Moon and Venus at the Place of the Mountain Gods


Moon and Venus Meet Over Pond

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.”

Moon & Venus Conjunction Over Pond #2

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.

– Alan, March 22, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – Moon Meet-ups in March


March 21-24, 2015 Evening Sky

This weekend and early next week look for the Moon passing planets and star clusters in the evening sky.

The waxing Moon returns to the evening sky on Saturday night, March 21, a day and half after it eclipsed the Sun over the North Atlantic and Europe.

On Saturday, March 21 look for the thin crescent Moon very low in the west sitting just a degree (two Moon diameters) left of reddish and dim Mars.

The next night, Sunday, March 22, the Moon, now a wider crescent, shines three degrees (half a binocular field) left of brilliant Venus, for a beautiful close conjunction of the night sky’s two brightest objects. The photo ops abound!

This is one of the best Moon-Venus meet-ups of the current “evening star” apparition of Venus this winter and spring. Next month, for example, the Moon will sit six degrees away from Venus on April 21.

On Monday, March 23, the crescent Moon sits between Venus and its next destination, the bright star Aldebaran.

On Tuesday, March 24, the Moon, still a crescent, shines amid the stars of the Hyades star cluster near Aldebaran in Taurus, for a wonderful binocular scene. The more famous Pleiades star cluster is near by.

On all nights, you’ll see the night side of the Moon dimly illuminated by Earthshine, sunlight reflecting off the Earth and lighting up the dark side of the Moon.

March 24, 2015 CU

Here’s a close-up of the March 24 scene, with the Moon in the V-shaped face of Taurus the bull that is marked by the widely scattered Hyades star cluster.

Please note: This diagram and the main chart above, are for western North America. From eastern North America, the Moon will be 2 to 4 Moon diameters lower in the sky for each of the dates indicated.

Clear skies and enjoy the Moon meet-ups in March!

– Alan, March 19, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.net

The Waning Moon of Morning


Waning Moon in the Morning Sky

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.

TMB Refractor & Mach1 Mount

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.

For more details about the eclipse see The Great American Eclipse

I’ll be missing this eclipse, the first total solar eclipse I’ve chosen to sit out since 1995, 20 years ago. My next total solar eclipse will be August 21, 2017. At least, that’s the plan!

Clear skies to all my eclipse chasing friends, on land, on the sea, and in the air on Friday morning.

– Alan, March 16, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Ghostly Glows of a Truly Dark Sky


Ghostly Glows of a Truly Dark Sky

A truly dark sky isn’t dark. It is filled with glows both subtle and spectacular.

Last night, March 10, I drove up into the heart of the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico, to a viewpoint at 7,900 feet in altitude. I was in search of the darkest skies in the area. I found them! There was not a light in sight.

The featured image is a 180° panorama showing:

– the Zodiacal Light (at right in the west)
– the Milky Way (up from the centre, in the south, to the upper right)
– the Zodiacal Band (faintly visible running from right to left across the frame at top)
– the Gegenschein (a brightening of the Zodiacal Band at left of frame, in the east in Leo)

The Zodiacal Light, Zodiacal Band, and the Gegenschein are all part of the same phenomenon, glows along the ecliptic path – the plane of the solar system – caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary and meteoric dust in the inner solar system.

The Gegenschein, or “counterglow,” can be seen with the naked eye as a large and diffuse brightening of the sky at the spot exactly opposite the Sun. It is caused by sunlight reflecting directly back from comet dust, the scattering effect greatest at the point opposite the Sun.

The Zodiacal Light requires reasonably dark skies to see, but the fainter Zodiacal Band and Gegenschein require very dark skies.

Now is prime season for all of them, with the Moon out of the way, and the Zodiacal Light angled up high in the western as twilight ends. In March, the Gegenschein is now located in a relatively blank area of sky in southern Leo.

The Milky Way is much more obvious. Along the northern winter Milky Way here you can see dark lanes of interstellar dust, particularly in Taurus above and to the right of Orion. Red nebulas of glowing gas also lie along the Milky Way, such as Barnard’s Loop around Orion.

– Orion is at centre, in the south, with Canis Major and the bright star Sirius below and to the left of Orion. Canopus is just setting on the southern horizon at centre. It barely clears the horizon from 32° North latitude.

– To the right of Orion is Taurus and the Pleiades star cluster at the top of the Zodiacal Light pyramid.

– Venus is the bright object in the Zodiacal Light at right, in the west, while fainter Mars is below Venus.

– At far right, in the northwest, is the Andromeda Galaxy, M31.

– Jupiter is the bright object at upper left, in the east, in the Zodiacal Band, and near the Beehive star cluster.

– The Zodiacal Light, Band and Gegenschein all lie along the ecliptic, as do Mars, Venus and Jupiter.

Glows on the horizon are from distant SIlver City, Las Cruces and El Paso. The brighter sky at right is from the last vestiges of evening twilight. Some green and red airglow bands also permeate the sky.

Standing Under the Milky Way
I shot this March 10, 2015 from the summit of Highway 15, The Trail of the Mountain Spirits, that twists and winds through the Gila Wilderness.

It was a stunning night, clear, calm, and silent. Just me under the ghostly glows of a truly dark sky.

NOTE: I first published this March 11 but had to republish this blog March 15 after WordPress deleted the original post in a software bug. Thanks WordPress! 

– Alan, March 11, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / http://www.amazingsky.newt

 

Lasers at Lovejoy


Lasers Converging on Comet Lovejoy

Laser beams point out Comet Lovejoy at a public star party at City of Rocks State Park.

It was a perfect night last night for public stargazing. I headed out to the State Park for the monthly star party, held at the Orion group campground (with Orion nicely placed in the sky above) and home to a fine public observatory.

Stargazing at the City of Rocks State Park Observatory

The Gene and Elizabeth Simon Observatory features a Meade 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope which gave great views of Jupiter with one of its moons, Callisto, in transit as a dark dot on the face of the planet.

Stargazing under Desert Skies

About 70 people turned out, from the Park’s campground and from the nearby communities. Here Matt starts the night with a laser guided tour of the constellations. These bright lasers are wonderful for public events like this but when in the wrong hands they can be dangerous.

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has issued guidelines for their use. Check their webpage for more details.

Stargazing at City of Rocks State Park, NM

Another technical innovation popular at the City of Rocks Star Parties is an iPad running Sky Safari software, and on a tripod with handles so people can move it about the sky to identify stars and constellations for themselves. It works great. Here, I pose with it for a staged photo, with the Big Dipper in the background.

Observatory Telescope at City of Rocks State Park

Here I pose with the Observatory’s 14-inch telescope.

In all, it was a superb night at surely one of the finest places on the planet for public stargazing. I recommended to the Park officials that they should apply for official Dark Sky Preserve status. They would qualify without question.

Clear skies!

– Alan, March 15, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Dance of the Northern Lights



My new 3-minute music video compiles still and time-lapse imagery of the aurora I shot in February 2015 from Churchill, Manitoba.

Churchill’s location at 58° North on the shore of Hudson Bay puts it directly under the main auroral oval, the zone of greatest auroral activity. Over the 9 nights, 2 were cloudy, with a roaring blizzard.

But on the 8 clear nights we saw aurora every night. I shot time-lapses on 6 of those nights, shooting about 3,500 frames, most of which appear in the final cut of this movie.

Despite the amazing displays we saw, on no night was the auroral activity index (on a scale of 0 to 9) higher than 2 or 3. These were all “normal” quiet nights for auroras in Churchill. Anyone farther south would have seen little in their sky on most of these nights.

I shot many of the time-lapses with an 8mm spherical fish-eye lens, to create sequences suitable for projection in digital planetarium domes. One other time-lapse sequence (the last in this movie) I shot with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye. Even it is not wide enough to take in the entire display when the Lights fill the sky.

Exposures were typically 10 to 15 seconds at f/3.5 and ISO 1600 to 4000, all with the Canon 6D. I powered it from its lone internal battery. Amazingly, despite temperatures that were considered extreme even for Churchill (often -32° C at night) the batteries lasted 90 to 150 minutes allowing me to take lots of frames with no battery change or perhaps just one battery change. Churchill is very dry and only on one night did I have an issue with the lens frosting up.

Music is by Dan Phillipson, his composition “Into the Unknown,” purchased for royalty-free use through Triple Scoop Music. I edited the movie in Apple Aperture, with a title sequence created in Photoshop. Processing of the original images was with Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop, and LRTimelapse, with assembly of movie frames done with Sequence for MacOS.

I hope you enjoy it! Do click on the Enlarge button to watch it full screen. It may take a while to start playing.

— Alan, March 6, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Copper Moon over a Copper Mine


Copper Moon over Copper Mine

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.”

The March Mini-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.

– Alan, March 5, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The March “Mini-Moon”


Apogee-Perigee Moon Comparison

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.

Clear skies!

– Alan, March 1, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Green Waves of Northern Lights


Ultrawide Aurora #4 - Feb 21, 2015

Last night the sky exploded with waves of green and pink as the Northern Lights danced in the bitter cold.

With blizzard conditions forecast for the next two days, last night might have been our last for viewing the aurora from Churchill. But if so, we ended on a high note.

Ultrawide Aurora #1 - Feb 21, 2015

The aurora appeared on schedule again at about 9 to 9:30 p.m., following my evening lecture, as it has done every clear night for the last couple of weeks. It began as a sweeping arc to the north, as above, then moved south to encompass the entire sky.

Ultrawide Aurora #5 - Feb 21, 2015

About 11 p.m. the sky burst open with waves of green arcs, but with generous tints of red and magenta that the camera picks up easily. To the eye, the reds are barely visible unless the aurora gets very bright.

Shooting the Northern Lights (Feb 21, 2015)

Despite the bitterly cold temperatures of -34° C with a -50° wind chill, everyone in the tour group braved the night to take in the sight. And many managed to work their cameras and tripods, no small feat under such conditions, to get great shots.

The groups this week and last saw aurora every clear night, with clear nights on at least 3 out of the 5 nights of each course. Not a bad take, fulfilling everyone’s “bucket list” dream of standing under the aurora borealis.

– Alan, February 22, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

A Cold Night of Auroral Lights


Pink Aurora over Boreal Forest #1 (Feb 20, 2015)

It was a bitterly cold night for watching the dancing Northern Lights.

When Environment Canada issues Extreme Cold warnings for Churchill, you know its cold! With temperatures at -32° C and with high winds last night, the wind chill equivalent was -50° C.

But that didn’t stop us from watching the Lights!

Aurora from Churchill #4 (Feb 20, 2015)

I nicely finished my evening lecture at 9 pm when the Lights appeared on cue. They were faint at first, but then brightened nicely by 10 pm. The show was over by midnight, a well-timed and convenient display.

Aurora from Churchill #3 (Feb 20, 2015)

The 22 participants in this week’s course all bundled up and headed out, onto the second floor viewing deck and out onto the ground for views and photos of the aurora.

Aurora from Churchill #1 (Feb 20, 2015)

This was not a brilliant display – the official activity level was still reading only 1 or 2 on scale of 0 to 9. But it provided us with some beautiful curtains and lovely colours. The hazy appearance is from high clouds and local blowing snow.

Aurora from Churchill #5 (Feb 20, 2015)

The views from the Deck overlooking the boreal forest make for some nice photo opportunities, from a spot largely out of the constant westerly winds.

We have three more nights here, though snow is forecast for the last two. Tonight may be our last night to enjoy the Northern Lights. But all are happy with what they have seen and shot so far.

– Alan, February 21, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Colourful Curtains of the Northern Lights


All-Sky Aurora #1 (Feb 17, 2015)

The Northern Lights have performed beautifully the last few nights, presenting curtains of light dancing across the sky.

Two nights ago in Churchill, Manitoba we were treated to a “storm level” show of aurora, with the Lights all across the sky in green curtains waving and curling before our eyes.

The curtains tower several hundred kilometres up into the atmosphere, from the lower edge at about 80 km up (still high above the stratosphere) to the curtain tops at about 400 km altitude at the edge of space.

The camera picks up the colours far better than the eye can, recording not only the predominant green hues but also shades of pink, magenta and red.

All-Sky Aurora #5 (Feb 17, 2015)

The magentas and reds come from the sections of the curtains at the highest altitudes, from the top of the auroral curtains. Here, where the atmosphere is a near vacuum, sparse oxygen atoms can glow with a red emission line.

However, there must be a blue component as well, leading to the magenta or pink tones, as in my photos here. Nitrogen can glow in blues and purples and might be contributing to the colours.

The top two photos are from Tuesday night, Feb 17, when storm levels of 5 were in effect worldwide.

All-Sky Auroral Curtains #2 (Feb 18, 2015)

Lower down, at about 100 km altitude, the air is denser and oxygen glows with a brighter green hue, which the eye can detect more easily.

The photo above from last night, with an activity level of just 2, also shows most of the sky covered with a faint emission, with a patchy appearance, with dark “holes” also moving and flowing in the time-lapse movies I shot.

Closer to the horizon, and far to the north, the aurora brightens into the more characteristic green snaking curtains.

Red Auroral Curtains

This image from three nights ago shows an usually coloured aurora at the start of the night, glowing mostly a deeper red and orange.

The green was still off in the distance far to the east. It arrived a few minutes later as green curtains swept in over us.

But the initial red was from low-energy electrons lighting up just high-altitude oxygen. Only when the higher energy particles arrived did the sky light up green.

All-Sky Aurora #7 (Feb 17, 2015)

I shot all these images with an 8mm fish-eye lens as frames in time-lapse sequences intended for use projected in digital planetarium domes, where the 360° “all-sky” scene would be recreated on the dome as it was in real life.

If you are with a planetarium, contact me if you’d like to get aurora clips.

Our second group of aurora tourists has arrived today at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and the weather is warming to a high of -20° C. Balmy!

We’re hoping for more fine displays, though the space weather forecast calls for a quiet magnetic field in the next few days.

– Alan, February 19, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Home of Pluto


Lowell Observatory – 13-inch Pluto Astrograph

85 years ago this month Clyde Tombaugh used this large camera to discover Pluto.

On February 18, 1930, Clyde Tombaugh found what he had been assigned to search for – Planet X. He found the world that soon became known as Pluto.

The instrument he used, shown above, was a refractor telescope of sorts, designed specifically for the Pluto search. It focused its light onto large photographic glass plates. Tombaugh would take images of selected fields each night, looking for objects that moved from night to night.

Lowell Observatory - The Pluto Astrograph Building

The Astrograph is housed in this building, now an historic site at the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona and open daily for tours. The Astrograph is on the upper floor of the wooden Observatory; the lower floor contained the darkroom where Tombaugh developed the plates.

Lowell Observatory - The Old Library Building Interior

To search for Pluto, Tombaugh mounted the fragile glass plates in what is called a blink comparator. You can see it at right in the image above, of the interior of the old Library building at Lowell, now used as a museum and as part of Lowell’s excellent Visitor Centre program.

Lowell Observatory – Blink Comparator

Using the comparator, Tombaugh would blink the images from two plates back and forth. Stars would appear to stay put, but any moving objects in orbit around the Sun would jump back and forth as they shifted position from one night to the next.

On February 18, he found an object that moved as expected, on plates he had taken the month before, and announced to his superiors that he had found the long-sought for Planet X, first hypothesized by the Observatory’s founder, Percival Lowell. It was another month before the discovery was made official and announced to the world.

Lowell Observatory – Lowell Mausoleum

Lowell is entombed in the Mausoleum on the Observatory grounds, and next door to the other telescope for which he is most famous.

Lowell Observatory - Clark Refractor

This historic wooden dome contains the 24-inch Clark Refractor that Lowell used to “discover” the canals of Mars, to bolster his theories about a dying race on Mars husbanding the last remnants of water on a drying planet.

The ideas of intelligent life on Mars popularized by Lowell continued to influence science into the space age and continue to influence the public even today.

But it was Lowell’s other fascination with Planet X that led to the discovery of what was called the ninth planet, now called a dwarf planet.

Pluto is the destination this year (on July 14) for the NASA New Horizon space probe, in this Year of Pluto … and Year of the Dwarf Planet, with the arrival next month of NASA’s Dawn probe at Ceres, the largest object in the classic asteroid belt, and also classified as a dwarf planet.

I shot these images of Lowell’s historic sites on February 8, 2015 as part of a visit to the Observatory to deliver a club and public talk.

– Alan, February 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

The Blizzard Aurora


Aurora over the Old Rocket Range

Beautiful curtains of light draped across the sky despite the blizzard blowing below.

Last night, February 16, was the last night for aurora viewing for the first aurora tour group hosted by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

Despite predictions calling for an active display, we had given up hope of seeing anything, as a blizzard had been raging all day and into the evening. But about 10 pm I knocked on doors down the hall — get up! The Lights are out!

Against all odds, skies cleared enough to reveal a wonderful all-sky display of Northern Lights, with multiple curtains of light snaking over the sky.

The view above overlooks the now derelict launch buildings of the abandoned Churchill Rocket Range, in use from the late 1950s until the 1980s. Some 3500 rockets were fired from here in its heyday, shot into the active auroras that occur here almost nightly under the auroral oval.

Auroral Curtains in Green & Magenta #2

This view overlooks the boreal forest on the frozen shore of Hudson Bay, and shows the multiple curtains that twisted and turned across the sky.

Tonight’s display was marked by fringes of magenta, rather than the deeper reds we observed 2 nights ago.

Aurora in Orion & Overhead

Winds were howling and snow was blowing, but from the shelter of the Centre’s second floor observing deck we could view the display in windless comfort, despite the -30° C temperatures.

Aurora from the Viewing Deck

The group was delighted at having this bonus viewing night. Now the concern is whether the blizzard will abate enough to allow flights in and out of Churchill Airport. The group might get another night under the Lights!

– Alan, February 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – The Moon Meets Mars & Venus


Feb 20 Conjunction

This Friday, February 20, look west to see one of the best planet conjunctions of 2015.

On the evening of February 20, the waxing crescent Moon joins Venus and Mars in the western sky to create a tight gathering of worlds in the twilight.

The trio of worlds will be just one degree apart, close enough to fit within the low-power field of a telescope.

However, the conjunction will be easy to sight with the unaided eye, with the possible exception of Mars itself. It is now dim enough, and so close to brilliant Venus and the Moon, that picking it out might be tough without optical aid.

But any binoculars will nicely show this wonderful trio, as here:

Feb 20 Conjunction CU

This closeup image shows the field through binoculars, which typically frame about six to seven degrees of sky. The Moon, Venus and Mars will be a mere one degree apart.

The next night, February 21, the crescent Moon will sit above the Venus-Mars pair. But the two planets will be even closer together, just 1/2 degree apart. They will be a little farther apart on February 22.

Venus and Mars pass in conjunction this weekend as Mars sinks lower into the sky, to disappear behind the Sun by spring, while Venus climbs higher, to dominate the spring sky this year.

This will be a photogenic conjunction, so get your camera out. Use a normal to moderate telephoto lens (50mm to 135mm) to frame the celestial gathering above a scenic horizon.

– Alan, February 16, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Standing Under the Auroral Oval (2015)


Standing Under the Auroral Oval

The Northern Lights dance overhead each night from Churchill, Manitoba.

If you really want to see the Northern Lights, don’t wait for them to come to you. Instead, you go to them.

For the second year in a row I’ve been able to participate as an instructor during week-long aurora courses and tours at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on the shore of Hudson Bay. The site is at 58° latitude, far enough north to place us directly under the main auroral oval, the prime location for viewing the Northern Lights.

If it’s clear, a view of dancing arcs and curtains of aurora is almost guaranteed. Two nights ago we had a marvellous display, despite official indicators of aurora strength and geomagnetic activity all reading low or even zero.

Still, the Lights came out and danced across the sky.

The top photo is selfie of me standing the display in a 360° all-sky image shot for use in a planetarium. The research centre building is at left. The view is generally looking north.

Watching the Northern Lights

This view is from the second floor deck of the centre, usually a bit more sheltered from the wind. It allows a good view to the north and east, where displays typically start, as they did this night. Feb. 13.

Auroral Curtain over the Boreal Forest

As the display developed the curtain rose up into the sky to arc from east to west across heavens.

All-Sky Auroral Curtains (Feb 13, 2015)

This image, also a 360° fish-eye image taken with an 8mm lens, shows the display at its best, with rippling curtains hanging overhead. It’s part of a time-lapse sequence.

Red Auroral Curtains

The next night, February 14, was marked by fainter but an unusually red aurora, appropriate for Valentine’s Day perhaps. Or the 50th anniversary of our red and white Canadian flag.

The sky was a little hazier, but the aurora shone through, initially only with a red and orange tint, colours we could just see with the unaided eye – the long exposures of the camera really bring out the colours the eye can only just perceive when the aurora is dim.

The green curtains, seen here in the distance, did arrive a few minutes later, lighting up the curtains in the more usual green colour, with just upper fringes of red.

It seems the red is from low-energy electrons exciting oxygen only in the upper atmosphere. Only later did the more energetic electrons arrive to excite the green oxygen transition that occurs at lower altitudes.

With luck, I’ll have more nights to stand under the auroral oval and look up in wonder at the Northern Lights.

– Alan, February 15 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Comet Lovejoy in Andromeda


Comet Lovejoy in Andromeda

Comet Lovejoy appears in Andromeda as the comet fades into the distance. 

This was the view Monday night, February 9, with Comet Lovejoy now moving slowly north through Andromeda. From a dark site it is now still visible to the unaided. In binoculars a short tail was just barely visible. But even in photos the comet has lost most of its long blue tail it sported last month.

The view above takes in the W of Cassiopeia at top, and some of the stars of Andromeda at bottom. The Andromeda Galaxy is at right. I’ve arrowed the comet, a fuzzy star green star.

Zodiacal Light & Milky Way

Shortly after I shot Lovejoy’s portrait I shot this image of the evening Zodiacal Light, the tower of light at left. At right is the setting autumn Milky Way. At the base of the Zodiacal Light is bright Venus just setting, with fainter Mars above it.

The next two weeks are ideal for sighting the Zodiacal Light. For more on what’s up in the sky now, see my previous blog.

Clear skies!

– Alan, February 9, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – Comets, Planets, and Zodiacal Light, Oh My!


Feb Evening Sky

As the Moon departs the evening sky, we are left with a dark sky for viewing Comet Lovejoy, converging planets, and the elusive Zodiacal Light.

The western sky contains wonders this month.

Look into the evening twilight and you’ll see brilliant Venus appearing a little higher each night. As it climbs up, fainter Mars above is descending closer to the horizon. The two planets are converging toward a spectacular close conjunction with each other, and with the waxing crescent Moon, on February 20.

Meanwhile, Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) continues to perform well. It is now in the northwestern sky in the early evening, as it travels up through Andromeda into Cassiopeia.

While technically visible to the unaided eye, you really need binoculars or any telescope to see Comet Lovejoy well. Through optical aid it does show a faint tail. But it takes a long exposure photo to show it well.

Lovejoy in February

Here’s where to find Comet Lovejoy over the next couple of weeks, during the current dark-of-the-Moon period.

Look for a fuzzy star in Andromeda. It’s not passing very near any notable deep-sky objects, but its position will still make for a nice wide-angle photo with the comet embedded in this photogenic region of the northern autumn sky.

Comet Lovejoy & Zodiacal Light (Jan 16, 2015)

The other sight to look for each evening for the next two weeks is the Zodiacal Light. My photo shows it from last month, when Comet Lovejoy was crossing the ecliptic.

Look for a pyramid of light stretching up from the sunset point to high in the west. It follows the ecliptic, the green line in the top star chart. It takes a dark sky to see it, and it helps to be at a southerly latitude. But I’ve seen and shot the Zodiacal Light nicely in February from home in Alberta at 51° latitude.

The Zodiacal Light is caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust in the inner solar system. To see it, wait for most of the evening twilight to fade away. The glow that’s left brightening the western sky is the Zodiacal Light.

There’s lots to see just in the western evening sky during the next two weeks. Clear skies!

– Alan, February 9, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Rising of the Snow Moon & Jupiter


Full Snow Moon over Silver City Panorama #1

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.

Full Snow Moon over Silver City Panorama #2

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.

Full Snow Moon over Silver City Panorama #3

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.

– Alan, February 3, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Heads Up! – A Picturesque Snow Moonrise


Feb 3 Moon & Jupiter

This Tuesday, Feb. 3, watch the Full “Snow” Moon rise accompanied by the giant planet Jupiter.

Tuesday is Full Moon, the February “Snow Moon” according to some interpretations. Indeed, from most places in North America the Moon will rise over a snow-covered landscape to light the winter night.

This Full Moon is also special because it will pair with bright Jupiter. Both worlds are now at or near “opposition.”

Any Full Moon is always opposite the Sun – that’s why it is fully illuminated by the Sun.

But Jupiter is also near its annual opposition point in its orbit. The official date of opposition is Friday, Feb. 6. On that date Earth passes directly between the Sun and Jupiter – our three worlds lie in a line across the solar system. We are then closest to Jupiter and Jupiter appears opposite the Sun.

Being opposite the Sun, Jupiter rises as the Sun sets. And so will the Full Moon on Tuesday, accompanied by the giant planet now at its brightest for the year.

Look east at sunset. It will be a photogenic sight for the prepared photographer.

But you can also enjoy it with just the unaided eyes or binoculars, as the two worlds will appear about a binocular field apart, 5 degrees.

The double circles on the chart mark the position of the Earth’s shadow, which is always opposite the Sun. You can’t see our shadow out in space – not unless the Full Moon passes through it, which it will on April 4, for a total eclipse of the Moon. More about that in two months.

For now, enjoy the Snow Moon with the Giant Planet.

– Alan, January 31, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Old Hearst Church in Moonlight


The Big Dipper over Hearst Church

The Big Dipper and the Pole Star shine above the moonlit historic Hearst Church.

Tuesday was a productive evening of shooting in the moonlight. One of the best from the night pictures the Hearst Church in the rustic town of Pinos Altos in the Gila Forest of southern New Mexico.

The Big Dipper stars shine at right, with the Pointer stars in the Bowl aiming at Polaris above the Church. Illumination is from a waxing quarter Moon and from some decorative lights in the yard next door across the street.

The Hearst Church was opened in May 1898 and indeed is named for the famous Hearst family. Money to build the church was raised by the local mining families with a major donation from Phoebe Hearst, wife of the mining magnate and senator George Hearst. Phoebe was also mother to newspaper tychoon William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Orson Welles’ movie Citizen Kane. Gold that decorates Hearst’s mansion in California came from the family mine near Pinos Altos.

As the mining boom went bust the Methodist church lost its pastor then its congregation. It is now an art gallery and home to the Grant County Art Guild. See their website for details on the historic church.

While I know many of my blog’s followers enjoy the photos for their own sake, lots of folks also like to learn more about the technical aspects of the images.

So with this blog, and selected others in future, I’ll present a bit more of the “how-to” information.


How the Image Was Shot and Processed

Taking the image could not have been simpler. It is a single 45-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 24mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 800, on a static tripod, about as basic as you get for nightscape shooting. There is no fancy stacking or compositing.

The trick is still in the processing, however. Here is a breakdown of the Photoshop CC 2014 file and its various layers. Every aspect of the processing is non-destructive. No pixels were ever harmed in the process. Every adjustment can be tweaked and modified after the fact.

Heart Church Processing Layers

< Star spikes top layer added with “Astronomy Tools” actions from Noel Carboni.

< Sharpening layer created from stamping the final layers into one layer using the Command-Option-Shift-E command, then a High Pass filter applied, blended with Soft Light and masked to sharpen just the ground.

< Adjustment layers for colour, brightness & contrast, and levels, applied to the sky and ground separately with masks, created using Quick Selection Tool and Refine Edge.

< A Clone & Heal layer for wiping out the power lines & power pole, using the Patch & Spot Healing Tools.

< The base image, opened from the developed Raw file as a Smart Object, with noise reduction and sharpening applied as Smart Filters.

I know this won’t explain all the processing steps but I hope it provides some idea of what goes into a nightscape.

All this and much more will be explained in an upcoming half-day “Photoshop for Astronomy” Workshop I’m presenting Saturday, May 9. If you are in the Calgary, Alberta area, consider joining us. For details and to register, see the All-Star Telescope web page

Also, my ebook featured below has all the details on shooting and processing images like these.

Clear skies and happy shooting!

— Alan, January 29, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Triple Shadow Transit on Jupiter


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.

– Alan, January, 24, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – Watch a Monster Asteroid Miss Us!


2004 BL86 by M44

On Monday, January 26 North American stargazers have a ringside seat for the near miss of a monster asteroid.

On Monday night an asteroid known as 2004 BL86 will pass just 1.2 million kilometres from Earth, a close approach that brings it to within three times the distance to the Moon. Many small asteroids have made the news of late that have approached much closer than this.

The difference with 2004 BL86 is that this hurtling interplanetary rock is 1/2 kilometre across. That’s big for a near-Earth asteroid. If one this size were to hit Earth it would create a city- or region-devastating catastrophe of epic proportions.

No bigger asteroid is known to be coming this close to us until the year 2027 when 1999 AN10 comes as close as the Moon.

On Monday night 2004 BL86 will be moving so fast (about 2 degrees an hour) that, through a telescope, you should be able to see it move in real time, appearing as a dim star gliding against the background stars.

The best time to watch will be between 10 and 11 p.m. Mountain Time (or midnight to 1 a.m. Eastern) when the asteroid will be buzzing past the Beehive star cluster, aka Messier 44. It will be high in the east and any star chart, planetarium software or GoTo telescope will show you where to find the Beehive cluster in Cancer. From a dark site, the Beehive appears as a fuzzy glow in Cancer between Gemini and Leo.

Locate the Beehive in a low-power, wide-field eyepiece. The asteroid will be moving up (north) past the cluster on the east side of the cluster. The diagram provides a normal view matching the naked-eye orientation of the sky, with north up and east to the left.

In a Newtonian telescope the field will appear upside down – the asteroid will appear to the right of the cluster moving down. In a refractor or Cassegrain telescope with a star diagonal the field will appear mirror-reversed, with the asteroid again on the right side of the cluster, but moving up.

The asteroid will appear at ninth magnitude, the brightness of some of the moderate brightness stars plotted. Using any telescope 80mm or larger in aperture, picking out a ninth mag star should be easy, even in city skies and with the waxing Moon up, as long as you have clear skies. Just be sure to use your lowest power.

Happy asteroid hunting! Just remember to duck!

For more info and finder charts, see Sky and Telescope’s page.

– Alan, January 23, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Moon, Mercury and Venus in Conjunction


Moon, Mercury & Venus Conjunction (Jan 21, 2015)

This was the scene on Wednesday night, as the waxing Moon formed a triangle with Mercury and Venus.

Skies cleared nicely this evening, providing a beautiful view and photogenic scene of the inner planets near the waxing Moon.

On January 21 the crescent Moon appeared with Venus (at left) and Mercury (below), and with the trio above the lights of Silver City, New Mexico.

Compare this view of reality with the graphic from my blog of a few days ago, and with a similar scene a month earlier with the Moon closer to Venus but with no Mercury.

With the Moon now returning to the sky, sighting Comet Lovejoy will become more difficult.

On Thursday night, January 22, the Moon will be higher and shine near Mars.

Happy viewing!

– Alan, January 21, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – Triple Shadow Dance on Jupiter


Triple Shadow Transit2

Something very special is going to happen on Jupiter this Friday night.

If you have a telescope be sure to train it on Jupiter Friday evening or into Saturday morning for a rare sight. For 24 minutes we will see three of Jupiter’s moons casting their shadows onto Jupiter’s cloud tops at once.

We will not see this sight again until March 20, 2032. 

The shadows of the Jovian moons Io, Europa and Callisto will be on the disk of Jupiter from:

• 1:28 a.m. until 1:52 a.m. EST, after midnight on January 27 for those in eastern North America.

For those in western North America the times are:

• 11:28 p.m. until 11:52 p.m. MST, or 10:28 p.m. to 10:52 p.m. PST, before midnight on January 26.

Callisto’s shadow enters the disk earlier in the evening for North America, at 10:11 p.m. EST. A double shadow transit begins when the small but intense shadow of Io enters the disk at 11:35 p.m. EST. Double shadow transits are fairly common.

The rare sight begins just under two hours later, at 1:28 a.m. EST or 11:28 p.m. MST when Europa’s shadow also enters the disk.

It is short-lived, however. The fast-moving shadow of Io leaves the disk 24 minutes later, at 1:52 a.m. EST, or 11:52 p.m. MST, leaving only the shadows of Callisto and Europa on the disk. (The graphic illustrates the triple transit halfway through the 24-minute-long window.)

You’ll need a telescope to witness this rare dance of shadows. An 80mm refractor or 100mm reflector should suffice. Use high power. The shadows will appear as dark spots of varying size and intensity. Io’s will be darkest, Callisto’s will be largest but less intense. Europa’s shadow will look the smallest.

The disks of Io and Callisto will also be on the disk but will appear as bright dots, making them harder to pick out against the bright cloud bands.

Jupiter is the brightest object in the eastern sky in the late evening. You can’t miss it!

For more details see Sky and Telescope’s webpage.

— Alan, January 21, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! Sight the Thin Moon by Mercury & Venus


Jan 21 Planets

On Wednesday, January 21 look low in the southwest for a conjunction of the Moon and inner planets.

Mercury is ending its brief evening appearance and proximity to Venus. But this week you can still spot it a binocular field or so below Venus as it descends back toward the Sun.

On Wednesday, January 21, look low in the southwest to sight the thin waxing crescent Moon sitting near Venus and Mercury, forming a wide triangle of inner rocky worlds.

The other rocky planet in the inner solar system, Mars, shines higher up in the evening twilight as a moderate brightness reddish star. The next night, January 22, the waxing Moon will sit beside Mars in a wide conjunction.

Catch the Moon-Mercury-Venus trio early, as they will set an hour or so after local sunset.

Clear skies!

– Alan, January 19, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Lovejoy Passes the Pleiades


Comet Lovejoy and the Pleiades (Jan 18, 2015)

Tonight Comet Lovejoy paired with the Pleiades star cluster.

Sunday, January 18 was the night to catch the ever-photogenic Comet Lovejoy at its best and closest to the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. Its long blue ion tail stretched back past the Pleiades.

I thought the tail would be passing right over the star cluster, but not so. At least not when I was shooting it at about 7:30 pm MST.

Still, the combination made a fine pairing of cosmic blue objects for the camera. The top image is with a 135mm telephoto.

Comet Lovejoy in the Winter Sky (Jan 18, 2015)

This wide-angle image, with a 24mm lens, takes in many of the northern winter constellations, from Orion at bottom, to Auriga at top, with Taurus in the middle. Notice the dark tendrils of the Taurus Dark Clouds.

At right, beside the Pleiades, is the green and blue comet, with its tail reaching back past the Pleiades.

I shot both images from the dark skies of City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico, which has proven to be one of the finest places on the planet for watching Lovejoy!

– Alan, January 18, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Night of the Comet


Comet Lovejoy's Long Ion Tail in Taurus

What a beautifully photogenic comet Lovejoy is proving to be! 

On Friday, January 16, I caught Comet Lovejoy crossing the ecliptic as it travels through Taurus. The long exposure above shows it amid the star clusters, nebulas, and dark clouds of Taurus and Perseus.

The blue Pleiades is at centre, and the red California Nebula is at top. Throughout are the dark tendrils of the dusty Taurus Dark Clouds.

The long blue ion tail of Lovejoy now extends back 15° to 20° on photos and is easy to trace for half that distance in binoculars in a dark sky.

I turned the top photo 90° to orient the comet so it points “down.”

Comet Lovejoy Nightscape (Jan 16, 2015)

However, this wide-angle nightscape shows the real orientation of the comet, high in the sky above Orion, here rising over the rock formations of City of Rocks State Park, my favourite dark sky site in this area of New Mexico.

Comet Lovejoy Crossing the Ecliptic (Jan 16, 2015)

Taken earlier in the evening, this ultra-wide image shows the comet at top, with its blue tail oriented along the ecliptic and aligned with the Zodiacal Light, from the glow of sunlight reflecting off comet dust in the inner solar system.

The Zodiacal Light follows the ecliptic, the plane of the solar system and where we find the planets, such as Mars and Venus at bottom here. The comet seems to point toward the Sun, now below the horizon here at the base of the Zodiacal Light. That’s just as it should be! Comet gas tails always point away from the Sun, as they are blown away from the comet’s head by the solar wind.

This night Comet Lovejoy was crossing the ecliptic, as its orbit continues to take it north in a path almost perpendicular to the ecliptic. While planets orbit in the ecliptic plane, most comets do not. They can have orbits oriented at all kinds of angles off the ecliptic plane.

But on January 16 Comet Lovejoy crossed the ecliptic, placing it at the apex of the Zodiacal Light.

Comet Lovejoy & Zodiacal Light (Jan 16, 2015)

This wider view takes in the Zodiacal Light, the comet and Orion rising at left.

This was a marvellous “night of the comet.”

— Alan, January 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

A Stunning Sky of Subtle Glows


Zodiacal Light Panorama (Circular)

What a fabulous night! The desert sky was full of subtle glows and myriad stars.

Friday, January 16 was a stunning evening for stargazing. I took the opportunity to shoot a 360° panorama of the evening sky, recording a host of subtle glows.

The Zodiacal Light reaches up from the western horizon and the last vestiges of evening twilight. This is the glow of sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system. From the clear desert skies it is brilliant.

The dark of the Moon periods in January, February and March are the best times of the year to see the evening Zodiacal Light from the northern hemisphere.

The Milky Way arches across the eastern sky from Cygnus to Canis Major. That’s light from billions of stars in our Galaxy.

At centre, in the circular fish-eye image above, is the small wisp of green Comet Lovejoy, near the zenith overhead and appearing at the apex of the Zodiacal Light’s tapering pyramid of light.

Zodiacal Light Panorama (Rectilinear)

This view is from the same images used to create the circular all-sky scene at top, but projected in a rectangular 360° format.

Technical notes:

I shot 8 segments for the panorama, each a 1-minute exposure at f/2.8 with a 15mm lens oriented in portrait mode, and using a Canon 6D at ISO 3200. There was no tracking – the camera was just on a tripod. Each segment is 45° apart.

I used PTGui software to stitch the segments into one seamless scene.

— Alan, January 16, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Comet Lovejoy Moving Amid the Stars


Comet Lovejoy near the Pleiades (Jan 15, 2015)

Comet Lovejoy is now at its best. I captured a time-lapse of it moving through the stars.

Last night I shot Comet Lovejoy with a couple of cameras. One, using a telephoto lens, captured the green comet with its long blue ion tail near the blue Pleiades star cluster (at top). The comet is passing west of the Pleiades over the next few nights, providing some wonderfully photogenic compositions.

Clear skies most of the night allowed me to also shoot through the telescope, taking 280 close-up images of the comet over 5 hours as the telescope tracked the stars. Assembled into a time-lapse movie, the result shows the comet slowly gliding against the background stars in its orbit around the Sun.

Expand the video frame to see it properly.

Each of the 280 frames is a 1-minute exposure, taken at ISO 6400, using a TMB 92mm refractor at f/4.4. I started the sequence just before 7pm and ended it just before midnight. So the movie records about 5 hours of motion.

Toward the end some cloud drifting through causes the stars to bloat up momentarily. And as the comet set lower into the west sky conditions got worse compared to the start of the sequence when the comet was at its highest in the south.

However, judicious processing using the time-lapse software LRTimelapse and Sequence helped compensate for the changing sky conditions.

Do take a look at this fine comet. The tail is visible in binoculars from a dark site.

– Alan, January 16, 2015 / © Alan Dyer 2015 / amazingsky.com

Finding Lovejoy in the Stars


Comet Lovejoy near Pleiades

The coming week is the best time to sight Comet Lovejoy as it sails through Taurus.

Here’s a finder chart for locating Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) over the next week as it climbs higher in our southern sky. It is well-placed high in the south as it gets dark each evening.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t pass near any really bright stars to serve as a convenient jumping off point for finding the comet. Look west (right) of the stars of Taurus the bull and the bright star Aldebaran by 2 to 3 binocular fields. In a dark sky, look for a fuzzy star in your binoculars. Once you find it with optics, if your sky is dark enough, you should be able to see it naked eye, but only just. In the city, forget it!

On the nights of January 17 to 19 Comet Lovejoy will be just over a binocular field to the right (west) of the distinctive Pleiades star cluster, marked here as M45, for Messier 45.

Comet Lovejoy in Taurus (Jan 10, 2015)

Here’s the comet as it appeared on Saturday night, January 10, with it west of the V-shaped Hyades star cluster marking the head of Taurus and well below the Pleiades at top.

Comet Lovejoy's Long Ion Tail

This is a closer view, with a telephoto lens, of the comet from Sunday night, January 11, showing how its faint blue ion tail stretches back several degrees. However, only the long exposures used here pick up the full extent of the tail. Visually, even through binoculars, just a hint of a tail is visible extending to the left away from the large fuzzy coma, or head of the comet.

Comet Lovejoy Thru the Telescope (Jan 11, 2015)

This is a closer view of the coma and ion tail, shot through a telescope on Sunday night, January 11. It shows some of the fine structure in the ion tail that is changing hourly and nightly, shaped in part by gusts of solar wind.

The comet is now at at its brightest, while the evening sky is now dark and moonless. So head to a dark sky site, keep warm, and look up to enjoy our winter comet, coming to us from Australia where it was discovered by Terry Lovejoy.

Chart courtesy Starry Night™/Simulation Curriculum.

– Alan, January 11, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Shooting the Inner Planet Pairing


Mercury & Venus in Close Conjunction (Jan. 10, 2015)

Here is the Mercury-Venus conjunction for real, from Saturday night.

In my last post I described the upcoming weekend conjunction of Mercury near Venus. Well, here’s the real thing, in shots from Saturday night, January 10.

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 & Venus Conjunction Closeup (Jan. 10, 2015)

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.

— Alan, January 10, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Sight the Inner Planet Pairing


Mercury & Venus Jan 9

The two inner planets, Mercury and Venus, meet up in the dusk sky this weekend.


While I usually devote my blog to showcasing my photos of celestial events and wonders, a New Year’s resolution for me was to expand my blog to include alerts to what’s coming up in the sky. Here’s the first entry for 2015.


This weekend and for the following week (January 9 to 18) look southwest to see brilliant Venus accompanied in a close conjunction by elusive Mercury.

Look low in the southwest between 5 and 6 pm local time.

Venus is brilliant and hard to miss. Yes, that’s Venus not an aircraft!

But Mercury is fainter and is best seen at first in binoculars, as a dimmer star near Venus. Once you sight it, it’ll be easy to see naked eye, as long as your evening sky is clear.

Mercury passes less than a degree from Venus this weekend (the circle shows a typical 7° binocular field).

Here are the two planets as they appeared last Sunday night, when they were farther apart.

Mercury & Venus in Twilight (Jan 4, 2015)

After Sunday, Mercury continues to climb higher, separating from Venus, as it moves along the green orbital path shown here. Mercury reaches its highest angle away from the Sun on Wednesday, January 14 – what we call “greatest elongation.”

It then drops back toward the Sun and horizon. We won’t be able to see Mercury well again in the west until early May,

Happy planet hunting!

P.S. Visit my webpage to download a PDF of a free 2015 Sky Calendar.

— Alan, January 8, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

Catching A Comet


Comet Lovejoy Through a Telescope

Tonight I caught a close-up of the green head and blue tail of Comet Lovejoy.

Clear skies tonight, Tuesday, January 6, allowed me to shoot Comet Lovejoy from home using a telescope and guiding system for a close-up view. I had just over half an hour of darkness between end of twilight at 6:30 and moonrise at 7:15 but that’s all I needed to grab several guided exposures.

This telescopic shot takes in a field of about 5 by 3 degrees, a little smaller than what most binoculars would show.

The image is a stack of four 2-minute exposures with the telescope guiding on the fast-moving comet. Comet Lovejoy is now at its closest point to Earth and moving fairly rapidly across the sky. So I guided on the comet, letting the stars trail slightly over the 8 minutes of exposure time.

The head of the comet glows bright green in photos, from glowing diatomic carbon, while the tail glows blue from other ionized gases streaming away from the head, or coma. The source of it all is a tiny icy nucleus completely hidden from view amid the glowing gases.

Comet Lovejoy was easy in binoculars, which showed a bare hint of the tail in dark skies. I could see the comet naked eye, but only by knowing just where to look. It appeared as a slightly fuzzy star, but unless you knew what you were looking at you wouldn’t know it was comet. This is a binocular comet for dark skies. But a very nice binocular comet.

– Alan, January 6, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

Comet on the Rocks


Orion & Comet Lovejoy over City of Rocks

Comet Lovejoy glows above the granite spires of City of Rocks State Park. 

With clouds forecast for the rest of the week I made the best of it tonight and headed out to my favourite local spot for nightscape images, the City of Rocks State Park on Highway 180 between Silver City and Deming, New Mexico.

It was a quick photo session tonight. I arrived at just the right time to catch the comet and Orion rising behind the rock formations, with the moonlight beginning to illuminate the rocky rims.

The comet is the small green spot just right of centre at the top. It is now climbing quite high in the southern sky as it comes up north. I could see it easily in binoculars as a large fuzzy spot and I thought I could just make it out with unaided eyes once I knew just where to look.

This will be a fine comet for binoculars once the Moon gets out of the way later this week, though you will need to be at a dark site. The comet is diffuse and will be utterly washed out by city lights. This is no Hale-Bopp! But as comets go, Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 is a nice one.

— Alan, January 5, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

Comet Lovejoy in the Moonlight


Orion and Comet Lovejoy in Moonlight #2

Sunday night, January 4, proved stunningly clear, ideal for seeing and shooting Comet Lovejoy in the moonlight.

Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is moving rapidly north and this week sits just west of Orion. To capture it tonight I went out to the City of Rocks State Park, seeking a scenic foreground, with Orion rising with the comet.

The Full Moon is just off frame at left, unavoidably glaring into the frame.

Comet Lovejoy appears as a small green fuzzy spot at upper right.

Orion and Comet Lovejoy in Moonlight #1

In this view I had to crop Orion in order to fit in the landscape and the comet, at upper right. Three short aircraft contrails appear at the bottom. The Full Moon illuminates the southern New Mexico landscape.

In the coming week, with the Moon rising later each night, and the comet climbing higher, it will become much easier to see in a dark sky.

However, while Comet Lovejoy might be technically visible to the unaided eye, you really need binoculars to pick it out. We’ll see if it sports much of a tail once we sight it again in a dark moonless sky.

– Alan, January 4, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Free Sky Calendar for a Starry New Year


Sky Calendar Front Page

As a special New Year’s gift I have prepared a free Calendar of celestial events for 2015.

I have lots of photos and I maintain a personal calendar to remind me of the year’s astronomical events. So why not combine them into a pictorial sky calendar anyone can use!

So I’ve prepared a free 2015 Sky Calendar as a PDF you can download.

To get it, please visit my website page at http://www.amazingsky.com/about-alan.html and scroll to the bottom of the page for a link. It’s a 5 meg download.

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.

– Alan, December 29, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Comet and Cluster


Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) on Dec 27, 2014

Comet Lovejoy passes near the globular cluster M79 in this image from Saturday, December 27. 

Here is the comet that is making the news, as it comes into view in northern skies, now sporting a decent tail of gas streaming away from its cyan-coloured head.

Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is proving to be a fine photogenic comet and an easy target for binoculars. Visually it still looks like a large fuzzy star, though I could spy a sign of a faint tail on Saturday night, at least through binoculars.

This weekend it passed the small, faint globular cluster Messier 79, seen here at upper right. It was very close to M79 Sunday night, but alas, clouds blew in, obscuring the view from here in New Mexico.

The Moon is now in the sky with the comet, leaving no dark sky time to see the comet after moonset. That will be the case for another two weeks or so. But by mid January the Moon will be gone and the comet will be much higher in the sky, moving up through Taurus.

From a dark site, it may be easily visible to the naked eye at that time, a surprising bonus for the winter, as this comet was never expected to get this bright.

Thank you, Terry Lovejoy, for finding your comets in Australia and sending them our way!

– Alan, December 28 / © 2014 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Both Sides of the Boxing Day Moon


Crescent Moon with Earthshine (Dec 26, 2014)

The dark and bright side of the Moon appear together in a portrait of the 5-day Moon.

This was the waxing crescent Moon on Friday, December 26 – Boxing Day.

In this image you can see both the bright crescent directly lit by the Sun, and details in the dark side of the Moon lit only by sunlight reflected off Earth – Earthshine.

I used a composite of 5 exposures from 8 seconds to 1/50 second to capture both sides of the Moon, with the images merged in Photoshop’s HDRPro module.

I shot the images through my TMB 92mm apo refractor using the Canon 60Da camera, on a very clear night in New Mexico.

Happy Boxing Day to all!

– Alan, December 26, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

The Christmas Eve Sky


Christmas Eve at City of Rocks Panorama

This was the sky on the night before Christmas, with the Moon setting and Orion rising.

It was a crisp and calm night on Christmas Eve, with the waxing Moon shining beside Mars in the west at right. The western sky was marked by the faint tower of light called the Zodiacal Lights. To the east at left, Orion was rising beside the Milky Way.

The main image is a 180° panorama taken at the City of Rocks State Park, south of Silver City, New Mexico, and a particularly photogenic site for nightscape images.

Christmas Eve Moon in Twilight

This was the scene earlier in the evening with the Moon beside Mars, and the pair well above Venus down in the twilight, all framed by one of the park’s windmills.

Orion Rising at City of Rocks (Xmas Eve 2014)

Here is a close-up of Orion climbing over the rock formations in the state park. This is a single exposure with the foreground lit by the waxing crescent Moon.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

– Alan, December 24, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

A Comet for Christmas


Comet Lovejoy (C/2104 Q2) on Dec 23, 2014

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.

For more details see the SkyNews magazine web page.

– Alan, December 24, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Venus and a Silvery Moon over Silver City


Thin Moon and Venus (Dec 22, 2014)

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.

Happy holidays to all!

– Alan, December 22, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

A Cosmic Christmas Wreath


IC 1396 & Garnet Star in Cepheus

A cosmic Christmas wreath glows in the sky, adorned by a celestial garnet.

This nebula, known as IC 1396, shines in the constellation of Cepheus the king, now high overhead on early winter evenings in the northern hemisphere. It’s a bubble of gas blown by new stars amid the interstellar wreath.

At top, shining like a Christmas light on the wreath, is an orange star. This is Mu Cephei, also known as the Garnet Star. It’s a red supergiant, roughly 1,500 times bigger than our Sun. If it replaced our Sun at the centre of our solar system it would engulf all the planets out to and including Jupiter.

Be happy Mu sits 1,000 light years away!

Happy holidays! And happy solstice. Winter arrives in the northern hemisphere at 6:03 p.m. EST on Sunday, December 21. That’s the shortest day and longest night of the year, for all those north of the equator.

– Alan, December 20, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

A Lone Geminid Meteor


Lone Geminid Meteor (Dec 12, 2014)

A lone meteor streaks away from the constellation of Gemini, part of the annual Geminid meteor shower.

Once again, as I did last month for the Leonid shower, I set up two cameras firing away hundreds of frames in hope that some would record a few meteors from the annual Geminid shower now going on.

I took about 700 frames, but only this one picked up a meteor. Clouds did intervene for a while – that’s when the brightest meteors would have appeared I’m sure. I observed from my front patio for a while and saw several Geminids, including two beautifully bright ones. But of course, both were just outside the field of both cameras.

I shot the shower tonight, Friday, the night before the peak on Saturday, as the forecast calls for cloud for the rest of the weekend here in southern New Mexico.

So this may be my best shot of the 2014 Geminid meteors.

– Alan, December 12, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

My new eBook on Nightscapes & Time-Lapse Photography


Nightscapes Book Cover

I’m pleased to announce my new ebook, How to Photograph and Process Nightscapes and Time-Lapses

The ebook describes —

How to shoot and process still image “nightscapes” – images of landscapes taken at night by the light of the Moon or stars … and …

How to shoot and assemble time-lapse movies of the stars and Milky Way turning above Earthly scenes, all using DSLR cameras.

Available worldwide only for MacOS and iPads through the Apple iBookstore.

See http://tiny.cc/urdoqx for more about the book at iTunes.

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The 400-page multi-touch book includes

50 embedded HD videos (no internet connection required) demonstrating time-lapse techniques.

60 multi-page tutorials with step-by-step instructions of how to use software: Adobe Bridge, Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop, Lightroom, LRTimelapse, Advanced Stacker Actions, StarStaX, Panolapse, Sequence, GBTimelapse, and more.

Numerous Photo 101 sections explaining the basic concepts of photography and video production (f-stops, ISOs, file types, aspect ratios, frame rates, compression, etc.).

Numerous Astronomy 101 sections explaining the basics of how the sky works (how the sky moves, where the Moon can be found, when the Milky Way can be seen, when and where to see auroras).

Reviews of gear – I don’t just mention that specialized gear exists, I illustrate in detail how to use popular units such as the Time-Lapse+, Michron, and TriggerTrap intervalometers, and the All-View mount, Radian, Mindarin Astro, eMotimo, and Dynamic Perception motion-control units, with comments on what’s good – and not so good – to use.

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You’ll learn —

• What are the best cameras and lenses to buy (cropped vs. full-frame, Canon vs. Nikon, manual vs. automatic lenses, zooms vs. primes).

• How to set your cameras and lenses for maximum detail and minimum noise (following the mantra of “exposing to the right” and using dark frames).

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• How to shoot auroras, conjunctions, satellites, comets, and meteor showers.

• How to shoot nightscapes lit only by moonlit, and how to determine where the Moon will be to plan a shoot.

• How to shoot & stitch panoramas of the night sky and Milky Way, using Photoshop and PTGui software.

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• How to shoot tracked long exposures of the Milky Way using camera trackers such as the iOptron Star Tracker and Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer.

• How to develop Raw files, the essential first step to great images and movies.

• How to process nightscape stills using techniques such as compositing multiple exposures, masking ground and sky, and using non-destructive adjustment layers and smart filters.

• How to shoot and stack star trail images made of hundreds of frames.

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• How to assemble time-lapse movies from those same hundreds of frames.

• How to plan a time-lapse shoot and calculate the best balance of exposure time vs. frame count vs. length of shoot, and recommended apps to use.

• How to process hundreds of frames using Adobe Camera Raw, Bridge, Photoshop, and Lightroom.

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• How to shoot and process advanced “Holy Grail” time-lapse transitions from day to night.

• How to shoot motion-control sequences using specialized dolly and pan/tilt devices.

• How to use time-lapse processing tools such as LRTimelapse, Panolapse, Sequence, and Advanced Stacker Actions.

• What can go wrong and how best to avoid problems in the field.

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It’s a large, multi-media book available only for MacOS and iPads through the Apple iBookstore.

For technical and economic reasons, the book’s size and media content prevent it from being offered via other platforms such as Kindles and Android devices. It is not available as a static PDF or traditional print book. It’s subject makes use of an ebook’s ability to contain interactive and video content.

See http://tiny.cc/urdoqx for more about the book at iTunes. Available worldwide. It’s $24.95 in the U.S.

Supernova Remnant & Star Cluster


Supernova Remnant & Star Cluster in Gemini

A bubble of glowing gas blows away from an ancient dying star, next to a cluster of new stars in Gemini.

This image, from a week ago, captures contrasting stages in the life of a star.

At left is a crescent-shaped bubble of gas called IC 443, or the Jellyfish Nebula, billowing away from the site of an ancient supernova explosion, when a giant star ended its life in a blast thousands of years ago. Estimates put its age as between 3,000 and 30,000 years.

At upper right is the bright open star cluster, Messier 35, a gathering of hundreds of comparatively new stars at the beginning of their lives. M35 lies 2,800 light years away, close enough that its stars are nicely resolved in my photo and in any small telescope. M35 is one of the showpieces of the winter northern sky.

Just below M35 you can see a fuzzy glow. It’s another star cluster, NGC 2158. However, its great distance of 11,000 light years makes it appear as a small, partially-resolved glow, a nice contrast in clusters near and far.

IC 443 Supernova Remnant in Gemini

This image focuses on IC 443, sitting between the stars Eta (right) and Mu Geminorum. The field is filled with other faint nebulosity, all part of the cycle of star birth and death.

– Alan, December 7, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Ring Around the Moon


Halo Around the Moon (Dec 1, 2014)

Ice crystals create a ring of light around the waxing Moon.

Clouds have moved in this week in New Mexico but the advancing weather system also brought an atmosphere filled with high altitude ice crystals.

Earlier this week they created a lunar halo – a ring around the Moon. If you look closely you’ll see there are two rings. On the left and right sides (east and west) the halo splits into two. This is an effect of two haloes superimposed: the classic 22° halo and what’s called the “circumscribed halo” which changes shape and size depending on the altitude of the Sun or Moon.

In this case, the Moon was 62° up, and the appearance of the circumscribed halo exactly matches what computer simulations predict for this altitude.

See Les Cowley’s wonderful website on Atmospheric Optics and the page on the shape of the circumscribed halo.

The long 30-second exposure brought out the stars in the moonlit sky.

They say such haloes presage poor weather. This week that proved true as clouds and rain moved in.

– Alan, December 4, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

A Stellar Occultation by the Moon


Impending Occultation of Beta Capricorni

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.

Technical notes:

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.

– Alan, November 28, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

The Dark Side of the Moon in Twilight


Crescent Moon with Earthshine Amid Stars

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.

– Alan, November 25, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Stargazing under the Milky Way


Stargazing at City of Rocks State Park

What a wonderful night for stargazing under the Milky Way and amid the rock formations of southern New Mexico.

This was the scene last night, November 22, at a monthly stargazing session hosted by the City of Rocks State Park and the local Silver City Astronomy Club. You couldn’t ask for a better night … and site.

The Milky Way swept overhead, from Sagittarius setting in the west at left, to Taurus rising in the east at right. The faint glow of Zodiacal Light sweeps up from the last glow of western twilight to the left. Some faint green bands of airglow that only the camera can capture are also visible near the horizon.

Matt is doing a laser tour, following which the group convened to the beautiful roll-off roof observatory that houses a Meade 14-inch telescope. It was a fine evening indeed.

Technical notes:

The panorama, which spans about 300° (I cropped the edges a little from the full 360°) consists of 8 segments, shot at 45° spacings, with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/2.8, for 1 minute untracked exposures for each frame at ISO 800 with the Canon 6D. I stitched the segments in PTGui software, but processed them in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop.

– Alan, November 23, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

The Seven Sisters in a Silver Braid


M45 Pleiades Star Cluster, the Seven Sisters“Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,

Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.”

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

These are the famous Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, caught two nights ago in New Mexico skies. This bright star cluster stands out easily to the unaided eye in the winter sky, shining in the shoulder of Taurus.

What the eye does not see is the “silver braid” – the dim dust that surrounds the Pleiades. The stars light the dust, causing it to shine blue near the stars. Farther out, the dust is much dimmer and glows with pale tints of cyan and red.

The dust clouds were once thought to be what was leftover from the formation of the stars, now estimated to have occurred about 100 million years ago. However, current theory suggests that the natal dust of the Pleiads would have long since dispersed.

Instead, the silvery braids of dust that surround the Seven Sisters are just nearby dust clouds in Taurus that the stars are passing through, and illuminating with their hot blue light.

The Pleiades, as familiar as they are – they have been mentioned in ancient texts and myths dating back thousand of years – remain a source of scientific controversy. Astronomers argue over their distance, with different methods providing different results. But the best recent measurement puts them 440 light years away.

Technical notes: This is a stack of 10 x 12 minute exposures at ISO 400 with the Canon 5D MkII camera and 92mm TMB refractor at f/4.4. I shot the images November 16 from near Silver City, New Mexico.

– Alan, November 18, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Both the Heart and Soul of Cassiopeia


Heart & Soul Nebulas (IC 1805 and IC 1848) in Cassiopeia

Here are both the heart and the soul of Cassiopeia the Queen.

Two days ago I posted an image of the Soul Nebula. Now, here is the matching Heart Nebula, in a mosaic of the glorious region of the Milky Way called the Heart and Soul Nebulas located in the constellation of Cassiopeia.

They are otherwise respectively called IC 1805 and IC 1848. Amid the swirls of nebulosity are numerous clusters of stars, such as NGC 1027 just above centre. The separate patch of nebulosity at upper right is NGC 896.

I shot the frames for this 3-segment mosaic over two nights, with one segment taken from the frames that made up the previous post. Plus I shot two others to span the region of the Milky Way that is about seven degrees long, a binocular field.

Each of the 3 segments is a stack of 12 frames, with each frame a 6-minute exposure. I used the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII and shot through the TMB 92mm apo refractor at f/4.4. All processing was in Photoshop, including the mosaic assembly.

In all, it’s the best image I’ve taken of this much-shot area of the sky. It really brings out the diversity in star colours, and sky colours, from the dusty orange-brown region at left, to the inky dark dustless region at far right.

– Alan, November 18 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

The Soul of Cassiopeia


IC 1848, the Soul Nebula, in Cassiopeia

The Soul Nebula glows from within the constellation of Cassiopeia the Queen.

I shot this image last night, capturing an object prosaically known as IC 1848, but more popularly called the Soul Nebula.

It is often depicted framed with a companion nebula just “off camera” here to the right, called the Heart Nebula. Thus they are the Heart and Soul. Both shine on the eastern side of Cassiopeia the Queen.

Here I’m framing just the Soul, taking in some of the faint nebulosity to the left of the main nebula, including a tiny object called IC 289, a star-like planetary nebula at upper left.

I like this image for its variety of subtle colours, not only the reds and magentas in the bright nebula, but also in the dark sky around it from dim dust adding faint yellows, browns and even a touch of green.

The Soul Nebula lies 6,500 light years away in the Perseus Arm, the next spiral arm out from ours in the Milky Way. On northern autumn nights this region of the sky and Milky Way lies high overhead.

For the technically minded:

The image is a stack of 20 six-minute exposures, taken with a filter-modified Canon 5D Mark II at ISO 800. I was shooting through one of my favourite telescopes for deep-sky photography, the TMB (Thomas M. Back-designed) 92mm apo refractor, working at a fast f/4.4 using a Borg 0.85x field flattener and focal reducer.

I used one of Noel Carboni’s “Astronomy Tools” Photoshop actions to add the “diffraction spikes” on the stars. They are artificial (refractors don’t produce spikes on stars) but they add a photogenic touch to a rich starfield.

I shot this from the backyard of my New Mexico winter home.

– Alan, November 16, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Truly Interstellar


M26 Open Cluster and NGC 6712 Globular Cluster

We gaze into the interstellar depths of the Milky Way through uncountable stars.

In this telescopic scene we look toward the Scutum Starcloud, and next spiral arm in from ours as we gaze toward the core of the Galaxy.

The field is packed with stars, seemingly crowded together in interstellar space. In fact, light years of empty space separate the stars, even in crowded regions of the Milky Way like this.

Two dense clusters of stars stand out like islands in the sea of stars. At lower right is Messier 26, an open cluster made of a few dozen stars. Our young Sun probably belonged to a similar family of stars billions of years ago. M26 lies 5,200 light years away.

At upper left is a condensed spot of light, made of hundreds of thousands of density packed stars in the globular cluster known only as NGC 6712. Though much larger and denser than M26, NGC 6712 appears as a tiny spot because of its remoteness – 23,000 light years away, a good part of the distance toward the centre of the Galaxy.

Look carefully (and it may not be visible on screen) and you might see a small green smudge to the left of NGC 6712. That’s a “planetary nebula” called IC 1295. It’s the blown off atmosphere of an aging Sun-like star. It’s what our Sun will become billions of years from now.

At top is a vivid orange-red star, S Scuti, a giant pulsating star nearing the end of its life.

A truly interstellar scene.

– Alan, November 9, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Mars and M22


Mars and M22 Cluster

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.

– Alan, November 8, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Sagittarius Setting over the City of Rocks


Moonlight on City of Rocks #3

Sagittarius, with Mars, set behind the granite pillars of City of Rocks State Park.

From home in Canada the summer constellation of Sagittarius is long gone by November. But here, from a latitude of 32° north, Sagittarius, now with Mars shining amid its “teapot” shape of stars, still shines in the southwest.

This was the scene last night in the early evening, as the Full Moon lit the rock formations at New Mexico’s City of Rocks State Park. Sagittarius is above the rocks at left. Some bright bits of the Milky Way just manage to appear in the clear, bright sky lit blue by moonlight.

Moonlight on City of Rocks #2

This view looks northwest, with the stars of the Big Dipper just clearing the rocks at right.

In two weeks, with the Moon gone from the sky, the local astronomy club hosts one of its monthly star parties at the Park, making use of the public observatory in the Park, near the “Orion” group campground area – all the campsites are named for constellations and stars.

This is a very sky-friendly Park.

– Alan, November 7, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

New Mexico Moonrise


Moonrise at City of Rocks Panorama

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.

Moonrise at City of Rocks

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.

Full Moon at City of Rocks

I’m looking forward to a productive winter, photographing the sky and writing about photo techniques, rather than shovelling snow!

– Alan, November 6, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Open Road, Open Sky


Open Road and Open Sky

A desert highway leads off into an open blue sky with the waxing Moon.

This week I’m on the road heading south for the winter. Today, I was on US 89, one of the most spectacular roads on the continent, passing through southern Utah and northern Arizona.

At left are the Vermilion Cliffs in Arizona, contrasting with the blue sky and the quarter Moon rising in the east at right.

Waxing Moon over Vermilion Cliffs

I took this view minutes earlier, from a viewpoint above the desert as US 89 descends from the Kaibab Plateau and the area around the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

I have not driven through this area of the U.S. Southwest in 20 years. I’ll be back through here in spring, when I hope to shoot the April 4 total lunar eclipse from the Four Corners area.

– Alan, October 30, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Celebrating Dark Skies in Jasper, Alberta


Milky Way over Lake Annette

This weekend Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada celebrates the night sky at its annual Dark Sky Festival.

Last night was wonderful. Skies cleared at Lake Annette for a star party with 1000 people in attendance. The event was a core program of a week-long Festival celebrating Jasper National Park’s status as a Dark Sky Preserve.

The top photo shows what we’re celebrating – the stars and Milky Way reflected in the still waters of Lake Annette. What you don’t see in that image are the hundreds of people behind me enjoying the star party.

Lake Annette Star Party #1

I’m one of the featured guest speakers, though last night my role at the star party was to assist at informal tutorials to help people take their own night sky images. And lots of people showed up with cameras and tripods and got great shots.

While I was not able to make the rounds of all the activities, elsewhere at Lake Annette (just follow the coloured rope lights!) there were talks, First Nations performances and storytelling, laser tours of the sky, activities for kids, and lots of telescopes to look through. Everyone got to see amazing sights in the sky.

Shuttle buses from town came and went through the night, to avoid a parking lot jam. The Festival is a huge hit, with hotels in town filled – there isn’t a room available.

The event went very well, at what was perhaps Canada’s largest public star party ever held under dark skies.

– Alan, October 25, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

The Partial Solar Eclipse from Jasper, Alberta


Partial Solar Eclipse in Cloud #1 (Oct 23, 2014)

A successful solar eclipse! Always a great thing to celebrate!

Today, several hundred people, including students from the nearby elementary and high schools, enjoyed views of the Moon eclipsing the Sun from Jasper, Alberta. The eclipse event in Centennial Park was part of the Park’s annual Dark Sky Festival, held to celebrate the National Park’s status as a Dark Sky Preserve.

The photo above is a long 1/25 second exposure, though still taken through a solar filter, of the eclipsed Sun dimmed by clouds. The longer exposure enabled me to pick up the clouds and iridescent colours around the Sun.

The photo below is a single exposure capturing the viewing through the many telescopes supplied by volunteers from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (Edmonton and Regina Centres), as well as capturing the crescent Sun, seen here though a handheld solar filter.

Partial Solar Eclipse Wide-Angle (Oct 23, 2014)

Clouds came and went over the afternoon, but when they needed to be gone, clouds cleared off around the Sun for great views of the Moon hiding then revealing the giant sunspot that was the highlight of this eclipse.

The image below, which I shot through a small telescope at 1/8000th second through a filter, shows the big spot group about to be hidden by the advancing limb of the Moon.

Partial Solar Eclipse & Sunspot #1 (Oct 23, 2014)

This event was our last solar eclipse visible from most of Canada until the long-awaited “Great American Eclipse” of August 21, 2017, when the lunar umbral shadow will sweep across the United States, bringing a total eclipse to the U.S. and a substantial partial eclipse to Canada.

– Alan, October 23, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Pre-Eclipse Day in Jasper


Sunbeams over Athabasca Pass

It’s the day before the eclipse, and the skies are not clear!

On Thursday, October 23 the Moon covers the Sun in a substantial partial eclipse. I’m in Jasper National Park, participating in the Park’s annual Dark Sky Festival.

One of the events is a public viewing session of the solar eclipse. Let’s hope for some clearing skies and breaks in the clouds, so we can see 66% of the Sun eaten by the Moon!

I shot this image at eclipse time the day before – today! – from a viewpoint looking west toward the Sun on the Icefields Parkway south of Jasper townsite.

David Thompson Sign at Athabasca Pass Overlook

The Sun is trying to break through and is casting its beams down onto the famed Athabasca Pass, the route over the mountains pioneered by David Thompson in the early 1800s when his preferred route over Howse Pass to the south was blocked by the Pikanii who objected to Thompson trading with their enemies over the Rockies.

I show the area of Howse Pass in this previous big post from earlier this summer

Thompson was one of the first astronomers in western Canada, using the Sun, Moon, Jupiter and stars to navigate his way and map the country. The lower sign explains. Click on the image for a larger view.

The Dark Sky Festival continues the tradition of stargazing in Jasper, a science Thompson depended upon in his travels.

– Alan, October 22, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Red Moon over Writing-on-Stone


Red Moon over Writing-on-Stone

The red eclipsed Moon shines over the Milk River, with Orion over the Sweetgrass Hills.

This was the scene at 4:45 this morning, October 8, from my observing site for the lunar eclipse, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park in southern Alberta.

The eclipsed red Moon shines at far right over the Milk River and sandstone formations of Writing-on-Stone Park, home to ancient petroglyphs, and a sacred site to First Nations people.

At left are the Sweetgrass Hills across the border in Montana. Above shine the stars of Orion, with his Dog Star Sirius below. Above is Taurus, with Aldebaran and the Pleiades cluster.

The night was fairly clear for the hour of totality, though with high haze fuzzing the stars and Moon. But considering the cloud I had driven 3 hours to escape I was happy.

Self-Portrait at Oct 8, 2014 Total Lunar Eclipse

Here I am in a 5:30 a.m. selfie by starlight and moonlight, with the clouds I had escaped now rolling in to cover the Moon as it began to emerge from Earth’s shadow.

No matter. I had captured what I had come for: the nightscape above (with a 14mm lens), and close-ups shot through this telescope gear, one of which I featured in my previous post.

– Alan, October 8, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Eclipse of the Hunter’s Moon


Total Eclipse of the Hunter's Moon

The Hunter’s Moon of 2014 turned deep red during a total lunar eclipse.

It wouldn’t be an eclipse without a chase!

To see and shoot this total eclipse of the Hunter’s Moon I had to chase clear skies, seeking out the only clear area for hundreds of miles around, requiring a 3-hour drive to the south of me in Alberta, to near the Canada-US border, at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

It was worth the midnight trek, though I arrived on site and got set up with just 10 minutes to go before the start of totality.

But I was very pleased to see the sky remain mostly clear for all of totality, with only some light haze adding the glow around the eclipsed Moon. Remarkably, the clouds closed in and hid the Moon just after totality ended.

This is a single 15-second exposure at ISO 400 with a Canon 60Da, shooting through an 80mm apo refractor at f/6 and on an equatorial mount tracking the sky at the lunar rate. I shot this shortly after mid-totality. It shows how the Moon’s northern limb, closest to the edge of the umbral shadow, remained bright throughout totality.

It shows lots of stars, with the brightest being greenish Uranus at the 8 o’clock position left of the Moon, itself shining in opposition and at a remarkably close conjunction with the Moon at eclipse time.

More images are to come! But this is the result of fast processing after a dawn drive back home and an all-nighter chasing and shooting an eclipse.

– Alan, October 8, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

The Rising of a Pre-Eclipse Moon


Rising Pre-Eclipse Moon #4 (Oct 6, 2014)

‘Twas the night before the night before … an eclipse of the Moon.

This was the beautiful moonrise tonight, on Monday, October 6, two days – by calendar date – before the total lunar eclipse on October 8.

However, as the eclipse occurs at pre-dawn on October 8, it’s really just a day and half to go before the Moon turns red as it passes through Earth’s shadow.

I shot these as the gibbous Moon, waxing toward Full, rose over the harvested field to the east of home. The setting Sun nicely lit the clouds which partly hide the Moon.

Rising Pre-Eclipse Moon #1 (Oct 6, 2014)

Earlier in the evening, I grabbed this shot as the Moon appeared and two white-tailed deer ran through the yard and out into the field below the rising Moon. Moon deer!

TLE2014Oct08-MDT

This is the sequence that will happen early on October 8, in a diagram courtesy Fred Espenak at EclipseWise.com. The times are for Mountain Daylight, my local time zone. The eclipse will be total from 4:25 to 5:24 a.m. MDT (6:25 to 7:24 a.m. EDT) when the Moon will be immersed in the umbral shadow and will appear deep red.

Use binoculars for the best view of the colours. An eclipsed Moon looks wonderful, like a glowing red globe lit from within, but it’s really lit by the red sunlight from all the sunsets and sunrises going on around the world at once.

The next total lunar eclipses are April 4, 2015 (again pre-dawn) and September 27, 2015 (at convenient early evening hours), both visible from North America.

Clear skies and happy eclipsing!

– Alan, October 6, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Moon and Twilight Planets over the Bow River


Moon with Antares, Mars & Saturn over Bow River

The waxing Moon shines between Saturn and Mars over the waters of the Bow River.

It was a beautiful autumn evening for watching the twilight showing of the crescent Moon accompanied by Saturn (at right of centre) and the pairing of Mars (at left, above) with his rival red star, Antares in Scorpius (at left, below).

The river is the Bow, with its headwaters at Bow Glacier in Banff.

To shoot this scene I drove to the grounds of the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park south of Cluny, Alberta to take advantage of its viewpoint overlooking the Bow River and the heart of the traditional Siksika First Nations tribal lands.

It was here, in the valley below, that Treaty Seven was signed between Chief Crowfoot and Colonel James Macleod in September 1877. Today, a beautiful interpretive centre sits on the hillside at the heart of Blackfoot country.

– Alan, September 28, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Aurora and Airglow Panorama


Aurora & Airglow Panorama

The sky lights up in greens and reds from aurora and airglow.

This has been a good week for aurora watching. Friday night the Northern Lights danced again, this time in a sky already filled with a more subtle phenomenon, airglow.

Airglow adds its own bands of reds and greens across the sky, seen here as arcs from left (west) to centre (north) and into the east. Airglow is light from fluorescing air molecules releasing energy absorbed from the Sun by day.

The aurora adds the brighter green curtains across the north with vertical beams of yellow and red shooting up.

A weird structure which I assume is from the aurora is the sharp-edged yellow band at left in the west. It lasted no more than 2 or 3 minutes, enough to record in three frames of this 7-segment 180° panorama taken near home at an array of grain bins, now filled from the harvest.

To the west and east urban light pollution adds glows of yellow to the horizon.

– Alan, September 27, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Autumn Stars Rising over Dinosaur Park


Autumn Sky Rising over Badlands

The autumn constellations rise into a colourful sky at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta.

Last night the sky started out beautifully clear but as it got darker it was apparent even to the eye that the sky wasn’t really dark, despite the lack of any Moon.

The camera captured the culprit – extensive green airglow, to the east at right. A faint aurora also kicked up to the north, at left, adding a red glow. Light pollution from gas plants nearby and from Brooks 50 km away added yellow to the sky scattered off haze and incoming cloud.

The sky colours added to the scene of the autumn constellations of Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Perseus and Pegasus rising in the east. The Andromeda Galaxy is at centre. The Pleiades is (are?) just rising over the hill.

This is a composite of five stacked and tracked exposures for the sky (with the camera on the Star Adventurer tracking mount) and four stacked but untracked exposures I took at the end of the sequence for the sharp ground (I just turned the tracker motor off for these).

– Alan, September 26, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Red Rock Canyon by Starlight


Red Rock Canyon by Starlight

The Milky Way illuminates the trail at Red Rock Canyon, in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Last Sunday night was incredibly clear. I trekked around Waterton Lakes National Park, taking panoramas at various sites. This is Red Rock Canyon, a popular spot by day.

By night it is one of the darkest accessible places in the Park. Here the landscape is lit only by the light of the stars and Milky Way.

This is a composite of two exposures, both on a tripod with no tracking of the sky motion:

– one exposure was 60 seconds for the sky to minimize star trailing.

– the other exposure, taken immediately following, was 3 minutes for the ground, to bring out detail in the dark, starlit landscape.

I blended the two exposures in Photoshop, creating a single image with the best of both worlds, earth and sky.

– Alan, September 25, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Cameron Lake Lit by Starlight


Milky Way Panorama at Cameron Lake (Equirectangular)

The Milky Way spans the sky and reflects in the calm waters of Cameron Lake, in Waterton Lakes National Park.

This week I’m spending a few nights, at dark-of-the-Moon, back at Waterton Lakes, at a stunning time of year. The aspens are golden, the sky is blue, and the nights are even warm.

Though it is officially autumn, the weather is better now than we had it some weeks in summer. Plus, the Park is now quiet as businesses wind down, preparing to close up for the winter.

I’m shooting night sky panoramas in Waterton, with Cameron Lake one of the wonderful sites I visited last night in a whirlwind tour around the Park to take advantage of a stunningly clear night.

In summer, Cameron Lake is home to docks for canoes and paddle boats. But all are gone now. By winter this lake is home to huge snowfalls, as its location in extreme southwestern Alberta catches the full onslaught of moist Pacific air.

But now, with the early onset of darkness and fine weather, the lake and the Park are superb places for nightscape photography.

I shot this Sunday night, September 21. This is a stitch of 8 segments, each shot with a 15mm lens at f/2.8 for 1 minute at ISO 4000 with the Canon 6D. I used PTGui to stitch the panorama.

– Alan, September 22, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Milky Way Over the Icefields


Milky Way Over the Icefields

The Milky Way towers over the moonlit peaks around the Columbia Icefields

Last Sunday was a productive night, resulting in several 5 Star images in my catalog!

This is another, shot shortly after the Galaxy and Glacier image. In that image the sky was still dark. In this image the sky is beginning to light up with moonlight from the rising waxing Moon.

The peaks are being lit by the Moon, though the valley below is still in moonshadow.

What light there is on the foreground moraines is from starlight, and from the unfortunate wash from unshielded sodium vapour lights on the Icefields Centre. They proudly claim their lights are dark-sky friendly. They aren’t! This is proof.

The top image is a stack of tracked (for the sky) and untracked (for the ground) exposures to create a deep, rich Milky Way over a sharp landscape.

The image is helped by being shot with a filter-modified camera that records the red nebulas along the Milky Way better than stock cameras. That’s why the North America Nebula at top in Cygnus really pops!

Icefields at Moonrise Panorama

This 360° panorama image is a stitch of 8 segments at 45° spacings, each untracked, shot in rapid succession with the same 15mm ultra-wide lens I used for the main image, again oriented portrait, with the frames stitched in PTGui.

I shot it on the road, literally, that leads down to the toe of Athabasca Glacier.

I took the pan just after the image at top, so the peaks are lit more and the sky is bluer with moonlight. The Moon itself is still behind the mountains to the left (east) about to clear the ridge moments after I finished this pan. It was a busy night of getting shots timed right!

But waning Moon nights are superb for nightscape imaging as they provide both dark and moonlit skies but without the immense light of a Full Moon that tends to wash out the sky too much. Waning Moon nights are great for shooting landscape features to the west, as they get lit by the rising Moon after midnight.

P.S.: A tip – hit “Tips and Techniques” under Category at left for more blogs with tips and techniques!

– Alan, September 19, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Andromeda over Mt. Andromeda


Andromeda over Mt. Andromeda #2

The stars of Andromeda and the autumn sky shine over Mount Andromeda.

This is a photo I’ve been after for several years, one practical to take only in early autumn. Last Sunday night, the skies were ideal.

This is the constellation of Andromeda over its namesake peak, Mt. Andromeda, at right.

The mountain was named in the 1930s by pioneering mountaineer Rex Gibson for the mythological princess. Andromeda is represented in the sky by an arc of stars, here at top centre, stretching from the Square of Pegasus, at right of centre, to Perseus, at left. Just above the main stars of Andromeda lies the oval glow of the Andromeda Galaxy.

The bright object at lower left is the overexposed waning quarter Moon rising in the southeast. Above it are the Pleiades rising.

I shot this from the Forefield Trail just up from the parking lot for the Toe of the Glacier walk to Athabasca Glacier, just off frame to the right. The hills in the foreground are the lateral moraines from the rapidly retreating glacier.

P.S. This my 500th blog post, a major milestone I would think! Thanks for being a fan and reading along. I hope you are enjoying my tours of what is truly an amazing sky.

– Alan, September 17, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Galaxy and Glacier


Milky Way over Athabasca Glacier

The centre of the Milky Way Galaxy sets behind the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefields. 

This was one of the clearest nights I have ever seen at the Icefields. Unlike most nights, last night not a whiff of high cirrus was wafting off the great sheets of ice in Jasper National Park, leaving the sky pristine for the Milky Way to shine over the glaciers.

I shot this image Sunday night, September 14, from the approach road down to the tongue of the Athabasca Glacier. At this time of year, the Milky Way sets directly behind the glacier in the early evening. The angles were perfect.

At left is the glacier-clad peak of Mt. Andromeda, indeed named for the constellation and mythological princess. It is lit just by starlight. The waning Moon didn’t rise until 11:30 p.m., leaving me a couple of hours of dark sky to shoot these and other images.

To record the scene I shot and composited two versions of the image:

– one from a stack of four tracked images where the camera followed the stars on a small mount (the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer) in order to build up the image and, admittedly, record far more detail and colour than your eye could ever see in the Milky Way.

– the sharp landscape comes from another stack of four images where I turned the tracking drive off so the ground wouldn’t blur. Stacking them helps reduce noise.

I composited the two sets of images, masking the sky from the untracked images and the ground from the tracked images. Perhaps that’s all a bit of trickery but the scene is real – the Milky Way really was there behind Athabasca Glacier.

Each sky exposure was 3 minutes, each ground exposure 4 minutes, all with the 24mm lens at f/2.5 and the Canon 6D at ISO 1250.

– Alan, September 15, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Rocky Mountain Nights – A Time-Lapse Collage


 

My new 4-minute video presents time-lapse and still images shot in the Rockies this past summer.

It’s been a busy summer for shooting. Since July I’ve spent a week each in Banff, Jasper and Waterton Lakes National Parks shooting nightscape stills and time-lapse videos of Alberta’s famous Rocky Mountain landscapes by night. 

This compilation includes some of the best footage, plus some panned still images, set to a wonderful piece of royalty-free (i.e. legal!) music by Adi Goldstein. 

For many of the sequences I employed “motion control” (MoCo) devices that incrementally move the cameras during the one to three hours that they are taking the 200 to 450 frames needed for a time-lapse sequence. 

I used the compact single-axis Radian, the 2-axis eMotimo, and the Dynamic Perception Stage Zero dolly, now equipped with their new Stage R single-axis panning unit. This was the first summer with the eMotimo and Stage R, so I’m still learning their best settings for speed, angles, and ramping rates. 

In recent blogs you’ve seen many still images shot as part of these sequences, or with other cameras dedicated to shooting stills. Now you get to see some of the time-lapse videos that represent many nights of shooting, and many hours sitting in the car waiting for the automated camera gear to finish its shooting task. 

Time-lapse shooting is an exercise in dedication and self-denial!

I hope you enjoy the result. Do click on the Enlarge button to go full-screen. Or visit my Vimeo site to watch the video, and others, there.

– Alan, September 10, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Stars on Ice – The Columbia Icefields by Moonlight


Star Trails over Columbia Icefields

The stars trail over the glaciers of the Columbia Icefields.

What an amazing night this was! You rarely get pristine cloudless skies over the Icefields. Some cloud is almost always blowing off the ice. But last Saturday in Jasper National Park was as clear as it gets.

The Moon was bright, as a waxing gibbous just off frame at left. It lit the landscape like it was day.

I shot with two cameras, one doing a time-lapse motion control sequence panning across the scene. The other was a fixed camera shooting 20-second exposures at 1-second intervals. The resulting frames from the fixed camera, 270 in this case, are multi-purpose:

– I stacked about 100 of them to make the star trail composite above. Two frames supplied the stars at the beginning and end of the trails. Another single frame supplied the ground, to avoid the shadows being blurred by the Moon’s motion if you used the ground composited from all 100 frames.

– I can also take the full set of 270 frames and sequence them into a time-lapse movie of the stars moving over the landscape.

Stars over the Columbia Icefields Panorama

Before beginning the time-lapse sequences I shot this 180° panorama, made of 5 segments stitched in PTGui software. It extends from the southwest at left, where the Milky Way is barely visible, to the north at right, with the Big Dipper over the Icefields Parkway.

Click on it for a bigger view.

Shooting at the Icefields

This is the camera setup, with the camera on the right taking the star trail image I feature at top.

The Athabasca Glacier is at left, the Stutfield Glacier at right.

Icefields Parking Lot at Night

Midnight under moonlight is when to see the Icefields! This is the lower parking lot, at the start of the trail up to Athabasca Glacier. This is packed with cars, RVs and buses by day, but at night I was the only one there.

– Alan, Sept, 8, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Stars over Mt. Edith Cavell


Mt Edith Cavell by Starlight

The stars of the summer sky shine over the North Face of Mt. Edith Cavell.

The valley below Mt. Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park is one of the most impressive locations in the Canadian Rockies. At few other sites do you get the sense of standing at the foot of a vertical mountain face.

I shot this view last Friday night, when the waxing Moon was behind the mountain, lighting the clouds and sky but not the mountain and valley directly.

But enough scattered light came from the sky to light the foreground and mountain face to make a nice photo with detail in both earth and sky.

Use of highlight and shadow recovery in Adobe Camera Raw also helps a lot!

Mt. Edith Cavell Trail at Twilight Panorama

This view is a 360° ground-to-zenith panorama I shot earlier in the evening in twilight. It’s from the Trail of the Glacier path, where the path crosses Cavell Creek.

Mt. Edith Cavell was named in 1916 after the World War One nurse who was executed by the Germans for assisting allied soldiers escape occupied Belgium.

– Alan, September 8, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Pyramid Island Sky Panorama


Panorama from Pyramid Island Boardwalk, Jasper Park

The sky presents a panoramic show from Pyramid Island in Jasper National Park.

What a wonderful place to watch the stars. Last night I walked out to Pyramid Island in Jasper, via the historic boardwalk built in the 1930s. The site provides a panorama view around the lake and sky.

To the left is the “mainland.” Just left of centre the waxing gibbous Moon is setting over Pyramid Lake.

To the right of centre, the boardwalk leads out the small island, with Pyramid Mountain behind it.

To the right of the frame, a faint aurora glows to the northeast over the still waters of the lake.

This is a 360° panorama shot with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens in portrait orientation, with the segments stitched with PTGui software.

Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain from Pyramid Island

After shooting some panoramas I walked to the end of the island and shot this view looking north and northwest to Pyramid Mountain. The Big Dipper is to the right of the peak, and the aurora lights up the northern horizon at right.

As I shot these images, the night was absolutely quiet. Until the wolves began to howl at the north end of the lake, in mournful howls that echoed across the waters.

It was one of the most spine-chilling moments I’ve experienced in many years of shooting landscapes at night.

– Alan, September 5, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Star Trails over Athabasca Falls


Star Trails over Athabasca Falls

The autumn stars rise in trails over Athabasca Falls and Mt. Kerkeslin in Jasper National Park.

Last night was a good one for shooting nightscapes in Jasper. Skies cleared for a beautiful moonlit night, ideal for nightscape shooting.

I went to Athabasca Falls, a popular scenic attraction in Jasper but deserted after dark. I set up cameras at the usual overlook, shooting both a time-lapse and star trail set.

The main image above is the result of stacking 100 images in the star trail set. I used the Advanced Stacker Plus actions from Star Circle Academy.

The foreground comes from one image, shot early in the sequence when the Moon lit more of the landscape. The Falls themselves remained in shadow, as I had expected from my lighting angle calculation and knowing the site.

The star trail image shows the autumn stars of Andromeda, Cassiopeia ad Perseus rising over Mt. Kerkeslin, the famous backdrop to Athabasca Falls on the Athabasca River, making its way to the Arctic Ocean

Mt Kerkeslin & Athabasca River at Twilight

This image is a 4-segment panorama I shot earlier in the evening in the twilight, with the waxing Moon over the Athabasca River.

In the early 1800s, after explorer, astronomer, and fur trader David Thompson had to abandon his original route over the Rockies at Howse Pass, he came north, and followed the Athabasca and Whirlpool Rivers up over the Athabasca Pass, his new main route to the B.C. interior.

– Alan, September 4, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain


Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain

The Big Dipper shines through clouds over Pyramid Mountain in Jasper National Park.

This week I am in Jasper National Park for a shoot of moonlit nightscapes, weather permitting.

It barely permitted last night, as clouds cleared briefly to the north. I visited a favourite spot on the shore of Patricia Lake, with Pyramid Mountain as a backdrop to the north.

The sky was still lit by the setting Moon, and by some faint aurora. The landscape is lit by starlight.

With luck I’ll get more images of Jasper by night this week, in one of Canada’s largest Dark Sky Preserves.

– Alan, September 2, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Marvelling at the Milky Way


RAO Milky Way Night Panorama

People gather at a rural observatory to gaze at the Milky Way on a summer night.

The clouds drifted through now and then but skies were mostly clear for the last of the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory‘s annual Milky Way Nights for 2014.

A tradition since 2009 and the Year of Astronomy, these dark-of-the-moon nights at the Observatory have proven hugely popular each summer despite the 10 p.m. start and 2 a.m. finish!

The main image at top shows a 360° panorama as people were gathering at the portable telescopes and lining up – in a blur – for a look inside the observatory domes.

RAO Milky Way Night #1 (Aug 30, 2014)

Roland from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada provided laser-guided star tours. How did we point out the stars and constellations before green lasers? In the hands of responsible astronomers they are a great tool for public education.

RAO Milky Way Night #4 (Aug 30, 2014)

Here he’s pointing out Vega and the stars of the Summer Triangle. Look way up!

About 400 people attended on Saturday night, the last in a trio of nights this past week. As you can see, the event attracts people of all ages. It’s even a popular date night attraction.

RAO Milky Way Night #6 (Aig 30, 2014)

At these summer stargazing sessions many people bring blankets to just lie back and look up, at a site away from the ugly glow of the city, here lighting up the clouds to the north.

It was a great night of public stargazing!

– Alan, August 31, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Mars, Saturn and the Milky Way in Twilight


Mars, Saturn & Milky Way over Ranch Corral

Mars and Saturn meet in conjunction beside the Milky Way.

As it was getting dark two nights ago, I shot this view of Mars and Saturn (the “double star” at right, with Mars below Saturn) paired together now in the evening twilight. The location was Grasslands National Park, on the Park’s main loop tour road.

At the centre of the image is Scorpius and its bright star Antares, just behind the gate of the old corral.

At left are the star clouds of the Milky Way and the galactic core. Just above the horizon are the naked-eye star clusters Messier 6 and Messier 7, the most southerly of the popular Messier objects.

The sky is blue from the last of the twilight glow.

The image is a composite of two exposures, both 1 minute but one tracking the sky and one with the drive turned off to provide the sharper foreground.

– Alan, August 29, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Starlight at the Old Corral


Milky Way over the 76 Ranch Corral

The Milky Way shines behind the rustic corral of the 76 Ranch in Grasslands National Park.

It’s not a gunfight at the OK Corral, but starlight at the 76 Ranch Corral. I shot this Tuesday night in the Frenchman River valley in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. 

The scene captures the summer Milky Way, some green bands of airglow, and the old corral lit by starlight and some aurora beginning to brighten to the north.

Some occasional flashes of distant spotlights from down the valley also provide foreground illumination. The lights came from ferret spotters out at night checking on the nocturnal black-footed ferret. 

The corral once belonged to the 76 Ranch, one of the largest in Canada in its day and owned by Sir John Lister-Kaye, one of many upper class Brits who came to Canada in the 1880s to make their fortune in the newly opened range lands — until drought and hard winters of the southern Prairies forced them to sell out and break up their once huge land holdings. 

This image is a composite, but of five frames all shot at the same place in quick succession. I did not fake the sky into a foreground shot at some other time and place.

Four shots are tracked, to follow the sky for pinpoint stars. I used the new Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracker.

For one shot at the end of the sequence I turned the tracker’s drive off to take a single sharp image of the foreground.

Using masking in Photoshop I removed the blurry foreground from the sky images and the blurry trailed sky from the ground image.

Each was a 3-minute exposure at ISO 1600 with the 24mm lens at f/2.5.

 

The Northern Lights at the Old Larson Ranch


Aurora at Larson Ranch Panorama

The northern lights dance, and light the pioneer homes at the old Larson Ranch in Grasslands National Park.

What a night this was! I arrived at the Larson Ranch site in the Frenchman River valley to shoot some Milky Way panoramas, when, right on cue, the aurora broke loose.

Some aurora had been there since nightfall as a diffuse arc, but about 11 p.m. local time (Central Standard Time in Saskatchewan) the curtains began to dance and pulse with activity as a sub-storm hit, raining solar particles onto our atmosphere from down the magnetic tail of the Earth.

The aurora glow lit the old pioneer buildings of the Larson Ranch, one of the stops on the scenic backroad drive through the Park.

The Larsons ran their ranch by the Frenchman, or Whitemud River, from the 1920s until 1985 when they sold their ranch to the National Park system, forming the first land for the new Grasslands National Park.

The house at left is the original home of cowboy author Will James, who lived here for a time working on ranches in the valley before moving to the United States. He was from Quebec, where he was Ernest Dufault.

I shot this 360° panorama using a 15mm lens, shooting 8 segments at 45° spacings, each a 1-minute exposure at ISO 2500 and f/3.2 with the Canon 6D. I used PTGui software to stitch the segments into a equi-rectangular projection pan.

– Alan, August 28, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer