations, as curtains danced in the east as Orion rose (below).

New Year's Eve Aurora, Dec. 31, 2015

Toward midnight the Lights kicked up again, now with Jupiter (on the horizon) and Leo rising in the east (below).

New Year's Eve Aurora #2 (Dec 31, 2015)

I shot hundreds of frames for time-lapse sequences, and assembled them into a short music video. Click on the buttons to enlarge it to HD.


 


 

Just before midnight, while the second time-lapse was going and the aurora was still active, but before the Last Quarter Moon rose to light the sky, I shot a set of tracked images taking in the entire winter sky from horizon to well past the zenith.

That image is at top. It takes in the winter sky and northern winter Milky Way,  from Canis Major just above the horizon, up past Orion, then on up to Perseus and Cassiopeia at top right.

It shows how Orion and Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, stand nearly due south at midnight on New Year’s Eve.


 

Comet Catalina near Arcturus on New Year's Day
Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) near Arcturus in the constellation of Bootes, at pre-dawn on the morning of January 1, 2016, with the Last Quarter Moon nearby illluminating the sky. A long, faint ion tail is visible extending 2 to 3 degrees to the right while a brighter but stubby dust tail extends down to the south. Shot from home using the 200mm Canon telephoto and 1.4x extender at f/4.5 for a stack of 8 x 2-minute exposures at ISO 800 with the Canon 6D. Median combined stacked to eliminate satellite trails. The comet is slightly blurred due to its own motion in that time.
The final show of the night, now before dawn on New Year’s Day 2016, was Comet Catalina sitting right next to the bright spring star Arcturus. The comet was visible in the moonlight as a fuzzy object next to brilliant Arcturus, but the photo begins to show its faint tails, just standing out in the moonlit sky.

The comet will become more visible later this month once the waning Moon exits the dawn sky, as Catalina is expected to remain a nice binocular comet for most of the month as it heads high into northern sky.

Happy New Year to all! Have a celestial 2016!

 

Don’t forget, you can download my free 2016 Sky Calendar as a PDF. See my previous blog for details and the link. 

— Alan, January 1, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / amazing sky.com

Meteor Shower over the VLA


Raining Meteors over the VLA Dishes

Meteors from the Geminid shower rain over the dishes of the VLA radio telescope.

Sunday night was a prime night for the annual Geminid meteor shower, one of the best of the year. To capture it, I traveled to the Plains of San Agustin in the high desert of New Mexico.

It’s there that the National Radio Astronomy Observatory operates the 27 dishes of the Very Large Array radio telescope, one of the most photogenic – and photographed – astronomical facilities in the world.

I set up at a viewing point near the entrance, to look northwest over the dishes, arrayed that night, and all season, in its most compact configuration, with all the dishes clustered closest together.

It was an active meteor shower! One particularly bright meteor left a persistent “train” – a smoke trail that lasted over 15 minutes. It creates the fuzzy cloud around the meteor at right. The bright bolide is on two frames, as the shutter closed then opened again as the meteor was still flying! So its bright streak got cut in two. Pity!

I shot with two cameras. The image here is from one, using a 35mm lens to shoot 334 frames over 3 hours. Each exposure was 32 seconds at f/2 and at ISO 3200.

I’ve taken about two dozen of the frames, the ones with meteors, and stacked them here, with the sky and ground coming from one frame. The camera was not tracking the sky.

Bands of natural airglow and clouds illuminated by the lights of Albuquerque to the north add colour to the sky.

I would have shot for longer than three hours, but this was a very cold night, with a brisk wind and temperatures below freezing. A snowstorm had even closed some roads the day before. Three hours was enough on the high plains of San Agustin this night.

— Alan, December 14, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Venus and the Comet


Comet Catalina near Venus (Dec 9, 2015)

Comet Catalina sports two tails as it moves past Venus in the dawn sky.

This was the view this morning, December 9, from my site in Arizona, of Comet Catalina near Venus in the dawn sky. This is a telephoto lens shot that provides a view similar in size to what binoculars show.

However, the blue ion tail visible here stretching back several degrees is mostly a photographic target. Visually, just Catalina’s short, stubby dust tail at lower right is obvious.

The ion tail points away from the Sun, while the dust tail extends along the comet’s orbit, showing where the comet has been.

The view, both visually and photographically, of the comet will improve as it climbs higher into the eastern morning sky and as it moves away from the glare of Venus. The Moon is also now gone from the dawn, at least for the next couple of weeks.

The comet is dimmer than expected but should at least maintain this brightness for the next month or so.

Technical:

This is a stack of 5 x 90-second exposures, taken with the 135mm telephoto and 1.4x extender for a focal length of 190mm, at f/2.8 and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, tracked on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. Two other exposures, of 15s and 1s, were blended in with luminosity masks to reduce the glare of Venus to a smaller size.

— Alan, December 9, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Comets, Conjunctions, and Occultations, Oh My!


The Moon, Venus and Comet Catalina

What a morning of sky sights, both before dawn and after sunrise.

December 7 – This was the prime day I came to Arizona to enjoy, to be better assured of clear skies. As it turned out this will likely be the cloudiest day of the week here, but skies were clear enough for a fine view of a conjunction and an occultation. The comet was a bonus.

Waning Moon and Venus Rising in Conjunction
This is a stack of 5 exposures: 30, 8, 2, 0.5 and 1/8s, blended with luminosity masks as HDR would not blend images with such a large range of brightness and content, with the shortest exposures having almost no content execept for two bright objects! The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker to follow the sky and keep the sky targets stationary and aligned, thus the blurred foreground. All with the 135mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 400.

At 4 a.m. the waning crescent Moon rose accompanied by Venus, as the two worlds appeared in close conjunction in the pre-dawn sky. The view above captures the scene as the Moon and Venus rose over the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico. Comet Catalina is in this scene but barely visible.

The Moon, Venus and Comet Catalina
This is a stack of 6 exposures: 30, 8, 2, 0.5, 1/8s and 1/30s, blended with luminosity masks as HDR would not blend images with such a large range of brightness and content, with the shortest exposures having almost no content execept for two bright objects! The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker to follow the sky and keep the sky targets stationary and aligned. All with the 135mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

An hour or so later, with the Moon and Venus higher and with skies a little less cloudy, I was able to capture this scene, above, that included Comet Catalina, as a tiny blue dot next to Venus and the Moon. But if I hadn’t labeled it, you wouldn’t know it was there! The comet is proving to be less wonderful than anticipated, and any cloud dims the view even more.

I had hoped for a superb scene of a bright comet next to the two brightest objects in the night sky. But comets do what comets do — surprise people with unexpected brightness (as Comet Lovejoy did last January) or with disappointing dimness … or by disappearing altogether, as Comet ISON did two years ago. I came here in December 2013, to this same location on the Arizona-New Mexico border, to catch ISON but no luck there at all!

Moon & Venus Conjunction at Sunrise (Dec 7, 2015)
This is a stack of 7 exposures from 10 seconds to 0.3 seconds at 1 stop intervals and blended with luminosity masks, to compress the huge range in brightness from the bright Moon and Venus, plus horizon sky, and the darker sky and sunrise clouds. All with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D.

Regardless of the comet, the conjunction of the Moon and Venus was stunning, about as good as such events get. Here’s the view, above, an hour later again, with the eastern sky brightening in the dawn twilight. The only thing that would have made this event even more spectacular is if the Moon had actually covered up Venus in this twilight sky. Not quite.

Daytime Occultation of Venus (Dec 7, 2015)
The occultation of Venus by the waning crescent Moon in the daytime on Monday, December 7 at 9:30 am local time. This is just about 3 minutes before the actual occultation as the advancing Moon is about to cover Venus on the bright limb of the Moon. This is a frame from a 100-frame time lapse. Unfortunately, as I shot this on my trip to Arizona, I did not have more focal length than the 135mm and 1.4x extender used here.

For the occultation itself, we had to wait until well after sunrise for an event in the blue daytime sky, at 9:30 a.m. local time.

All of North America got to see this fairly rare occultation of Venus by the Moon, albeit in the daytime. Nevertheless, the two objects are so bright, this was visible to the unaided eye, even with some cloud about. In binoculars it was wonderful.

To shoot it, all I had was a telephoto lens, so the image scale doesn’t do the event justice. But the image above provides a good impression of the binocular view, with Venus as a brilliant jewel on the “ring” of the Moon.

— Alan, December 7, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

A Plethora of Perseids


A composite depicting the Perseid meteor shower on the night of Wednesday, August 12, 2015 as shot from southern Alberta, Canada.  The image takes in a wide swath of the north and eastern sky, including the radiant of the shower in Perseus at left of centre, near the Double Cluster visible as a clump of stars. All the Perseids can be traced back to this point. Also in the image: the summer Milky Way and, at left, a dim aurora in green and magenta that was barely visible to the eye but was picked up by the camera. The Andromeda Galaxy is at centre. The Pleiades is just on the horizon. Apart from some haze from forest fire smoke, it was a near perfect night: warm, dry, just a little wind to keep the bugs at bay, and no Moon. A perfect night for a meteor watch.  This is a layered stack of 35 images recording three dozen meteors (most Perseids but also a couple of sporadics not aimed back to the radiant in Perseus, such as the bright one at far left).  The 35 images were selected from 200 shot from 11 pm to 2:30 am that night, with most frames not picking up any meteors. This composite is from the 35 taken over the 3.5 hours that did record a meteor. Each exposure is 1 minute at f/2.8 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye, on the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200 (a couple of the early shots in the sequence were at ISO 1600 for 2 minutes).  The camera was tracking the sky on the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracker, so all images of the stars are aligned and registered out of the camera, with the meteors in their proper position relative to the stars and radiant. I masked out a couple of satellite and aircraft trails that were distracting, and took away from the point of illustrating the radiant of the meteor shower.  The horizon, however, is from one image, taken early in the sequence. Some of the blue in the sky comes from one of the early shots taken in deep twilight but that contained a nice meteor. And I liked the blue it added.  All stacking and processing with Adobe Ca

It was a good year for Perseid meteors, as they shot across the sky in abundance on dark-of-the-Moon nights.

Last week, August 11 and 12 proved to be superb for weather in southern Alberta, with clear skies and warm temperatures perfect for a night of watching and shooting meteors.

On both nights I had identical camera rigs running, all from my rural backyard. These images are from the peak night, Wednesday, August 12.

The main image at top is with a 15mm ultra wide lens, on a camera that was tracking the sky as it turned. Like many meteor photos these days it is a layered stack of many images, in this case 35, to put as many meteors as possible onto one frame.

While the result does illustrate the effect of meteors streaking away from the radiant point, here in Perseus, it does lend a false impression of what the shower was like. It took me 3.5 hours of shooting to capture all of those meteors.

Note the aurora as well.

The Perseid meteor shower on peak night of Wednesday, August 12, 2015, showing meteors radiating from the “radiant point” in northern Perseus, then rising in the northeast sky. One bright sporadic, non-Perseid meteor is at left, and a small sporadic is near the horizon at right. The meteor at far left, top, may be a satellite streak.  The Andromeda Galaxy is at upper right. A dim aurora is at left in the northeast. The setting is a ripening canola field at home.  This is a stack of 16 images, one for the “base layer” ground and sky, containing a bright meteor, and 15 other images taken as part of the same sequence, each containing a meteor, layered with Photoshop using Lighten blend mode. I rotated each of the additional “meteor layers” around Polaris at upper left, so the sky aligned closely, putting the meteors in close to their correct position relative to the stars, to accurately illustrate the radiant effect. This was necessary as this sequence was shot with a fixed, non-tracking camera (the Canon 6D) using a 14mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8. Each exposure was 1 minute at ISO 3200. The 16 meteor frames came from a set of 212 frames taken over 3.5 hours. I layered in only the frames with meteors.  Frames were taken from 11 pm to 2:30 am MDT.

With this camera I used a wide 14mm lens, but with the camera on a fixed tripod. I again blended frames, 16 of them, to show the meteors radiating from Perseus.

Because the camera was not tracking the sky, later in Photoshop I rotated each frame relative to a lower “base-level” image, rotating them around Polaris at top as the sky does, in order to line up the stars and have the meteors appear in their correct position relative to the background stars and radiant point.

Note the errant bright “sporadic” meteor not part of the shower.

The Perseid meteors shooting through Cygnus and the Summer Triangle area of the summer Milky Way, on the night of Wednesday, August 12, 2015. Deneb is the star at top left, Vega at top right, and Altair at bottom. The Perseids shoot across the frame from top left to bottom right. Other streaks are sporadic meteors or short satellite trails. I masked out other long satellite trails that were distracting to the image’s focus on depicting Perseids. This is a stack of 24 images, each with a meteor or two, taken over a 3.5-hour period that night, with each exposure being 1 minute at f/2, with the 24mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 1600. The 24 image with meteors were selected from a total of 214 shot for this sequence, with most frames not recording any meteor, and perhaps only satellites or aircraft.

Camera number 3 was aimed straight up for 3.5 hours, toward Cygnus and the Summer Triangle, in hopes of nabbing that brilliant fireball streaking down the Milky Way. I got a nice “rain of meteors” effect but the bright bolide meteor eluded me.

This was certainly the best year for the Perseids in some time, with it coinciding with New Moon.

Later this year, the Geminids will also put on a good show at nearly New Moon, on the nights of December 13 and 14. So if you liked, or missed, the Perseids, take note of the dates in December.

However, for many of us, a Geminid watch is a very, cold and snowy affair!

— Alan, August 18, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Comet Lovejoy in Andromeda


Comet Lovejoy in Andromeda

Comet Lovejoy appears in Andromeda as the comet fades into the distance. 

This was the view Monday night, February 9, with Comet Lovejoy now moving slowly north through Andromeda. From a dark site it is now still visible to the unaided. In binoculars a short tail was just barely visible. But even in photos the comet has lost most of its long blue tail it sported last month.

The view above takes in the W of Cassiopeia at top, and some of the stars of Andromeda at bottom. The Andromeda Galaxy is at right. I’ve arrowed the comet, a fuzzy star green star.

Zodiacal Light & Milky Way

Shortly after I shot Lovejoy’s portrait I shot this image of the evening Zodiacal Light, the tower of light at left. At right is the setting autumn Milky Way. At the base of the Zodiacal Light is bright Venus just setting, with fainter Mars above it.

The next two weeks are ideal for sighting the Zodiacal Light. For more on what’s up in the sky now, see my previous blog.

Clear skies!

– Alan, February 9, 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 

Night of the Comet


Comet Lovejoy's Long Ion Tail in Taurus

What a beautifully photogenic comet Lovejoy is proving to be! 

On Friday, January 16, I caught Comet Lovejoy crossing the ecliptic as it travels through Taurus. The long exposure above shows it amid the star clusters, nebulas, and dark clouds of Taurus and Perseus.

The blue Pleiades is at centre, and the red California Nebula is at top. Throughout are the dark tendrils of the dusty Taurus Dark Clouds.

The long blue ion tail of Lovejoy now extends back 15° to 20° on photos and is easy to trace for half that distance in binoculars in a dark sky.

I turned the top photo 90° to orient the comet so it points “down.”

Comet Lovejoy Nightscape (Jan 16, 2015)

However, this wide-angle nightscape shows the real orientation of the comet, high in the sky above Orion, here rising over the rock formations of City of Rocks State Park, my favourite dark sky site in this area of New Mexico.

Comet Lovejoy Crossing the Ecliptic (Jan 16, 2015)

Taken earlier in the evening, this ultra-wide image shows the comet at top, with its blue tail oriented along the ecliptic and aligned with the Zodiacal Light, from the glow of sunlight reflecting off comet dust in the inner solar system.

The Zodiacal Light follows the ecliptic, the plane of the solar system and where we find the planets, such as Mars and Venus at bottom here. The comet seems to point toward the Sun, now below the horizon here at the base of the Zodiacal Light. That’s just as it should be! Comet gas tails always point away from the Sun, as they are blown away from the comet’s head by the solar wind.

This night Comet Lovejoy was crossing the ecliptic, as its orbit continues to take it north in a path almost perpendicular to the ecliptic. While planets orbit in the ecliptic plane, most comets do not. They can have orbits oriented at all kinds of angles off the ecliptic plane.

But on January 16 Comet Lovejoy crossed the ecliptic, placing it at the apex of the Zodiacal Light.

Comet Lovejoy & Zodiacal Light (Jan 16, 2015)

This wider view takes in the Zodiacal Light, the comet and Orion rising at left.

This was a marvellous “night of the comet.”

— Alan, January 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

A Stunning Sky of Subtle Glows


Zodiacal Light Panorama (Circular)

What a fabulous night! The desert sky was full of subtle glows and myriad stars.

Friday, January 16 was a stunning evening for stargazing. I took the opportunity to shoot a 360° panorama of the evening sky, recording a host of subtle glows.

The Zodiacal Light reaches up from the western horizon and the last vestiges of evening twilight. This is the glow of sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system. From the clear desert skies it is brilliant.

The dark of the Moon periods in January, February and March are the best times of the year to see the evening Zodiacal Light from the northern hemisphere.

The Milky Way arches across the eastern sky from Cygnus to Canis Major. That’s light from billions of stars in our Galaxy.

At centre, in the circular fish-eye image above, is the small wisp of green Comet Lovejoy, near the zenith overhead and appearing at the apex of the Zodiacal Light’s tapering pyramid of light.

Zodiacal Light Panorama (Rectilinear)

This view is from the same images used to create the circular all-sky scene at top, but projected in a rectangular 360° format.

Technical notes:

I shot 8 segments for the panorama, each a 1-minute exposure at f/2.8 with a 15mm lens oriented in portrait mode, and using a Canon 6D at ISO 3200. There was no tracking – the camera was just on a tripod. Each segment is 45° apart.

I used PTGui software to stitch the segments into one seamless scene.

— Alan, January 16, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Comet Lovejoy Moving Amid the Stars


Comet Lovejoy near the Pleiades (Jan 15, 2015)

Comet Lovejoy is now at its best. I captured a time-lapse of it moving through the stars.

Last night I shot Comet Lovejoy with a couple of cameras. One, using a telephoto lens, captured the green comet with its long blue ion tail near the blue Pleiades star cluster (at top). The comet is passing west of the Pleiades over the next few nights, providing some wonderfully photogenic compositions.

Clear skies most of the night allowed me to also shoot through the telescope, taking 280 close-up images of the comet over 5 hours as the telescope tracked the stars. Assembled into a time-lapse movie, the result shows the comet slowly gliding against the background stars in its orbit around the Sun.

Expand the video frame to see it properly.

Each of the 280 frames is a 1-minute exposure, taken at ISO 6400, using a TMB 92mm refractor at f/4.4. I started the sequence just before 7pm and ended it just before midnight. So the movie records about 5 hours of motion.

Toward the end some cloud drifting through causes the stars to bloat up momentarily. And as the comet set lower into the west sky conditions got worse compared to the start of the sequence when the comet was at its highest in the south.

However, judicious processing using the time-lapse software LRTimelapse and Sequence helped compensate for the changing sky conditions.

Do take a look at this fine comet. The tail is visible in binoculars from a dark site.

– Alan, January 16, 2015 / © Alan Dyer 2015 / amazingsky.com

Finding Lovejoy in the Stars


Comet Lovejoy near Pleiades

The coming week is the best time to sight Comet Lovejoy as it sails through Taurus.

Here’s a finder chart for locating Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) over the next week as it climbs higher in our southern sky. It is well-placed high in the south as it gets dark each evening.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t pass near any really bright stars to serve as a convenient jumping off point for finding the comet. Look west (right) of the stars of Taurus the bull and the bright star Aldebaran by 2 to 3 binocular fields. In a dark sky, look for a fuzzy star in your binoculars. Once you find it with optics, if your sky is dark enough, you should be able to see it naked eye, but only just. In the city, forget it!

On the nights of January 17 to 19 Comet Lovejoy will be just over a binocular field to the right (west) of the distinctive Pleiades star cluster, marked here as M45, for Messier 45.

Comet Lovejoy in Taurus (Jan 10, 2015)

Here’s the comet as it appeared on Saturday night, January 10, with it west of the V-shaped Hyades star cluster marking the head of Taurus and well below the Pleiades at top.

Comet Lovejoy's Long Ion Tail

This is a closer view, with a telephoto lens, of the comet from Sunday night, January 11, showing how its faint blue ion tail stretches back several degrees. However, only the long exposures used here pick up the full extent of the tail. Visually, even through binoculars, just a hint of a tail is visible extending to the left away from the large fuzzy coma, or head of the comet.

Comet Lovejoy Thru the Telescope (Jan 11, 2015)

This is a closer view of the coma and ion tail, shot through a telescope on Sunday night, January 11. It shows some of the fine structure in the ion tail that is changing hourly and nightly, shaped in part by gusts of solar wind.

The comet is now at at its brightest, while the evening sky is now dark and moonless. So head to a dark sky site, keep warm, and look up to enjoy our winter comet, coming to us from Australia where it was discovered by Terry Lovejoy.

Chart courtesy Starry Night™/Simulation Curriculum.

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

Catching A Comet


Comet Lovejoy Through a Telescope

Tonight I caught a close-up of the green head and blue tail of Comet Lovejoy.

Clear skies tonight, Tuesday, January 6, allowed me to shoot Comet Lovejoy from home using a telescope and guiding system for a close-up view. I had just over half an hour of darkness between end of twilight at 6:30 and moonrise at 7:15 but that’s all I needed to grab several guided exposures.

This telescopic shot takes in a field of about 5 by 3 degrees, a little smaller than what most binoculars would show.

The image is a stack of four 2-minute exposures with the telescope guiding on the fast-moving comet. Comet Lovejoy is now at its closest point to Earth and moving fairly rapidly across the sky. So I guided on the comet, letting the stars trail slightly over the 8 minutes of exposure time.

The head of the comet glows bright green in photos, from glowing diatomic carbon, while the tail glows blue from other ionized gases streaming away from the head, or coma. The source of it all is a tiny icy nucleus completely hidden from view amid the glowing gases.

Comet Lovejoy was easy in binoculars, which showed a bare hint of the tail in dark skies. I could see the comet naked eye, but only by knowing just where to look. It appeared as a slightly fuzzy star, but unless you knew what you were looking at you wouldn’t know it was comet. This is a binocular comet for dark skies. But a very nice binocular comet.

– Alan, January 6, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

Comet on the Rocks


Orion & Comet Lovejoy over City of Rocks

Comet Lovejoy glows above the granite spires of City of Rocks State Park. 

With clouds forecast for the rest of the week I made the best of it tonight and headed out to my favourite local spot for nightscape images, the City of Rocks State Park on Highway 180 between Silver City and Deming, New Mexico.

It was a quick photo session tonight. I arrived at just the right time to catch the comet and Orion rising behind the rock formations, with the moonlight beginning to illuminate the rocky rims.

The comet is the small green spot just right of centre at the top. It is now climbing quite high in the southern sky as it comes up north. I could see it easily in binoculars as a large fuzzy spot and I thought I could just make it out with unaided eyes once I knew just where to look.

This will be a fine comet for binoculars once the Moon gets out of the way later this week, though you will need to be at a dark site. The comet is diffuse and will be utterly washed out by city lights. This is no Hale-Bopp! But as comets go, Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 is a nice one.

— Alan, January 5, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

Comet Lovejoy in the Moonlight


Orion and Comet Lovejoy in Moonlight #2

Sunday night, January 4, proved stunningly clear, ideal for seeing and shooting Comet Lovejoy in the moonlight.

Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is moving rapidly north and this week sits just west of Orion. To capture it tonight I went out to the City of Rocks State Park, seeking a scenic foreground, with Orion rising with the comet.

The Full Moon is just off frame at left, unavoidably glaring into the frame.

Comet Lovejoy appears as a small green fuzzy spot at upper right.

Orion and Comet Lovejoy in Moonlight #1

In this view I had to crop Orion in order to fit in the landscape and the comet, at upper right. Three short aircraft contrails appear at the bottom. The Full Moon illuminates the southern New Mexico landscape.

In the coming week, with the Moon rising later each night, and the comet climbing higher, it will become much easier to see in a dark sky.

However, while Comet Lovejoy might be technically visible to the unaided eye, you really need binoculars to pick it out. We’ll see if it sports much of a tail once we sight it again in a dark moonless sky.

– Alan, January 4, 2015 / © 2015 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 Comet for Christmas


Comet Lovejoy (C/2104 Q2) on Dec 23, 2014

Comet Lovejoy has migrated from the southern sky to appear in our northern sky for the holiday season.

This was Comet Lovejoy, aka C/2014 Q2, as it appeared on Tuesday night, December 23. It was low in the south well below Orion in the constellation of Columba the dove. It was easy to see in binoculars as a 5th magnitude fuzzy star. My long exposure photo reveals its thin blue ion tail.

I could just see the comet naked eye, knowing exactly where to look. However, I’m at 32° North latitude, placing the comet now decently high in my New Mexico sky.

The comet was discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy last August when the comet was way down under in the southern sky. But it is now moving rapidly north and brightening, bringing northern observers a binocular comet for the holidays.

However, the Moon is now coming up and will interfere with viewing later in the week. However, in mid-January Comet Lovejoy will be very high in the sky as its moves through Taurus, with the Moon out of the way.

By then the comet may be brighter and a naked eye object from dark sites. But don’t expect it to be anything more than a fuzzy star. This comet never gets close to the Sun, so isn’t likely to grow a bright dust tail.

For more details see the SkyNews magazine web page.

– Alan, December 24, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

A Lone Geminid Meteor


Lone Geminid Meteor (Dec 12, 2014)

A lone meteor streaks away from the constellation of Gemini, part of the annual Geminid meteor shower.

Once again, as I did last month for the Leonid shower, I set up two cameras firing away hundreds of frames in hope that some would record a few meteors from the annual Geminid shower now going on.

I took about 700 frames, but only this one picked up a meteor. Clouds did intervene for a while – that’s when the brightest meteors would have appeared I’m sure. I observed from my front patio for a while and saw several Geminids, including two beautifully bright ones. But of course, both were just outside the field of both cameras.

I shot the shower tonight, Friday, the night before the peak on Saturday, as the forecast calls for cloud for the rest of the weekend here in southern New Mexico.

So this may be my best shot of the 2014 Geminid meteors.

– Alan, December 12, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Meteors and Space Stations over Mt. Cephren


Perseid Meteors over Mt. Cephren, Banff

A couple of Perseid meteors streak across the moonlit sky above Mt. Cephren in Banff National Park.

The night before the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower was very clear for the first couple of hours. On Monday, August 11, I positioned myself at the shore of Lower Waterfowl Lake, at a roadside viewpoint on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park, Alberta.

I had two cameras going, one on a fixed tripod aimed west in hope of catching some meteors in a few frames. Two did, and the main image is a composite of those two frames, as the Perseids shoot over the pyramid peak of Mt. Cephren.

Space Station over Mt. Cephren, Banff (Composite)

Later, the Space Station also flew over, accompanied by the European ATV cargo ship, captured here in a stack of 18 frames from the 555-frame time-lapse, showing their pass from west to east (bottom to top) of the composite image. The gaps are from when the shutter was closed for 1 second between the 15-second-long exposures with the 14mm ultra-wide lens.

In all, it was a warm and beautiful night, with the normally busy viewpoint all to myself all night, under the light of the nearly Full Moon.

The mountains by moonlight are truly magical.

– Alan, August 13, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

What Was That Glow in the Sky?


Here’s a time-lapse of the strange glow of light that moved across the northern sky on the night of the Camelopardalid meteor shower.

What I thought was an odd curtain of slow-moving, colourless aurora — and I’ve seen those before — has many people who also saw it suspecting it was a glow from a fuel dump from an orbiting satellite. Perhaps.

This short time-lapse of 22 frames covers about 22 minutes starting at 11:59 pm MDT on May 23 (as logged by the camera’s GPS). Each frame is a 60-second exposure taken at 2 second intervals. I’m playing them back at one frame per second.

The camera was on a tracking platform to follow the stars — thus the ground slowly rotates. This was one of the cameras I had operating the night of May 23-24 to capture meteors from the Camelopardalid meteor shower. The shower was a dud, but …

The most interesting thing my cameras did catch was this odd glow which started large and diffuse and then became more defined as it got smaller and moved off (or so it appears) to the north, then fades away. My photos (and I have it on frames from another camera), and photos taken by other observers across North America, show a faint satellite moving along south to north parallel to the cloud’s long axis. Is this the culprit that caused the cloud? If so, it would have to be very high to be seen from a wide range of longitudes – astronomers in Manitoba and Minnesota also saw and shot it.

But any fuel dumps I’ve seen always have clouds that start small and concentrated then become large and diffuse. This did the opposite.

I’ll await further analysis and explanation.

P.S.: You can watch a better version of the movie here at my Flickr site.

— Alan, May 25, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

Goodbye Winter Sky – 2014 Edition


Orion Setting & Zodiacal Light (24mm 6D)

After a brutal winter for most of us in the northern hemisphere, we’re glad to see the last of the winter sky.

This was the scene on Tuesday night, April 29 as the last of the winter sky descended into the evening twilight.

Here, Orion (left of centre) sets into the western sky, next to the gossamer glow of the zodiacal light (right of centre). The stars of Taurus sit amid the zodiacal light, with the Pleiades just about to set behind the ridge. Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, shines at far left.

The zodiacal light is the glow of sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system. It is a glow from interplanetary space, not from our atmosphere. Spring is the best time to see it in the evening sky, no matter your hemisphere. It also helps to be in the desert of the U.S. Southwest!

I took this parting shot of the winter sky from a favourite observing haunt from years’ past, Massai Point, at 6800 feet altitude in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. The sky was perfectly clear and the night warm and windless. I’m back in Arizona and New Mexico for a few days, checking out accommodations for a long-term stay next winter, so I won’t have to endure the snow and cold that plagued us last winter. Good bye winter sky! Good bye winter!

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

 

 

 

Music Video – Sky Events of 2013


 

My 2-minute music video looks back at some of the celestial highlights of 2013, in images and videos I captured. 

Some of the events and scenes I show were accessible to everyone who looked up. But some required a special effort to see.

• In 2013 we had a couple of nice comets though not the spectacle hoped for from Comet ISON.

• Chris Hadfield became a media star beaming videos and tweets from the Space Station. We on Earth could look up and see his home sailing through the stars.

• The sky hosted a few nice conjunctions of planets, notably Mars, Venus and Jupiter in late May.

• The Sun reached its peak in solar activity (we think!) unleashing solar storms and some wonderful displays of northern lights.

• Locally, record rain storms in Alberta unleashed floods of devastating consequences in June, with a much publicized super moon in the sky.

• For me, the summer proved a productive one for shooting the “star” of the summer sky, the Milky Way.

• But the year-end finale was most certainly the total eclipse of the Sun on November 3. Few people saw it. I did, from a ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The video ends with that sight and experience, the finest the sky has to offer.

I hope you enjoy this music video mix of time-lapse, real-time video and still images, shot from Alberta, New Mexico and from the Atlantic.

You can watch a better quality version of this video at my Vimeo channel.

Clear skies for 2014!

– Alan, January 1, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Geminid Meteors by Moonlight at the VLA


VLA by Moonlight with Geminid Meteor #1

A Geminid meteor in the moonlight streaks over a dish of the Very Large Array.

Tonight I was out at the VLA, the iconic radio telescope array on the high desert Plains of San Agustin in central New Mexico. Over three hours I shot 325 frames for a time-lapse movie, hoping that a few would “catch a falling star” or two.

Tonight was peak night for the annual Geminid meteor shower so the chances were better than normal. The Geminids are one of the best performing meteor showers of the year.

Despite the peak occurring in the evening, conditions weren’t ideal. Light from the gibbous Moon lit the landscape nicely but did wash out many meteors. Of course, I just wanted some bright ones anyway! Also, clouds drifted in and out all evening – mostly in!

At top, you can see a faint Geminid meteor shooting up from Gemini the twins, visible rising at lower right, with Jupiter (now in Gemini) marking the constellation’s location.

VLA by Moonlight with Geminid Meteor #2

In this image I moved the camera, but the array was also now pointed at a new target in the sky so the dishes were turned to look west. This shot captures another faint-ish Geminid streaking toward Orion, just right of centre.

I didn’t nab the grand and brilliant meteor I had hoped for but it was a wonderful moonlit evening under the stars, watching the dishes dance the night away.

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

Zodiacal Light and the Phantom Comet


Zodiacal Light at Dawn from New Mexico (Dec 2013)

The Zodiacal Light shines bright in the New Mexico dawn, near where the ill-fated Comet ISON would have been.

This was the dawn sky on the morning of December 6, 2013 looking east from our observing site at the Painted Pony Resort in New Mexico.

The zodiacal light was bright pre-dawn extending up from the horizon to high overhead. This glow is from sunlight reflected off comet dust in the inner solar system.

Adding to that cloud of dust is presumably the remains of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) – this image includes the position where ISON would have appeared had it survived, with its head left of centre, just left of the zodiacal light, and just above the mountain ridge. Its tail would have arched up and to the left, had it grown an extensive dust tail as was hoped.

As it is, there is a comet in the field – Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) is a tiny blue blip at far left, a minor consolation prize for missing ISON. Pity ISON didn’t work out, as we would have had two photogenic and naked eye comets in the dawn sky together.

The field also contains two planets: Mars in Leo above and right of centre, and Saturn in Libra just coming up over the mountains in the middle of the zodiacal light. Both lie in the zodiacal light because the light follows the ecliptic – i.e. the plane of the solar system and the orbits of the planets.

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

Enjoying Lovejoy, the Consolation Comet


Comet Lovejoy from New Mexico (Dec 6, 2013)

Comet Lovejoy shines above the New Mexico desert in the pre-dawn sky. 

We came here for Comet ISON but have had to settle for Comet Lovejoy, a decent enough comet in the morning sky, but not the spectacle we had hoped for.

This was Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) as it appeared this morning, December 6, under very good New Mexico skies marred only by some scattered clouds and patches of airglow. The main image is a 50mm lens shot of the wide scene looking east.

The comet was visible to the naked eye, but just barely as a fuzzy star. It took the long exposure photos to bring out its blue ion tail, stretching 6° to 10° across the sky and pointed down toward the sunrise point in the east.

Comet Lovejoy from New Mexico (Dec 6, 2013) 135mm

I took the close-up shot above with a 135mm telephoto lens showing the bright head and faint ion tail. The tail here measures 6° long, though a deeper exposure might have picked up more, up to 10° long. But I think reports of seeing a tail up to 5° long with the naked eye are wishful seeing. The comet and tail are not that obvious, and we are in superb skies.

Still, Lovejoy makes a fine comet consolation prize, substituting for the ill-fated Comet ISON. It was a beautiful morning to enjoy Lovejoy in the quiet and star-filled New Mexico dawn.

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

Comet ISON at Perihelion (Actual vs. Predicted Paths)


 

I superimposed the actual footage of Comet ISON passing by the Sun onto a graphic simulating its predicted path around the Sun at perihelion. They match!

This is an animation of Comet ISON at perihelion. I superimposed the actual SOHO satellite movie footage, released Friday, Nov 29, onto a still-image sky background (created with Starry Night™ software) that shows the scene at the moment of perihelion, and that displays the predicted orbital path of ISON plus labels the stars.

You’ll see the star fields (real and simulated) register fairly closely (check Antares at lower left) around the time of perihelion. It’s neat how the comet follows its predicted path! Well, of course! Newtonian gravity stills rules the solar system.

But I am amazed at how well the simulation (which is done from the viewpoint of the surface of Earth) lines up with the real movie (which was taken by the SOHO satellite from the L1 point 1.5 million km away from Earth but in the Earth-Sun line).

Click here for a more recent version using the SOHO footage released November 30, available at my Flickr site

— Alan, November 29, 2013, revised Nov. 30 /with credit to StarryNight™/Simulation Curriculum and to NASA/ESA

Comet Lovejoy Beside the Big Dipper


Comet Lovejoy & Big Dipper (Nov 27, 2013)

The handle of the Big Dipper seems to point down to Comet Lovejoy, low in the northern sky.

While the astronomy world waits and watches as Comet ISON rounds the Sun in the next day, another comet is appearing in the evening sky.

This is Comet Lovejoy, aka C/2013 R1, captured in a set of exposures I took about 6:30 pm on Wednesday evening, November 27, when the comet shone off the handle of the Big Dipper. It was not visible to the naked eye but was easy in binoculars. The photo shows Comet Lovejoy as cyan-tinted star at left with a spiky tail pointed away from the Sun.

From my latitude of 51° N Comet Lovejoy sits far enough north to be circumpolar, though just barely. However, as it heads south it will become just a morning sky object, especially for those at more southerly latitudes. In the coming days it will join Comet ISON (or what’s left of it) in the December dawn.

– Alan, November 27, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

Sundiving Comet ISON – A Last Look


Comet ISON C/2012 S1 (Nov 21, 2013)

Comet ISON performs its dive toward the Sun, caught in the morning twilight.

This was the infamous and much-hyped Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) as it appeared this morning, November 21, 2013, a week before it performs its hairpin turn around the Sun.

The comet was easy to see in binoculars, though the camera picks up a bit more of its faint tail. ISON was much more photogenic a week ago when it was higher in a darker and moonless sky. But this morning I had to contend with bright moonlight from a waning Moon and the brightening dawn. The inset shows a blow up of just the comet.

ISON is dropping rapidly toward the Sun, making this perhaps the last sighting I’ll have of it until it reappears – we hope! – from behind the Sun in early December. If it survives its perihelion passage it might blossom into brilliance … or fade into obscurity. No one knows.

In the photo above, you can see Mercury at left, shining much brighter than ISON. It was brilliant as it rose into the southeast sky, with the elusive planet now about as well-placed as it gets as a “morning star” for us living at northern latitudes.

Comet Lovejoy C/2013 R1 (Nov 21, 2013)

This morning I was able to shoot not one but two comets.

About half an hour before ISON hove into view I aimed the camera up almost overhead toward Ursa Major, to capture Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) as a bright cyan fuzzball with a short tail. Again, the photo brings out the tail – to the eye the comet was obvious in binoculars but appeared as just a fuzzy star.

I took both shots with the same gear: a 135mm telephoto lens on the Canon 5D MkII on an iOptron SkyTracker. The Lovejoy shot is a stack of 5 x 75 second exposures. The ISON shot is a 4-second exposure, with the colours and contrast boosted for prettiness.

This is certainly proving to be a year of comets. It would be nice if just one of them got really bright!

– Alan, November 21, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Zodiacal Light – Dawn’s Early Light


Zodiacal Light in Dawn Sky (Oct 2013)

The ghostly glow of comet dust brightens an October dawn.

This is the zodiacal light, as it appeared two mornings ago in the pre-dawn sky from my backyard in southern Alberta. This tapering glow angled up from the horizon is best spotted in the eastern sky on clear and moonless autumn mornings, like this one.

What you are seeing is sunlight reflected off dust left by passing comets in the inner solar system. So while this glow looks like it might originate in our atmosphere it really comes from dust out in interplanetary space.

This subtle glow, often called the “false dawn,” appears in the hour or so before the true dawn begins to brighten the sky too much (its purple light is just starting to light the horizon here).

Also visible here: Sirius at far right, Jupiter above centre, the Beehive star cluster below Jupiter, and Leo rising embedded in the zodiacal light, with Mars just above Regulus, Leo’s brightest star. The planets lie along the zodiacal light because the dust that causes it also lies in the same plane as the orbits of the planets, the ecliptic plane.

I shot this with a 14mm lens for a stack of four 2-minute tracked exposures, but with the horizon coming from just one of the exposures to minimize blurring from the moving camera slowly following the sky.

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

 

Comet ISON Passes Mars


Comet ISON & Mars (Oct 8, 2013)

Comet ISON passes Mars on its inbound journey toward the Sun.

This was the scene on the morning of October 8, 2013, with Comet ISON (top), still small and faint, passing the planet Mars, the bright object at bottom. The comet was actually close to Mars in space in addition to appearing close to Mars in our sky.

Comet ISON is the much-heralded “comet of the century,” but so far has failed to live up to expectations. It may never become visible to the unaided eye. Or it could blossom into a dawn spectacle after it rounds the Sun on November 28.

Only time, and the vagaries of comets, will tell.

This image is a stack of five 5-minute exposures with a 92mm aperture refractor and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600.

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

Piercing the Night


Bright Meteor over Old Farmstead (April 25, 2013)

All things must pass. A bit of billion-year-old comet dust disintegrates above a decaying pioneer farm.

This was a lucky shot to be sure. Last night I returned to my favourite farmstead site to shoot a time-lapse sequence of the stars turning over the moonlit rustic buildings. I started shooting some test frames to get the settings right — the camera was on a motorized dolly to move it along a track for the next three hours, so you want to make sure you have all the settings right. I opened the shutter to start a test series, and whoosh! A bright meteor appeared. Right on time and in frame. That doesn’t happen very often!

However, shooting hundreds of shots for a time-lapse sequence, now a common practice among astrophotographers, does boost your chances of picking up a bright meteor on one of the frames. But having it appear nicely framed is often too much to ask. I was lucky. But … I was out with a camera aimed at the sky, and for getting good shots that’s the first requirement!

– Alan, April 26, 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

 

 

Comet Caught in the Trees


Comet PANSTARRS (March 31, 2013)

Tonight’s view of the comet is a picture of Earth and sky – the comet caught in the bare trees of spring.

PANSTARRS is sure a tough comet to shoot! It remains low and skirting the treetops. Tonight, I decided to keep the camera rolling while the comet dropped into the trees. I think it made for a decent enough comet portrait that certainly tells its story.

This is a stack of six 1-minute exposures with the 200mm lens and 1.4x extender for a 280mm f/4 telephoto, on the Canon 60Da and the Kenko SkyMemo tracking platform.

Tomorrow, if skies cooperate, it’ll be a shot of the comet in the same field as the Andromeda Galaxy. I could nicely catch them both in the field of the 7x binoculars tonight. But the photo op nights are this Monday through Wednesday for the comet + galaxy portrait.

– Alan, March 31, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

PANSTARRS Rises into Darkness


Comet PANSTARRS (March 28, 2013)

At last. A view of Comet PANSTARRS in a dark and moonless sky. 

Nearly three weeks after first sighting it, I was able to finally look at and shoot the comet in a fairly dark sky, though with it still embedded in deep twilight. But at least the Moon was out of the way and the sky was dark enough to allow the comet to show off its broad fan-shaped dust tail, set against the stars of Andromeda.

The comet will climb a little higher during the next two moonless weeks as it passes the Andromeda Galaxy on April 2 and 3. However, it’s still very low in the northwest and needs binoculars to sight. You have to wait until the sky is dark to spot it. And hope for no clouds low in the northwest. The comet just dodged some here.

I shot this with a 200mm telephoto for a stack of eight 30-second exposures tracking the stars. The star at left is Delta Andromedae while the one above the comet is Pi Andromedae.

– Alan, March 28, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

PANSTARRS in the Moonlight


Comet PANSTARRS in Moonlight (March 23, 2013)

Pity this comet is so low and in twilight. Tonight, it suffered the additional indignity of moonlight.

This was Comet PANSTARRS from my front yard tonight, March 23, in a view looking above the trees to the comet setting into the northwest in the bright moonlit sky.

It took binoculars to pick it out visually, and a telephoto lens to frame it photographically with enough scale to show some of the subtle tail structure, in what seems like a broad fan-shaped dusty tail.

We can only hope that next week when the Moon is out of the way, and the comet is a little higher, it will show off more of its developing tail in a darker sky.

As it is, to bring out the comet and background stars I overexposed the frames for this stack of four images, then turned down the brightness and cranked up the contrast in processing. It made for a decent enough portrait of Comet PANSTARRS amid the blue sky and faint stars of Andromeda, the constellation it is travelling through for the next two weeks.

– Alan, March 23, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

The Ghostly Glow of Gegenschein


Gegenschein from New Mexico (14mm 5DII)

The band of light at right is the familiar Milky Way. But what’s that faint stream of light to the left? It’s called the Gegenschein.

My last blog showed an image of the Zodiacal Light in the west. In fact, that glow extends up and continues all the way across the sky as a very faint stream of light at the threshold of vision called the Zodiacal Band. But at the place in the sky 180° opposite the Sun the Band intensifies to become a diffuse patch of light. It’s easy to see with the naked eye from a dark site if you know to look for it, and where it is likely to be. Last week, it was sitting below the constellation of Leo, in an area of sky that is pretty blank. So any faint glow stands out.

As with Zodiacal Light, what you are seeing is sunlight reflected off comet and asteroidal dust, but for the Gegenschein (German for “counterglow”) the light is coming from dust opposite the Sun that is scattering light back toward us and the Sun, mirror-like. The back-scattering effect makes the dust appear a little brighter at the point opposite the Sun.

Spring is a good time to spot the Gegenschein (true for the northern or southern hemisphere) as it then lies in a sparse area of sky away from the Milky Way. But you need a moonless sky and a dark site free of manmade light pollution. It and the fainter Zodiacal Band are among the sky’s most subtle sights. Again, Atmospheric Optics has more details.

A bonus with this shot are some short streaks of light below and to the right of the Gegenschein. I think those are from geostationary satellites flaring at the anti-solar point as they, too, acted as mirrors briefly catching the sunlight. Being geostationary – likely communications satellites you aimed fixed dishes at – they stayed still while the stars and tracking camera moved, and so created streaks.

– Alan, March 20, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Comet PANSTARRS Over the VLA


Comet PANSTARRS over the VLA (March 17, 2013)

Comet PANSTARRS hovers in the twilight above the many moonlit dishes of the VLA radio telescope.

I shot this earlier this evening, on Sunday, March 17, on an evening trek out to the VLA (Very Large Array) near Socorro, New Mexico. Light from the nearly quarter Moon high in the sky illuminates the landscape and rims the 27 dishes of the VLA, the radio telescope that has starred in many movies over the years. The comet appears in deep twilight, here with the colours accentuated. Fortunately, the array was arranged in its most compact formation – at times the dishes can be spread out over many miles.

For this shot I took two exposures moments apart: one tracked for 25 seconds for the sky and comet to ensure pinpoint stars, and one untracked for 50 seconds for the ground, to ensure sharp ground detail. I combined them in Photoshop. I used the iPad app Photographer’s Ephemeris to seek out the location, on Highway 52, the public highway leading to the entrance road for the VLA. Lights from cars on the main Highway 60 across the high Plains of San Agustin streak at right.

The comet is becoming more photogenic as it climbs higher, despite the waxing Moon. A classic curving dust tail is now obvious in photos, though here I had the advantage of a very clear sky at a high altitude desert site. Viewing condition don’t get any better than this. Still, this comet will bear watching and shooting over the next month, no matter where you are in the northern hemisphere.

– Alan, March 17, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

A Comet and Earthlit Moon Amid the Stars


Comet PANSTARRS & the Moon (March 13, 2013)

This was the scene tonight, March 13, as Comet PANSTARRS set over the mountains in deep twilight, with the waxing Moon hanging overhead.

The small comet sits low in the orange glow of twilight, where the Moon was last night when it was down beside the comet. Tonight, a day later, the Moon appeared much higher in the sky as it waxes toward first quarter Moon in another few days. Tonight it was a crescent with most of the dark part of the lunar disk lit by Earthshine. I took this shot just before the comet set behind the mountains, to get the sky as dark as possible and the exposure longer to bring out some stars in the deepening blue of twilight.

I took this from the Painted Pony Resort in New Mexico where about 15 of us are gathered for a week-long star party and dusk to dawn “observathon.”

Indeed, I have to get back outside to continue shooting the Milky Way. It is another stunningly perfect night under New Mexico skies.

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

 

Night of the Comet on a Desert Highway


Comet PANSTARRS & the Moon in Twilight (March 12, 2013)

Sometimes the best sky experiences just happen spontaneously. This was one of them – a night of the comet on a desert highway.

This was the scene at our impromptu roadside star party last night, north of the Painted Pony Resort in southwest New Mexico. About a dozen of us, mostly Canadians, gathered at a highway pull off to watch the unforgettable sight of the waxing crescent Moon setting alongside Comet PANSTARRS. You can see the comet to the left of the Moon in the background wide-field image, more or less as it appeared to the naked eye. But the real treat was the view through binoculars and my own small 80mm telescope. The series of closeups with a telephoto lens captures that view.

It was amazing to watch the comet tail and dark side of the Moon setting together as the last bits to disappear behind the mountains. All the while the winter stars and Milky Way were appearing overhead in a perfect sky, all on a mild desert night. A stunning astronomical experience.

Thank you PANSTARRS!

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

Comet PANSTARRS Spectacle — With the Waxing Moon


Comet PANSTARRS & the Moon (March 12, 2013)

This was the night for Comet PANSTARRS! How often do we get to see a view like this, with a comet sitting beside a thin crescent Moon. Spectacular!

Again tonight, about a dozen visiting and resident Canadians gathered for a roadside star party north of Rodeo, New Mexico, to view the comet and Moon setting together over the Chiricahua Mountains. It was a stunning sight and made for a picture postcard image. The two set almost simultaneously, with the tail of the comet and “dark side of the Moon” lit by Earthshine the last to disappear behind notches in the mountain ridge.

And tonight, with the comet higher, it was visible to the naked eye for the first time, but only just – the sighting was made easier because you knew exactly where to look.

The Moon was just 3o+ hours old, so appeared as a very thin crescent. The entire disk of the Moon was visible, the rest lit by Earthshine, sunlight reflected off the Earth. In the clear New Mexico air, the Earthshine was easy to see even in the bright twilight. But adding in the comet made for a once-a-lifetime view.

As soon as they set together, we all cheered and applauded, almost like at an eclipse. It was a memorable night, the kind you always hope for from a comet. PANSTARRS performed tonight!

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

 

 

Comet PANSTARRS in Twilight


 

Comet PANSTARRS C/2011 L4 (March 11, 2013)

This was Comet PANSTARRS as it appeared Monday night, March 11, as it set over the Chiricahua Mountains.

Tonight we drove north, away from our New Mexico resort, to find a site overlooking lower hills to the west, in order the track the comet for longer as it set toward the horizon. Friends from Winnipeg joined us, and as the Sun set, three more cars pulled up with astronomers from the area all looking for the best vantage point for comet watching. We had an impromptu roadside comet party.

Even so, it was tough picking PANSTARRS out of the twilight and it was never naked eye. Pity this comet hasn’t blossomed, as a bright long tail would have been a beautiful sight in the sunset glow. However, it is what we had expected – a first time visitor from the Oort Cloud promising great things initially but never quite delivering on the promise. Still, we were all happy to see it and shoot it. This frame is one of 140 I took in time-lapse of the comet setting over the hills.

We have ideal conditions for comet viewing each night this week, unlike many in the northern hemisphere now. So our little group of Canadians in New Mexico are taking some satisfaction in knowing we’re seeing it, and many aren’t.

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

 

Skies of Enchantment – Summer Milky Way Rising


Summer Milky Rising over Adobe House (14mm 5DII)

If you lived here you’d be in astronomy paradise.

This is the summer Milky Way and galactic centre in Sagittarius and Scorpius rising before dawn early this morning. The setting is the Painted Pony Resort in New Mexico, and its adobe lodges.

There’s no more spectacular sight than this in the night sky, other than perhaps an all-sky aurora display. And they don’t get too many of those down here at 31° North in southern New Mexico.

This image is a stack of ten 3-minute exposures for the sky (to smooth out noise) but the ground is from just 2 of those exposures and is blurred because the camera was tracking the sky. Light from walkway lights, plus starlight itself, added just enough illumination to provide details in the foreground.

So to be clear – this is a real scene. The Milky Way has not been pasted onto a separate image of the foreground. However, colour and contrast have been boosted to bring out details your eye would not have seen had you been standing here early this morning in the frosty New Mexico night.

Again, as with my previous image taken earlier in the night, I used the new Samyang 14mm ultra-wide angle lens, at f/2.8. It works very well!

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

Comet PANSTARRS at Perihelion


Comet PANSTARRS C/2011 L4 (March 10, 2013)

Got it! After a few days of cloud, the skies cleared perfectly tonight for our first look at Comet PANSTARRS.

This is the comet on March 10, the day it rounded the Sun at perihelion, its closest point to the Sun. The comet, which came from the Oort Cloud, is now on its way back to where it came from. But for the next few days, it will be at its best in our evening sky in the northern hemisphere. Friends down under in the southern hemisphere have been enjoying views of the comet for the last two weeks, but the comet has now moved far enough north it has entered our northern hemisphere skies.

The view is actually best from higher latitudes but I’m here at latitude 31° N, in southwestern New Mexico, seeking the clearest skies for the comet. We got them tonight. This view is of the comet about 7° up, just above the rim of the Chiricahua Mountains to the west of us, in Arizona.

The comet will climb higher over the next few days, with a prime night on March 12 when the waxing Moon appears near the comet.

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

The Subtle Glow of Comet Dust


Zodiacal Light rfrom Home (Feb 8, 2013)

Out of the skyglow from lights and the remains of twilight rises a tapering pyramid of light. It’s one of the night sky’s most subtle sights for the naked eye.

This is the Zodiacal Light, and I’ve been trying to capture it in the evening sky from home for a number of years. Last night was a good night for it. The sky was very transparent, for the first couple of hours at least. An ultra-wide angle lens allowed me to capture the Light in context with the wider sky, towering out of the southwest at right, reaching up to the Pleiades and Jupiter high in the centre of the frame. The Milky Way is at left. Everyone knows the Milky Way but the Zodiacal Light is less famous.

It’s visible only in the hour or two after sunset or before sunrise. Late winter and spring are the best times to see it in the evening sky. That’s when the ecliptic – the plane of the solar system where the planets lie – is tipped up at its highest angle above the horizon putting it above obscuring haze. The Zodiacal Light lies along the ecliptic because it is part of our solar system, not in our atmosphere. It is sunlight reflected off dust orbiting in the inner solar system that’s been cast off over thousands of years by comets passing through. It is brightest closest to the Sun and fades out at greater angles away from the Sun. Thus its tapering appearance in my sky as the photo shows, very much as my eye saw it.

It takes a good night at a dark site to see the Zodiacal Light. But take a look at the next dark of the Moon. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to see once you know what to look for.

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

 

Catching the Zodiacal Light


Zodiacal Light (Southern Spring Evening)

From a truly dark sky site, subtle sky glows become obvious. This is the Zodiacal Light of evening.

The Sun has long set and the very last glow of twilight is colouring the sky just above the hills. But reaching up from the sunset point in the northwest is a long triangular glow extending far to the south. This is called the Zodiacal Light – it does not originate in our atmosphere but is from sunlight reflecting off comet dust orbiting the inner solar system in the same plane as Earth’s orbit. Or at least that’s where we see it appearing the brightest, as a glow brightest near the Sun and extending along the ecliptic plane, where we find the constellations of the Zodiac. Here it appears in Capricornus and Aquarius.

I shot this two nights ago, from Coonabarabran, Australia, so the orientation of the Zodiacal Light is different from what we see from the Northern Hemisphere. Here it extends up from left to right. From home in Canada – and you can see the Light from northern latitudes on a dark night – it would be angled up from right to left, a mirror image of what we see here.

The subtle glow of Zodiacal Light is best seen in the evening sky in spring, no matter your hemisphere. I took this on December 6, 2012, still officially spring in the southern hemisphere if you assume southern summer starts on the solstice, December 21. However, Australians say summer begins December 1, so this is a portrait of the Zodiacal Light on a warm summer evening down under.

– Alan, December 8, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

The Windblown Stars


 

Here’s the “long” version of an image I posted a few days ago. This combines 430 exposures to make one long star trail image.

A bright meteor appeared in one of the hundreds of 5-second-long exposures and registers in the composite, streaking diagonally across the star trails. The stars circle around Polaris at top. The horizontal streaks are clouds blowing from left to right across the sky during the night. The blades of the windmill in the Wintering Hills wind farm are blurring by the long exposures.

It’s been a productive few nights shooting out at the wind farm, capturing scenes of harvesting the wind!

– Alan, September 3, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Meteor and Windmill in the Moonlight


A rare bright meteor pierces the northern sky beside a spinning windmill in the moonlight.

I shot this Thursday night, August 30, as one frame of 300 or so shot for a time lapse sequence. Having a camera taking hundreds of frames at rapid interval, as you do for a time-lapse movie, is the only way to capture the chance and fleeting appearance of a bright meteor like this.

You can see the Big Dipper behind the machine and Polaris, the North Star, directly above the well-placed meteor.

I drove out to the new Wintering Hills Wind Farm now operating northeast of me and found a machine I could get close to. And they are huge! This is a sequence from a dolly shot I took. But the other camera was on a fixed tripod and I’ll stack those images into a long star trail scene, to get the circumpolar stars spinning alongside the windmill. But the machine was turning so fast that even 4 second exposures in bright moonlight blurred the blades more than I would have liked.

— Alan, August 31, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Star Gazing


Happiness is a big telescope under a dark sky.

This is Regina astronomer Vance Petriew, gazing skyward at the Milky Way in Cassiopeia. Vance is the discoverer of Comet 185/P, aka Comet Petriew. This year, his comet returned to the August sky as a faint glow in Gemini, close to where it was when Vance found it exactly 11 years to the day before this image was taken, and at the very same spot in the campsite at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park in Saskatchewan.

We all revelled in the Saskatchewan comet’s return, staying up till 4 am to see it through Vance’s 20-inch telescope, a reflector made by the small company called Obsession. (When you have an Obsession, you are a serious observer!) Enjoying the view early that morning before dawn were  Vance’s three daughters, only one of whom was around 11 years ago and then as a baby. But this year even the four-year-old was able to see Dad’s comet up close.

At the afternoon talks Vance recounted the story of how the comet’s discovery changed his life, and led to immense changes at the Park. As a result of the media and political attention the comet brought, the Park has become a Dark Sky Preserve, one of the first in Canada, leading a nationwide movement, while astronomy programming is now an integral part of the Park’s interpretive programs, as it is becoming at other provincial and national parks. There is now a permanent public observatory and lecture hall nearby in Cypress Hills, just a short walk away from where the comet was found.

Comets can have quite an impact!

— Alan, August 24, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Shooting Through the Stars


Two bright meteors streak across the circling stars on the peak night of the Perseid meteor shower.

Of course, as is typical of bright meteors, the really bright one, the night’s best, I missed by that much! It shot off camera toward the west. But I got most of it. When shooting meteor showers you just aim and shoot and hope for the best. With luck some meteors will decide to shoot through the camera field when the shutter is actually open — they often appear just after the shutter closes.

This is a stack of nine 1-minute exposures in rapid succession, with two frames managing to pick up a bright meteor each. Over the nine minutes of exposure time the stars trailed as they rose in the east and circled Polaris at top left.

For this sequence I set up in Banff National Park at the picnic area at the Upper Bankhead parking lot at the base of Cascade Mountain, looking east toward the constellation of Perseus and the radiant point of the meteors — Perseids all appear to shoot out of Perseus, the bright collection of stars at centre.

— Alan, August 13, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Perseid Meteors and Planets over a Mountain Lake


It was quite a night, and a wonderful dawn. This was the scene at the end of a night of falling stars.

A trio of Perseid meteors zips down at left, while at right a trio of solar system worlds rises into the pre-dawn sky. The overexposed waning Moon is flanked by Jupiter above and Venus below. Jupiter shines near the Hyades star cluster and below the Pleiades cluster.

I took this shot (it is actually a composite of three shots, each with its own meteor) on the morning of Sunday, August 12 on the peak night of the annual Perseid meteor shower, widely publicized this year due to the lack of a Moon for most of the night, and the convenience of falling on a weekend. The scene is looking east over Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park, Alberta, one of the few places in this part of the Rockies you can look east to a reasonably unobstructed sky.

Notice the glitter path on the water from not only the Moon but also Venus.

— Alan, August 13, 2012 / © 2012 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


Dawn’s Early Light


This shot took getting up early (rather than staying up all night) to shoot the sky at 5 a.m. The main subject here is a subtle tower of light rising up vertically from the eastern horizon. That’s the Zodiacal Light, best seen from low latitudes.

The glow is from sunlight reflected off dust particles deposited in the inner solar system by passing comets. While it looks like dawn twilight coming on, the light actually comes from out in space and heralds the brightening of the sky by true twilight.

After a week of gazing in the evening sky, a number of us observers took the opportunity this morning to snooze through part of the night and get up prior to dawn to see a new set of objects. At that time of night, and at this time of year, the centre of the Milky Way sits straight overhead, and shows up here in an ultrawide shot from horizon to zenith.

I shot this with the 15mm lens at f/2.8 and the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800. It’s a stack of two 3-minute exposures.

– Alan, May 6, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer