A bright comet is a once-a-decade opportunity to capture some unique nightscapes. Here are my suggested tips and FAQs for getting your souvenir shot.
My guide to capturing Comet NEOWISE assumes you’ve done little, if any, nightscape photography up to now. Even for those who have some experience shooting landscape scenes by night, the comet does pose new challenges — for one, it moves from night to night and requires good planning to get it over a scenic landmark.
So here are my tips and techniques, in answers to the most frequently asked questions I get and that I see on social media posts.
How Long Will the Comet be Visible?
The comet is not going to suddenly whoosh away or disappear. It is in our northern hemisphere sky and fairly well placed for shooting and watching all summer.
But … it is now getting fainter each night so the best time to shoot it is now! Or as soon as clouds allow on your next clear night.
As of this writing on July 18 it is still bright enough to be easily visible to the unaided eye from a dark site. How long this will be the case is unknown.
But after July 23 and its closest approach to Earth the comet will be receding from us and that alone will cause it to dim. Later this summer it will require binoculars to see, but might still be a good photogenic target, but smaller and dimmer than it was in mid-July.
When is the Best Time to Shoot?
The comet has moved far enough west that it is now primarily an evening object. So look as soon as it gets dark each night.
Until later in July it is still far enough north to be “circumpolar” for northern latitudes (above 50° N) and so visible all night and into the dawn.
But eventually the comet will be setting into the northwest even as seen from northern latitudes and only visible in the evening sky. Indeed, by the end of July the comet will have moved far enough south that observers in the southern hemisphere anxious to see the comet will get their first looks.
Where Do I Look?
In July look northwest below the Big Dipper. By August the comet is low in the west below the bright star Arcturus. By then it will be moving much less from night to night. The chart above shows the comet at nightly intervals; you can see how its nightly motion slows as it recedes from us and from the Sun.
What Exposures Do I Use?
There is no single best setting. It depends on …
— How bright the sky is from your location (urban vs a rural site).
— Whether the Moon is up — it will be after July 23 or so when the Moon returns to the western sky as a waxing crescent.
— The phase of the Moon — in late July it will be waxing to Full on August 3 when the sky will be very bright and the comet faint enough it might lost in the bright sky.
However, here are guidelines:
— ISO 400 to 1600
— Aperture f/2 to f/4
— Shutter speed of 4 to 30 seconds
Unless you are shooting in a very bright sky, your automatic exposure settings are likely not going to work.
As with almost all nightscape photography you will need to set your camera on Manual (M) and dial in those settings for ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed manually. Just how is something you need to consult your camera’s instruction manual for, as some point-and-shoot snapshot cameras are simply not designed to be used manually.
As a rule you want to …
— Keep the ISO as low as possible for the lowest noise. The higher the ISO the worse the noise. But … do raise the ISO high enough to get a well-exposed image. Better to shoot at ISO 3200 and expose well, than at ISO 800 and end up with a dark, underexposed image.
— Shoot at a wide aperture, such as f/2 or f/2.8. The wider the aperture (smaller the f-number) the shorter the exposure can be and/or lower the ISO can be. But … lens aberrations might spoil the sharpness of the image.
— Keep exposures short enough that the stars won’t trail too much during the exposure due to Earth’s rotation. The “500 Rule” of thumb says exposures should be no longer than 500 / Focal length of your lens.
So for a 50mm lens exposures should be no longer than 500/50 = 10s seconds. You’ll still see some trailing but not enough to spoil the image. And going a bit longer in exposure time can make it possible to use a slower and less noisy ISO speed or simply having a better exposed shot.
— Avoid underexposing. If you can, call up the “histogram”— the graph of exposure values — on the resulting image in playback on your camera. The histogram should look fairly well distributed from left to right and not all bunched up at the left.
When and where you are will also affect your exposure combination.
If you are at a site with lots of lights such as overlooking a city skyline, exposures will need to be shorter than at a dark site.
And nights with a bright Moon will require shorter exposures than moonless nights.
Take test shots and see what looks good! Inspect the histogram. This isn’t like shooting with film when we had no idea if we got the shot until it was too late!
What Lens Do I Use?
Any lens can produce a fine shot. Choose the lens to frame the scene well.
Using a longer lens (105mm to 200mm) does make the comet larger, but … might make it more difficult to also frame it above a landscape. A good choice is likely a 24mm to 85mm lens.
A fast lens is best, to keep exposure times below the 500 Rule threshold and ISO speeds lower. Slow f/5.6 kit zooms can be used but do pose challenges for getting well exposed and untrailed shots.
Shooting with shorter focal lengths can help keep the aperture wider and faster. Long focal lengths aren’t needed, especially for images of the comet over a landscape. Avoid the temptation to use that monster 400mm or 600mm telephoto wildlife lens. Unless it is on a tracker (see below) it will produce a trailed mess. It is best to shoot with no more than a 135mm telephoto, the faster the better, IF you want a close-up.
Planetarium programs that I recommend below offer “field of view” indicators so you can preview how much of the horizon and sky your camera and lens combination will show.
Can I Use My [insert camera here] Camera?
Yes. Whatever you have, try it.
However, the best cameras for any nightscape photography are DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras, either full-frame or cropped frame. They have the lowest noise and are easiest to set manually.
In my experience in teaching workshops I find that the insidious menus of automatic “point-and-shoot” pocket cameras make it very difficult to find the manual settings. And some have such noisy sensors they do not allow longer exposures and/or higher ISO speeds. But try their Night or Fireworks scene modes.
It doesn’t hurt to try, but if you don’t get the shot, don’t fuss. Just enjoy the view with your eyes and binoculars.
But … if you have an iPhone11 or recent Android phone (I have neither!) their “Night scene” modes are superb and use clever in-camera image stacking and processing routines to yield surprisingly good images. Give them a try — keep the camera steady and shoot.
What No One Asks: How Do I Focus?
Everyone fusses about “the best” exposure.
What no one thinks of is how they will focus at night. What ruins images is often not bad exposure (a lot of exposure sins can be fixed in processing) but poor focus (which cannot be fixed later).
On bright scenes it is possible your camera’s Autofocus system will “see” enough in the scene to work and focus the lens. Great.
On dark scenes it will not. You must manually focus. Do that using your camera’s “Live View” function (all DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras have it — but check your user manual as on DSLRs it might need to be activated in the menus if you have never used it).
Aim at a bright star or distant light and magnify the image 5x or 10x (with the + button) to inspect the star or light. Put the lens on MF (not AF) and focus the lens manually to make the star as pinpoint as possible. Do not touch the lens afterwards.
Practice on a cloudy night on distant lights.
All shooting must be done with a camera on a good tripod. As such, turn OFF any image stabilization (IS), whether it be on the lens or in the camera. IS can ruin shots taken on a tripod.
What Few Ask: How Do I Plan a Shoot?
Good photos rarely happen by accident. They require planning. That’s part of the challenge and satisfaction of getting the once-in-a-lifetime shot.
To get the shot of the comet over some striking scene below, you have to figure out:
— First, where the comet will be in the sky,
— Then, where you need to be to look toward that location.
— And of course, you need to be where the sky will be clear!
Planning Where the Comet Will Be
Popular planning software such as PhotoPills and The Photographer’s Ephemeris can help immensely, but won’t have the comet itself included in their displays, just the position of the Sun, Moon and Milky Way.
For previewing the comet’s position in the sky, I use the planetarium programs Starry Night (desktop) or SkySafari (mobile app). Both include comet positions.
The program Stellarium (stellarium.org) is free for desktop while the mobile Stellarium Plus apps (iOS and Android) have a small fee. There is also a free web-based version at https://stellarium-web.orgBe sure to allow it to access your location.
Set the programs to the night in question to see where the comet will be in relation to the stars and patterns such as the Big Dipper. Note the comet’s altitude in degrees and azimuth (how far along the horizon it will be). For example, an azimuth of 320° puts it in the northwest (270° is due west; 0° or 360° is due north, 315° is directly northwest).
With either you can dial in the time and date and see lines pointing toward where the Sun would be, but below the horizon. Scrub through time to move that line to the same azimuth angle as where the comet will be and then see if the comet is sitting in the right direction.
Move your location to place the line toward the comet over what you want to include in the scene.
I like The Photographer’s Ephemeris as it links to the companion app TPE3D that can show the stars over the actual topographic landscape. It won’t show the comet, but if you know where it is in the sky you can see if if will clear mountains, for example.
Planning for the Weather
All is for nought if the sky is cloudy.
For planning astro shoots I like the app Astrospheric (https://www.astrospheric.com). It is free for mobile and there is a web-based version. It uses Environment Canada predictions of cloud cover for North America. Use it to plan where to be for clear skies first, then figure out the best scenic site that will be under those clear skies.
Be happy to get a well-composed and exposed single shot.
But … if you wish to try some more advanced techniques for later processing, here are suggestions.
On several nights I’ve found a panorama captures the scene better, including the comet in context with the wide horizon, sweep of the twilight arch or, as we’ve had in western Canada, some Northern Lights.
Take several identical exposures, moving the camera 10 to 15 degrees between images. Editing programs such as Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, ON1 Photo RAW and Affinity Photo have panorama stitching routines built in.
My Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above provides tutorials for shooting and processing nightscape panoramas.
2. Exposure Blending
If you have a situation where the sky is bright but the ground is dark, or vice versa, and one exposure cannot record both well, then shoot two exposures, each best suited to recording the sky and ground individually.
For example, on moonless nights I’ve been shooting 2- to 5-minute long exposures for the ground and with the lens stopped down to f/5.6 or f/8 for better depth of field to be sure the foreground was in focus.
To reduce noise, it is also possible to shoot multiple exposures to stack later in processing to smooth noise. This is most useful in scenes with dark foregrounds where noise is most obvious, and where I will stack 4 to 8 images.
Just how to do this is beyond the scope of this blog. I also give step-by-step tutorials for the process in my Nightscapes and Time-Lapses ebook shown above. It be done in Photoshop, or in specialized programs such as StarryLandscapeStacker (for MacOS) or Sequator (Windows).
But shoot the images now, and learn later how to use them.
4. Tracking the Sky
If it is close-ups of the comet you want, then you will need to use a 135mm to 300mm telephoto lens (especially later in the summer when the comet is farther away and smaller).
But with such lenses any exposure over a few seconds will result in lots of trailing.
The solution is a tracking device such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer or iOptron SkyGuider. These need to be set up so their rotation axis aims at the North Celestial Pole near Polaris. The camera can then follow the stars for the required exposures of up to a minute or more needed to record the comet and its tails well.
Just how to use a tracker is again beyond the scope of this blog. But if you have one, it will work very well for comet shots with telephoto lenses. However, trackers are not essential for wide-angle shots, especially once the Moon begins to light the sky.
But later in the summer when the comet is fainter and smaller, a tracked and stacked set of telephoto lens images will likely be the best way to capture the comet.
On the evening of January 20 for North America, the Full Moon passes through the umbral shadow of the Earth, creating a total eclipse of the Moon.
No, this isn’t a “blood,” “super,” nor “wolf” Moon. All those terms are internet fabrications designed to bait clicks.
It is a totallunareclipse — an event that doesn’t need sensational adjectives to hype, because they are always wonderful sights! And yes, the Full Moon does turn red.
As such, on January 20 the evening and midnight event provides many opportunities for great photos of a reddened Moon in the winter sky.
Here’s my survey of tips and techniques for capturing the eclipsed Moon.
First … What is a Lunar Eclipse?
As the animation below shows (courtesy NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center), an eclipse of the Moon occurs when the Full Moon (and they can happen only when the Moon is exactly full) travels through the shadow of the Earth.
The Moon does so at least two times each year, though often not as a total eclipse, one where the entire disk of the Moon enters the central umbral shadow. Many lunar eclipses are of the imperceptible penumbral variety, or are only partial eclipses.
Total eclipses of the Moon can often be years apart. The last two were just last year, on January 31 and July 27, 2018. However, the next is not until May 26, 2021.
At any lunar eclipse we see an obvious darkening of the lunar disk only when the Moon begins to enter the umbra. That’s when the partial eclipse begins, and we see a dark bite appear on the left edge of the Moon.
While it looks as if Earth’s shadow sweeps across the Moon, it is really the Moon moving into, then out of, our planet’s umbra that causes the eclipse. We are seeing the Moon’s revolution in its orbit around Earth.
At this eclipse the partial phases last 67 minutes before and after totality.
Once the Moon is completely immersed in the umbra, totality begins and lasts 62 minutes at this eclipse, a generous length.
The Moon will appear darkest and reddest at mid-eclipse. During totality the lunar disk is illuminated only by red sunlight filtering through Earth’s atmosphere. It is the light of all the sunsets and sunrises going on around our planet.
And yes, it is perfectly safe to look at the eclipsed Moon with whatever optics you wish. Binoculars often provide the best view. Do have a pair handy!
At this eclipse because the Moon passes across the north half of the umbra, the top edge of the Moon will always remain bright, as it did above in 2010, looking like a polar cap on the reddened Moon.
Near the bright edge of the umbra look for subtle green and blue tints the eye can see and that the camera can capture.
Where is the Eclipse?
As the chart below shows, all of the Americas can see the entire eclipse, with the Moon high in the evening or late-night sky. For the record, the Moon will be overhead at mid-eclipse at local midnight from Cuba!
I live in Alberta, Canada, at a latitude of 50 degrees North. And so, the sky charts I provide here are for my area, where the Moon enters the umbral shadow at 8:35 p.m. MST with the Moon high in the east. By the end of totality at 10:44 p.m. MST the Moon shines high in the southeast. This sample chart is for mid-eclipse at my site.
I offer them as examples of the kinds of planning you can do to ensure great photos. I can’t provide charts good for all the continent because exactly where the Moon will be during totality, and the path it will take across your sky will vary with your location.
In general, the farther east and south you live in North America the higher the Moon will appear. But from all sites in North America the Moon will always appear high and generally to the south.
The latter two apps present the sightlines toward the Moon overlaid on a map of your location, to help you plan where to be to shoot the eclipsed Moon above a suitable foreground, if that’s your photographic goal.
When is the Eclipse?
While where the Moon is in your sky depends on your site, the various eclipse events happen at the same time for everyone, with differences in hour due only to the time zone you are in.
While all of North America can see the entirety of the partial and total phases of this eclipse (lasting 3 hours and 16 minutes from start to finish), the farther east you live the later the eclipse occurs, making for a long, late night for viewers on the east coast.
Those in western North America can enjoy all of totality and be in bed at or before midnight.
Here are the times for the start and end of the partial and total phases. Because the penumbral phases produce an almost imperceptible darkening, I don’t list the times below for the start and end of the penumbral eclipse.
PM times are on the evening of January 20.
AM times are after midnight on January 21.
Note that while some sources list this eclipse as occurring on January 21, that is true for Universal Time (Greenwich Time) and for sites in Europe where the eclipse occurs at dawn near moonset.
For North America, if you go out on the evening of January 21 expecting to see the eclipse you’ll be a day late and disappointed!
Picking a Photo Technique
Lunar eclipses lend themselves to a wide range of techniques, from a simple camera on a tripod, to a telescope on a tracking mount following the sky.
If this is your first lunar eclipse I suggest keeping it simple! Select just one technique, to focus your attention on only one camera on a cold and late winter night.
Then during the hour of totality take the time to enjoy the view through binoculars and with the unaided eye. No photo quite captures the glowing quality of an eclipsed Moon. But here’s how to try it.
Option 1: Simple — Camera-on-Tripod
The easiest method is to take single shots using a very wide-angle lens (assuming you also want to include the landscape below) with the camera on a fixed tripod. No fancy sky trackers are needed here.
During totality, with the Moon now dimmed and in a dark sky, use a good DSLR or mirrorless camera in Manual (M) mode (not an automatic exposure mode) for settings of 2 to 20 seconds at f/2.8 to f/4 at ISO 400 to 1600.
That’s a wide range, to be sure, but it will vary a lot depending on how bright the sky is at your site. Shoot at lots of different settings, as blending multiple exposures later in processing is often the best way to reproduce the scene as your eyes saw it.
Shoot at a high ISO if you must to prevent blurring from sky motion. However, lower ISOs, if you can use them by choosing a slower shutter speed or wider lens aperture, will yield less digital noise.
Focus carefully on a bright star, as per the advice below for telephoto lenses. Don’t just set the lens focus to infinity, as that might not produce the sharpest stars.
One scene to go for at this eclipse is similar to the above photo, with the reddened Moon above a winter landscape and shining east of Orion and the winter Milky Way. But that will require shooting from a dark site away from urban lights. But when the Moon is totally eclipsed, the sky will be dark enough for the Milky Way to appear.
The high altitude of the Moon at mid-eclipse from North America (with it 40 to 70 degrees above the horizon) will also demand a lens as wide as 10mm to 24mm, depending whether you use portrait or landscape orientation, and if your camera uses a cropped frame or full frame sensor. The latter have the advantage in this category of wide-angle nightscape.
Alternatively, using a longer 14mm to 35mm lens allows you to frame the Moon beside Orion and the winter Milky Way, as above, but without the landscape. Again, this will require a dark rural site.
If you take this type of image with a camera on a fixed tripod, use high ISOs to keep exposures below 10 to 20 seconds to avoid star trailing. You have an hour of totality to shoot lots of exposures to make sure some will work best.
If you have a sky tracker to follow the stars, as I did above, exposures can be much longer — perhaps a minute to pick up the Milky Way really well — and ISOs can be lower to avoid noise.
Option 1 Variation — Urban Eclipses
Unfortunately, point-and-shoot cameras and so-called “bridge” cameras, ones with non-interchangeable lenses, likely won’t have lenses wide enough to capture the whole scene, landscape and all. Plus their sensors will be noisy when used at high ISOs. Those cameras might be best used to capture moderate telephoto closeups at bright urban sites.
With any camera, at urban sites look for scenic opportunities to capture the eclipsed Moon above a skyline or behind a notable landmark. By looking up from below you might be able to frame the Moon beside a church spire, iconic building, or a famous statue using a normal or short telephoto lens, making this a good project for those without ultra-wide lenses.
Whatever your lens or subject, at urban sites expose as best you can for the foreground, trying to avoid any bright and bare lights in the frame that will flood the image with lens flares in long exposures.
Capturing such a scene during the deep partial phases might produce a brighter Moon that stands out better in an urban sky than will a photo taken at mid-totality when the Moon is darkest.
TIP: Practice, Practice, Practice!
With any camera, especially beginner point-and-shoots, ensure success on eclipse night by practicing shooting the Moon before the eclipse, during the two weeks of the waxing Moon leading up to Full Moon night and the eclipse.
The crescent Moon with Earthshine on the dark side of the Moon is a good stand-in for the eclipsed Moon. Set aside the nights of January 8 to 11 to shoot the crescent Moon. Check for exposure and focus. Can you record the faint Earthshine? It’s similar in brightness to the shadowed side of the eclipsed Full Moon.
The next week, on the nights of January 18 and 19, the waxing gibbous Moon will be closer to its position for eclipse night and almost as bright as the uneclipsed Full Moon, allowing some rehearsals for shooting it near a landmark.
Option 2: Advanced — Multiple Exposures
An advanced method is to compose the scene so the lens frames the entire path of the Moon for the 3 hours and 16 minutes from the start to the end of the partial eclipse.
As shown above, including the landscape will require at least a 20mm lens on a full frame camera, or 12mm lens on a cropped frame camera. However, these charts are for my site in western Canada. From sites to the east and south where the Moon is higher an even wider lens might be needed, making this a tough sequence to take.
With wide lenses, the Moon will appear quite small. The high altitude of the Moon and midnight timing won’t lend itself to this type of multiple image composite as well as it does for eclipses that happen near moonrise or moonset, as per the example below.
A still-image composite with the lunar disks well separated will need shots only every 5 minutes, as I did above for the September 27, 2015 eclipse.
Exposures for any lunar eclipse are tricky, whether you are shooting close-ups or wide-angles, because the Moon and sky change so much in brightness.
As I did for the image below, for a still-image composite, you can expose just for the bright lunar disk and let the sky go dark.
Exposures for just the Moon will range from very short (about 1/500th second at f/8 and ISO 100) for the partials, to 1/2 to 2 seconds at f/2.8 to f/4 and ISO 400 for the totals, then shorter again (back to 1/500 at ISO 100) for the end shots when the Full Moon has returned to its normal brilliance.
That’ll take constant monitoring and adjusting throughout the shoot, stepping the shutter speed gradually longer thorough the initial partial phase, then shorter again during the post-totality partial phase.
You’d then composite and layer (using a Lighten blend mode) the well-exposed disks (surrounded by mostly black sky) into another background image exposed longer for 10 to 30 seconds at ISO 800 to 1600 for the sky and stars, shot at mid-totality.
To maintain the correct relative locations of the lunar disks and foreground, the camera cannot move.
That technique works best if it’s just a still image you are after, such as above. This image is such a composite, of the April 4, 2015 total lunar eclipse from Monument Valley, Utah.
This type of composite takes good planning and proper exposures to pull off, but will be true to the scene, with the lunar disk and its motion shown to the correct scale and position as it was in the sky. It might be a composite, but it will be accurate.
That’s in stark contrast to the flurry of ugly “faked” composites that will appear on the web by the end of the day on January 21, ones with huge telephoto Moons pasted willy-nilly onto a wide-angle sky.
Rather than look artistic, most such attempts look comically cut-and-pasted. They are amateurish. Don’t do it!
Option 3: Advanced — Wide-Angle Time-Lapses
If it’s a time-lapse movie you want (see the video below), take exposures every 10 to 30 seconds, to ensure a final movie with smooth motion.
Unlike shooting for a still-image composite, for a time lapse each frame will have to be exposed well enough to show the Moon, sky, and landscape.
That will require exposures long enough to show the sky and foreground during the partial phases — likely about 1 to 4 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 400. In this case, the disk of the partially-eclipsed Moon will greatly overexpose, as it does toward the end of the above time-lapse from September 27, 2015..
But the Moon will darken and become better exposed during the late stages of the partial eclipse and during totality when a long exposure — perhaps now 10 to 20 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 800 to 1600 — will record the bright red Moon amid the stars and winter Milky Way.
Maintaining a steady cadence during the entire sequence requires using an interval long enough throughout to accommodate the expected length of the longest exposure at mid-totality, with similar camera settings to what you’ve used for other Milky Way nightscapes. If you’ve never taken those before, then don’t attempt this complex sequence.
After totality, as the Moon and sky re-brighten, exposures will have to shorten again, andsymmetrically in reverse fashion for the final partial phases.
Such a time-lapse requires consistently and incrementally adjusting the camera over the three or more hours of the eclipse on a cold winter night. The high altitude of the Moon and its small size on the required wide angle lenses will make any final time lapse less impressive than at eclipses that occur when the Moon is rising or setting.
But … the darkening of the sky and “turning on” of the Milky Way during totality will make for an interesting time-lapse effect. The sky and scene will be going from a bright fully moonlit night to effectively a dark moonless night, then back to moonlit. It’s a form of “holy grail” time lapse, requiring advanced processing with LRTimelapse software.
Again, do not move the camera. Choose your lens and frame your camera to include the entire path of the Moon for as long as you plan to shoot.
Even if the final movie looks flawed, individual frames should still produce good still images, or a composite built from a subset of the frames.
Option 4: Simple — Telephoto Close-Ups
The first thought of many photographers is to shoot the eclipse with as long a telephoto lens as possible. That can work, but …
The harsh reality is that the Moon is surprisingly small (only 1/2-degree across) and needs a lot of focal length to do it justice, if you want a lunar close-up.
You’ll need a 300mm to 800mm lens. Unfortunately, the Moon and sky are moving and any exposures over 1/4 to 2 seconds (required during totality) will blur the Moon badly if its disk is large on the frame and all you are using is a fixed tripod.
If you don’t have a tracking mount, one solution is to keep the Moon’s disk small (using no more than a fast f/2 or f/2.8 135mm to 200mm lens) and exposures short by using a high ISO speed of 1600 to 3200. Frame the Moon beside the Beehive star cluster as I show below.
Take a range of exposures. But … be sure to focus!
TIP: Focus! And Focus Again!
Take care to focus precisely on a bright star using Live View. That’s true of any lens but especially telephotos and telescopes.
Focus not just at the start of the night, but also more than once again later at night. Falling temperatures on a winter night will cause long lenses and telescopes to shift focus. What was sharp at the start of the eclipse won’t be by mid totality.
The catch is that if you are shooting for a time-lapse or composite you likely won’t be able to re-point the optics to re-focus on a star in mid-eclipse. In that case, be sure to set up the gear well before you want to start shooing to let it cool to ambient air temperature. Now focus on a star, then frame the scene. Then hope the lens doesn’t shift off focus. You might be able to focus on the bright limb of the Moon but it’s risky.
Fuzzy images, not bad exposures, are the ruin of most attempts to capture a lunar eclipse, especially with a telephoto lens. And the Moon itself, especially during totality, is not a good target to focus on. Use a bright star. The winter sky has lots!
Option 5: Advanced — Tracked Telescopic Close-Ups
If you have a mount that can be polar aligned to track the sky, then many more options are open to you.
You can use a telescope mount or one of the compact and portable trackers, such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer (I show the Mini model above) or iOptron Sky Tracker units. While these latter units work great, you are best to keep the payload weight down and your lens size well under 300mm.
That’s just fine for this eclipse, as you really don’t need a frame-filling Moon. The reason is that the Moon will appear about 6 degrees west of the bright star cluster called the Beehive, or Messier 44, in Cancer.
As shown above, a 135mm to 200mm lens will frame this unique pairing well. For me, that will be the signature photo of this eclipse. The pairing can happen only at lunar eclipses that occur in late January, and there won’t be any more of those until 2037!
That’s the characteristic that makes this eclipse rare and unique, not that it’s a “super-duper, bloody, wolf Moon!” But it doesn’t make for a catchy headline.
Exposures to show the star cluster properly might have to be long enough (30 to 120 seconds) that the Moon overexposes, even at mid-totality. If so, take different exposures for the Moon and stars, then composite them later, as I did above for the December 20, 2010 eclipse near the Messier 35 star cluster in Gemini.
If really you want to shoot with even more focal length for framing just the Moon, a monster telephoto lens will work, but a small telescope such as an 80mm aperture f/6 to f/7 refractor will provide enough focal length and image size at much lower cost and lighter weight, and be easier to attach to a telescope mount.
But even with a 500mm to 800mm focal length telescope the Moon fills only a small portion of the frame, though cropped frame cameras have the advantage here. Use one if it’s a big Moon you’re after!
No matter the camera, the lens or telescope should be mounted on a solid equatorial telescope mount that you must polar align earlier in the night to track the sky.
Alternatively, a motorized Go To telescope on an alt-azimuth mount will work, but only for single shots. The rotation of the field with alt-az mounts will make a mess of any attempts to shoot multiple-exposure composites or time-lapses, described below.
Whatever the mount, for the sharpest lunar disks during totality, use the Lunar tracking rate for the motor.
Assuming an f-ratio of f/6 to f/8, exposures will vary from as short as 1/250th second at ISO 100 to 200 for the barely eclipsed Moon, to 4 to 20 seconds at ISO 400 to 1600 for the Moon at mid-totality.
It’s difficult to provide a precise exposure recommendation for totality because the brightness of the Moon within the umbra can vary by several stops from eclipse to eclipse, depending on how much red sunlight manages to make it through Earth’s atmospheric filter to light the Moon.
TIP: Shoot for HDR
As I did above, during the deep partial phases an option is to shoot both long, multi-second exposures for the red umbra and short, split-second exposures for the bright part of the Moon not yet in the umbra.
Take 5 to 7 shots in rapid succession, covering the range needed, perhaps at 1-stop increments. Merge those later with High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques and software, or with luminosity masks.
Even if you’re not sure how to do HDR processing now, shoot all the required exposures anyway so you’ll have them when your processing skills improve.
Option 6: Advanced — Close-Up Composites and Time-Lapses
With a tracking telescope on an equatorial mount you could fire shots every 10 to 30 seconds, and then assemble them into a time-lapse movie, as below.
But as with wide-angle time-lapses, that will demand constant attention to gradually and smoothly shift exposures, ideally by 1/3rd-stop increments every few shots during the partial and total phases. Make lots of small adjustments, rather than fewer large ones.
If you track at the lunar rate, as I did above, the Moon should stay more or less centred while it drifts though the stars, assuming your mount is accurately polar aligned, an absolutely essential prerequisite here.
Conversely, track at the sidereal rate and the stars will stay more or less fixed while the Moon drifts through the frame from right to left (west to east) as I show above in a composite of the October 27, 2004 eclipse.
But such a sequence takes even more careful planning to position the Moon correctly at the start of the sequence so it remains “in frame” for the duration of the eclipse, and ends up where you want at the end.
In the chart below, north toward Polaris is at the top of the frame. Position the Moon at the start of the eclipse so it ends up just above the centre of the frame at mid-eclipse. Tricky!
As I show above, for this type of “Moon-thru-shadow” sequence a focal length of about 400mm is ideal on a full frame camera, or 300mm on a cropped frame camera.
From such a time-lapse set you could also use several frames selected from key stages of the eclipse, as I did in 2004, to make up a multiple-image composite showing the Moon moving through the Earth’s shadow.
Again, planetarium software such as Starry Night I used above, which can be set to display the field of view of the camera and lens of your choice, is essential to plan the shoot. Don’t attempt it without the right software to plan the framing.
I would consider the telescopic time-lapse method the most challenging of techniques. Considering the hour of the night and the likely cold temperatures, your best plan might be to keep it simple.
It’s what I plan to do.
I’ll be happy to get a tracked telephoto close-up of the Moon and Beehive cluster as my prime goal, with a wide-angle scene of the eclipsed Moon beside Orion and the Milky Way as a bonus. A few telescope close-ups will be even more of a bonus.
However, just finding clear skies might be the biggest challenge!
Try the Astrospheric app for astronomy-oriented weather predictions. The Environment Canada data it uses has led me to clear skies for several recent eclipses that other observers in my area missed.
It’ll be worth the effort to chase!
The next total eclipse of the Moon anywhere on Earth doesn’t occur until May 26, 2021 in an event visible at dawn from Western North America. The next total lunar eclipse visible from all of North America comes a lunar year later, on May 15, 2022.
Total Lunar Eclipse from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I leave you with a music video of the lunar eclipse of September 27, 2015 that incorporates still and time-lapse sequences shot using all of the above methods.
A well-known comet is making its closest approach to Earth in many years and promises a good show.
Comet Wirtanen is now climbing up the late autumn and winter sky for northern hemisphere viewers, and is already a fine binocular comet. By mid-December it might be bright enough to be visible to the naked eye, but only from a dark rural site.
Discovered in 1948 by Carl Wirtanen at the Lick Observatory, his namesake comet orbits the Sun every 5.4 years. So unlike other recent bright comets that have visited us for the first time, Comet Wirtanen (aka 46P) is well known. It is one of many “Jupiter-family” comets whose orbits have been shaped by the gravity of Jupiter and orbit the Sun about every 6 years.
So since it was discovered, Comet 46P (the 46th comet in the catalog of periodic comets) has been well observed. It isn’t better known because at most returns it never gets bright, and that’s because it never gets closer to the Sun than a little more than the distance from the Earth to the Sun. (Its perihelion distance is 1.06 AU, with 1 AU, or Astronomical Unit, being the average distance from Earth to the Sun.)
However, despite this, we’re expecting – indeed already enjoying – a good show at this return.
Due to the quirk of orbital clockwork, on this return the comet reaches its closest point to the Sun just before it is also closest to Earth.
That puts the comet “just” 11,680,000 kilometres from us at its closest approach to Earth on December 16, four days after perihelion, the point when the comet is closest to the Sun.
Comet Wirtanen will be relatively bright simply by virtue of its proximity.
But it is also an active comet, emitting a lot of gas and dust into a large “coma,” and that’s what we see, not the 1-kilometre-wide icy nucleus itself which is too small and shrouded by the coma. (As a footnote, Comet Wirtanen was to have been the comet that the European Rosetta probe was to visit, but launch delays forced ESA to switch cometary targets.)
Comet Wirtanen is glowing at magnitude 5 to 6, technically making it visible to the naked eye. However, because it is large and diffuse, in practice you need binoculars to see it – now.
But as it approaches Earth and the Sun, Wirtanen will brighten, perhaps to magnitude 3 (the brightest stars are magnitude 0 to 1), making it easier to see with the unaided eye from a dark site.
The one catch is that as it heads toward its brightest in mid-December the waxing Moon also begins to enter the sky and wash out the comet with moonlight.
The first two weeks of December will be prime time for Wirtanen
The first two weeks of December will be prime time for Wirtanen, with a particularly good opportunity coming on the evenings of December 15 and 16 when it shines below the Pleiades star cluster. The gibbous Moon will set about 1 to 2 a.m. with the comet still high enough for a dark sky view and photos.
Those will be great nights to shoot the comet and the cluster with a telephoto lens, provided the camera is on a tracker for untrailed exposures of 1 to 4 minutes. A 135mm to 300mm lens will frame the pair well.
After that, through late December, the bright Moon will interfere with the view. For example, a close approach of the comet near the star Capella on December 23 happens with the nearly Full Moon not far away.
I took the above close-up photo of Comet Wirtanen on December 6. It is a long-exposure telescopic view, but the comet is easy to see with binoculars. It appears visually and photographically as a diffuse fuzzball, with the camera recording a vivid cyan colour from glowing cyanogen and diatomic carbon molecules. You won’t see that colour with your eyes, even in a telescope.
Even at the comet’s best in mid-December any tail might be hard to see and even photograph (it appears faintly above) as it will be both faint and pointed directly away from us because, as comet tails do, it will also be pointed away from the Sun.
Look for a large glow which will be grey to the eye but green to the camera.
While you can just take pictures for yourself, astronomers are asking amateur astrophotographers to participate in a worldwide observing campaign to monitor Comet Wirtanen. More details are available here at wirtanen.astro.umd.edu and at http://aop.astro.umd.edu/
Mars and Jupiter are meeting up in the morning sky. Soon they’ll be joined by the Moon.
Here’s a heads up for one of the best planet conjunctions of the year. Mars and Jupiter are now close together in the dawn sky to the south, and getting closer!
Above is the actual view on the morning of January 4, with Jupiter the brightest of a trio of objects. Mars is reddish and in the middle. The object at right is the star Alpha Librae, also known as Zubenelgenubi in Libra.
As shown in the simulation above, on the morning of January 6 Mars and Jupiter will be only 1/3rd of a degree apart (20 arc minutes), so close that dimmer Mars might not be obvious to the naked eye next to bright Jupiter. But use binoculars to show the planet pair.
The next morning, on January 7, they will appear almost as close, as Jupiter climbs higher past Mars.
As shown here, on the morning of January 11 the waning crescent Moon will sit only 4 degrees from the planet pair, with all three worlds gathered close enough for binoculars to frame the scene.
With sunrise coming late on winter mornings, it doesn’t take an early rise to take in the dawn scene. Make a note to take a look about 6:30 to 7:00 a.m. over the next week.
POSTSCRIPT added January 6:
Here’s the real scene from the morning of January 6, with Mars and Jupiter just 16 arc minutes apart, very close but still easy to distinguish with the naked eye. Jupiter did not overwhelm Mars.
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.
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 Cottagenear the Arizona Sky Village, the chosen dark sky site for many amateur astronomers, and at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains. Skies are dark!
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.
On the peak night, the visual impression was of meteors appearing at a rate of at least one a minute, if not more frequently.
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.
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.
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.
October has brought clear skies and some fine celestial sights. Here’s a potpourri of what was up from home.
We’ve enjoyed some lovely early autumn weather here in southern Alberta, providing great opportunities to see and shoot a series of astronomical events.
On October 5, Venus and Mars appeared a fraction of a degree apart in the dawn twilight. Venus is the brightest object, just above dimmer but red Mars. This was one of the closest planet conjunctions of 2017. Mars will appear much brighter in July and August 2018 when it makes its closest approach to Earth since 2003.
Satellites: The Space Station
The Space Station made a series of ideal evening passes in early October, flying right overhead from my site at latitude 51° N. I captured it in a series of stacked still images, so it appears as a dashed line across the sky. In reality it looks like a very bright star, outshining any other natural star. Here, it appears to fly toward the rising Moon.
Often appearing brighter than even the ISS, Iridium satellite flares can blaze brighter than even Venus at its best. One did so here, above, in another time-lapse of a pair of Iridium satellites that traveled in parallel and flared at almost the same time. But the orientation of the reflective antennas that create these flares must have been better on the left Iridium as it really shot up in brilliance for a few seconds.
Little in the sky beats a fine aurora display and we’ve had several of late, despite the Sun being spotless and nearing a low ebb in its activity. The above shot is a composite stack of 200 images, showing the stars circling the celestial pole above the main auroral arc, and taken on Friday the 13th.
This frame, from some 1300 I shot this night, October 13, captures the main auroral arc and a diffuse patch of green above that pulsed on and off.
You can see the time-lapse here in my short music video on Vimeo.
Friday the 13th Aurora from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
It’s in 4K if your monitor and computer are capable. It nicely shows the development of the aurora this night, from a quiescent arc, through a brief sub-storm outburst, then into pulsing and flickering patches. Enjoy!
What all these scenes have in common is that they were all shot from home, in my backyard. It is wonderful to live in a rural area and to be able to step outside and see these sites easily by just looking up!
It was one of those mornings when the sky was full of wonder.
After days and nights of smoke from unfortunate fires burning not far away, including in my favourite national park of Waterton Lakes, the sky cleared enough this morning, September 12, to reveal some fine sights.
At 6 a.m. the waning gibbous Moon passed in front of the star Aldebaran in Taurus. It is performing many such occultations of Aldebaran this year, but most aren’t well seen from any one location. This one was ideal, right from my backyard.
The lead image is a “high dynamic range” stack of several exposures showing the waning Moon and star set in some high haze adding the sky colours.
The star winked out behind the Moon’s bright limb as the Moon advanced from right to left (west to east) against the background sky.
This shows a composite sequence, with images of the star taken every four minutes blended with a single image of the Moon. While it looks like the star is moving, it is really the Moon that is edging closer to Aldebaran.
The star reappeared from behind the dark limb of the Moon, but five minutes after sunrise, with the Moon in a bright blue sky. Still, the star stood out nicely in binoculars and in the telescope for this view.
Aldebaran is the point of light at right, just off the invisible edge of the Moon.
I shot stills and video, and compiled them into this short video.
Enlarge it to full screen to view it properly.
Meanwhile, over to the east the twilight sky was awash in planets.
All the three inner terrestrial worlds were there: Venus, at top, Mercury below Regulus, and Mars lowest of the trio. Of course, a fourth terrestrial world is in the photo, too – Earth!
Mercury was at its greatest western elongation this morning, placing it as far from the Sun and as high in the sky as it gets, with this autumn appearance the best of 2017 for a morning showing for Mercury. Even so, you can see how Mercury is always low and easy to miss. However, this morning it was obvious to the naked eye.
Mars and Mercury will be in close conjunction at dawn on the morning of September 16.
It was a fine morning to be up early and enjoy the solar system show.
The crescent Moon rises into the western evening sky as 2016 ends, while Venus shines bright, and Orion rises into the east.
Getting clear skies is a rare treat of late, but these are images from two such nights this week. On December 30, the thin waxing Moon appeared in the colourful twilight of a winter night. Despite the clouds and the Moon’s low altitude, the dark side of the Moon is plainly visible illuminated by Earthshine.
Venus is now brilliant as an evening star in the southwest. Here is it over the old wood grain elevators at Mossleigh, Alberta, some of the few of these landmarks left standing on the prairies.
Fainter Mars shines above Venus and over the month of January, Venus will climb up to meet Mars by month’s end for a fine conjunction with the crescent Moon as well. Watch through January as Venus and Mars converge.
As the planets set into the southwest, Orion the Hunter rises into the east. Here it is over the Mossleigh elevators, illuminated by local lights.
A new comet is coming into our morning sky, for our binocular viewing pleasure.
Comet Catalina, aka C/2013 US10, has emerged from behind the Sun and is beginning to rise into our northern hemisphere dawn sky. The new comet promises to be visible in binoculars, but likely won’t be obvious to the unaided eyes.
On the morning of December 7 the comet sits within a binocular field of the waning crescent Moon which itself sits just above brilliant Venus. That in itself will be a remarkable view, best appreciated in binoculars, and a fine photogenic sight for the camera.
The close conjunction of the crescent Moon with Venus alone will be enough of an attraction on December 7, but the comet should add to the scene.
December 7 Venus Occultation
Even more, later in the day the Moon actually passes in front of, or “occults,” Venus in the daytime sky for most of North America.
That occultation happens in the morning for western North America and in the early afternoon for eastern North America. However, you’ll need a telescope to see it well, and very clear blue skies.
Use planetarium software (the free Stellarium program, for example, shown above, if you do not own astronomy software) to simulate the sky and provide the occultation times for your location. Zoom into the Moon and run time back and forth on December 7 to see when Venus goes behind the Moon and reappears. The screen shot above is for Calgary.
Back to the Comet
Comet Catalina was discovered in October 2013 at the Catalina Observatory in Arizona. The comet spent the last few months in the southern hemisphere sky, but is now coming north and into our sky, but at dawn.
It rises higher and higher each morning through December and into the new year. It may remain at fifth magnitude, bright enough to be easily visible in binoculars from a dark site, but likely not naked eye.
The chart above plots the comet at daily intervals, from December 4 to January 1. The comet is shown for December 15. Note that on the morning of January 1 it sits within a telescope field of the bright star Arcturus.
The distance from Earth to the comet decreases through December and early January, keeping the comet at a constant brightness even as it recedes from the Sun. We are closest to Catalina on January 17, at a far distance of 108 million km. But in late January the comet fades rapidly to become a telescope target.
To see Comet Catalina this month, get up 1 to 2 hours before sunrise and look southeast to east. But you will need dark skies to see it well. This will not be a good urban comet.
Nevertheless, as far as we know, this will be the best comet of 2016.
Four planets appear in the dawn sky outlining the morning ecliptic.
This morning, October 20, I was able to capture four planets in the morning sky, arrayed along the ecliptic.
From bottom to top they are: Mercury (just past its point of greatest elongation from the Sun), dim Mars, bright Jupiter, and very bright Venus (just 6 days away from its point of greatest elongation from the Sun). Above Venus is Regulus, in Leo.
I’ve added in the labels and the line of the ecliptic, rising steeply out of the east in the autumn dawn sky.
Of course, there is a fifth unlabelled planet in the scene, quite close in the foreground.
The image below is an unlabeled version.
Mercury will be disappearing from view very quickly now as it drops back down toward the Sun.
But over the next week the three higher planets will converge into a tight triangle just 4.5 degrees apart. We won’t see these three planets this close together in a darkened sky until November 2111.
I shot the scene from home in southern Alberta. The image is a composite stack, with manually created masks (not an HDR stack), of 5 exposures, from 15 seconds to 1 second, to contain the range of brightness from the bright horizon to the dimmer star-filled sky higher up. All are with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 800.
You might have already seen Venus shining brightly in the morning sky. And perhaps you’ve seen a slightly less bright object below it. That’s Jupiter.
But there’s a third, even dimmer planet accompanying Venus and Jupiter — reddish Mars. On the morning of Saturday, October 17 (chart above ⬆️) Mars and Jupiter pass just 1/2 degree apart, for a mismatched double “star” at dawn.
The planets put on an even better show in the following 10 days as all three converge to form a tight triangle of worlds in the morning sky.
On October 23 ⬆️, Venus, Mars and Jupiter appear in a close grouping just 4.5 degrees apart, close enough to each other to be easily contained in the field of typical binoculars, the circle shown in these charts.
Two mornings later, on October 25 ⬆️, Venus and Jupiter are at their closest apparent separation, just 1 degree apart, for a brilliant double “star” in the morning twilight. If you miss this morning, on the next morning, October 24, the two planets appear about the same distance apart as well.
By October 28 ⬆️, the three planets have switched positions, as Venus drops lower but Jupiter climbs higher. But they again appear in a triangle, 4.5 degrees wide.
The motion you’re seeing from day to day is due to a combination of the planets’ own orbital motions around the Sun, as well as our planet’s motion.
Keep in mind, the planets aren’t really close together in space. They lie tens, if not hundreds, of millions of kilometres apart. They appear close to each other in our sky because they lie along the same line of sight.
Do try to get up early enough — between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. should do it — to look east to see the changing configuration of planets as they dance at dawn. Binoculars will provide the best view.
This is a rare sight! We won’t see these three planets this close to each other in a darkened sky until November 20, 2111!
Look east this week to see a wonderful conjunction of the waning Moon with three planets in the morning sky.
A great dance of the planets is about to begin in the dawn sky.
Venus, Mars and Jupiter are now all prominent in the eastern sky before sunrise, with Venus by far the brightest. Below it shines slightly dimmer Jupiter. But between those two brightest of planets shines dim red Mars.
The three planets are converging for a mutual close meeting in the third week of October, when from October 23 to 28 the trio of planets will appear within a binocular field of each other.
But this week, with the three planets still spread out along a line, the Moon joins the scene to start the planet dance. It shines near Venus on the morning of October 8 (as shown here). and then near Mars and Jupiter on October 9.
Look east between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. local time. All the planets are easy to see with unaided eye even in the city, but binoculars will frame the Moon-Venus pairing on October 8 and the Moon-Mars-Jupiter trio on October 9.
On Sunday, September 27 the Moon undergoes a total eclipse, the last we’ll see until January 2018.
This is a sky event you don’t want to miss. Whether you photograph it or just enjoy the view, it will be a night to remember, as the Full Moon turns deep red during a total eclipse.
Note — For this article I’m giving times and sky directions for North America. For Europe the eclipse occurs early in the morning of September 28, as the Moon sets into the west. But for here in North America the timing could not be better. Totality occurs in the evening of Sunday, September 27 as the Moon rises into the east.
A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon — and it can only be Full — passes through the shadow cast into space by Earth. The Sun, Earth and Moon are in near-perfect alignment.
All total eclipses of the Moon consist of 3 main parts:
• The initial partial eclipse occurs as the Moon slowly enters the dark central portion of our planet’s shadow, the umbra. This lasts about an hour.
• Totality begins as the entire disk of the Moon is within the umbra. For this eclipse, totality lasts a generous 72 minutes.
• Totality ends as the Moon emerges from the umbra to begin the final partial eclipse lasting another hour.
WHERE TO SEE IT
All of North America, indeed most of the western hemisphere, can see this eclipse. In North America, the farther east you live on the continent the later in your evening the eclipse occurs and the higher the Moon appears in the southeast.
For example, in the Eastern time zone, totality begins at 10:11 p.m. EDT and ends at 11:23 p.m. EDT, with mid-totality is at 10:47 p.m. EDT with the Moon about 35 degrees up, placing it high in the southeast sky for southern Ontario, for example.
For me in the Mountain time zone, the total eclipse begins at 8:11 p.m. MDT and ends at 9:23 p.m. MDT, with mid-totality is at 8:47 p.m. MDT, with the Moon just 13 degrees up in the east from here in southern Alberta. From my time zone, and from most location in the Rocky Mountain regions, the Moon rises with the initial partial phases in progress.
For locations on the west coast viewers miss most of the partial eclipse phase before totality. Instead, the Moon rises as totality begins, making for a more challenging observation. Viewers on the coast will need clear skies and a low horizon to the east, but the reward could be a beautiful sight and images of a red Moon rising.
This eclipse of the Moon is the last in a series of four total lunar eclipses that occurred at six-month intervals over the last two years. We won’t enjoy another such “tetrad” of total lunar eclipses until 2032-33.
But this eclipse is unique in that it also coincides with the annual Harvest Moon, the Full Moon closest to the autumnal equinox. Harvest Moons are known for their orange tint as they rise into what is sometimes a dusty autumn evening.
But what is making internet headlines is that this Full Moon is also the year’s “supermoon,” the Full Moon of 2015 that comes closest to Earth. In recent years these “perigee” Full Moons have been dubbed “supermoons.”
Call it what you will, it does make this Full Moon a little larger than usual, though the difference is virtually impossible to detect by eye. And it makes little difference to the circumstances or appearance of the eclipse itself.
HOW TO SEE IT
Just look up! You can enjoy the eclipse with the unaided eye, and even from within city limits.
Unlike eclipses of the Sun, the eclipsed Moon is perfectly safe to look at with whatever you wish to use to enhance the view. The best views are with binoculars or a telescope at low power.
Look for subtle variations in the red colouring across the disk of the Moon, and even tints of green or blue along the dark edge of the Earth’s advancing or retreating shadow during the partial phases.
If you can, travel to a dark site to enjoy the view of the stars and Milky Way brightening into view as the Full Moon reddens and the night turns dark.
HOW TO SHOOT IT
1. On A Tripod
The easiest method is to use a camera on a tripod, with a remote release to fire the shutter and prevent vibration from blurring the image. What lens you use will depend on how you wish to frame the scene and how high the Moon is in your sky.
From eastern North America you’ll need a wide-angle lens (14mm to 24mm) to frame the eclipsed Moon and the ground below. The Moon will appear as a small red dot.
While you can shoot the Moon with longer focal lengths it takes quite a long lens (>300mm) to really make it worthwhile shooting just the Moon itself isolated in empty sky. Better to include a landscape to put the Moon in context, even if the Moon is small.
From western North America the lower altitude of the Moon allows it to be framed above a scenic landscape with a longer 35mm to 50mm lens, yielding a larger lunar disk.
From the west coast you could use a telephoto lens (135mm to 200mm) to frame the horizon and the eclipsed Moon as it rises for a dramatic photo.
Use Live View (and zoom in at 10x magnification) to manually focus on the horizon, distant lights, or bright stars. The Moon itself my be tough to focus on.
Exposures will depend on how bright your sky is. Use ISO 400 to 800 and try metering the scene as a starting point if your sky is still lit by twilight. Use wide lens apertures (f/4 to f/2) if you can, to keep exposures times as a short as possible.
The apparent motion of the Moon as the sky turns from east to west will blur the image of the Moon in exposures lasting more than a few seconds, especially ones taken with telephoto lenses.
The maximum exposure you can use before trailing sets in is roughly 500 / lens focal length.
2. On a Tracker or Equatorial Mount
If you can track the sky using a motorized tracker or telescope mount, you can take exposures up to a minute or more, to record the red Moon amid a starry sky.
For this type of shot, you’ll need to be at a dark site away from urban light pollution. But during totality the sky will be dark enough that the Milky Way will appear overhead. Use a wide-angle lens to capture the red Moon to the east of the summer Milky Way.
3. Through a Telescope
The most dramatic closeups of the eclipsed red Moon require attaching your camera body (with its lens removed) to a telescope. The telescope becomes the lens, providing a focal length of 600mm or more, far longer than any telephoto lens most of us own.
You’ll need the appropriate “prime focus” camera adapter and, to be blunt, if you don’t have one now, and have never shot the Moon though your telescope then plan on shooting with another method.
But even if you have experience shooting the Moon through your telescope, capturing sharp images of the dim red Moon demand special attention.
The telescope must be on a motorized mount tracking the sky, preferably at the “lunar,” not sidereal, drive rate. Focus on the Moon during the partial phases when it is easier to focus on the bright edge of the Moon.
Exposures during totality typically need to be 5 to 30 seconds at ISO 800 to 3200, depending on the focal ratio of your telescope. Take lots of exposures at various shutter speeds. You have over an hour to get it right!
I’d suggest attempting time-lapses only if you have lots of experience with lunar eclipses.
Exposures can vary tremendously over the partial phases and then into totality. Any time-lapse taken through a telescope, or even with a wide-angle lens, will require a lot of manual attention to ensure each frame is well-exposed as the sky and Moon darken.
However, even if you do not get a complete set of frames suitable for a smooth, continuous time-lapse, selected frames taken every 5 to 10 minutes may work well in creating a multiple-exposure composite (as above), by layering exposures later in Photoshop.
Whatever method – or methods — you use, don’t get so wrapped up in fussing with cameras you forget to simply enjoy the eclipse for the beautiful sight it is.
This is the last total eclipse of the Moon anyone on Earth will see until January 31, 2018. So enjoy the view of the deep red Moon in the autumn sky.
Look east at dawn on September 10 to see the first in a series of planet dances in the dawn sky.
Earlier this year in spring we had Venus and Jupiter blazing in the evening western sky. Now, after a time of retreat behind the Sun, they are emerging to repeat their show together but in the dawn sky.
However, Venus and Jupiter won’t be close together until the end of October. Until then, Venus and Jupiter slowly converge in the dawn sky, but now accompanied by dimmer but redder Mars.
On the morning of September 10, look east before sunrise to see the waning crescent Moon shining between Venus and Mars. Binoculars will frame the Moon and Venus, or the Moon and Mars, but not all three at once.
If your horizon and sky are very clear you might spy Jupiter as well shining down below the trio in the bright morning twilight.
The real dawn dance begins in mid to late October, when first Mars, then Venus passes Jupiter, and all three worlds cluster in a tight triangle in the morning twilight.
It’s Perseid meteor shower time. Here are tips for seeing and shooting the meteors.
What are the Perseids?
They are an annual meteor shower, perhaps the most widely observed of the year, that peak every year about August 12. They are caused by Earth passing through a dust stream left by Comet Swift-Tuttle, last seen near Earth in 1992.
Each “shooting star” is really a bit of comet dust burning up in our atmosphere as it ploughs into us at 200,000 kilometres an hour. They don’t stand a chance of surviving – and none do.
All Perseid particles burn up. None reach Earth.
When are the Perseids?
The peak night of the Perseids this year is the night of Wednesday, August 12 into the early morning hours of August 13, with the peak hour occurring about midnight Mountain Daylight Time or 2 a.m. on the 13th for Eastern Daylight Time.
For North America, this is ideal timing for a good show this year. However, a good number of meteors will be visible the night before and night after peak night.
Even better, the Moon is near New and so won’t interfere with the viewing by lighting up the sky.
In all, except for the mid-week timing, conditions this year in 2015 couldn’t be better!
What do they look like?
Any meteor looks like a brief streak of light shooting across the sky. The brightest will outshine the brightest stars and are sure to evoke a “wow!” reaction.
However, the spectacular Perseids are the least frequent. From a dark site, expect to see about 40 to 80 meteors in an hour of patient and observant watching, but of those, only a handful – perhaps only 1 or 2 – will be “wow!” meteors.
Where do I look?
All the meteors will appear to radiate from a point in the constellation of Perseus in the northeastern sky in the early hours of the night, climbing to high overhead by dawn.
So you can face that direction if you wish, but Perseids can appear anywhere in the sky, with the longest meteor trails often opposite the radiant point, over in the southwest.
How do I look?
Simple – just lie back on a comfy lawn chair or patch of grass and look up!
But … you need to be at a dark location away from city lights to see the most meteors. You’ll see very little in a city or light-polluted suburbs.
Head to a site as far from city lights as you can, to wherever you’ll be safe and comfortable.
How do I take pictures?
To stand any chance of capturing these brief meteors you’ll need a good low-noise camera (a DSLR or Compact System Camera) with a fast (f/2.8 or faster) wide-angle lens (10mm to 24mm).
Sorry, keep your point-and-shoot camera and phone camera tucked away in your pocket – they won’t work.
Set up you camera on a tripod, open the lens to f/2.8 (wide open perhaps) and the ISO to 800 to 3200) and take a test exposure of 20 to 40 seconds. You want a well-exposed image but not over-exposed so the sky is washed out.
Set your exposure time accordingly – most cameras allow a maximum exposure of 30 seconds. Exposures longer than 30 seconds require a separate intervalometer to set the exposure, with the camera set on Bulb (B).
Take lots of pictures!
To up your chances of catching a meteor, you need to set the camera to shoot lots of frames in rapid succession.
Use an intervalometer to take shots one after the other with as little time between as possible – because that’s when a meteor will appear!
Barring an intervalometer, if you have standard switch remote control, set the camera on High Speed Continuous, and the shutter speed to 30 seconds, then lock the remote’s switch to ON to keep the camera firing. As soon as one exposure ends it’ll fire another.
What else do I need to know?
• Focus the lens carefully so the stars are sharp – the Live Focus mode helps for this. Focus on a bright star or distant light.
• Aim the camera to take in a wide swath of the sky but include a well-composed foreground for the most attractive shot.
• Aim northeast to capture meteors streaking away from the radiant. But you can aim the camera to any direction that lends itself to a good composition and still capture a meteor.
• To increase your chances, shoot with two or more cameras aimed to different areas of the sky. Meteors always appear where your camera isn’t aimed!
• Be patient! Despite shooting hundreds of frames only a handful will record a meteor, as only the brightest will show up.
Can I track the sky?
If you have a motorized equatorial mount or a dedicated sky tracking device (the iOptron Sky Tracker and Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, each about $400, are popular), you can follow the stars while taking lots of shots. This avoids the stars trailing and allows you to use longer exposures.
The video above shows a Star Adventurer tracking the sky as it turns about its polar axis which is aimed up to a point near Polaris. Click the Enlarge and HD buttons to view the video properly.
Polar align the tracker, but then perhaps aim the camera to frame the summer Milky Way overhead. Take lots of 1- to 3-minute exposures, again at f/2.8 and ISO 800 to 1600. Some exposures will pick up meteors – with luck!
Tracking then stacking
Later, in processing, because the sky has remained fixed on the frame, it’s then possible to stack the images (using a “Lighten” blend mode on each image layer) so that the final composite frame contains more meteors, for an image with lots of meteors captured over an hour or more of shooting.
While it is possible to stack shots taken on a static tripod to produce such a meteor composite, doing so requires a lot of manual cutting, pasting and aligning of meteor images by hand. The result is a bit of a fake, though I’ve done it myself – the image at top is an example, though with only a trio of meteors.
During the week of July 13 to 17 we are witness to a momentous event in space exploration. Here’s how to follow along!
During the last week, and next, I’m out of photography for awhile and back into planetarium programming and production mode, my old day-job for decades. What has brought me back to the programming console is the once-in-history exploration of a new world – Pluto by the New Horizons probe.
I’m presenting a live public talk at the TELUS Spark science centre in Calgary on July 16 to present the new images. In the talk I use the amazing Evans and Sutherland Digistar digital planetarium system to fly people along with New Horizons as it makes its historic encounter.
Here, I present images of some of the full-dome immersive scenes I’ve programmed for the lecture. The top image is from the animation that places the audience alongside New Horizons as it flies from Earth and then through the Pluto system.
This image is the template scene into which I’ll drop what we hope will be even better images next week.
Here we fly out of the solar system to see the orbit of Pluto and its dwarf planet companions, as well as other objects of the Kuiper Belt, in perspective.
In this scene we land on Pluto to see the sky as it will appear next week during the encounter, complete with moons in the Plutonian sky.
To put the mission into historic perspective I also take people inside the observatory where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930.
And we’ll also visit dwarf planet Ceres, and fly to the Rosetta comet (above) to watch Philae land, and bounce!
For those in the Calgary area able to attend, you can find more details about my July 16 talk at the TELUS Spark website. The talk is in the Digital Dome at 4 pm and is free.
But to follow along with the mission from anywhere on Earth I recommend bookmarking these sites:
Look west on June 30 after sunset to see a brilliant “double star” in the dusk.
They’ve been building to this conjunction all month. On Tuesday, June 30 Venus and Jupiter appear at their closest in a stunning pairing in the evening twilight.
That night the two worlds – the two brightest planets in the sky – appear just 20 arc minutes apart.
That’s 1/3rd of a degree and is less than a Moon diameter. That’s so close you’ll be able to fit both planets into a high-magnification telescope field. However, it’s not so close that you won’t still be able to resolve the two worlds with your unaided eyes as separate objects shining in the twilight. In the chart above the circle is a binocular field.
Their proximity is merely an illusion. Venus and Jupiter lie along the same line of sight to us, but in fact are 825 million kilometres apart in space.
If Tuesday looks to be cloudy, good consolation nights are June 29 and July1 – Canada Day! – when Venus and Jupiter will be separated by 40 arc minutes – double their separation on June 30, but still very impressive.
The last time we saw Venus and Jupiter close together in the evening sky was in mid-March 2012, when I shot the photo above. But at that time they passed a wide 3 degrees apart. This week they are just a fraction of a degree apart.
They’ll meet again later this year, but in the morning sky, on October 25, when Venus and Jupiter pass one degree from each other.
Three planets now shine in the evening sky, including Saturn now at its best for 2015.
Look west in the early evening to sight brilliant Venus in the twilight, and slightly dimmer Jupiter above it. On the evening of Thursday, May 21, look for the waxing crescent Moon below Venus in a wide pairing of the night sky’s two brightest objects.
The Moon appears between Venus and Jupiter on Friday, May 22, and near Jupiter two nights later on Saturday, May 23.
Meanwhile over on the other side of the sky, Saturn is rising at sunset.
As the illustration shows, look southeast after sunset to see Saturn rising along with the stars of Scorpius. Saturn now outshines all the stars of Scorpius, including the red giant star Antares, shining below Saturn.
Saturn is at opposition this weekend, meaning Sun, Earth and Saturn are now lined up with Earth directly between the Sun and Saturn. That puts Saturn as close to us as it gets for 2015, and as bright as it gets.
Being opposite the Sun, Saturn is now rising in the southeast as the Sun sets in the northwest.
Here’s a shot of Saturn, Scorpius, and the Milky Way from early this morning, May 20, taken about 2:30 a.m. when Saturn and Scorpius lay due south. From the latitude of southern Saskatchewan where I am this week, Saturn and Scorpius graze the southern horizon, even in the middle of the night.
The next two weeks are the best in 2015 for sighting Mercury in the evening sky.
Mercury is coming into view in our evening sky, climbing as high as it can get for us in the Northern Hemisphere. This is our best chance for us to sight Mercury as an evening star in 2015.
Spring is always the best time to catch elusive Mercury. The angle of the ecliptic – the path of the planets – swings up highest above the horizon in spring, putting Mercury as high into the evening twilight as it can get. This makes it easier to sight Mercury than at other times of the year when, particularly for observers at northern latitudes, Mercury can be lost in the twilight glow and horizon haze.
When it is at its highest Mercury is surprisingly bright, appearing as a bright star easily visible to the naked eye. However, locating it at first in the twilight usually requires a scan with binoculars.
Mercury will be at its highest on May 6 when it reaches “greatest elongation.” However, it will be almost as good for a week on either side of that date.
So set aside a clear evening during the first two weeks of May to search for the inner planet. (The green line is Mercury’s path relative to the horizon with the green dots marking its position at daily intervals.)
Mercury will be shining above fainter Mars, and well below brilliant Venus, now dominating our evening spring sky. Look north of due west during the hour after sunset.
This view captures Mercury at its last good evening appearance, back in early January when it appeared close to Venus, then emerging into the evening sky. You can compare their relative brightness.
By coincidence, the emergence of Mercury into our evening sky comes just as it loses its lone visitor from Earth. Since 2011, NASA’s Messenger probe has been orbiting and mapping Mercury.
On April 29, with the probe exhausted of its maneuvering fuel, Messenger is scheduled to end its mission by crashing onto the planet, adding a new crater to Mercury’s barren and volcanic surface.
On the evening of April 21 the waxing Moon shines near Venus, while Mercury appears near Mars.
Say goodbye to the winter sky, as Orion and Taurus sink into the western twilight. Joining them is an array of planets, and the Moon.
Look west on April 21 and you’ll see the waxing crescent Moon near brilliant Venus, with both above the Hyades star cluster and the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus.
The thinner Moon will appear below Venus the night before, on April 21, while on April 22, the waxing Moon, then a wider crescent, will sit well above Venus.
If you have an unobstructed view to the west also look for the pairing of Mercury and Mars low in the twilight. You might need to use binoculars to pick them out.
Mercury is just beginning its best evening appearance of the year for the northern hemisphere. So if you miss it April 21, you have another couple of weeks to find it in the evening sky.
On the nights around April 21, also look for Earthshine lighting the dark side of the Moon. You can see the night side of the Moon because it is being illuminated by sunlight reflecting off the Earth, shining brightly in the lunar sky.
The above image is a view of Earthshine from a month ago, on March 24, when the Moon appeared in the Hyades star cluster.
Enjoy the spring sky adorned by Venus as a bright “evening star,” and joined by the Moon on April 21.
Look west and south this weekend to see the two brightest planets each pairing with a bright cluster of stars.
This weekend, Venus and Jupiter each pair with a prominent open star cluster.
In the west, look for brilliant Venus, an evening “star” this spring, shining near the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters star cluster. Some know it as Messier 45.
Both Venus and the Pleiades are in Taurus the bull, whose main stars lie to the left of the Venus-Pleiades pairing. Farther to the left still, look for the distinctive stars of Orion the hunter, whose trio of Belt stars give him away.
As this close up shows, binoculars will nicely frame Venus and the Pleiades at once.
Venus continues to climb higher this spring while the Pleiades and the other stars of the winter sky, including Orion and Taurus, sink lower and lower. The next few nights are the best for catching Venus as it passes the Pleiades.
High in the south as it gets dark shines the other bright planet in our sky – Jupiter.
It, too pairs with a star cluster. Jupiter now shines a binocular field to the east (left) of the Beehive Cluster, also known as Messier 44. Jupiter and M44 lie in Cancer the crab, a faint constellation nestled between Leo to the east and Gemini to the west.
Jupiter has been retrograding closer to the Beehive all winter and early spring. But this weekend Jupiter sits as close to the cluster as it is going to get. For the rest of spring and summer Jupiter will move east away from the Beehive.
Look west and south as it gets dark this weekend, for the pair of planet-cluster pairings!
On the morning of April 4 (for North America) the Moon turns bright red in the third of four lunar eclipses in a row.
We’ve been enjoying a spate of total lunar eclipses over the last year. We had one a year ago on April 15 and again on October 8, 2014. This weekend, we can enjoy the third lunar eclipse in a year.
This Saturday, the Moon undergoes a total eclipse lasting just 4 minutes, making this the shortest total lunar eclipse since the year 1529. Typically, lunar eclipses last 30 to 60 minutes for the total phase, when the Full Moon is completely within Earth’s shadow.
But this eclipse is barely total, with the Moon grazing across the northern edge of the umbral shadow, as this diagram courtesy of SkyNews magazine illustrates. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)
• The partial eclipse begins at 4:15 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time on the morning of Saturday, April 4 for North America.
• Totality (when the Moon is reddest and darkest) is from 5:58 to 6:02 a.m. MDT.
• The partial eclipse ends at 7:44 a.m. MDT.
Add one hour for Central time, and subtract one hour for Pacific time.
This lunar eclipse is best from western North America where totality can be seen. From eastern North America, in the grey zones here, the Moon sets while in the initial partial phase and before totality begins. Those in Australia and New Zealand can also see the eclipse, but late on the night of April 4 into April 5. Europe and Africa miss out.
Even from western North America, the Moon will be eclipsed while it is setting into the west, and the sky is brightening with dawn twilight, presenting a view such as in the above photo, which I took in December 2011.
This eclipse occurs over the Easter and Passover weekend – and actually on Easter for some time zones. The last time we had a total lunar eclipse on Easter Sunday was March 23, 1913. The next to occur on Easter won’t be until April 14, 2340.
If you miss this eclipse, you have one more chance this year. On Sunday, September 27, conveniently timed for the evening in North America, we have the last in a “tetrad” series of four total lunar eclipses. After that, we wait until January 31, 2018.
This weekend and early next week look for the Moon passing planets and star clusters in the evening sky.
The waxing Moon returns to the evening sky on Saturday night, March 21, a day and half after it eclipsed the Sun over the North Atlantic and Europe.
On Saturday, March 21 look for the thin crescent Moon very low in the west sitting just a degree (two Moon diameters) left of reddish and dim Mars.
The next night, Sunday, March 22, the Moon, now a wider crescent, shines three degrees (half a binocular field) left of brilliant Venus, for a beautiful close conjunction of the night sky’s two brightest objects. The photo ops abound!
This is one of the best Moon-Venus meet-ups of the current “evening star” apparition of Venus this winter and spring. Next month, for example, the Moon will sit six degrees away from Venus on April 21.
On Monday, March 23, the crescent Moon sits between Venus and its next destination, the bright star Aldebaran.
On Tuesday, March 24, the Moon, still a crescent, shines amid the stars of the Hyades star cluster near Aldebaran in Taurus, for a wonderful binocular scene. The more famous Pleiades star cluster is near by.
On all nights, you’ll see the night side of the Moon dimly illuminated by Earthshine, sunlight reflecting off the Earth and lighting up the dark side of the Moon.
Here’s a close-up of the March 24 scene, with the Moon in the V-shaped face of Taurus the bull that is marked by the widely scattered Hyades star cluster.
Please note: This diagram and the main chart above, are for western North America. From eastern North America, the Moon will be 2 to 4 Moon diameters lower in the sky for each of the dates indicated.
The Full Moon of March 5 will be the smallest and most distant Full Moon of 2015.
In recent years there’s been a huge ado about “supermoons,” the largest and closest Full Moons of the year. This year the biggest Full Moon occurs on September 27.
Photographers wishing to capture a comparison of the biggest Full Moon with the smallest will need to shoot the Moon this week, on March 5. That’s the date for 2015’s most distant and smallest Full Moon – the “mini-moon” of March.
On March 5 the Moon reaches its “apogee” – the most distant point in its monthly elliptical orbit around Earth about 10 hours before it reaches the moment of full phase at mid-day on March 5 for North America. On March 5 the Moon’s maximum distance will be 406,384 kilometres from Earth (measured from the centre of Earth to the centre of the Moon).
By nightfall on March 5 the Moon will be a little closer than that but not by much. Seven Full Moons later, on September 27, the Moon will reach its monthly “perigee” point closest to Earth less than an hour before full phase, at a distance of 356,877 kilometres.
That will be the much-publicized “supermoon” of 2015. Shoot both Full Moons with the same optical system (preferably a telescope with a focal length of at least 600mm to make the Moon large enough on the camera frame) and you’ll have a pair of real images comparing the minimum and maximum apparent sizes of the Moon, much like the simulations above.
You’ll certainly be out shooting the September 27 Full Moon, as that night it also undergoes a total eclipse. The Full Moon will turn deep red in the early evening for North America. But wait until the umbral phase is over, and you’ll have a normal looking Full Moon to create the comparison pair.
There’s also a total lunar eclipse next month, on the morning of April 4, six Full Moons before the September “supermoon” eclipse.
However, that’s not the smallest Full Moon of 2015. On April 4 the Full Moon comes three days after the Moon’s monthly apogee point, putting it a little closer than this week’s Full “mini-Moon” of March. The difference between the two extreme Moons is only about 12 percent, between a lunar disk 30 arc minutes across (1/2 degree) at apogee and one 34 arc minutes across at perigee.
The difference is impossible to detect to the eye, not without two Moons side-by-side in the sky, something we’ll never see. But by taking photos of the March and September moons with the same optics you can create a matched two-moon comparison.
This Friday, February 20, look west to see one of the best planet conjunctions of 2015.
On the evening of February 20, the waxing crescent Moon joins Venus and Mars in the western sky to create a tight gathering of worlds in the twilight.
The trio of worlds will be just one degree apart, close enough to fit within the low-power field of a telescope.
However, the conjunction will be easy to sight with the unaided eye, with the possible exception of Mars itself. It is now dim enough, and so close to brilliant Venus and the Moon, that picking it out might be tough without optical aid.
But any binoculars will nicely show this wonderful trio, as here:
This closeup image shows the field through binoculars, which typically frame about six to seven degrees of sky. The Moon, Venus and Mars will be a mere one degree apart.
The next night, February 21, the crescent Moon will sit above the Venus-Mars pair. But the two planets will be even closer together, just 1/2 degree apart. They will be a little farther apart on February 22.
Venus and Mars pass in conjunction this weekend as Mars sinks lower into the sky, to disappear behind the Sun by spring, while Venus climbs higher, to dominate the spring sky this year.
This will be a photogenic conjunction, so get your camera out. Use a normal to moderate telephoto lens (50mm to 135mm) to frame the celestial gathering above a scenic horizon.
As the Moon departs the evening sky, we are left with a dark sky for viewing Comet Lovejoy, converging planets, and the elusive Zodiacal Light.
The western sky contains wonders this month.
Look into the evening twilight and you’ll see brilliant Venus appearing a little higher each night. As it climbs up, fainter Mars above is descending closer to the horizon. The two planets are converging toward a spectacular close conjunction with each other, and with the waxing crescent Moon, on February 20.
Meanwhile, Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) continues to perform well. It is now in the northwestern sky in the early evening, as it travels up through Andromeda into Cassiopeia.
While technically visible to the unaided eye, you really need binoculars or any telescope to see Comet Lovejoy well. Through optical aid it does show a faint tail. But it takes a long exposure photo to show it well.
Here’s where to find Comet Lovejoy over the next couple of weeks, during the current dark-of-the-Moon period.
Look for a fuzzy star in Andromeda. It’s not passing very near any notable deep-sky objects, but its position will still make for a nice wide-angle photo with the comet embedded in this photogenic region of the northern autumn sky.
The other sight to look for each evening for the next two weeks is the Zodiacal Light. My photo shows it from last month, when Comet Lovejoy was crossing the ecliptic.
Look for a pyramid of light stretching up from the sunset point to high in the west. It follows the ecliptic, the green line in the top star chart. It takes a dark sky to see it, and it helps to be at a southerly latitude. But I’ve seen and shot the Zodiacal Light nicely in February from home in Alberta at 51° latitude.
The Zodiacal Light is caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust in the inner solar system. To see it, wait for most of the evening twilight to fade away. The glow that’s left brightening the western sky is the Zodiacal Light.
There’s lots to see just in the western evening sky during the next two weeks. Clear skies!
This Tuesday, Feb. 3, watch the Full “Snow” Moon rise accompanied by the giant planet Jupiter.
Tuesday is Full Moon, the February “Snow Moon” according to some interpretations. Indeed, from most places in North America the Moon will rise over a snow-covered landscape to light the winter night.
This Full Moon is also special because it will pair with bright Jupiter. Both worlds are now at or near “opposition.”
Any Full Moon is always opposite the Sun – that’s why it is fully illuminated by the Sun.
But Jupiter is also near its annual opposition point in its orbit. The official date of opposition is Friday, Feb. 6. On that date Earth passes directly between the Sun and Jupiter – our three worlds lie in a line across the solar system. We are then closest to Jupiter and Jupiter appears opposite the Sun.
Being opposite the Sun, Jupiter rises as the Sun sets. And so will the Full Moon on Tuesday, accompanied by the giant planet now at its brightest for the year.
Look east at sunset. It will be a photogenic sight for the prepared photographer.
But you can also enjoy it with just the unaided eyes or binoculars, as the two worlds will appear about a binocular field apart, 5 degrees.
The double circles on the chart mark the position of the Earth’s shadow, which is always opposite the Sun. You can’t see our shadow out in space – not unless the Full Moon passes through it, which it will on April 4, for a total eclipse of the Moon. More about that in two months.
For now, enjoy the Snow Moon with the Giant Planet.
Jupiter put on quite a show last night, with transits galore on its cloud tops.
Not since Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter in 1994 have I witnessed such amazing and dramatic sights on Jupiter.
Last night, January 23, was the night of the triple shadow transits on Jupiter, with Io, Europa and Callisto all casting their shadows onto the Jovian cloud tops at one, but just for 24 minutes.
In addition, the disk of Callisto and Io were also superimposed on the disk, though only Callisto’s disk was obvious. With it, for a time I could see Jupiter dotted with 4 dark spots.
I make no claims that the video shows amazing detail. I shot it with the biggest telescope I have at my disposal here in New Mexico, a short-focus 92mm refractor. Such an event really needed a large reflector with lots of focal length to do it justice and magnify Jupiter enough to see the details well.
However, I shot the video clips to serve as my personal souvenir of the event. I hope the video and my commentary convey some of the excitement of the night, in seeing an event we will not see repeated until 2032.
On Monday, January 26 North American stargazers have a ringside seat for the near miss of a monster asteroid.
On Monday night an asteroid known as 2004 BL86 will pass just 1.2 million kilometres from Earth, a close approach that brings it to within three times the distance to the Moon. Many small asteroids have made the news of late that have approached much closer than this.
The difference with 2004 BL86 is that this hurtling interplanetary rock is 1/2 kilometre across. That’s big for a near-Earth asteroid. If one this size were to hit Earth it would create a city- or region-devastating catastrophe of epic proportions.
No bigger asteroid is known to be coming this close to us until the year 2027 when 1999 AN10 comes as close as the Moon.
On Monday night 2004 BL86 will be moving so fast (about 2 degrees an hour) that, through a telescope, you should be able to see it move in real time, appearing as a dim star gliding against the background stars.
The best time to watch will be between 10 and 11 p.m. Mountain Time (or midnight to 1 a.m. Eastern) when the asteroid will be buzzing past the Beehive star cluster, aka Messier 44. It will be high in the east and any star chart, planetarium software or GoTo telescope will show you where to find the Beehive cluster in Cancer. From a dark site, the Beehive appears as a fuzzy glow in Cancer between Gemini and Leo.
Locate the Beehive in a low-power, wide-field eyepiece. The asteroid will be moving up (north) past the cluster on the east side of the cluster. The diagram provides a normal view matching the naked-eye orientation of the sky, with north up and east to the left.
In a Newtonian telescope the field will appear upside down – the asteroid will appear to the right of the cluster moving down. In a refractor or Cassegrain telescope with a star diagonal the field will appear mirror-reversed, with the asteroid again on the right side of the cluster, but moving up.
The asteroid will appear at ninth magnitude, the brightness of some of the moderate brightness stars plotted. Using any telescope 80mm or larger in aperture, picking out a ninth mag star should be easy, even in city skies and with the waxing Moon up, as long as you have clear skies. Just be sure to use your lowest power.
Something very special is going to happen on Jupiter this Friday night.
If you have a telescope be sure to train it on Jupiter Friday evening or into Saturday morning for a rare sight. For 24 minutes we will see three of Jupiter’s moons casting their shadows onto Jupiter’s cloud tops at once.
We will not see this sight again until March 20, 2032.
The shadows of the Jovian moons Io, Europa and Callisto will be on the disk of Jupiter from:
• 1:28 a.m. until 1:52 a.m. EST, after midnight on January 27 for those in eastern North America.
For those in western North America the times are:
• 11:28 p.m. until 11:52 p.m. MST, or 10:28 p.m. to 10:52 p.m. PST, before midnight on January 26.
Callisto’s shadow enters the disk earlier in the evening for North America, at 10:11 p.m. EST. A double shadow transit begins when the small but intense shadow of Io enters the disk at 11:35 p.m. EST. Double shadow transits are fairly common.
The rare sight begins just under two hours later, at 1:28 a.m. EST or 11:28 p.m. MST when Europa’s shadow also enters the disk.
It is short-lived, however. The fast-moving shadow of Io leaves the disk 24 minutes later, at 1:52 a.m. EST, or 11:52 p.m. MST, leaving only the shadows of Callisto and Europa on the disk. (The graphic illustrates the triple transit halfway through the 24-minute-long window.)
You’ll need a telescope to witness this rare dance of shadows. An 80mm refractor or 100mm reflector should suffice. Use high power. The shadows will appear as dark spots of varying size and intensity. Io’s will be darkest, Callisto’s will be largest but less intense. Europa’s shadow will look the smallest.
The disks of Io and Callisto will also be on the disk but will appear as bright dots, making them harder to pick out against the bright cloud bands.
Jupiter is the brightest object in the eastern sky in the late evening. You can’t miss it!
On Wednesday, January 21 look low in the southwest for a conjunction of the Moon and inner planets.
Mercury is ending its brief evening appearance and proximity to Venus. But this week you can still spot it a binocular field or so below Venus as it descends back toward the Sun.
On Wednesday, January 21, look low in the southwest to sight the thin waxing crescent Moon sitting near Venus and Mercury, forming a wide triangle of inner rocky worlds.
The other rocky planet in the inner solar system, Mars, shines higher up in the evening twilight as a moderate brightness reddish star. The next night, January 22, the waxing Moon will sit beside Mars in a wide conjunction.
Catch the Moon-Mercury-Venus trio early, as they will set an hour or so after local sunset.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The two inner planets, Mercury and Venus, meet up in the dusk sky this weekend.
While I usually devote my blog to showcasing my photos of celestial events and wonders, a New Year’s resolution for me was to expand my blog to include alerts to what’s coming up in the sky. Here’s the first entry for 2015.
This weekend and for the following week (January 9 to 18) look southwest to see brilliant Venus accompanied in a close conjunction by elusive Mercury.
Look low in the southwest between 5 and 6 pm local time.
Venus is brilliant and hard to miss. Yes, that’s Venus not an aircraft!
But Mercury is fainter and is best seen at first in binoculars, as a dimmer star near Venus. Once you sight it, it’ll be easy to see naked eye, as long as your evening sky is clear.
Mercury passes less than a degree from Venus this weekend (the circle shows a typical 7° binocular field).
Here are the two planets as they appeared last Sunday night, when they were farther apart.
After Sunday, Mercury continues to climb higher, separating from Venus, as it moves along the green orbital path shown here. Mercury reaches its highest angle away from the Sun on Wednesday, January 14 – what we call “greatest elongation.”
It then drops back toward the Sun and horizon. We won’t be able to see Mercury well again in the west until early May,
Happy planet hunting!
P.S. Visit my webpage to download a PDF of a free 2015 Sky Calendar.