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