The Southern Crosses


The emblem of the southern hemisphere sky is here on the left: the Southern Cross, or Crux. But how many other crosses can you find in this field?

At the right is a larger version of Crux, made of two stars from Carina and two stars from Vela. So it’s not a proper constellation but an asterism well known in the southern hemisphere sky, called the False Cross.

You might also be able to pick out a third cross at lower centre, looking upside down but also made of four stars in an elongated diamond shape.

The prominent centre-stage object here is the massive Eta Carinae Nebula, sometimes just called the Carina Nebula (I’ve never determined what the proper and official name of it is). Surrounding it is an array of star clusters that make this area an absolute delight to explore with binoculars. But this week, at our stay at the Atacama Lodge, our small observing party has had fabulous views of the nebula in a big 18-inch telescope that reveals intricate structure in the swirls and eddies of its glowing clouds.

This is a stack of 6 exposures, each 3 minutes at f/4 with a 50mm Sigma lens and the Canon 5D MkII camera.

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

Southern Spectacular


Everyone from the north who sees this area of sky for the first time quickly realizes just how much better the sky is down south. This is the most spectacular region of the deep-south Milky Way, as it passes through the constellations of Carina, Crux and Centaurus.

Dead centre here is the symbol of the southern sky, the Southern Cross. To the right of it glow the reddish nebulas of Carina and Centaurus; to the left of the Cross lie the dark clouds of the Coal Sack and the pair of brilliant stars, Alpha (on the left) and Beta Centauri. Alpha is the closest bright star to our solar system.

This one field contains much of what makes the southern sky so memorable and a mecca for any backyard astronomer. You haven’t lived an astronomical life until you’ve seen this part of the Milky Way, accessible only from southern latitudes.

I took this shot last night, May 4, 2011, using a Sigma 50mm lens and a modified Canon 5D MkII camera. The image is a stack of four 6-minute exposures at f/4 and ISO 800, plus a stack of two more 6-minute exposures taken through a soft-focus filter, with those images layered into the final Photoshop image to add the star glows and make the constellation outlines, like the Southern Cross, pop out.

– Alan, May 5, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Toward the Centre of the Galaxy


This is without a doubt the most spectacular area of sky. Here we’re looking toward the centre of our Galaxy, toward the starfields of Scorpius (at right) and Sagittarius (bottom centre). The field is a riot of stars, dark lanes of dust, and patches of glowing red nebulas.

It is wonderful experience – wonder-filled! – just to lie back and scan these constellations with binoculars or a wide-field telescope. One outstanding feature are the parallel bands of dark dust that seem to form the shape of a dark prancing horse in the Milky Way.

The brightest area of the Milky Way here is the Sagittarius Starcloud, and marks the direction of the centre of our Galaxy. From here in Chile where I took this shot, this region of sky passes directly overhead, making it more prominent than at northern latitudes where the galactic core is often lost in horizon haze.

This image is a stack of four 6-minute exposures at f/4 with the 35mm lens and Canon 5D MkII camera. For one of the exposures I shot through a special soft-focus filter to add the fuzzy star glows that make it easier to see the outline of the constellations. The filter also emphasizes the colours of the stars.

The image is a segment of a 12-section panorama I shot all along the Milky Way from dusk to dawn.

– Alan, May 3, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Galaxyrise


In the southern hemisphere sky we are treated to the stunning sight of the centre of the Galaxy rising each night, as the starfields of Scorpius and Sagittarius come up over the eastern horizon. In this shot, taken last night (May 2/3), we see the Milky Way’s heart rising behind some of the robotic, remotely-controlled domes and telescopes at the Atacama Lodge in Chile. Only the centre dome is operating, taking images or data under the command of someone half a world away.

Amazing technology to be sure, but … that robotic observer misses the experience of standing under the Milky Way, watching its heart rise over the Andes and swing overhead through the night. The Milky Way is so bright it lights the ground, as you can see here.

Last night our little group of 7 Canadian observers had a fantastic time exploring the southern sky with several telescopes, including an 18-inch reflector set up for us by lodge owner Alain Maury. With the help of a couple of wide-angle eyepieces we saw wonderful views of the Vela Supernova Remnant, dark nebulas in the Milky Way, and showpiece targets like Omega Centauri and the Tarantula Nebula – the list goes on! And will again tonight, as we compile another “hit-list” of targets to find tonight.

For this shot, I used the Canon 7D camera, a 15mm lens, and ISO 2500 for a 40 second exposure at f/2.8. This is one of about 500 frames taken for a time-lapse movie of “Galaxyrise.”

– Alan, May 3, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Milky Way from Chile


This was the Milky Way as it appeared toward the end of a long night of non-stop shooting from Chile. The centre of the Galaxy lies directly overhead and the Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon. This is one of the sky’s greatest sights, and this is an ideal time of year to see it. But only if you are in the magic latitude zone of 20° to 30° south.

In this shot, another skyglow stretches up from the eastern horizon at left – that’s the Zodiacal Light, so obvious from this latitude. It’s sunlight reflected off comet dust in the inner solar system, and heralds the coming dawn twilight.

My tracking platform – the device that allows a camera to follow the sky for a time exposure – is at lower right, with a second camera taking telephoto lens shots of star clusters in the Milky Way.

I took this shot with the Sigma 8mm fish-eye lens and the Canon 5D MkII camera that was on a fixed tripod – it was not tracking the sky. But the 45-second exposure at ISO 3200 was enough to bring out the Milky Way in all its glory. This frame is one of 660 or so that make up (or will once I assemble it) a time-lapse movie of the Milky Way turning about the pole and rising through the night. The fish-eye format makes it suitable for projection in a planetarium dome.

– Alan, May 2, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Eclipse in the Winter Milky Way


The December 20, 2010 total lunar eclipse promised to be a photogenic one. With the Moon smack dab in the middle of the winter Milky Way, it was going to be a great sight, as the Milky Way appeared during totality. The event did not disappoint. Though some haze intervened, I wasn’t complaining, as the weather has been so poor of late, we were lucky to get a clear night at all, despite having to endure -20° C temperatures to take in the event. This shot captures the scene from my backyard during totality, with the over-exposed eclipsed Moon sitting in the Milky Way above Orion. The naked and binocular view was truly stunning.

I got back from Australia in time to see this event from home, squeezed in between Oz and a Xmas trip to the rainy west Coast. The plan worked! I managed to catch the eclipse, against the odds, which defeated many across Canada. Alberta was one of the few clear places for this event. I had considered a hasty trip to Arizona for it, but decided against it — a good thing, as I think they had cloud. The winter of 2010/11 is proving to be an awful one for many.

— Alan, December 2010 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer

Shooting in Australia, Despite the Floods


I have not managed to get back to Australia since 2008, and had long planned for a trip in the November-December period, to get the Magellanic Clouds and “winter” Milky Way area of Orion, Canis Major, Puppis and friends, regions of the sky not well-placed in the usual months of my Oz trips in March and April. I planned a trip for late 2010, a month under southern skies, with 2 weeks at my favourite dark site, Coonabarabran, NSW, which bills itself as the Astronomy Capital of Australia — the Siding Spring Observatory, Oz’s major optical observatory complex is down the Timor Road. I rented a cottage for the period, which worked out great. The site could not have been better. The weather could not have been worse!

I go to Oz prepared to lose about 50% of nights to cloud, but this time, out of 15 nights in Coona, only 2 were clear and usable. Torrential rains deluged the area of the Central West of NSW, causing severe flooding all around me. On one trip back from Parkes, I had to detour 200 or 300 km around through the Hunter Valley just to avoid washed out roads and get back home. Indeed, at one point I had to plough through one town whose main streets were being inundated with a torrent of water. When it did clear, it was humid! But I got two nights of great shooting in. The skies were transparent. The one thing about Oz — when skies are clear they are dark and clean. The best I’ve ever seen.

This is a single, tripod-mounted shot of the southern Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds, over the cottage that was my retreat and home for two weeks. Would I go back? You bet! It is still astronomy paradise for me. Even if skies are cloudy it is a chance to enjoy a writing retreat and a time to quietly work on projects long put off.

– Alan, December 2010 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer