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