Southern Spectacular


Everyone from the north who sees this area of sky for the first time quickly realizes just how much better the sky is down south. This is the most spectacular region of the deep-south Milky Way, as it passes through the constellations of Carina, Crux and Centaurus.

Dead centre here is the symbol of the southern sky, the Southern Cross. To the right of it glow the reddish nebulas of Carina and Centaurus; to the left of the Cross lie the dark clouds of the Coal Sack and the pair of brilliant stars, Alpha (on the left) and Beta Centauri. Alpha is the closest bright star to our solar system.

This one field contains much of what makes the southern sky so memorable and a mecca for any backyard astronomer. You haven’t lived an astronomical life until you’ve seen this part of the Milky Way, accessible only from southern latitudes.

I took this shot last night, May 4, 2011, using a Sigma 50mm lens and a modified Canon 5D MkII camera. The image is a stack of four 6-minute exposures at f/4 and ISO 800, plus a stack of two more 6-minute exposures taken through a soft-focus filter, with those images layered into the final Photoshop image to add the star glows and make the constellation outlines, like the Southern Cross, pop out.

– Alan, May 5, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Exploring the Large Magellanic Cloud


A prime attraction of the southern hemisphere sky is an object called the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our own Milky Way, and only visible from southern latitudes. You can spend many nights just working your way through its confusing array of star  clusters and nebulas.

Here, Gary Finlay (seated) and Philip Downey (standing, checking his digital iPad star atlas) are doing just that – trying to identify the many objects you can see in one eyepiece field at a time. And the LMC is so large it covers dozens of eyepiece fields. They’re using an 18-inch reflector, which is providing us with outstanding views of not only the LMC and its many nebulas, but hundreds of other targets along the Milky Way.

I took this with a 30-second exposure at f/2.8 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 7D. The location is the small observing field adjacent to our rooms at the Atacama Lodge in Chile.

– Alan, May 4, 2011 / Image © Alan Dyer 2011

Toward the Centre of the Galaxy


This is without a doubt the most spectacular area of sky. Here we’re looking toward the centre of our Galaxy, toward the starfields of Scorpius (at right) and Sagittarius (bottom centre). The field is a riot of stars, dark lanes of dust, and patches of glowing red nebulas.

It is wonderful experience – wonder-filled! – just to lie back and scan these constellations with binoculars or a wide-field telescope. One outstanding feature are the parallel bands of dark dust that seem to form the shape of a dark prancing horse in the Milky Way.

The brightest area of the Milky Way here is the Sagittarius Starcloud, and marks the direction of the centre of our Galaxy. From here in Chile where I took this shot, this region of sky passes directly overhead, making it more prominent than at northern latitudes where the galactic core is often lost in horizon haze.

This image is a stack of four 6-minute exposures at f/4 with the 35mm lens and Canon 5D MkII camera. For one of the exposures I shot through a special soft-focus filter to add the fuzzy star glows that make it easier to see the outline of the constellations. The filter also emphasizes the colours of the stars.

The image is a segment of a 12-section panorama I shot all along the Milky Way from dusk to dawn.

– Alan, May 3, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Entangled in Dark Dust


This is a star cluster in Scorpius called NGC 6124 – it doesn’t have a name, to the best of my knowledge. But a good one might be the “Dark River Cluster.”

I’ve shot lots of stuff along the Milky Way on my various trips to the southern hemisphere, but this field was a pleasant new surprise. While I had photographed this star cluster before, previous portraits had been extreme closeups. I had not shot it with a wide field like this.

The field here takes in about the same area of sky as binoculars. One of my projects on this current trip to Chile has been to shoot binocular fields like this. And it’s a good one. The cluster is a little off the beaten track in Scorpius and tends to be ignored. But its position entangled with lanes of dark nebulosity makes it a wonderful contrast of stars and darkness.

The dark lanes are obscuring dust in the foreground, hiding the light of distant stars in the Milky Way. The cluster itself is about 18,000 light years away, quite a distance for a star cluster, and putting it a good portion of the way toward the centre of the Galaxy.

For this shot I used the Canon 7D camera and 135mm telephoto, for a stack of six 2-minute exposures at ISO 800 and f/2.8.

– Alan, May 3, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Galaxyrise


In the southern hemisphere sky we are treated to the stunning sight of the centre of the Galaxy rising each night, as the starfields of Scorpius and Sagittarius come up over the eastern horizon. In this shot, taken last night (May 2/3), we see the Milky Way’s heart rising behind some of the robotic, remotely-controlled domes and telescopes at the Atacama Lodge in Chile. Only the centre dome is operating, taking images or data under the command of someone half a world away.

Amazing technology to be sure, but … that robotic observer misses the experience of standing under the Milky Way, watching its heart rise over the Andes and swing overhead through the night. The Milky Way is so bright it lights the ground, as you can see here.

Last night our little group of 7 Canadian observers had a fantastic time exploring the southern sky with several telescopes, including an 18-inch reflector set up for us by lodge owner Alain Maury. With the help of a couple of wide-angle eyepieces we saw wonderful views of the Vela Supernova Remnant, dark nebulas in the Milky Way, and showpiece targets like Omega Centauri and the Tarantula Nebula – the list goes on! And will again tonight, as we compile another “hit-list” of targets to find tonight.

For this shot, I used the Canon 7D camera, a 15mm lens, and ISO 2500 for a 40 second exposure at f/2.8. This is one of about 500 frames taken for a time-lapse movie of “Galaxyrise.”

– Alan, May 3, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

A Dawn Gathering of Planets


The joys of stargazing at southern latitudes! Here’s a shot from this morning, May 2, 2011, of the gathering of four planets now coming together in the pre-dawn sky. From Canada, you won’t see this well at all. The planets will be hugging the horizon and lost in the twilight. But from here in Chile, at a latitude of 23° south, the planets are arranged vertically straight up from the horizon. Over the next couple of weeks the planets will converge as Venus and Mercury drop down to meet Jupiter and Mars – they’ll be tightest, within 6° of each other on the mornings of May 11 and 12, when Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest objects here, will be closest together.

It was very neat watching them rise this morning over the Andes, first brilliant Venus popping over the ridge, then fainter Mercury, the Jupiter, and finally, at the bottom here, Mars. Venus and Mercury pair at top, and Jupiter and Mars are together at bottom.

The conical peak at left is 5,900-metre (19,400-foot) Licancabur, an extinct volcano, one of many along the line of the Andes. I shot this from just outside our dining room at the Atacama Lodge near San Pedro de Atacama. It was the finale of an all-night session shooting the Milky Way in stills and time-lapse. All the gear worked great and the raw images look fabulous. More to come!

– Alan, May 2, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer