Chasing Meteors


Geminid Meteor Radiant in Gemini

Meteors were raining down the sky on the peak night of the Geminid meteor shower.

Back in August, when I wrote my column for the November-December issue of our Canadian magazine SkyNews, I noticed how good the circumstances were this year for the annual Geminid meteor shower. Normally one of the best showers of the year, if not the best, the Geminids were really going to perform in 2017.

The Moon was near new so its light would not interfere. For western North America, the peak of the shower was also timed for midnight on the night of December 13/14, just when the radiant of the shower was high in the sky.

Raining Geminid Meteors
The Geminids rain down the sky from the radiant in Gemini high overhead on peak night.

So in August when I saw the favourable combination of circumstances, I decided a meteor chase was in order. While the shower would be visible from home, Geminid peak night in December is often bitterly cold or cloudy at home in Alberta.

So I planned a trek to Arizona, for the shower and the winter sky.

While skies at home proved decent after all, it was still a chase worth making, with the shower visible under the perfectly clear and dry skies of southeast Arizona.

My chosen site was the Quailway Cottage near the Arizona Sky Village, the chosen dark sky site for many amateur astronomers, and at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains. Skies are dark!

Sky Dust - Interplanetary and Interstellar
The Zodiacal Light (left) and Milky Way over the Chiricahuas.

The Zodiacal Light was brilliant in the southwest sky for several hours after sunset. A tough sighting at this time of year from most sites, this glow was obvious in the Arizona sky. It is sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system.

Geminid Meteor Shower in the Winter Milky Way
Geminids streaking from Gemini as the winter sky rises.

On the peak night, the visual impression was of meteors appearing at a rate of at least one a minute, if not more frequently.

Geminid Meteor Radiant in Gemini
A tracked composite looking up toward Orion and Gemini.

The images here are all composites of dozens of exposures taken over 2 to 5 hours, stacking many meteors on one frame. So they do provide an exaggerated record of the shower. Meteors weren’t filling the sky! But you certainly did not have to wait long for one to appear, making this one of the best meteor showers in many years.

Geminid Meteors over the Chiricahuas
Geminids falling over the Chiricahuas as Orion sets at the end of the peak night.

Most of the Geminids were of average brightness. I didn’t see, nor did the camera catch many very bright “bolides,” the really brilliant meteors that light up the ground.

Bright Geminid Meteor Descending
A bright Geminid pierces Ursa Major.

Nevertheless, this was a night to remember, and a fine way to end what has been a superlative year of stargazing, with a total solar eclipse, great auroras, and for me, a wonderful stay under southern skies on an April trip to Australia.

All the best of the season to you and your family and friends. Clear skies!

Here’s to 2018, which begins with a total eclipse of the Moon on January 31.

— Alan, December 23, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

The Moving Stars of the Northern Hemisphere


Arizona Star Trails - Circumpolar Looking North

I present a montage of time-lapses illustrating the motion of the sky in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Any stargazer should be familiar with how the sky moves, with stars rising in the east and setting in the west.

From the northern hemisphere, when we look north we see the sky rotating counter-clockwise around the North Celestial Pole, near Polaris. As you’ll see in the video, even Polaris moves, though not much over the night. The stars that never set, but just move across the northern horizon, are the circumpolar stars.

When we look south we see the seasonal constellations, the ones that rise and set, and change over the seasons.

I shot the images for these sequences from southern Arizona, in early December 2015.

So the night starts with the summer stars setting in the west and the autumn stars dominating the sky. But then Orion and the winter stars rise and march across the sky over the night, setting before dawn, as the spring stars rise.

The south-looking movie is a dusk-to-dawn sequence. Note the Zodiacal Light in the west at right in the early evening, then reappearing in the east at left before dawn brightens the sky, and as Venus and the Moon rises.

Also note the moving bands of red and green airglow, a natural phenomenon of the upper atmosphere.

 

I posted a matching set of movies in my previous blog post, shot from the Southern Hemisphere. But here’s the link to the movie.

 

Both sets of movies were shot from nearly identical latitudes – about 31°, but 31° N for Portal, Arizona and 31° S for Coonabarabran, Australia.

As such the Celestial Poles appear at equal altitudes above the horizon. And the angles that the stars rise and set at in relation to the horizon are the same.

But the direction they move is opposite. When looking 180° away from the Pole, the seasonal stars move from left to right in the Northern Hemisphere, but from right to left in the Southern Hemisphere.

Visitors from one hemisphere to the other are bound to get turned around!

— Alan, August 25, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

A Panorama of the Entire Northern Milky Way


Panorama of the Northern Milky Way

In a sweeping panorama, here is the entire northern hemisphere Milky Way from horizon to horizon.

This is the result of one of the major projects on my recent trek to Arizona and New Mexico – a mosaic of images shot along the Milky Way over several hours.

The goal is a complete 360° panorama of the entire Milky Way, and I’ve got most of the other segments in previous shoots from Alberta, Australia and Chile. But I did not have good shots of the northern autumn segments, until now.

The panorama sweeps from Cygnus (at top, setting in the western sky in the evening), across the sky overhead in Perseus, Auriga and Taurus (in the middle), and down into Orion, Canis Major, and Puppis (at bottom, low in the southern sky at midnight).

The view is looking outward to the near edge of our Milky Way, in the direction opposite the centre of our Galaxy. In this direction the Milky Way becomes dimmer and less defined. Notable are the many red H-alpha emission regions along the Milky Way, as well as the many lanes of dark interstellar dust nearby and obscuring the more distant stars.

However, a diffuse glow in Taurus partly obscures its Taurus Dark Clouds — that’s the Gegenschein, caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles directly opposite the Sun and marking the anti-solar point this night, by coincidence then close to galactic longitude of 180° opposite the galactic centre.

Panorama of the Northern Milky Way (with Labels)

Here I provide a guided map of the mosaic. Orion is at lower right, while the Pleiades and Andromeda Galaxy lie near the right edge. The Andromeda Galaxy is the only thing in this image that is not part of the Milky Way.

The bright star Canopus is just rising at bottom, in haze. Vega and Altair are just setting at the very top. So the panorama sweeps from Altair to Canopus.

The sky isn’t perfect! Haze and airglow in our atmosphere add discolouration, especially close to the horizon. In my final 360° pan, I’ll use only the central portions of this panorama.

Now let’s put the horizon-to-horizon panorama into cosmic perspective…

Illustration of the Northern Milky Way Panorama

In this diagram, based on art from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope Institute, I show my Northern Milky Way Panorama in perspective to the “big picture” of our entire Galaxy, using artwork based on our best map of how our Galaxy is thought to look.

We are looking in a “god’s eye” view across our Galaxy from a vantage point on the far side of the Galaxy.

Where we are is marked with the red dot, the location of our average Sun in a minor spiral arm called the Orion Spur.

The diagram places my panorama image in the approximate correct location to show where its features are in our Galaxy. As such it illustrates how my panorama taken from Earth shows our view of the outer portions of our Galaxy, from the bright Cygnus area at right, to Perseus in the middle, directly opposite the centre of the Galaxy, then over to Orion at left.

The panorama sweeps from a “galactic longitude” of roughly 90° at right in Cygnus, to 180° in Perseus, over to 240° in Orion and Canis Major at left.

In the northern autumn and early winter seasons we are looking outward toward the outer Perseus Arm. So the Milky Way we see in our sky is fainter than in mid-summer when we are looking the other way, toward the dense centre of the Galaxy and the rich inner Norma and Sagittarius arms.

Yet, this outer region contains a rich array of star-forming regions, which mostly show up as the red nebulas. But this region of the Milky Way is also laced with dark lanes of interstellar “stardust.”

NOTE:

For larger images, see my Flickr site at https://www.flickr.com/photos/amazingsky/

TECHNICAL:

The panorama is composed of 14 segments, most being stacks 5 x 2.5-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600 and 35mm lens at f/2.8.

The end segments near the horizons at top and bottom are stacks of 2 x 2.5-minute exposures.

Each segment also has an additional image shot through a Kenko Softon filter to add the star glows, to make the bright stars show up better.

The camera was oriented with the long dimension of the frame across the Milky Way, not along it, to maximize the amount of sky framed on either side of the Milky Way.

The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. I shot the segments for this pan from Quailway Cottage, Arizona on December 8/9, 2015, with the end segments taken Dec 10/11, 2015. I decided to add in the horizon segments for completeness, and so shot those two nights later when sky conditions were a little different.

— Alan, December 19, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Wonder-Filled Winter Sky


Mosaic of the Wonder-filled Winter Milky Way

The sky of December contains an amazing array of bright stars and deep-sky delights.

At this time of year we peer out toward the edge of our Galaxy, in the direction opposite to what we see in July and August. Even though we are looking away from the centre of our Galaxy, the Milky Way at this time of year contains a stunning collection of sights – for the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.

I can’t list them all here, but most are in the lead image above! The image is a mosaic of the northern winter Milky Way, including the brilliant stars and constellations in and around Orion the Hunter.

The Milky Way extends from Perseus in the north at top, to Canis Major in the south at bottom. Throughout the scene are dark lanes and dust clouds, such as the Taurus Dark Clouds at upper right.

The Milky Way is dotted with numerous red “hydrogen-alpha” regions of emission nebulosity, such as the bright Rosette Nebula at lower left and the California Nebula at upper right. The curving arc of Barnard’s Loop surrounds the east side of Orion. Orion is below centre, with Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, at lower left.

The constellation of Taurus is at upper right and Gemini at upper left. Auriga is at top and Perseus at upper right.

There’s an unusually bright area in Taurus just right of centre in the mosaic which I thought might be an image processing artifact. No. It’s the Gegenschein – a glow of sunlight reflected off comet dust directly opposite the Sun.

Two highlights of this sky that are great regions for binoculars are the Hyades cluster in Taurus ….

The Hyades Cluster with Aldebaran
The Hyades open star cluster in Taurus with the bright star Aldebaran, not a part of the cluster iteslf. The smaller and more distant cluster NGC 1647 is at left. This is a telephoto lens image taking in a field similar to binoculars, and is a stack of 5 x 2.5-minute exposures with the 135mm lens at f/2 and Canon 5D MkII camera at ISO 800, plus two other exposures taken through the Kenko Softon filter to add the star glows. Taken from Quailway Cottage on Dec 7, 2015 using the iOptron Sky-Tracker.

…and the Belt and Sword of Orion.

The Hyades – the face of Taurus – is one of the nearest and therefore largest open star clusters.

Orion the Hunter, who battles Taurus in the sky, contains the famous Orion Nebula, here overexposed in order to bring out the much fainter nebulosity in the region.

The magenta and blue arcs in the image below are photographic targets, but the bright Orion Nebula in Orion’s Sword is easy in binoculars, shining below the trio of his Belt Stars.

Orion Belt and Sword Mosaic
A mosaic of the Sword and Belt region of Orion the Hunter, showing the diverse array of colourful nebulas in the area, including: curving Barnard’s Loop, the Horsehead Nebula below the left star of the Belt, Alnitak, and the Orion Nebula itself as the bright region in the Sword. Also in the field are numerous faint blue reflection nebulas. The reflection nebula M78 is at top embedded in a dark nebula, and the pinkish NGC 2024 or Flame Nebula is above Alnitak. The bright orange-red star at far right is W Orionis, a type M4 long-period variable star. This is a 4-panel mosaic with each panel made of 5 x 2.5-minute exposures with the 135mm Canon L-series telephoto wide open at f/2 and the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1250. The night was somewhat hazy which added natural glows on the stars. No filter was employed here. The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker for tracking but no guiding. Shot from outside Quailway Cottage near Portal, Arizona, Dec 7, 2015. All stacking and stitching performed in Photoshop CC 2015. Stacking done with median combine stack mode to eliminate geosat trails through the fields.

For us in the northern hemisphere, Orion and company are winter sights. But for those down under, in the southern hemisphere, this is the summer sky. So pardon the northern chauvinism in the title!

Either way, on a dark, moonless night, get out and explore the sky around Orion.

TECHNICAL:

I shot the segments for the main mosaic at top on a very clear night on December 5, 2015 from the Quailway Cottage at Portal, Arizona. This is a mosaic of 8 segments, in two columns of 4 rows, with generous overlap. Each segment was made of 4 x 2.5-minute exposures stacked with mean combine stack mode to reduce noise, plus 2 x 2.5-minute exposures taken through the Kenko Softon filter layered in with Lighten belnd mode to add the star glows. Each segment was shot at f/2.8 with the original 35mm Canon L-series lens and the filter-modified (by Hutech) Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, riding on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. All stacking and stitching in Photoshop CC 2015. The soft diffusion filter helps bring out the star colors in this area of sky rich in brilliant giant stars.

— Alan, December 11, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Venus and the Comet


Comet Catalina near Venus (Dec 9, 2015)

Comet Catalina sports two tails as it moves past Venus in the dawn sky.

This was the view this morning, December 9, from my site in Arizona, of Comet Catalina near Venus in the dawn sky. This is a telephoto lens shot that provides a view similar in size to what binoculars show.

However, the blue ion tail visible here stretching back several degrees is mostly a photographic target. Visually, just Catalina’s short, stubby dust tail at lower right is obvious.

The ion tail points away from the Sun, while the dust tail extends along the comet’s orbit, showing where the comet has been.

The view, both visually and photographically, of the comet will improve as it climbs higher into the eastern morning sky and as it moves away from the glare of Venus. The Moon is also now gone from the dawn, at least for the next couple of weeks.

The comet is dimmer than expected but should at least maintain this brightness for the next month or so.

Technical:

This is a stack of 5 x 90-second exposures, taken with the 135mm telephoto and 1.4x extender for a focal length of 190mm, at f/2.8 and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, tracked on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. Two other exposures, of 15s and 1s, were blended in with luminosity masks to reduce the glare of Venus to a smaller size.

— Alan, December 9, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Comets, Conjunctions, and Occultations, Oh My!


The Moon, Venus and Comet Catalina

What a morning of sky sights, both before dawn and after sunrise.

December 7 – This was the prime day I came to Arizona to enjoy, to be better assured of clear skies. As it turned out this will likely be the cloudiest day of the week here, but skies were clear enough for a fine view of a conjunction and an occultation. The comet was a bonus.

Waning Moon and Venus Rising in Conjunction
This is a stack of 5 exposures: 30, 8, 2, 0.5 and 1/8s, blended with luminosity masks as HDR would not blend images with such a large range of brightness and content, with the shortest exposures having almost no content execept for two bright objects! The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker to follow the sky and keep the sky targets stationary and aligned, thus the blurred foreground. All with the 135mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 400.

At 4 a.m. the waning crescent Moon rose accompanied by Venus, as the two worlds appeared in close conjunction in the pre-dawn sky. The view above captures the scene as the Moon and Venus rose over the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico. Comet Catalina is in this scene but barely visible.

The Moon, Venus and Comet Catalina
This is a stack of 6 exposures: 30, 8, 2, 0.5, 1/8s and 1/30s, blended with luminosity masks as HDR would not blend images with such a large range of brightness and content, with the shortest exposures having almost no content execept for two bright objects! The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker to follow the sky and keep the sky targets stationary and aligned. All with the 135mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

An hour or so later, with the Moon and Venus higher and with skies a little less cloudy, I was able to capture this scene, above, that included Comet Catalina, as a tiny blue dot next to Venus and the Moon. But if I hadn’t labeled it, you wouldn’t know it was there! The comet is proving to be less wonderful than anticipated, and any cloud dims the view even more.

I had hoped for a superb scene of a bright comet next to the two brightest objects in the night sky. But comets do what comets do — surprise people with unexpected brightness (as Comet Lovejoy did last January) or with disappointing dimness … or by disappearing altogether, as Comet ISON did two years ago. I came here in December 2013, to this same location on the Arizona-New Mexico border, to catch ISON but no luck there at all!

Moon & Venus Conjunction at Sunrise (Dec 7, 2015)
This is a stack of 7 exposures from 10 seconds to 0.3 seconds at 1 stop intervals and blended with luminosity masks, to compress the huge range in brightness from the bright Moon and Venus, plus horizon sky, and the darker sky and sunrise clouds. All with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D.

Regardless of the comet, the conjunction of the Moon and Venus was stunning, about as good as such events get. Here’s the view, above, an hour later again, with the eastern sky brightening in the dawn twilight. The only thing that would have made this event even more spectacular is if the Moon had actually covered up Venus in this twilight sky. Not quite.

Daytime Occultation of Venus (Dec 7, 2015)
The occultation of Venus by the waning crescent Moon in the daytime on Monday, December 7 at 9:30 am local time. This is just about 3 minutes before the actual occultation as the advancing Moon is about to cover Venus on the bright limb of the Moon. This is a frame from a 100-frame time lapse. Unfortunately, as I shot this on my trip to Arizona, I did not have more focal length than the 135mm and 1.4x extender used here.

For the occultation itself, we had to wait until well after sunrise for an event in the blue daytime sky, at 9:30 a.m. local time.

All of North America got to see this fairly rare occultation of Venus by the Moon, albeit in the daytime. Nevertheless, the two objects are so bright, this was visible to the unaided eye, even with some cloud about. In binoculars it was wonderful.

To shoot it, all I had was a telephoto lens, so the image scale doesn’t do the event justice. But the image above provides a good impression of the binocular view, with Venus as a brilliant jewel on the “ring” of the Moon.

— Alan, December 7, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Capturing Comet Catalina


Comet Catalina with Venus at Dawn

I got the comet but it isn’t what was hoped for – a faint fuzzball in binoculars.

This was Comet Catalina (aka C/2013 US10) in the dawn sky this morning, December 6, with the comet appearing as a fuzzy star below brilliant Venus in binoculars, and just revealing its two short tails in photos. It’s the cyan-colored object near the centre. Venus is the brilliant object.

This image is with a telephoto lens, and covers a little more of the sky than typical binoculars would show. I knew this would be a binocular comet at best, but it’s barely that. This is more a comet for telescopes.

But as the Moon departs the scene and the comet climbs higher the view may improve. Still, if you are pining for views of Comet Catalina and are stuck under cloudy winter skies at home, don’t be worried. You aren’t missing too much. Except …

Arch of the Autumn Milky Way
The arch of the Milky Way in the northern autumn and early winter sky, from Arizona on December 5, 2015. The Milky Way extends from Aquila to the left, in the southwest to Cassiopeia at top right, to Perseus and Auriga at far right, in the northeast. I shot this from the Quailway Cottage near Portal, Arizona, latitude +32° N. The view is looking north toward the celestial pole. Polaris is just right of lower centre. This is a stack of 8 tracked exposures, each 3 minutes at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 1600, with the ground coming from one exposure to minimize blurring. The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker.

This was the view of the autumn Milky Way from here in Arizona last night. Pretty impressive under nearly perfect sky conditions. And then there’s this …

Winter Sky Setting over the Chiricahuas
Orion and the northern winter constellations and Milky Way setting at dawn over the Chiricahua Mountains of southwest Arizona, near Portal, AZ. The waning crescent Moon in the west provided the illumination in this dawn shot from December 6, 2015. Orion is just above the main peak at centre, with Sirius, in Canis Major, to the left and Aldebaran, in Taurus, to the right. The Pleiades are setting at right. The star cluster at top is the Beehive, M44, in Cancer. Bands of airglow add the red streaks. The site is the Quailway Cottage near Portal, Arizona. This is a stack of 4 x 2 minute exposures, tracked, at f/3.5 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens and Canon 6D at ISO 1250, for the sky, and the same specs for 4 exposures, untracked for the ground. Each set was mean-combined stacked to reduce noise.

This was the winter Milky Way with Orion setting into the west over the Chiricahuas at dawn. Turn around from looking at the comet and this was the view. So who cares if the comet isn’t too great? There’s lots more to see and shoot. With no snow, no frost, no dew.

More to come this week I trust!

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