It’s been a marvelous few months following Venus rise and fall across the evening sky, in its best show in eight years.
Venus is now gone from our western sky, but since late 2019 until late May 2020 it had dominated the sky as a brilliant evening star.
Here’s a gallery of Venus portraits I shot during its wonderful show these last few months.
The show began in November 2019 when rising Venus met declining Jupiter on November 23 for a fine conjunction of the two brightest planets in the evening twilight.
A week later I captured the line of the then three evening planets and the Moon across the southwest, defining the path of the ecliptic across the evening sky.
A week after that I took the opportunity to shoot some selfies of me with binoculars looking at Venus, as it met Saturn in a wide conjunction, with Venus then still low in the southwest. It was just beginning its climb up into the western sky.
A month later in mid-winter, Venus was still rather low but brilliant even in a hazy moonlit sky, as I posed for another selfie, this time with a small telescope. These images are always useful for illustrations in books and magazines. And blogs!
By the end of February Venus had climbed high into the west, and was appearing monthly near the waxing crescent Moon. This is another binocular selfie from February 27.
In March I visited Churchill, Manitoba just as the lockdown and travel restrictions were coming into effect. But our lone and last tour group at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre saw some fine auroras, as here on this evening with the Northern Lights appearing even in the twilight. And what’s that bright star? Venus, of course!
Upon my return home to Alberta, I was able to shoot more panoramas on the prairies of the wonderful early spring sky with Orion setting into the twilight and Venus in Taurus shining below the iconic Pleiades star cluster.
March 26 was a superb night for catching Venus now at its highest and almost at its brightest at this appearance, as the waxing Moon appeared below it.
The highlight of the spring Venus season was its close approach to the Pleiades, which it passes only every 8 years. Here I am viewing the conjunction two days before the closest approach, with Orion over my shoulder.
The night of closest approach, April 3, was cloudy, but here is a consolation closeup taken the next night with brilliant Venus departing the Seven Sisters.
Later in April Venus reached its greatest brilliancy, at magnitude -4.7, the date when the size of is disk, phase, and proximity to Earth converge to make Venus as bright as possible. On this night I shot the Moon, then 30° away from Venus and the planet with the same gear to show their relative sizes and similar crescent phase this night. The caption provides more details.
A week later, with Venus just past its point of greatest brilliancy, I shot the planet by daylight in the early evening sky, using a telescope to zoom into the planet to show its waning crescent phase. By this time the phase was obvious in binoculars.
But Venus was now dropping rapidly from sight. By May 23, it was low in the twilight and below Mercury, then at its best for 2020 for an evening appearance from my latitude. Note the thin Moon below the planets. This was a superb sight for binoculars.
By May 29, Venus was now tough to pick out of the evening sky, and a challenge to shoot even by day, as it then stood only 8° away from the Sun. What was once obvious to the naked eye now took a computerized telescope to pick out of the noon-day blue sky. A telescope showed the now razor-thin crescent as Venus approached its June 3 “inferior conjunction” — its passage between Earth and the Sun.
I shot and narrated video footage of the thin crescent Venus, my parting shots of Venus for its evening appearance in 2020.
But in June, post inferior conjunction, it will rise very quickly into our morning sky, providing a mirror-image repeat performance as a morning star for the rest of 2020.
Venus Near Inferior Conjunction from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I wish you all the best and a safe and healthy time in 2020. Take some solace in what the sky can show us and in the beauty of the night.
Spring is the season for Earthshine on the waxing Moon.
April 8 was the perfect night for capturing the waxing crescent Moon illuminated both by the Sun and by the Earth.
The phase was a 4-day-old Moon, old enough to be high in the sky, but young enough – i.e. a thin enough crescent – that its bright side didn’t wash out the dark side!
In the lead photo at top, and even in the single-exposure image below taken earlier in a brighter sky, you can see the night side of the Moon faintly glowing a deep blue, and brighter than the background twilight sky.
This, too, is from sunlight, but light that has bounced off the Earth first to then light up the night side of the Moon.
If you were standing on the lunar surface on the night side, the Sun would be below the horizon but your sky would contain a brilliant blue and almost Full Earth lighting your night, much as the Moon lights our Earthly nights. However, Earth is some 80 times brighter in the Moon’s sky than even the Full Moon is in our sky.
Unlike the single image, the lead image, repeated just above, is a multi-exposure blend (using luminosity masks), to bring out the faint Earthshine and deep blue sky, while retaining details in the bright crescent.
Once the sky gets dark enough to see Earthshine well, no single exposure can record the full range in brightness on both the day and night sides of the Moon.
April 8 was a great night for lunar fans as the crescent Moon also appeared between the two bright star clusters in Taurus, the Hyades and Pleiades, and below reddish Mars.
It was a fine gathering of celestial sights, captured above with a telephoto lens.
This show the chart I used to plan the framing, created with StarryNight™ software and showing the field of the 135mm lens I used.
The chart also shows why spring is best for the waxing Moon. It is at this time of year that the ecliptic – the green line – swings highest into the evening sky, taking the Moon with it, placing it high in the west above obscuring haze.
That makes it easier to see and shoot the subtle Earthshine. And to see sharp details on the Moon.
The 4-day-old waxing crescent Moon on April 8, 2019 exposed for just the bright sunlit crescent, revealing details along the terminator. This is with the 105mm Traveler refractor and 2X AP Barlow lens for an effective focal length of 1200mm at f/12, and with the cropped-frame Canon 60Da at ISO 400, for a single exposure of 1/60 second. This is not a stack or mosaic.
The 4-day-old waxing crescent Moon on April 8, 2019 exposed for just the bright sunlit crescent, revealing details along the terminator. This is with the 105mm Traveler refractor and 2X AP Barlow lens for an effective focal length of 1200mm at f/12, and with the cropped-frame Canon 60Da at ISO 400, for a single exposure of 1/60 second. This is not a stack or mosaic.
After the sky got darker I shot the crescent Moon in a short exposure to capture just the bright crescent, included above in two versions – plain and with labels attached marking the major features visible on a 4-day Moon.
If you missed “Earthshine night” this month, mark May 7 and 8 on your calendar for next month’s opportunities.
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/
A clear day on Easter Eve allowed me to photograph the setting Full Moon in the morning and the rising Full Moon in the evening.
This was another of the year’s special Full Moons, and this time for a valid historical reason.
This was the “paschal” Full Moon, the one used to determine the date of Easter. It was the first Full Moon after the vernal equinox. The first Sunday after that Full Moon is Easter. This year, the Moon was full about an hour before sunrise on the morning of Saturday, March 31. Easter was the next day, Sunday, April 1.
Below is the view of the Full Moon not long after it was officially Full, as it was setting into the west as the first rays of sunlight lit the foreground at dawn on March 31.
To be precise, the actual paschal Full Moon is a fictional or calculated Moon that occurs 14 days into the lunar cycle, and isn’t an observed Moon. But this year, we really did have a Full Moon just before Easter Sunday, and on the first day of Passover, from which we get the term “paschal.”
Later on March 31, after sunset, the Moon was now half a day past Full, causing it to rise a good half hour after sunset. However, the lighting and sky colour was still good enough to place a reddened Moon rising into a deep blue sky for a wonderful colour contrast.
This was also touted as a “blue Moon,” as it was the second Full Moon in March, and it was also the second blue Moon of 2018. (January had one, too.) But as you can see the Moon was hardly “blue!” It was a fine pink Moon.
The above image is a little fun with Photoshop, and stacks hundreds of images of the rising Moon to create a “Moon trail,” showing the change in colour of the Moon as it rose.
This short HD movie includes two versions of the full time-lapse sequence:
• One showing the Moon rising normally, though the sky and ground come from the first image in the sequence.
• The second is another bit of Photoshop fun, with the Moon leaving disks behind it as it rose.
For the technically minded, I created both movies using Photoshop’s video editing capabilities to layer in various still images on top of the base video file. The stills are layered with a Lighten blend mode to superimpose them onto the background sky and video.
While Easter is a spring holiday, it hardly seems spring here in Alberta. The coldest Easter weekend in decades and lots of snow on the ground made this a winter scene.
With luck, spring will arrive here well before the next Full Moon.
New Year’s Day proved to be a busy one for sky sights from home in southern Alberta.
Clear skies and warming temperatures allowed me to capture a trio of sights on January 1: Mercury in the morning, a unique mirage called the Fata Morgana in the afternoon, and the rising Full Moon in the evening.
On January 1 elusive Mercury was at its greatest elongation away from the Sun in the morning sky. This placed it as high as it can get above the horizon, though that’s not high at all at the best of times.
I captured Mercury before dawn as a bright star in the colourful twilight, using a telephoto lens to frame the scene more closely.
At this time the temperature outside was still about -24° C, as a cold snap that had plunged the prairies into frigid air for the last week still held its grip.
But by the afternoon, warmer air was drifting in from the west, in a Chinook flow from the Rockies.
As evidence of the change, the air exhibited a form of mirage called the Fata Morgana, named after the sorceress Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend. The illusion of castles in the air was thought to be a spell cast by her to lure sailors to their doom.
The mirage produced the illusion of bodies of water in the distance, plus distorted, elongated forms of wind turbines and farm buildings on the horizon. The cause is the refraction of light by layers of warm air aloft, above cold air near the ground.
By evening the mirage effect was still in place, producing a wonderful moonrise with the Full Moon writhing and rippling as it rose through the temperature inversion.
As the lead image at top shows, at moments the top of the disk had a green rim (almost a distinct green flash), while the bottom was tinted red.
Here’s a short time-lapse video of the scene, shot through a small telescope. The lead image above and below is a composite of four of the frames from this movie.
This was also the largest and closest Full Moon of the year, what has become popularly called a “supermoon,” but more correctly called a perigean Full Moon.
A lunar cycle from now, at the next Full Moon, the Moon undergoes a total eclipse in the dawn hours of January 31 for western North America. This will be another misnamed Moon, a “blue Moon,” the label for the second Full Moon in a calendar month.
And some will also be calling it a “supermoon,” as it also occurs close to perigee – the closest point of the Moon to Earth in its monthly orbit – but not as close a perigee as it was at on January 1.
So it will be less than super, but it will nevertheless be spectacular as the Full “blue” Moon turns red as it travels through Earth’s shadow.
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.
These are the Moons only insomniacs and night shift workers get to see. These are the waning Moons of morning.
For eight mornings I’ve been up at 4 a.m. each day to catch the early Moon and collect a series of images of its waning phases.
The result is above, a series that runs from right to left in time, from the 19-day-old waning gibbous Moon, to the 26-day-old thin crescent Moon.
I ordered them that way in the composite to reflect the direction the Moon moves across the sky. As it orbits Earth and wanes, the Moon moves from west to east, or right to left, in the sky from morning to morning, at least in the northern hemisphere.
A run of clear nights and mornings made the series possible. From Alberta, as dry as it is, too many cloudy nights make a consistent Moon phase series a challenge at best.
As it was I had to contend with smoke from forest fires in B.C. which reddened the Moon on the last few mornings, a tint I had to correct for the composite above. But here below, is what the Moon really looked like one morning.
The last two Moons, at 25 and 26 days old (i.e. the number of days since the previous New Moon phase) exhibited the phenomenon known as Earthshine. You can see the night side of the Moon glowing gently with sunlight reflected first off the Earth.
Below, this was the Moon this morning, July 21, with it very low in the east amid the twilight sky.
This final morning was exceptional. The smoke had cleared off, and when I got up at 4 a.m. (reluctantly!) for the last shoot I was greeted with the best display of noctilucent clouds I had seen in many years. They covered the northeast and eastern skies in a rare “grand display.”
The thin crescent Moon is just rising at right, with Venus bright as a “morning star” at far right. This was a sky certainly worth losing sleep over.
The Full Moon of June rose into a twilight sky over a prairie pond.
On June 9, the clouds cleared to present an ideal sky for capturing the rising of the so-called “Strawberry Moon,” the popular name for the Full Moon of June.
The lead image is a composite of 15 frames, taken at roughly 2.5-minute intervals and stacked in Photoshop with the Lighten blend mode.
The image below is a single frame.
I set up beside a small local prairie pond, to shoot the moonrise over the water. Ducks enjoyed the view and a muskrat swam by at one point.
I shot over 1100 frames, at two-second intervals to create a time-lapse of the rising Moon, as it brightened and turned from yellow-orange (not quite strawberry pink) to a bright white.
Here’s the time-lapse vignette.
Click on HD for the best view.
While the Harvest Moon gets lots of PR, as this sequence shows any Full Moon can provide a fine sight, and look yellow, due to absorption of the blue wavelengths by the atmosphere as the Moon rises, or as it sets.
However, the timing can vary from Full Moon to Full Moon. This one was ideal, with it rising right at sunset. If the Moon comes up too late, the sky might have already darkened, producing too great a difference in brightness between the Moon and background sky to be photogenic.
But what of these Moon names? How authentic are they?
Who called this the Strawberry Moon? Native Americans? No. Or at best only one or two nations.
The names like “Strawberry Moon” that are popularized in the media today come from the American Farmers Almanac, and everyone – science writers and bloggers – ends up copying and pasting the same wrong, or at best misleading, information from the Almanac.
Search for “Strawberry Moon” or “Moon names” and you’ll find the same explanation repeated verbatim and unquestioned by many writers. Alas, the Almanac is not an authoritative source – after all, they were the source of a misleading definition of Blue Moon decades ago.
From the southern hemisphere the Moon appears “upside-down” and higher each night in the northern sky as it waxes from crescent to Full.
These are scenes from the last week as the Moon rose higher into the evening sky as seen from Australia.
A northerner familiar with the sky would look at these and think these are images of the waning Moon at dawn in the eastern sky.
But no, these are of the waxing Moon (the phases from New to Full) with the Moon in the evening sky.
From the southern hemisphere the ecliptic – the path of the planets – and the path of the Moon arcs across the northern sky. So as the Moon waxes from New to Full phase it appears to the right of the Sun, which still sets in the west. The world still spins the same way down under!
So the Moon appears upside down and with the crescent phase the “wrong” way for us northerners.
This panorama taken April 4 sweeps from northwest to southeast, but looks north at centre, to capture the scene at sunset of the waxing 8-day gibbous Moon in the northern sky as seen from the southern hemisphere.
The angle between the Sun and Moon is just over 90°, shown here by the angle between the right-angle arms of the wharf, pointed to the west at left, to the north at centre, and to the east at right.
The Sun has set just north of west, while the Moon sits 13° east of due north. The Earth’s shadow rises as the blue arc at far right to the east opposite the Sun.
The next night, April 5, I shot this panorama from Philip Island south of Melbourne. Again, it shows the waxing gibbous Moon in the north far to the right of the setting Sun in the west (at left).
Getting used to the motion of the Sun and Moon across the northern sky, and the Moon appearing on the other side of the Sun than we are used to, is one of the challenges of getting to know the southern sky.
Things just don’t appear where nor move as you expect them to. But that’s one of the great delights of southern star gazing.
It takes a dark spring night to see it well, but now lurking near Jupiter is a ghostly sky glow called Gegenschein.
This diffuse glow lies directly opposite the Sun. It is caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles in the outer solar system. They reflect light more effectively at the anti-Sun point where each dust particle is fully lit by the Sun.
Like the Sun, the Gegenschein moves around the sky along the ecliptic, moving about a degree from west to east from night to night. March and April provide good nights for seeing the Gegenschein as it then lies in an area of sky far from the Milky Way.
Even so, it is very subtle to the unaided eye. Look south at about 1 a.m. local daylight time.
However, this year, in early April the Gegenschein will be more difficult as it will then lie right on top of Jupiter, as that planet reaches its point opposite the Sun on April 7. Jupiter will then be superimposed on the Gegenschein.
The main image at top is a 7-image vertical panorama of the spring sky, from Corvus and Virgo above the horizon, up past Leo, into Ursa Major and the Big Dipper overhead. Spica lies below bright Jupiter, Arcturus in Böotes is at left, while Regulus in Leo is at right. The grouping of stars near centre is the Coma Berenices star cluster.
Earlier in the night, I shot the sky’s other main glow – the Milky Way, as the winter portion of the Milky Way around Orion set into the southwest.
But over in the west, at the right edge of the frame, is the Zodiacal Light, caused by the same dust particles that create the Gegenschein, but that are located in the inner solar system between us and the Sun.
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.
The waning Moon shone near the bright star Aldebaran in the dawn sky.
This was a beautiful sight this morning, before dawn on July 29. The crescent Moon, its night side illuminated by Earthshine, shone just below the brightest star in Taurus.
We are currently in 3-year period when the Moon’s path is taking it near or in front of Aldebaran every month. However, most of these occultations or conjunctions are not well-timed for any particular location. And many involve the too-brilliant gibbous or full Moon.
But this morning the timing and Moon phase were perfect. From my longitude on Earth in Alberta, the Moon passed closest to the star just before the sky was getting too bright with dawn. Having them set against the deep blue twilight was perfect.
From farther east the Moon would not have appeared as close to Aldebaran as this before sunrise. From farther west the Moon and star would have appeared much lower in the sky at closest approach.
For this image I shot 6 exposures, from 2 seconds for the Earthshine, twilight sky colour and stars, to 1/125th second for the bright crescent. I then stacked, aligned, and blended them together using luminosity masks – masks that hide or reveal parts of the image based on the brightness of the scene. You can see them in the Photoshop screen shot – Click on the image to enlarge it.
How do you create these masks?
• Turn off all the layers except the one you want to create a mask for.
• Go to Channels and Command/Control Click on the RGB Channel.
• That automatically selects all the highlights.
• Go back to the image layer and then hit the Add Mask button down at the bottom of the Layers panel (the rectangle with the black dot in it).
• Done. Repeat that for each image layer.
More traditional high dynamic range or “HDR” stacking left odd colour fringing artifacts and double images on the slowly moving Moon, despite applying what is called “de-ghosting” and despite using a mount tracking at the lunar rate. I tried merging the images with HDR, but it didn’t work.
A nifty Photoshop action from the Astronomy Tools set by Noel Carboni added the diffraction spikes.
I shot all images with the 130mm Astro-Physics refractor at f/6 and the Canon 60Da camera at ISO 400.
The nights were short and never fully dark, but early June provided a run of clear nights in the Rockies to enjoy Mars and the Milky Way.
Weather prospects looked good for a run of five nights last week so I took advantage of the opportunity to shoot nightscapes from Banff and, as shown here, in Yoho National Park across the Continental Divide in B.C.
The lead image above is a sweeping panorama at Emerald Lake, one of the jewels of the Rockies. Though taken at 1:30 a.m., the sky still isn’t dark, but has a glow to the north that lasts all night near summer solstice. Even so, the sky was dark enough to reveal the Milky Way arching across the sky.
The mountain at centre is Mt. Burgess, home of the famous Burgess Shale Fossils, an incredible collection of fossilized creatures from the Cambrian explosion.
The image is a panoramic stitch of 24 segments but cropped in quite a bit from the original, and all shot with an iPano motorized panning unit. Each exposure was 30 seconds at f/2.2 with the Sigma 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 4000. One short exposure of the lodge was blended in to reduce its light glare. The original, stitched with PTGui software, is 15,000 x 9,000 pixels.
The view above, a single frame image, shows the view to the south as the Milky Way and galactic centre descend toward the horizon over the south end of the lake. Lights from the Lodge illuminate the trees.
The next night (above) I was at the same spot to shoot Mars in the deepening twilight, and reflected in the calm waters of Emerald Lake, with Cathedral Peak at left.
Another multi-frame panorama, this time sweeping up from the horizon, captures Cassiopeia (the “W”) and the rising autumn constellations reflected in the lake waters.
Vega is at top, Deneb below it, while the stars of Perseus and Pegasus are just rising.
It was a magical two nights in Yoho, a name that means “wonderful!” Both by day and by night.
Mars is now shining brightly in the evening sky, as close and as bright as it has been since 2005.
Look southeast to south after dark and you’ll see a brilliant reddish “star.” That’s Mars, now at opposition, and retrograding slowly westward each night through Scorpius into Libra.
My image above captures Mars set in the entirety of the northern spring sky, complete with the arch of the Milky Way, twilight glows to the north (at left), some satellite trails …
… and Mars itself as the brightest object just right of centre shining above the landscape of Dinosaur Provincial Park.
Just to the left of Mars is Saturn, while below both is the star Antares in Scorpius, for a neat triangle of objects. Jupiter is the bright object in Leo at far right.
Technical: I shot the lead image on the evening of May 25. It is a 360° and horizon-to-zenith panorama stitched from 44 images, taken in 4 tiers of 11 panels each, shot with a motorized iOptron iPano mount. I used a 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 for 30-second exposures with the Canon 6D at ISO 6400. I stitched the images with PTGui. The original image is a monster 32,500 pixels wide by 8,300 pixels high.
I shot the panorama above earlier in the evening, when Mars and Saturn were just rising in the southeast at left, and the sky to the northwest at right was still bright with twilight.
This shows the geometry of Mars at opposition. It lies opposite the Sun and is so rising at sunset and directly opposite the sunset point. The Sun, Earth and Mars are in a straight line across the solar system with Earth in the middle and as close to Mars as we get.
Actual date of opposition was May 22 but Earth is closest to Mars on May 30. That’s when it will look largest in a telescope. But to the unaided eye it appears as a bright red star.
Mars is approaching! It now shines brightly in the midnight sky as a red star in Scorpius.
You can’t miss Mars now. It is shining brighter than it has since 2005, and is about to come as close to Earth as it has in 11 years as well.
Mars is now approaching opposition, when the Earth comes closest to Mars, and the Sun, Earth and Mars lie along the same line. Opposition date is May 22. That’s when Mars shines at its brightest, at magnitude -2.1, about as bright as Jupiter. Only Venus can be a brighter planet and it’s not in our sky right now.
A week later, on May 30, Mars comes closest to Earth, at a distance of 75 million kilometres. That’s when the disk of Mars looks largest in a telescope. And you will need a telescope at high power (150x to 250x) to make out the dark markings, north polar cap, and bright white clouds on Mars.
In these views, I show Mars shining as a bright reddish star low in my western Canadian sky. I shot the lead image from Dinosaur Provincial Park on May 16. The image just above was from my backyard the night before.
This week, Mars is passing between Beta and Delta Scorpii, two bright stars in the head of Scorpius, as the red planet retrogrades westward against the background stars.
Saturn shines to the east (left) of Mars now, with both planets shining above the red giant star Antares in Scorpius. In these photos they form a neat triangle.
Even without a telescope to magnify the view, it’ll be rewarding to watch Mars with the unaided eye or binoculars as it treks west out of Scorpius into Libra this spring and summer. It stops retrograding on June 30, then starts looping back into Scorpius, for a rendezvous with Antares and Saturn in late August.
This little compilation of time-lapse movies shows Mars, Saturn, and the rest of the sky, rising into the southeast and across the south on two nights this past week.
Be sure to explore Mars this month and next, whether by eye or by telescope. It’s the best we’ve seen it in a decade.
It’s next close approach in 2018 will be even better, though Mars will appear even lower in our northern sky.
When visiting southern latitudes nothing disorients a northern hemisphere astronomer more than seeing our familiar Moon turned “the wrong way!”
With the Moon now dominating the night sky, my photo attention in Australia turns to it as my celestial subject.
It’s wonderful to see the Moon as a crescent phase in the evening sky, but now flipped around so it looks like the Moon we see from home up north when it is a waning crescent in the morning.
However, the lead image above actually shows the waxing crescent in the evening. It shines above the volcanic hills near Warrumbungles National Park, with the added silhouette of the dome of the Australian Astronomical Telescope, the largest optical telescope in Australia.
After a lifetime of seeing the Moon in its northerly orientation, seeing the austral Moon throws off your sense of time and direction. Are we looking west in the evening? Or east in the morning? The Moon just doesn’t make sense!
Then there’s the Full Moon. It rises in the east, as does the Sun. But like the Sun, the “down under Moon” moves from right to left across the northern, not southern sky. And the familiar “Man in the Moon” figure is upside down, as seen above.
The photo above is from Friday night, and shows the Full Moon rising in the northeast over the Pacific Ocean.
This “HDR” image above from earlier in the evening captures the golden glitter path of moonlight on the ocean waves. I photographed these Full Moon scenes from the Headlands viewpoint at Woolgoolga, a great spot for panoramic seascapes.
The Full Moon this night was the apogee Full Moon of 2016 – the smallest and most distant Full Moon of the year, the opposite of a “supermoon.”
Earlier in the week I was inland, high on the New England Tablelands in New South Wales. This image shows the waxing gibbous Moon in the evening twilight over Ebor Falls on the Guy Fawkes River, one of the few waterfalls on the famed Waterfall Way in New Soith Wales that has water flowing year round.
Mars outshines his rival red star Antares in the heart of the Scorpion.
This was the view last night from my observing site in Australia, of red Mars shining near the red star Antares, whose very name means “rival of Mars.” But as Mars nears its closest approach to Earth next month it is already far brighter than Antares, easily winning the rivalry now.
The view takes in the head of Scorpius, one of the most colourful areas of the night sky when photographed in long exposures. Uniquely, Antares illuminates a nearby dust cloud with its light which is more yellow than red.
Other dust clouds reflect the blue light of hot young stars in this section of the Milky Way. Red nebulas are emitting their own light from glowing hydrogen.
The area around Antares is also streaked with lanes of dark dust that absorb light and at best appear a dull brown.
Mars reaches its closest point to Earth since 2005 on May 30. All through May and June Mars will shine as a brilliant red star near Antares. A telescope will provide the best view of the red planet we’ve had in a decade.
While you are in the area aim your telescope a little to the east to catch Saturn, also in the area, though technically over the border in the constellation of Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer.
In the view above, Saturn is the bright “star” to the left of Mars. Saturn reaches its closest to Earth in early June. Its rings are now wide open and a spectacular picture postcard sight in any telescope.
This final view shows Mars and Saturn rising with Scorpius in the moonlight from two nights ago. From my current latitude of 32° south, Scorpius comes up on his side.
The waning Moon joined Venus and Saturn on a cold winter dawn.
This was the scene this morning, January 6, as the waning crescent Moon met with Venus (bright, at centre) and Saturn (below and left of Venus) in the cold morning twilight.
The grouping appeared above the stars of Scorpius. Antares is just above the treetops.
The top image is with the Canon 60Da and 50mm lens.
The view below, with the 135mm telephoto and Canon 6D camera, is from a half hour earlier before the sky began to brighten with morning twilight.
Venus passes very close to Saturn this weekend, with the two worlds appearing within a telescope field on the mornings of January 8 and 9. Get up early before sunrise and look southeast. Binoculars will provide a superb view.
Venus is hard to miss, but is now dropping lower each morning and will soon be gone from view as it ends its wonderful appearance as a morning star.
What a morning of sky sights, both before dawn and after sunrise.
December 7 – This was the prime day I came to Arizona to enjoy, to be better assured of clear skies. As it turned out this will likely be the cloudiest day of the week here, but skies were clear enough for a fine view of a conjunction and an occultation. The comet was a bonus.
At 4 a.m. the waning crescent Moon rose accompanied by Venus, as the two worlds appeared in close conjunction in the pre-dawn sky. The view above captures the scene as the Moon and Venus rose over the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico. Comet Catalina is in this scene but barely visible.
An hour or so later, with the Moon and Venus higher and with skies a little less cloudy, I was able to capture this scene, above, that included Comet Catalina, as a tiny blue dot next to Venus and the Moon. But if I hadn’t labeled it, you wouldn’t know it was there! The comet is proving to be less wonderful than anticipated, and any cloud dims the view even more.
I had hoped for a superb scene of a bright comet next to the two brightest objects in the night sky. But comets do what comets do — surprise people with unexpected brightness (as Comet Lovejoy did last January) or with disappointing dimness … or by disappearing altogether, as Comet ISON did two years ago. I came here in December 2013, to this same location on the Arizona-New Mexico border, to catch ISON but no luck there at all!
Regardless of the comet, the conjunction of the Moon and Venus was stunning, about as good as such events get. Here’s the view, above, an hour later again, with the eastern sky brightening in the dawn twilight. The only thing that would have made this event even more spectacular is if the Moon had actually covered up Venus in this twilight sky. Not quite.
For the occultation itself, we had to wait until well after sunrise for an event in the blue daytime sky, at 9:30 a.m. local time.
All of North America got to see this fairly rare occultation of Venus by the Moon, albeit in the daytime. Nevertheless, the two objects are so bright, this was visible to the unaided eye, even with some cloud about. In binoculars it was wonderful.
To shoot it, all I had was a telephoto lens, so the image scale doesn’t do the event justice. But the image above provides a good impression of the binocular view, with Venus as a brilliant jewel on the “ring” of the Moon.
I got the comet but it isn’t what was hoped for – a faint fuzzball in binoculars.
This was Comet Catalina (aka C/2013 US10) in the dawn sky this morning, December 6, with the comet appearing as a fuzzy star below brilliant Venus in binoculars, and just revealing its two short tails in photos. It’s the cyan-colored object near the centre. Venus is the brilliant object.
This image is with a telephoto lens, and covers a little more of the sky than typical binoculars would show. I knew this would be a binocular comet at best, but it’s barely that. This is more a comet for telescopes.
But as the Moon departs the scene and the comet climbs higher the view may improve. Still, if you are pining for views of Comet Catalina and are stuck under cloudy winter skies at home, don’t be worried. You aren’t missing too much. Except …
This was the view of the autumn Milky Way from here in Arizona last night. Pretty impressive under nearly perfect sky conditions. And then there’s this …
This was the winter Milky Way with Orion setting into the west over the Chiricahuas at dawn. Turn around from looking at the comet and this was the view. So who cares if the comet isn’t too great? There’s lots more to see and shoot. With no snow, no frost, no dew.
Cloud hid Comet Catalina but added a halo around the waning Moon, intersected by the line of the ecliptic.
I’m in Arizona, just inside the state line with New Mexico, on a quest to shoot Comet Catalina at dawn. Clouds prevented any view of the faint comet this morning but provided a fine consolation prize.
The waning crescent Moon was surrounded by an ice crystal halo, a rare sight around a thin Moon. The Moon was between Mars and Jupiter, heading toward a conjunction with Venus, below, on December 7.
The line of Venus, Mars, the Moon, and Jupiter, plus the stars Spica and Regulus defined the line of the ecliptic beautifully in the pre-dawn sky.
It was a show of circles and lines, real and imagined, in the morning sky.
With luck, clouds will clear to reveal Comet Catalina, which is likely fainter and less spectacular than hoped. But such is the way of comets. Regardless of what the comet does, it is a good time to be in the desert southwest, typing this blog on a sunny front porch under blue desert skies.
The morning planets are now strung out along the ecliptic, visualizing this line in the sky.
This was the view this morning, November 14, of the three dawn planets lined up along the ecliptic, with the stars Spica and Regulus also defining this imaginary line.
The ecliptic is the Earth’s orbital path around the Sun projected into the sky. So it is along this line that we see the Sun appear to move around the sky over a year. But it is also the path along which we find the seven other major planets – in this case, three of them: Venus, Mars and Jupiter.
These three worlds were clustered together in October, but are now spreading out along the ecliptic, as Venus drops lower but Mars and Jupiter climb higher.
The stars Spica and Regulus also lie along the ecliptic, where the Moon can occasionally pass in front of, or occult, these stars.
So the two stars and three planets are now nicely drawing the ecliptic line for us in the dawn sky. At this time of year, the ecliptic is also steeply angled above the eastern horizon.
The main image above is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the ground, to smooth noise, and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1000 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens at f/2.8 and at 14mm.
This image just above is with the same gear but with the lens at the 24mm setting to more tightly frame the planets.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the sky at dawn, Orion and his winter sky friends were setting into the west (image below).
All the images here are shot with the Nikon D810a camera and the amazing Nikkor 14-24mm lens, two items in hand this month for testing and review. A thorough test will appear in future blogs.
Of course, as wonderful as the gear is, it cannot extract the ecliptic line and labels from the sky – those are added in Photoshop!
This was the trio of planets at their best in the morning sky.
On the morning of October 28, Mars, Venus and Jupiter formed a neat isosceles triangle in the twilight. Venus, the brightest, was in the middle, with Mars below and Jupiter above. The grouping shone amid the stars of Leo, with its brightest star, Regulus, above the windmill in the lead image above. The rest of Leo lies above the planets.
To capture the scene I drove west at 5 am to a farmstead I had shot at before, in June, to capture Venus and Jupiter, also then in Leo near Regulus, but in the evening sky looking west. Click here for that blog post from mid-June.
This morning, the Moon, just past full as the annual Hunter’s Moon, shone in the west off camera lighting the landscape.
The dawn sky colours and the moonlit red barn made for a fine colour contrast.
After today, the planet configuration breaks up, as Venus descends to meet Mars on November 2 and 3, while Jupiter climbs higher. But another great morning sight awaits on November 7 when the waning crescent Moon will shine near the Venus-Mars pairing, with Jupiter above.
On the way home I stopped at fog-bound Lake MacGregor to capture the planets in a brightening dawn sky over the misty waters.
This morning the three planets lay just 4.5 degrees apart, close enough to frame in high-power binoculars.
We won’t see these three planets this close to each other in a darkened sky — as opposed to being so close to the Sun we really can’t see them — until November 21, 2111.
Skies were clear at dawn this morning for a fabulous view of the rare conjunction of three planets. And I could not have been at a more photogenic site.
This was the view before dawn on October 25, as brilliant Venus and dimmer Jupiter shone just a degree apart in the dawn sky. Mars, much fainter, shines just below the close duo. The three planets could easily be contained in a high power binocular field.
Not until November 2111 will these three planets be this close together again in a darkened sky.
Indeed, Venus could not have been higher, as it is just now reaching its maximum elongation from the Sun, placing it high in the eastern morning sky.
I shot from the shores of Lake Annette, site of one of the major events, the Friday star party, at the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival which just concluded, in Jasper National Park, Alberta. The Festival celebrates the Park’s status as one of the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserves.
The hotels and restaurants were full with stargazers from around the world, making the Festival a huge success, both educationally and financially. I was honoured to be able to present some of the public and school talks.
But this dawn sky was a fine way to end a fabulous weekend of astronomy.
The image above is a panorama in the twilight, sweeping from the planets in the east, to the winter stars and constellations, including iconic Orion, in the south and southwest.
Earlier in the morning, before twilight began to brighten the sky, I shot another even wider panorama from the south shore of the lake.
In this and other photos, high haze adds the glows around the stars and planets naturally. No special effects filters here!
But Venus and Jupiter are so close and bright their images almost merge into one glow.
Here they are, with Mars below, shining in the dark sky over the Watchtower peak and over the misty waters of Lake Annette.
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.
The Moon appeared along with four planets in the dawn sky.
The sky was filled with planets this morning, as all four of the closest planets to the Sun appeared along the ecliptic in the morning sky. Plus there’s a fifth planet in the picture – Earth.
Here, the waning crescent Moon, lit by Earthshine, appears with four planets on the morning of October 9, 2015, with the planets from bottom left to top right:
• Mercury, just above the horizon between the low cloud bands, at lower left
• Jupiter, bright at centre
• Mars, reddish and above Jupiter
• Venus, brightest at upper right and in some thin cloud.
The bright star Regulus in Leo is above and to the left of Venus.
Above is an unlabeled version of the image.
It’s a blend of four exposures: a long 4-second exposure for most of the sky and ground, plus shorter 2, 1, and 1/2 second exposures for the bright twilight area and around the Moon and Venus, to prevent those areas from being blown out. Blending is with masks, not HDR. All were shot with the Canon 6D at ISO 400 and 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.5.
The Moon, planets and Northern lights provided a wonderful show in the dawn sky.
What a superb scene this was. On October 8 the waning crescent Moon shone near Venus (brightest) and Regulus, with red Mars and bright Jupiter paired below.
If that wasn’t enough, as the wide-angle panorama below shows, the Northern Lights were also ending a night of performance, with an arc along the horizon and pulsing waves rising up the sky to the northeast near the planet grouping.
The panorama also sweeps right, to the south, to take in the winter Milky Way and constellations of Orion and Canis Major. Click on the image to bring it up full screen.
The Moon will appear near Mars and Jupiter on the morning of October 9, and then the three planets will begin to converge for a tight gathering for a few mornings around October 25.
Be sure to wake early for the dawn sky show that continues all this month!
Venus, now at its brightest as a morning star, shines amid the subtle glow of the Zodiacal Light.
This was the scene this morning, September 17, on a very frosty dawn at 5 a.m. from my backyard in southern Alberta.
Here, Venus shines nearly as bright as it can be, at magnitude -4.7, in the dawn sky as a brilliant “morning star.”
Venus appears amid the faint glow of the Zodiacal Light, sometimes called the “False Dawn,” stretching diagonally from the dawn horizon in the east, up and to the right, and reaching the Milky Way that runs vertically down the frame from top centre to bottom right.
Orion and the winter stars shine in the Milky Way, with Sirius above the trees at lower right.
The Beehive Cluster, M44, appears as the small group of stars above Venus. The Pleiades, M45, is at top right.
Mars is the brightest object left of Venus, with the bright star Regulus just below it and rising in the east. The stars of the Big Dipper are at far left at the edge of the frame.
The sky is beginning to brighten with the real glow of morning. It was a marvellous dawn sky delight.
This is a stack of 4 x 2-minute exposures, tracked and mean-combine stacked, for the sky and 2 x 2-minute exposures, untracked and stacked, for the ground to minimize blurring in the starlit ground. The Canon 6D was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker, shooting at ISO 1250 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/3.5. The stacking with a mean combine stack mode smooths noise in both sky and ground.
On the morning of September 10 the waning crescent Moon gathered near bright Venus and much dimmer but redder Mars (at left) in the dawn sky.
Venus and Mars have both moved into the morning sky, where they will begin a series of conjunctions with the Moon and with Jupiter, now just emerging from behind the Sun, over the next two months. This gathering is just the start of the dawn planet dance.
For the technically minded, this is a high-dynamic range stack of 5 exposures to accommodate the large range in brightness between the sky and Moon, and to preserve the earthshine on the “dark side of the Moon.”
I shot this with the Canon 6D and 135mm lens at f/2 and at ISO 800 in a set of 8, 4, 2, 1 and 0.5-second exposures, blended with HDR Pro in Photoshop using 32-bit mode of Adobe Camera Raw.
The much-publicized “Blue Moon” of July rises over the skyline of Calgary.
Last night, July 31, many people looked east to see a wonderful moonrise. Did it look different than any other moonrise? No. But did it look great? You bet.
I set up my cameras at a site in northwest Calgary, picked for its sightline looking east-southeast over the downtown core of Calgary and directly toward the moonrise point.
I used the software The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan the location and angles. It is wonderful for making sure you are in the right place at the right time for catching a photogenic moonset or moonset.
Here’s the screen shot from TPE that showed me where to be Friday evening. The blue line aims to the moonrise point.
Of course, despite the planning the Moon did not look blue! Blue Moons, as they have come to be defined, never do. The term now means the second Full Moon in a calendar month. We had a Full Moon on Canada Day, July 1, and then enjoyed a second July Full Moon one lunar cycle later on July 31.
I shot the scene with two cameras, each shooting hundreds of frames for time-lapses, from which I extracted still images.
A short 1-minute music video of the result is here at Vimeo. Enlarge the screen and be sure HD is selected.
As a technical note, for the processing I used the latest version 4.2 ofLRTimelapse and its new “Visual Deflicker” workflow which very nicely smooths out all the frame-to-frame flickering that can plague daytime and twilight shots taken under Auto Exposure.
While the shutter speed does constantly decrease, it does so in 1/3rd-f/stop steps, yielding stair-step jumps in brightness. LRT smooths all that out, with v4.2 doing a much better job than earlier versions.
The thin waxing Moon shines near Venus above the colourful clouds of sunset.
Tonight, July 18, was the evening of a close conjunction of the crescent Moon near Venus in the evening sky. From my latitude at 50° North, the conjunction was going to be low, and at risk of clouds.
In this case, the clouds added to the scene as they lit up with sunset colours.
You can see the Moon and Venus at centre, while fainter Jupiter is at upper right, and perhaps not visible on screen at this scale.
The location is one I used last month for the Venus-Jupiter meeting, Little Fish Lake and Provincial Park, north of Drumheller. It’s a quiet spot. This Saturday night there were just three families there camping.
I shot this telephoto panorama with my red-sensitive Canon 60Da, which is designed to record red nebulas well, but does a nice job on punching up sunsets, too!
Alas, the clouds that painted the sky so nicely here, moved in as the worlds set lower. I wasn’t able to shoot them closer to the horizon amid the deep colours of a late twilight. But I’ll settle for this image.
Venus and Jupiter now appear as a brilliant “double star” in the evening sky.
This was the scene last night, Sunday, June 28, as the two brightest planets in the sky appeared close to each other in the evening twilight.
I shot the scene from the eastern shore of Little Fish Lake at a Provincial Park in southern Alberta bordering on the Handhills Conservation Area which preserves northern native prairie grasses and an abundance of bird and wildlife species.
The planetary conjunction culminates on June 30, when they will appear very close to each other (less than a Moon diameter apart), creating the best evening conjunction of 2015.
The summer solstice sky was filled with twilight glows, planets, and dancing Northern Lights.
What a magical night this was. The evening started with the beautiful sight of the waxing crescent Moon lined up to the left of the star Regulus, and the planets Jupiter and Venus (the brightest of the trio), all set in the late evening twilight.
They are all reflected in the calm waters of a prairie lake.
I shot the above photo about 11 p.m., as late a twilight as we’ll get. From here on, after solstice, the Sun sets sooner and the sky darkens earlier.
Later, about 12:30 a.m., as predicted by aurora apps and alert services, a display of Northern Lights appeared on cue to the north. It was never very bright to the eye, but the camera nicely picks up the wonderful colours of a solstice aurora.
At this time of year the tall curtains reaching up into space catch the sunlight, with blue tints adding to the usual reds fringing the curtain tops, creating subtle shades of magenta and purple.
The display made for a photogenic subject reflected in the lake waters.
The three brightest objects in the night sky gathered into a tidy triangle in the twilight.
On Friday night, June 19, I chased around my area of southern Alberta, seeking clear skies to capture the grouping of the waxing crescent Moon with Venus and Jupiter.
My first choice was the Crawling Valley reservoir and lake, to capture the scene over the water. I got there in time to get into position on the east side of the lake, and grab some shots.
This was the result, but note the clouds! They were moving in quickly and soon formed a dramatic storm front. By the time I got back to the car and changed lenses, I was just able to grab the panorama below before the clouds engulfed the sky, and the winds were telling me to leave!
I drove west toward home, taking a new highway and route back, and finding myself back into clear skies, as the storm headed east. I stopped by the only interesting foreground element I could find to make a composition, the fence, and grabbed the lead photo.
Both it, and the second image, are “HDR” stacks of five exposures, to preserve detail in the dark foreground and bright sky.
It was a productive evening under the big sky of the prairies.
Each night, Venus and Jupiter are converging closer, heading toward conjunction on June 30.
This was Venus (right) and Jupiter (centre) with Regulus at left, in a cloudy twilight sky on Friday, June 12, as Venus and Jupiter converge toward their close conjunction in the evening sky on June 30.
Be sure to watch each night as the two brightest planets in the sky creep closer and closer together. Mark June 19 and 20 on your calendar, as that’s when the waxing crescent Moon will join the duo.
I shot this from near Vulcan, Alberta, after delivering an evening program at the Trek Centre in Vulcan as a guest speaker. Clouds prevented us from seeing anything in the sky at the public event, but on my way home skies cleared enough to reveal the two bright planets in the twilight.
I stopped at an abandoned farmyard I had scouted out earlier in the evening, to serve as a photogenic backdrop.
This is a high dynamic range stack of three bracketed exposures, one stop apart, to record detail in both the dark foreground as well as in the bright sky.
The waxing Moon and Venus shine over contrasting landscapes, both urban and rural.
I shot the main image at top last night, May 21, from a site overlooking the urban skyline of Calgary, Alberta. The waxing Moon shines near Venus in the twilight sky.
By contrast I shot the image below the night before, from a location that couldn’t be more different – remote, rural Saskatchewan, on a heritage farmstead first settled in the 1920s by the Butala family. It is now the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area.
Here, the crescent Moon shines a little lower, below Venus, amid the subtle colours of twilight in a crystal clear prairie sky.
However, as the top image demonstrates, you don’t need to travel to remote rural locations to see and photograph beautiful sky sights. Twilight conjunctions of the Moon and bright planets lend themselves to urban nightscapes.
The Full Moon rises over the skyline of Calgary on a clear spring night.
This was the moonrise on Sunday, May 3, as the Full Moon rose south of the main skyline of Calgary. The timing of last night’s Full Moon promised a great shot.
The Moon rose about 15 minutes before sunset, a timing that I was hoping would lead to a shot of the skyline lighting up red with the last rays of the setting Sun in the west as the Moon rose in the east.
Alas, horizon haze obscured the setting Sun and rising Moon. The Full Moon didn’t appear until a good 30 minutes after moonrise as it rose above the haze into the pink twilight sky. Not quite what I was after, but it made a nice scene after all.
I shot this from the grounds of the CFCN TV building high on Broadcast Hill west of the city. There wasn’t an accessible site farther north with a clear sightline east that would have allowed me to place the Moon right over the city.
From this site at CFCN the Full Moon won’t rise over the downtown core until the Full Moon of September 27, the night of the total eclipse of the Moon. Photo op!
This is one frame of 430 I shot for a time-lapse sequence. To plan this and other rise and set images I use the handy app, The Photographer’s Ephemeris.
This screen shot from TPE illustrates last night’s moonrise geometry, with the moonrise line pointing just south of the downtown core as seen from the CFCN site.
I highly recommend TPE for planning any nightscape photography of the rising and setting Sun and Moon.
Mercury and Venus shine as “evening stars” over the Red Deer River in southern Alberta.
What a fine night this was for nightscape shooting. Mercury and Venus are both now about as high as they will get for the year in the evening sky from my western Canadian latitude.
Venus is easy to spot as the brilliant object in the west. But Mercury is more elusive. You can see it here low in the twilight glow and much dimmer than Venus.
The photo illustrates how far each of the two inner planets swings away from the Sun in our skies, and why Mercury has its reputation for being difficult to sight. Also, it appears at its best for only a couple of weeks at a time. By mid-May it will be gone.
Venus, however, continues to dominate our western sky for the next two months.
I shot the main photo from the deck of a rickety wooden bridge over the Red Deer River near Dorothy, Alberta, just off Highway 10 east of Drumheller in the Badlands.
The image is a high-dynamic-range “HDR” stack of five exposures.
Shortly after taking the lead photo, I drove west to the Atlas Coal Mine to shoot it by the light of the now high and nearly Full Moon. Mercury can still be seen low and to the right of the historic tipple building. Venus shines above it.
This is a single 25-second exposure at ISO 800.
The Atlas Coal Mine is now a National Historic Site and is the last standing from what was once a booming coal mining centre in the Red Deer River Valley.
Incredible detail stands out along the terminator of the eight-day Moon.
This was the Moon on the evening of April 26, with the waxing Moon eight days past New and one day past First Quarter Moon. It’s a great phase to explore the surface of the Moon.
In the north the arcs of the Alps and Apennine mountain ranges encircle Mare Imbrium.
In the south, craters pepper the Highlands in stark relief. Tonight, the Straight Wall was just beginning to catch the light of the rising Sun, creating a very sharp, straight shadow.
The regions along the terminator – the boundary between light and dark – at left are seeing the first sunlight in two weeks. To the right, on the more brightly lit portion of the near side of the Moon, the dark mare areas stand out in various shades of grey. Systems of rays splash out from bright, geologically fresh crater impacts.
On the technical side, this is a mosaic of two overlapping images, one for the northern and one for the southern hemisphere, taken through a Celestron C9.25 telescope at a focal length of 2300mm. I stitched them with Adobe Camera Raw’s new (as of last week’s update) ability to stitch images into a Raw-format panorama file.
Sunlight and shadows at Fajada Butte served to mark the seasons a thousand years ago.
In the distance is Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. It is one of the most famous sites in archaeoastronomy. A thousand years ago, people of the Chaco Culture used it to observe the Sun.
At a site now off limits to preserve its integrity, a set of three rocks cast shadows and daggers of sunlight onto a carved spiral petroglyph.
People used the position of the projected beams of light as a calendar to mark time through the year. In truth, simply watching the changing position of the rising and setting Sun along the horizon, which was also done here at Chaco Canyon, would have worked just as well.
I visited the site today, as part of a trek north through New Mexico, Arizona and into Utah. Chaco Canyon is one of the preeminent sites for archaeoastronomy, demonstrating how well people a thousand years ago (the site was occupied from the mid 800s to the mid 1100s) observed the sky.
For example, a half-day hike takes you to a famous pictograph on a rock face showing a bright star near the crescent Moon, a drawing some have interpreted as being an observation of the supernova of 1054 AD.
In its height, thousands of people lived in the pueblos at Chaco Canyon and surrounding area. This is the Great Kiva at the Chetro Ketl pueblo. Wood columns used to hold a wood roof over this structure to make a space for ceremony and ritual.
I did a little solar observing myself while there. While walking through the maze of rooms at Pueblo Bonito I looked up to see iridescent clouds near the Sun, created by diffraction of sunlight from fine ice crystals.
In keeping with the site’s astronomical heritage, the Visitor Centre at the Chaco Culture Historical Park has a well-equipped observatory with several top-class telescopes (a 25-inch Obsession Dobsonian among them) and an outdoor theatre for regular stargazing sessions each weekend. This is a world-class Dark Sky Preserve and a World Heritage Site.
The waxing crescent Moon shines amid the stars of the Hyades cluster.
I shot these on the evening of March 24 when, from western North America, the Moon appeared superimposed in front of the sprawling Hyades star cluster in Taurus.
The main image at top is with a 200mm telephoto lens and takes in most of the Hyades and the bright red star Aldebaran at lower left. Unfortunately, it also includes a blue lens flare from the brilliant and overexposed crescent, a tough element to “photoshop” out.
The image is a high dynamic range stack of 3 exposures. Even so, I purposely overexposed the Moon to bring out the stars and their colours.
This close up of the Moon includes fewer Hyades stars, but with the Moon centred I was able to avoid the lens flare. It’s an HDR stack of 5 exposures, to capture details in the sunlit crescent as well as on the dark side of the Moon lit by blue Earthshine.
These are the last telescopic shots from my winter in New Mexico, as the telescope and mount gets packed up tomorrow, in preparation for the trip back to Canada.
It’s been a fabulous winter of sky shooting, with some 500 gigabytes of images shot, processed, and archived!
The Moon meets Venus over a New Mexico pond in the heart of the Apache homelands.
This was the scene on Sunday evening, March 22, 2015, as the waxing crescent Moon appeared near Venus in one of the best conjunctions of the spring.
Earthshine lights the dark side of the Moon, while Mars also appears, below the Moon-Venus pair.
For these images I set up on the picturesque grounds of a resort called the Inn of the Mountain Gods, near Ruidoso, New Mexico, a ski resort in winter and a cool mountain retreat in summer.
The resort, run by and on land owned by the Mescalero Apache, honours the spirits of the four sacred mountains on Apache land: Sierra Blanca, Guadalupe Mountains, Three Sisters Mountain and Oscura Mountain Peak.
As the resort brochure states, “These four mountains represent the direction of everyday life for our Apache people. Our grandparents would often speak of the place called White Mountain. It was there that the creator gave us life and it is a special place.”
I shot this image a little later in the evening when the sky was darker, stars were beginning to appear, and thin clouds added haloes around the waxing Moon and Venus. I think the clouds added a photogenic touch.
The waning crescent Moon shines with sunlight and Earthlight in the morning sky.
This was the Moon before dawn this morning, March 16, 2015. It’s the waning crescent Moon four days before the New Moon of March 20, when the Moon will eclipse the Sun.
This view shows the sunlit crescent and the dark side of the Moon also lit by sunlight, but sunlight reflecting off the Earth first. The night side of the Moon is lit by blue Earthshine.
To record details in both the bright and dark sides of the Moon I shot six exposures, from 1/160th second to 6 seconds, combining them in a high-dynamic range stack with Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw for the tone-mapping.
I shot it through my 92mm refractor, shown here in a beauty shot from the evening before.
The upcoming solar eclipse by the Moon is visible as a partial eclipse from much of northern Europe (but not from North America, except from a teenie bit of Newfoundland), and as a total eclipse from a path running up the North Atlantic.
The only landfall for the total eclipse path are the Faroe Islands and the Arctic island of Svalbard.
A coppery Moon rises over the Santa Rita Copper Mine.
The March 5 Full Moon was the smallest Full Moon of 2015, the “apogee” Moon. Or call it the March mini-Moon.
I captured it rising over the vast Santa Rita Mine, east of Silver City, New Mexico, my winter home this year. The Santa Rita mine is one of the oldest continuously operating mines in western North America. I shot the scene from a viewpoint west of the city, using a 135mm telephoto lens.
The image is a composite stack of two exposures taken moments apart: a long 1-second exposure for the sky and ground (but with the Moon overexposed) and a short 1/13-second exposure for the lunar disk to retain details in the disk, like the lunar mare, marking the face of the “man in the Moon.”
Later in the evening I used my telescope to shoot a close-up of the apogee Moon. I shot a single exposure but processed it with exaggerated vibrance, saturation and contrast to bring out the subtle colour differences in the lunar mare. You can see that some are much bluer than others, due to the higher level of titanium in the lava flows that formed these mare.
As I explained in my previous blog, in seven months the Full Moon will be at the close perigee point in the Moon’s orbit, giving us the closest Full Moon of 2015. That’s also the night of a total eclipse of the Moon. I’ll try to shoot the Full Moon with the same telescope to create a big and small Moon comparison pair.
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.
Tonight the Full Moon rose paired with Jupiter, in the colourful twilight over Silver City, New Mexico.
Using The Photographer’s Ephemeris app, I scouted out the location last night for the shoot tonight, February 3.
I drove west of Silver City to a viewpoint on Boston Hill overlooking the town east to the rising Moon.
The Full Moon of February has come to be called the “Snow Moon,” appropriate for many parts of the continent now enduring record snowfalls. But here, we enjoyed summer-like temperatures and a decided lack of snow.
The Moon rose into a clear sky accompanied by Jupiter, now 4 days before its annual opposition date. At opposition we pass between the Sun and an outer planet, in this case Jupiter. This puts Jupiter opposite the Sun, so it rises as the Sun sets.
The Full Moon also always lies opposite the Sun, so tonight the Full Moon joined Jupiter in the sky.
To capture the scene I shot several panoramas, each consisting of several segments, to take in the broad sweep of the horizon. The scene above records the pink “Belt of Venus,” created by sunlight lighting the upper atmosphere to the east in the half hour or so after sunset down here on Earth.
Once the sky got darker, Jupiter stood out better, shining to the left of the Moon.
Jupiter is now also closest to Earth and brightest for 2015. It will dominate our eastern sky for the rest of the winter and early spring, eventually shining to the south as night falls in late spring.
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.
Mercury is the dimmer of the two objects in the colourful evening twilight in the enchanted skies of New Mexico.
The top photo is a “normal” lens view of the scene. The photo below zooms in on the pair with a telephoto lens.
Mercury is nearing its greatest angle away from the Sun and will remain near Venus for the next week. So if skies are clear in the early evening, take a look. Mercury is very easy to sight with unaided eyes. If you have not seen the innermost planet, this is a good chance to check it off your “to see” list.
A fact to keep in mind: both planets have probes orbiting them, but both are nearing the end of their missions. Europe’s Venus Express has ended its mission and is about to make its final plunge into the dense Venusian atmosphere.
At Mercury, NASA’s Messenger probe has gained a small reprieve, with it now expecting to impact on Mercury at the end of April, a month later than expected.
The sky events listed are for North America. While most will be visible around the world the timing may be off for other locations. Many thanks for visiting and following my blog this past year. I wish everyone a happy and celestial 2015.
Comet Lovejoy has migrated from the southern sky to appear in our northern sky for the holiday season.
This was Comet Lovejoy, aka C/2014 Q2, as it appeared on Tuesday night, December 23. It was low in the south well below Orion in the constellation of Columba the dove. It was easy to see in binoculars as a 5th magnitude fuzzy star. My long exposure photo reveals its thin blue ion tail.
I could just see the comet naked eye, knowing exactly where to look. However, I’m at 32° North latitude, placing the comet now decently high in my New Mexico sky.
The comet was discovered by Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy last August when the comet was way down under in the southern sky. But it is now moving rapidly north and brightening, bringing northern observers a binocular comet for the holidays.
However, the Moon is now coming up and will interfere with viewing later in the week. However, in mid-January Comet Lovejoy will be very high in the sky as its moves through Taurus, with the Moon out of the way.
By then the comet may be brighter and a naked eye object from dark sites. But don’t expect it to be anything more than a fuzzy star. This comet never gets close to the Sun, so isn’t likely to grow a bright dust tail.
The thin Moon and Venus hang over the lights of Silver City, New Mexico.
Tonight, December 22, the 24-hour-old crescent Moon shone a binocular field to the right of brilliant Venus. I caught both hanging in the sky over downtown Silver City, set in stunningly clear twilight.
Venus is just beginning what promises to be a spectacular evening appearance in the western sky over the next few months, as it climbs higher.
The Moon, on its shorter cycle around the sky, is emerging into the evening sky for the end-of-year holidays. Watch it wax into a quarter Moon, then to Full, over the next two weeks. Tonight, the glow of Earthshine was prominent lighting the dark side of the Moon.
I shot this from east of the city, using a 135mm telephoto on my Canon 60Da camera.
The double star Beta Capricorni disappears in a wink behind the Earthlit edge of the Moon.
The evening of Wednesday, November 26 provided a bonus celestial event, the eclipse of a double star by the Moon.
The star is Beta Capricorni, also known as Dabih. I had a ringside seat Wednesday night as the waxing Moon hid the star in what’s called an occultation.
Dabih is a wide double star, composed of a bright magnitude 3 main star, Beta1 Capricorni, and a fainter magnitude 6 companion, Beta 2 Capricorni. You can see both in the still image view at top. Their wide separation makes them easy to split in binoculars.
In reality, they are separated in space by an enormous gap of 21,000 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. By comparison, distant Pluto lies an average of just 40 times the Earth-Sun distance.
With such a wide separation Beta1 and Beta2 take an estimated 700,000 years to orbit each other.
Beta1 is a giant orange star 600 times more luminous than our own Sun and 35 times bigger. Beta2 is a blue subgiant 40 times more luminous that the Sun.
Adding to the complexity of the system, Beta2 is also a close double, while Beta1 is a tight triple star, making for a quintuple star system.
The movie below records each occultation, first of the fainter blue Beta2 star, then of the brighter Beta1 star.
Each occultation happens in an instant to the eye. However, stepping through the video shows that the brighter star took 4 video frames to dim, about 1/10th of a second. Whether this is real, due to the star’s giant size, or just an effect of the twinkling of the atmosphere, is questionable.
The still photo is a “high dynamic range” stack of 12 exposures from 4 seconds to 1/500th second, taken with the Canon 60Da camera at ISO 400, to capture the huge range in brightness, from the dark side of the Moon and stars, to the bright sunlit crescent. I used Photoshop’s HDR Pro module to stack the images and Adobe Camera Raw in 32-bit mode to do the tone-mapping, the process that compresses the brightness range into a final image.
I shot the video with the 60Da camera as well, setting it to ISO 6400, and using its video mode to record real-time video clips, both in HD 1920×1080 for the wide-field “establishing shots,” and in its unique 640×480 Movie Crop mode for the close-ups of the actual occultations. Those two clips appear as inset movies. I edited and processed the clips, plus added the titles, using Photoshop and its video capabilities.
All were shot from New Mexico with the TMB 92mm refractor at f/5.5.
The waxing crescent Moon shines amid the stars and deep blue twilight.
This was the scene last night, as the two-day-old Moon reappeared in the evening sky as a thin crescent.
The Moon looks full because most of the side facing us was brilliantly lit by Earthshine, sunlight reflected off the Earth and lighting the Moon. Here, only the thin crescent at right is directly lit by the Sun.
This was a particularly bright example of Earthshine, likely because so much of the northern part of the Earth is now covered with cloud and snow, making Earth even more reflective than it usually is.
To capture this scene through a telescope, I shot a set of high-dynamic-range exposures, from long to short, to capture the huge range in brightness from the dayside to the darkside of the Moon. The long exposure also captured the stars in the deep blue twilight of a clear New Mexico sky.
Mars shines near the globular star cluster Messier 22 in Sagittarius.
This week Mars has been passing near one of the brightest globular star clusters, M22. I caught the pair tonight, November 8, as they sank into the southwestern sky.
The two form a contrasting pair, with red Mars now 260 million kilometres away, far enough that its light takes 13 minutes to reach Earth. However, blue M22 lies so far away, toward the galactic core, that its light take 10,000 years to reach Earth.
Mars appeared closer to M22 earlier this week but tonight was the first night with a narrow window of dark sky between twilight and moonrise, allowing me to shoot the pair.
I shot the image through a telescope with a short focal length of 400mm, taking in a field of about 5 by 3 degrees, the field of high-power binoculars. The image is a stack of eight 2-minute exposures at f/4.5 with the TMB 92mm refractor and Canon 6D at ISO 800.
The Full Moon rises with the blue arc of Earth’s shadow over a New Mexico landscape.
I’m now in New Mexico for the winter, enjoying the clear skies and mild temperatures. After a few days of settling into the winter home, tonight was my first venture out to take advantage of the skies and shoot some images.
Tonight was Full Moon, a month after the total lunar eclipse. I drove out to the City of Rocks State Park to capture the moonrise over the unique desert landscape.
The main image above captures the Full Moon sitting amid the dark blue arc of Earth’s shadow rising in the east projected onto Earth’s atmosphere. It is rimmed above with a pink band, the “Belt of Venus,” caused by red sunlight still illuminating the high atmosphere. The image is a 5-section panorama.
In the clear air of New Mexico the shadow and Belt of Venus really stand out.
A few minutes later, with the Moon higher and sky darker, I trekked amid the unusual rock formations of the Park, to shoot the Moon amid an alien lunar landscape.
These two images are both “high dynamic range” stacks of 7 to 8 images, from short to long exposures, to capture the wide range of brightness in a twilight scene, from the dark foreground to the bright Moon.
I’m looking forward to a productive winter, photographing the sky and writing about photo techniques, rather than shovelling snow!