“No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets; no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie.” – William Butler, 1873
In the 1870s, just before the coming of the railway and European settlement, English adventurer William Butler trekked the Canadian prairies, knowing what he called “The Great Lone Land” was soon to disappear as a remote and unsettled territory.
The quote from his book is on a plaque at the site where I took the lead image, Sunset Point at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.
The night was near perfect, with the Milky Way standing out down to the southern horizon and the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana. Below, the Milk River winds through the sandstone rock formations sacred to the Blackfoot First Nations.
The next night (last night, July 26, as I write this) I was at another unique site in southern Alberta, Red Rock Coulee Natural Area. The sky presented one of Butler’s unmatched prairie sunsets.
This is “big sky” country, and this week is putting on a great show with a succession of clear and mild nights under a heat wave.
The waxing crescent Moon adds to the western sky and the sunsets. But it sets early enough to leave the sky dark for the Milky Way to shine to the south.
This was the Milky Way on Wednesday night, July 27, over Red Rock Coulee. Sagittarius and the centre of the Galaxy lie above the horizon. At right, Saturn shines amid the dark lanes of the Dark Horse in the Milky Way.
I’m just halfway through my week-long photo tour of several favourite sites in this Great Lone Land. Next, is Cypress Hills and the Reesor Ranch.
On May 9, a last-minute chase into clear skies netted me a view of the rare transit of Mercury across the Sun.
The forecast called for typical transit weather – clear the day before, and clear the day after. But the day of the transit of Mercury? Hopeless at home in Alberta, unless I chanced the prospects of some clearing forecast for central Alberta.
As the satellite image below, for 8:30 a.m. MDT on May 9, shows, that clearing did materialize. But I headed west, as far west as I needed to go to be assured of clear skies – to central BC. Kamloops in fact.
I stayed at the Alpine Motel, got a great room as the end, and set up in the parking lot away from traffic. Not the most photogenic of observing sites, but I was happy! I had my clear skies!
I set up two telescopes, above: a 130mm refractor to shoot through, and an 80mm refractor to look through. Both with dense solar filters!
Both worked great. However, low cloud prevented me seeing the Sun as soon as it cleared the eastern hills. So this was my first good look, below, at the transit as the Sun rose above the clouds.
There it was – the fabled “little black spot on the Sun today.” Mercury is the dot at lower left, with a sunspot group at upper right. This was the first transit of Mercury since November 8, 2006. We see only about 13 Mercury transits a century, so in a lifetime of stargazing (the Sun is a star!) even the most avid amateur astronomer might see only a handful. This was only my third transit of Mercury.
This was the view, above, a little later, as the Sun entered more assuredly clear skies. From about 7 a.m. PDT on, the Sun was in the clear most of the morning, with just occasional puffy clouds intervening now and then.
I shot still images every 30 seconds, to eventually turn into a time-lapse movie (after a ton of work hand registering hundreds of frames!).
But for now, I’ll be content with this composite of 40 frames, below, taken at 7-minute intervals. It shows the progress of Mercury across the Sun over the last 4.5 hours or so of the event, until egress at 11:38 a.m. PDT.
This motion is due to Mercury’s movement around the Sun. A transit is one of the few times you can easily see a planet actually orbiting the Sun.
In this composite, the disks of Mercury are not all perfect dots. The wobbly seeing conditions distorted the images from frame to frame. But I used the actual images taken at that moment, rather than clone some perfect image across the disk to simulate the path.
To wrap up, here’s Mercury Transit: The Movie! I shot several HD and zoomed-in “crop mode” movies at the beginning of the transit and again at the final egress. Commentary is from me talking live into the camera mic as I was shooting the clips. Background noise is courtesy Pacific Drive and the Trans-Canada Highway!
Enjoy, and do enlarge to HD and full-screen for the best look.
The next transit of Mercury is November 11, 2019. If you are hoping for a transit of Venus, good luck. The next is not until December 10, 2117!
From Churchill, Manitoba the Northern Lights dance almost every night over the boreal forest.
This year, as in the last two years, I have traveled to the shores of a frozen Hudson Bay and to the town of Churchill, Manitoba to view and photograph the aurora borealis.
I’m instructing two tour groups at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, one this week and one last week, in the science and sagas of the aurora and on how to shoot the Lights. The participants in the groups are fabulous, keenly interested and unfazed by the cold and wind.
From Churchill’s latitude of 58° N, we are under the main auroral oval almost every night. Even on nights with low official activity levels, as they were on all the nights I shot these images, we still get sky-filling displays.
Here’s a selection of still images from the last week of shooting, with clear skies on all but a couple of nights. There’s still room in our March sessions!
Orion appears in his winter element, over snowscapes on crisp January nights.
A couple of clear-ish winter nights this past weekend allowed me to capture that most iconic of constellations, Orion, over snowy landscapes close to home here in Alberta.
At top, he rises over the famous Hoodoos near East Coulee, Alberta in the Red Deer River valley. Clouds moving in on Sunday night, January 10, added the photogenic glows around the stars, emphasizing their colour and brilliance.
Here, from a shot on Saturday, January 9, Orion appears down the end of my rural country Range Road, with Sirius, his companion Dog Star, following at his heels above the treetops and in some haze.
If this looks cold, it was – at minus 25° C. Though two hours later it was only -15° C and by morning it was 0° C. Winter in Alberta!
Both images are short exposures, 10 to 15 seconds, at f/2 or f/2.8 with the wonderful Sigma 24mm Art lens and my new favourite camera, the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. In both cases the ground is from a stack of several exposures to smooth noise but the sky is from a single exposure to minimize star trailing.
The Quadrantid meteors streaked out of the northern sky on a fine winter’s night.
The temperature was mild and skies clear in the early evening for the annual Quadrantid meteor shower. This is a prolific but short-lived shower with a brief peak. The cold and low altitude of its radiant point keeps this shower from becoming better known.
This was the first year I can recall shooting it. I had some success during a 2-hour shoot on January 3, from 9 to 11 pm MST.
The result above is a stack of 14 images, the best out of 600 shot that recorded meteors. The ground and sky comes from one image with the best Quad of the night, and the other meteor images were masked and layered into that image, with no attempt to align their paths with the moving radiant point.
However, over the 2 hours, the radiant point low in the north would not have moved too much, as it rose higher into the northern sky.
Most of the meteors here are Quads, but the very bright bolide at left, while it looks like it is coming from the radiant, it is actually streaking toward the radiant, and is not a Quadrantid. But oh so close! I left it in the composite for the sake of the nice composition!
Light clouds moving in added the natural star glows around the Big Dipper stars.
All frames were 10 seconds at f/2 with the 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
Meteors from the Geminid shower rain over the dishes of the VLA radio telescope.
Sunday night was a prime night for the annual Geminid meteor shower, one of the best of the year. To capture it, I traveled to the Plains of San Agustin in the high desert of New Mexico.
It’s there that the National Radio Astronomy Observatory operates the 27 dishes of the Very Large Array radio telescope, one of the most photogenic – and photographed – astronomical facilities in the world.
I set up at a viewing point near the entrance, to look northwest over the dishes, arrayed that night, and all season, in its most compact configuration, with all the dishes clustered closest together.
It was an active meteor shower! One particularly bright meteor left a persistent “train” – a smoke trail that lasted over 15 minutes. It creates the fuzzy cloud around the meteor at right. The bright bolide is on two frames, as the shutter closed then opened again as the meteor was still flying! So its bright streak got cut in two. Pity!
I shot with two cameras. The image here is from one, using a 35mm lens to shoot 334 frames over 3 hours. Each exposure was 32 seconds at f/2 and at ISO 3200.
I’ve taken about two dozen of the frames, the ones with meteors, and stacked them here, with the sky and ground coming from one frame. The camera was not tracking the sky.
Bands of natural airglow and clouds illuminated by the lights of Albuquerque to the north add colour to the sky.
I would have shot for longer than three hours, but this was a very cold night, with a brisk wind and temperatures below freezing. A snowstorm had even closed some roads the day before. Three hours was enough on the high plains of San Agustin this night.