On Friday night the Harvest Moon rose amid the arching shadow of the Earth.
This was the view on Friday, September 16 at moonrise on the Red Deer River. The view is from the Orkney Viewpoint overlooking the Badlands and sweeping curve of the river.
Above is the wide arch of the dark shadow of the Earth rising into the deepening twilight. Almost dead centre in the shadow is the Full Moon, the annual Harvest Moon.
Hours earlier the Moon passed through the shadow of our planet out at the Moon’s distance from Earth, creating a minor penumbral eclipse. No part of that eclipse, such as it was anyway, was visible from here.
But the alignment did place the Moon in the middle of our planet’s shadow projected into our atmosphere, as it does at every sunset and sunrise.
But it takes a very clear sky for the shadow to stand out as well as this in the darkening sky. I like how the curve of the shadow mirrors the curve of the river.
This is a marvellous spot for photography. I shared the site with one other photographer, at far right, who also came to capture the rising of the Harvest Moon.
The image is a 7-segment panorama with a 20mm lens, stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.
It was a great night for shooting meteors as the annual Perseids put on a show.
For the Perseid meteor shower I went to one of the darkest sites in Canada, Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan, a dark sky preserve and home to several rare species requiring dark nights to flourish – similar to astronomers!
This year a boost in activity was predicted and the predictions seemed to hold true. The lead image records 33 meteors in a series of stacked 30-second exposures taken over an hour.
It shows only one area of sky, looking east toward the radiant point in the constellation Perseus – thus the name of the shower.
Extrapolating the count to the whole sky, I think it’s safe to say there would have been 100 or more meteors an hour zipping about, not bad for my latitude of 49° North.
The early part of the evening was lit by moonlight, which lent itself to some nice nightscapes scenes but fewer meteors.
But once the Moon set and the sky darkened the show really began. Competing with the meteors was some dim aurora, but also the brightest display of airglow I have even seen.
It was bright enough to be visible to the eye as grey bands, unusual. Airglow is normally sub-visual.
But the camera revealed the airglow bands as green, red, and yellow, from fluorescing oxygen and sodium atoms. The bands slowly rippled across the sky from south to north.
Airglow is something you can see only from dark sites. It is one of the wonders of the night sky, that can make a dark sky not dark!
The lead image is stack of 31 frames containing meteors (two frames had 2 meteors), shot from 1:13 am to 2:08 a.m. CST, so over 55 minutes. The camera was not tracking the sky but was on a fixed tripod. I choose one frame with the best visibility of the airglow as the base layer. For every other meteor layer, I used Free Transform to rotate each frame around a point far off frame at upper left, close to where the celestial pole would be and then nudged each frame to bring the stars into close alignment with the base layer, especially near the meteor being layered in.
This placed each meteor in its correct position in the sky in relation to the stars, essential for showing the effect of the radiant point accurately.
Each layer above the base sky layer is masked to show just the meteor and is blended with Lighten mode. If I had not manually aligned the sky for each frame, the meteors would have ended up positioned where they appeared in relation to the ground but the radiant point would have been smeared — the meteors would have been in the wrong place.
Unfortunately, it’s what I see in a lot of composited meteor shower shots.
It would have been much easier if I had had this camera on a tracker so all frames would have been aligned coming out of the camera. But the other camera was on the tracker! It took the other composite image, the one looking north.
The ground is a mean combined stack of 4 frames to smooth noise in the ground. Each frame is 30 seconds at f/2 with the wonderful Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 5000. The waxing Moon had set by the time this sequence started, leaving the sky dark and the airglow much more visible.
The sky presented a pyrotechnic display of light and colour in the sunset sky.
What a show tonight, July 18, as a thunderstorm lit the sky with bolts of lightning. As the storm retreated, the Sun broke through, ideal lighting for a rainbow. In this case I was able to capture the rainbow pierced by bolts of lightning. See below for tech details.
A little later, the sunlight got stronger and the rainbow grew to span the sky, in a beautiful display of a double rainbow lit by the red light of the setting Sun.
As the beams of sunlight lit the clouds, it looked like the rainbow was on fire.
It has been a stormy start to summer in Alberta, but at times the sky has put on a stunning show. That was certainly the case tonight.
Technical on the Lightning and Rainbow shot at top:
This is a stack of 35 consecutive video frames taken with HD (1920 x 1080) resolution at 30 frames per second with the Canon 6D, and extracted as an image sequence with Photoshop, then processed in Adobe Camera Raw, then stacked with Russell Brown’s Stack-A-Matic into a smart object with maximum stack mode, to accumulate the frames taken over about 1 second into one still frame.
So I could have got this with a single 1-second exposure with the lens stopped way down and a ND filter, but my timing would have had to have been very, very lucky!
A bright display of noctilucent clouds last night prompts me to remind northerners to look north at this prime season for night shining clouds.
Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) can be seen only in summer and are best in the few weeks before and after (mostly after) summer solstice. I shot all these images in the middle of the night. Indeed, the two images above and just below are from 3 am on the morning of June 27.
NLCs are high altitude clouds at the edge of space some 80 kilometres above the Earth, far above any normal weather clouds. Their height allows sunlight streaming over the pole to illuminate them all night long.
Their cause is a mystery. They may form by water vapour condensing on meteoric dust particles.
They look luminescent, as if glowing on their own. But these are not auroras. They shine only by reflected sunlight.
And they have complex structures, with intricate waves and ripples.
And they move very slowly, as this time-lapse from June 17 shows.
Readers living at a latitude between 45° and 55° are best situated to see “NLCs.” From farther south the clouds will be below the horizon. From farther north the sky may be too bright with twilight and the angle of illumination wrong for optimum viewing.
Unlike auroras, there is no predicting when they might appear. Some nights when it is clear where you are, no NLCs appear. Perhaps that’s because of cloud much farther north blocking the path of light from the Sun on the other side of the planet to the clouds on our side of the Earth.
But by the end of July NLC season is coming to an end as the Sun drops farther below the northern horizon at night, and the nights get darker.
So over the next four weeks, look low in the north for night shining clouds.
How many sources of skyglow can you pick out here?
There are at least five:
• the Milky Way (at left),
• green airglow (below the Milky Way),
• all too prevalent light pollution (especially reflected off the clouds coming in from the west at right),
• lingering blue twilight across the north (at left and right), common in May and June from my northern latitude,
• and even a touch of aurora right at the northern horizon at far left.
In this scene from May 28, the Milky Way arches over an abandoned pioneer farmstead from the 1930s and 40s near my home in southern Alberta.
Mars (very bright and in some clouds) and Saturn shine at lower centre, while Jupiter is the bright object in clouds at right just above the old house.
Arcturus is the brightest star here at upper right of centre, made more obvious here by shining through the clouds. The Big Dipper, distorted by the map projection used in the this panorama, is at upper right.
Technical: This is a 360° horizon to zenith panorama taken with the iPano motorized panning unit, using the 24mm lens at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, for a stitch of 28 panels, in 4 tiers of 7 segments each. Stitched with PTGui. South is at centre, north to either end. The original is 25,700 x 7,700 pixels.
Just after I shot the panorama I captured the International Space Station passing directly overhead in one of several passes this night.
At this time of year the ISS is lit all night by the Sun that never sets for the astronauts. We see the ISS cross the sky not once but several times in a night at 90-minute intervals.
While the sky near solstice is never dark at my latitude, it does have its compensations and attractions.
My latest music video includes images, time-lapses and real-time videos of the Northern Lights shot in February and March 2016 in Churchill.
While I’ve posted my recent images of the aurora here and at many social media sites, all the videos I shoot take more work before they are ready to unveil to the public. Videos work best when set to music.
In this case, I’m very pleased to have received permission from EverSound Music to incorporate the music of one of my favourite artists, John Adorney, in my latest music video montage. The selection is If a Rose Could Speak, from his 2013 album The Wonder Well. It features vocals by Daya.
The video incorporates still images, as well as time-lapse sequences, and real-time videos of the Northern Lights.
The all-sky time-lapses are intended to be projected in digital planetarium theatres, recreating the scene on their 360° domes.
Please click on the V for Vimeo button to really see the video well. And select 1080p HD for the best image quality. And do share!
ABOUT THE VIDEO
I shot all scenes at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, near Churchill, Manitoba, on the shore of Hudson Bay at a latitude of 58° North. Churchill’s location places it under the usual location of the auroral oval, providing spectacular displays of Northern Lights even on nights when locations to the south are seeing nothing.
I was at the CNSC to present sets of 5-night aurora viewing programs to guests from across North America. Click the link above for more details on their programs. The 2016 aurora season is over, but we’ll have more aurora programs in January and February of next year.
I shot all images with Canon 6D and Nikon D750 DSLR cameras, usually at ISO 3200. The fish-eye all-sky sequences were with a Sigma 8mm lens on the Canon, while most of the still images and other full-frame time-lapses were with the Sigma 20mm Art lens on the Nikon. For the “rapid-cadence” time-lapses I used 1- to 2-second exposures at an interval of one second.
The real-time video clips were with the Nikon – set to ISO 25600 – and the Sigma wide open at f/1.4. While these clips are prone to digital noise, they do record the fast movement and subtle colour of the aurora much as the eye saw it. See my earlier music video with real-time clips shot February 12 for more examples of these.
The all-sky sequences were processed through LRTimelapse v4 software, to handle the huge range in brightness of the Lights. Real-time video clips were processed in Photoshop with the Camera Raw filter.
Temperatures ranged from a bitter -35° C to just (!) -15° C on most nights.
I kept the long-duration, all-sky, time-lapse camera going by placing it in a Camera Parka (www.atfrostedlens.com) and inserting disposable hand warmer packs inside the insulated parka. It worked very well, making it possible to shoot for up to 3 hours. Without it, the battery died after an hour.
Cloud hid Comet Catalina but added a halo around the waning Moon, intersected by the line of the ecliptic.
I’m in Arizona, just inside the state line with New Mexico, on a quest to shoot Comet Catalina at dawn. Clouds prevented any view of the faint comet this morning but provided a fine consolation prize.
The waning crescent Moon was surrounded by an ice crystal halo, a rare sight around a thin Moon. The Moon was between Mars and Jupiter, heading toward a conjunction with Venus, below, on December 7.
The line of Venus, Mars, the Moon, and Jupiter, plus the stars Spica and Regulus defined the line of the ecliptic beautifully in the pre-dawn sky.
It was a show of circles and lines, real and imagined, in the morning sky.
With luck, clouds will clear to reveal Comet Catalina, which is likely fainter and less spectacular than hoped. But such is the way of comets. Regardless of what the comet does, it is a good time to be in the desert southwest, typing this blog on a sunny front porch under blue desert skies.
The lights came out and danced in my sky in the early morning hours.
The early warning signs weren’t calling for anything too impressive for a display last night, September 8/9, but the sky surprised us with a fantastic display of Northern lights.
I shot with one camera – it was very late, or very early! – but shot enough frames to create this short 1.5-minute music video.
I photographed the sequence with a single fixed-camera aimed east toward a bright auroral curtain, showing fast pulsing forms common to the later stages of a substorm. But then a new bright curtain sweeps in from the north and the display brightens even more in a new substorm. The display then fades.
The exposures were taken over an hour from 1:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. MDT. Each was a 2-second exposure with an interval of 2 seconds, shot with the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200 and Sigma 24mm lens at f/2, for a total of just over 850 frames.
The much-publicized “Blue Moon” of July rises over the skyline of Calgary.
Last night, July 31, many people looked east to see a wonderful moonrise. Did it look different than any other moonrise? No. But did it look great? You bet.
I set up my cameras at a site in northwest Calgary, picked for its sightline looking east-southeast over the downtown core of Calgary and directly toward the moonrise point.
I used the software The Photographer’s Ephemeris to plan the location and angles. It is wonderful for making sure you are in the right place at the right time for catching a photogenic moonset or moonset.
Here’s the screen shot from TPE that showed me where to be Friday evening. The blue line aims to the moonrise point.
Of course, despite the planning the Moon did not look blue! Blue Moons, as they have come to be defined, never do. The term now means the second Full Moon in a calendar month. We had a Full Moon on Canada Day, July 1, and then enjoyed a second July Full Moon one lunar cycle later on July 31.
I shot the scene with two cameras, each shooting hundreds of frames for time-lapses, from which I extracted still images.
A short 1-minute music video of the result is here at Vimeo. Enlarge the screen and be sure HD is selected.
As a technical note, for the processing I used the latest version 4.2 ofLRTimelapse and its new “Visual Deflicker” workflow which very nicely smooths out all the frame-to-frame flickering that can plague daytime and twilight shots taken under Auto Exposure.
While the shutter speed does constantly decrease, it does so in 1/3rd-f/stop steps, yielding stair-step jumps in brightness. LRT smooths all that out, with v4.2 doing a much better job than earlier versions.
The thin waxing Moon shines near Venus above the colourful clouds of sunset.
Tonight, July 18, was the evening of a close conjunction of the crescent Moon near Venus in the evening sky. From my latitude at 50° North, the conjunction was going to be low, and at risk of clouds.
In this case, the clouds added to the scene as they lit up with sunset colours.
You can see the Moon and Venus at centre, while fainter Jupiter is at upper right, and perhaps not visible on screen at this scale.
The location is one I used last month for the Venus-Jupiter meeting, Little Fish Lake and Provincial Park, north of Drumheller. It’s a quiet spot. This Saturday night there were just three families there camping.
I shot this telephoto panorama with my red-sensitive Canon 60Da, which is designed to record red nebulas well, but does a nice job on punching up sunsets, too!
Alas, the clouds that painted the sky so nicely here, moved in as the worlds set lower. I wasn’t able to shoot them closer to the horizon amid the deep colours of a late twilight. But I’ll settle for this image.
Aurora watchers were on alert! Look up after sunset on June 22 and the sky should be alive with dancing lights.
And the predictions were right.
I headed out to a nearby lake in preparation for seeing and shooting the show. And as soon as the sky got dark enough the Lights were there, despite the bright solstice twilight.
The display reached up to the zenith, as seen in my fish-eye images, like the one below. I shot with three cameras, all shooting time-lapses, with the fish-eye camera recording the scene suitable for projection in a digital planetarium.
However, it was apparent we here in western Canada were seeing the end of the display that had been going on for hours during an intense geomagnetic storm. The aurora was most intense early in the evening, with a minor outburst about 11:30 to 11:45 pm MDT.
The aurora then subsided in structure and turned into a more chaotic pulsating display, typical of the end of a sub-storm.
However, an attraction of this display was its juxtaposition over another storm, an earthly one, flashing lightning to the northwest of me.
By 1 a.m. MDT the display, while still widespread over a large area of the northern sky, had turned into a diffuse glow.
But 60 gigabytes of images later, I headed home. The time-lapse compilation will come later!
The waxing Moon and Venus shine over contrasting landscapes, both urban and rural.
I shot the main image at top last night, May 21, from a site overlooking the urban skyline of Calgary, Alberta. The waxing Moon shines near Venus in the twilight sky.
By contrast I shot the image below the night before, from a location that couldn’t be more different – remote, rural Saskatchewan, on a heritage farmstead first settled in the 1920s by the Butala family. It is now the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area.
Here, the crescent Moon shines a little lower, below Venus, amid the subtle colours of twilight in a crystal clear prairie sky.
However, as the top image demonstrates, you don’t need to travel to remote rural locations to see and photograph beautiful sky sights. Twilight conjunctions of the Moon and bright planets lend themselves to urban nightscapes.
A strange red arc of aurora moved slowly across the sky on May 10.
All indicators looked favourable early in the evening on May 10 for a good auroral display later that night, and sure enough we got one. But it was an unusual display.
From my site in southern Alberta, the northern sky did have a diffuse glow of “normal” green aurora that never did take much form or structure.
But overhead the aurora took the form of an arc across the sky, starting as an isolated ray in the southeast initially, then reaching up to arch across the sky with what looked to the eye like a colourless band.
But the camera showed it as a red arc, with just a fringe of green curtains appearing for a few minutes.
Be sure to click HD and enlarge the video to fill your screen.
The time-lapse movie shows the sequence, over about 90 minutes, with 170 frames playing back at 12 frames per second. You can see the red arc develop, then become more narrow, then exhibit a few green curtains. Then it fades away.
Large-scale pulses also brighten the whole sky momentarily.
The other images are individual frames taken during the evening, showing snapshots of the red arc development, as it became more narrow in structure and gained green curtain-like fringes.
Presumably the red structure was very high in the atmosphere while the green curtains attached to it that did appear hung down from the high-altitude red arc.
I shot all images with an 8mm fish-eye lens to capture most of the sky. The camera is looking north toward Polaris, with the Big Dipper almost directly overhead near the centre of the frames.
The main image at top is a star-trail stack of 80 frames showing the sky’s circumpolar motion around Polaris and the aurora blurred and blended over 45 minutes of motion. I stacked the frames with the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com
Sunlight and shadows at Fajada Butte served to mark the seasons a thousand years ago.
In the distance is Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. It is one of the most famous sites in archaeoastronomy. A thousand years ago, people of the Chaco Culture used it to observe the Sun.
At a site now off limits to preserve its integrity, a set of three rocks cast shadows and daggers of sunlight onto a carved spiral petroglyph.
People used the position of the projected beams of light as a calendar to mark time through the year. In truth, simply watching the changing position of the rising and setting Sun along the horizon, which was also done here at Chaco Canyon, would have worked just as well.
I visited the site today, as part of a trek north through New Mexico, Arizona and into Utah. Chaco Canyon is one of the preeminent sites for archaeoastronomy, demonstrating how well people a thousand years ago (the site was occupied from the mid 800s to the mid 1100s) observed the sky.
For example, a half-day hike takes you to a famous pictograph on a rock face showing a bright star near the crescent Moon, a drawing some have interpreted as being an observation of the supernova of 1054 AD.
In its height, thousands of people lived in the pueblos at Chaco Canyon and surrounding area. This is the Great Kiva at the Chetro Ketl pueblo. Wood columns used to hold a wood roof over this structure to make a space for ceremony and ritual.
I did a little solar observing myself while there. While walking through the maze of rooms at Pueblo Bonito I looked up to see iridescent clouds near the Sun, created by diffraction of sunlight from fine ice crystals.
In keeping with the site’s astronomical heritage, the Visitor Centre at the Chaco Culture Historical Park has a well-equipped observatory with several top-class telescopes (a 25-inch Obsession Dobsonian among them) and an outdoor theatre for regular stargazing sessions each weekend. This is a world-class Dark Sky Preserve and a World Heritage Site.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
The Full Moon rises with the blue arc of Earth’s shadow over a New Mexico landscape.
I’m now in New Mexico for the winter, enjoying the clear skies and mild temperatures. After a few days of settling into the winter home, tonight was my first venture out to take advantage of the skies and shoot some images.
Tonight was Full Moon, a month after the total lunar eclipse. I drove out to the City of Rocks State Park to capture the moonrise over the unique desert landscape.
The main image above captures the Full Moon sitting amid the dark blue arc of Earth’s shadow rising in the east projected onto Earth’s atmosphere. It is rimmed above with a pink band, the “Belt of Venus,” caused by red sunlight still illuminating the high atmosphere. The image is a 5-section panorama.
In the clear air of New Mexico the shadow and Belt of Venus really stand out.
A few minutes later, with the Moon higher and sky darker, I trekked amid the unusual rock formations of the Park, to shoot the Moon amid an alien lunar landscape.
These two images are both “high dynamic range” stacks of 7 to 8 images, from short to long exposures, to capture the wide range of brightness in a twilight scene, from the dark foreground to the bright Moon.
I’m looking forward to a productive winter, photographing the sky and writing about photo techniques, rather than shovelling snow!
‘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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
The Northern Lights dance over the prairie landscape of Grasslands National Park.
The aurora warnings were out for last night but I hadn’t expected to see much. But about 10:30 pm a faint arc appeared to the northeast. The display brightened about local midnight (Central Standard Time here in Saskatchewan) and became fairly active for a time.
The main arc increased in intensity and moved with fine structure and detail. The eye could see some faint, colourless curtains extending upward but the camera picks them up as red, typical of auroral curtains reaching into the top of the atmosphere.
I shot these from the Frenchman River valley, a wide coulee formed by glacial rivers and now the heart of the West Block of Grasslands National Park.
It was a beautifully dark site except for flashes of spotlights now and then (not seen in the photos here) from naturalists doing census studies of the nocturnal and endangered black-footed ferret recently re-introduced to the Park. Ironically, their lights spoiled the otherwise pristine and pitch-black night in this dark sky preserve.
Grasslands National Park is one of the finest places in Canada to revel in the dark night sky.
This was the scene last night, in far south Saskatchewan, under clear and super dark night skies, at long last after a week of rain, wind and wintery cold.
I’m at Grasslands National Park south of Val Marie, Saskatchewan, to shoot night sky panoramas in what must rank as Canada’s darkest Dark Sky Preserve.
The park itself is new, created only a decade and half ago. It preserves original prairie grasses and is home to unique and rare species. Bison roam here, allowing you to travel back to pre-European times as you gaze out onto a landscape much as it was for thousands of years.
But look up at night and you can gaze at a sky as it was seen for thousands of years, mostly unblemished by the artificial glows of light pollution. Grasslands National Park is a “dark sky preserve,” allowing visitors to see the stars and Milky Way as they should be seen.
I shot this 360° panorama from the Eagle Butte Loop Trail just inside the boundary of the Park. The main hill is 70 Mile Butte, a landmark to the early NorthWest Mounted Police as it lay 70 miles from their posts at Wood Mountain to the east and Eastend to the west.
This view looks out across the farmland to the west and a handful of yard lights. But little else spoils the view around the rest of the horizon. The last vestiges of evening twilight provide a backdrop for the lone silhouette.
The Milky Way arches overhead, and some bands of green airglow, a natural night sky phenomenon, stretch from east to west. The centre of the Milky Way Galaxy lies to the far right, with its glowing clouds of stars.
Peaks of the Continental Divide reflect in the calm waters of Lower Waterfowl Lake.
These images provide a sense of what a beautiful night this was, last Monday on the Icefields Parkway in Banff.
The evening started with a super-clear twilight providing subtle shadings – from the last glow of sunset on the horizon, through the “twilight purple” above, to the deep blue of the darkening sky at top.
The purple hue comes from red sunlight still illuminating the upper atmosphere and blending with the blue sky from the usual scattering of short blue wavelengths.
The twilight scene is a high-dynamic range blend of several exposures processed with Photoshop’s HDR Pro as a 32-bit file in Adobe Camera Raw.
Taking different frames from the same set that I used to capture the Space Station I created this star trail scene, of the western stars setting over Mt. Cephren. Light from the one-day-past Full Moon illuminated the peaks that line the Continental Divide.
The star trail scene is a composite – of many images stacked to create the star trails, blended with a masked single image from the set to supply the landscape.
For the star trail stacking I used the excellent Advanced Stacker Plus actions from Star Circle Academy. To separate and mask out the sky from the landscape image I used Photoshop’s Quick Selection tool and its wonderful Refine Mask function.
A small moonbow forms in the light of the full “super moon” at Bow Falls in Banff.
This was Sunday night, August 10, on the night of the bright “super moon” that lit the landscape. In this case, I was at Bow Falls, a popular tourist spot in the townsite of Banff below the Banff Springs Hotel.
However, by night only a handful of people appeared, including two who stayed still long enough to record on one frame, above.
The sky, however, is made of many frames, exposed over an hour to add the star trails. But the landscape is from one exposure, and includes a short arc of a moonbow, a rainbow created from moonlight.
In an alternative version, sans moonbow, I shot one short and several long exposures to capture the stars of the Big Dipper streaking over the falls.
These are two more examples of how magical the mountains are by moonlight. And how quiet the usually busy tourist spots are!
What a spectacular sunset tonight. The Sun is just going down in a blaze of red, while the waxing Moon shines in the deep blue twilight.
I grabbed the camera fast when I saw this happening out my front window, and raced out to the ripening wheat field across the road.
The top image is a 360° panorama of the sky, with the Sun at right and the Moon left of centre. The zenith is along the top of the image.
I used a 14mm lens in portrait mode to cover the scene from below the horizon to the zenith, taking 7 segments to sweep around the scene.
You can see the darkening of the sky at centre, 90° away from the Sun, due to natural polarization of the skylight.
I shot this sunset image a little earlier, when the Sun was higher but still deep red in the smoky haze that has marked the sky of late. It certainly gives the scene a divine appearance!
This is a 5-exposure high-dynamic-range composite to capture the tonal range from bright sky to darker ground, the wheat field. I increased the contrast to bring out the cloud shadows – crepuscular rays.
I boosted colour vibrancy but didn’t alter the actual colours – it was a superb sky.
I used PTGui v10 to stitch the panorama at top and Photomatix Pro to stack and tone the HDR set. While Photoshop is wonderful it did not work for assembling either of these images.
Evening light illuminates the peaks around Red Rock Canyon in Waterton Lakes National Park.
I took this image last evening as part of a time-lapse sequence, framing the wild roses in the foreground and the peaks of Mount Blakiston (at left) and Mount Anderson (at right) in the distance. The site is the popular Red Rock Canyon area of the Park.
The last rays of sunlight are hitting Blakiston.
That peak is named for Thomas Blakiston, the first scientific explorer to map the area of Waterton and the passes of the southern Canadian Rockies. Although at the time he was here in 1858, this was still British colonial territory separated from the United States by an ill-defined border running along the 49th parallel just south of this spot.
Blakiston was part of the British Palliser Expedition, led by John Palliser, whose mission was to survey the little-known region south of the South Saskatchewan River to assess its suitability for settlement.
Palliser concluded that the parched rain-shadow area of what is now southern Saskatchewan and Alberta was “desert, or semi-desert in character, which can never be expected to become occupied by settlers.” That area became known as the Palliser Triangle. Only extensive irrigation made settlement possible.
Blakiston was the expedition’s magnetical observer, taking readings of the Earth’s magnetic field strength and direction throughout the region. He disputed Palliser’s leadership and soon broke away from the expedition to conduct his own treks and compile his own reports. It was Blakiston who named the area after Charles Waterton, a famous British naturalist of the time. The region became a nationally-recognized park in 1895.
The setting Sun lights the clouds over Upper Waterton Lake, Alberta.
Waterton Lakes National Park is certainly one of my favourite places. The scenery is wonderful and the town small and quiet. It has all the beauty of Banff with none of the retail sprawl and traffic jams.
I shot the scene above two evenings ago, July 15, from the viewpoint at the Prince of Wales Hotel. It overlooks Middle and Upper Waterton Lakes, the latter lighting up as it reflects the sunset clouds. This is a frame from a motion-control time-lapse.
Last night I shot a time-lapse from the lakeshore, looking through the windswept trees toward the south end of the Upper Lake, as the Milky Way begins to appear in the darkening twilight.
Lights from the campground illuminate the trees with just enough light to balance the foreground and sky. Sometimes you can make use of man-made light.
I’m here at Waterton to conduct some public programs Friday and Saturday night. Skies are clear but hazy with smoke and cirrus clouds. But the days and nights are warm and aren’t windy, a welcome treat in Waterton!
The orange Full Moon – a hyped “super moon” – rises over a yellow field of canola.
What a colourful sky this was tonight – the pink Belt of Venus twilight band above the blue shadow of the Earth, above the yellow ripening canola.
And the orange Full Moon embedded in our planet’s shadow.
The onslaught of publicity about super moons this week – it seems we now have not one but several a year making them all a lot less super! – does serve one purpose: it gets people out looking at the Moon they might otherwise take for granted.
Supermoon or not, this confluence of colours can occur any time the Full Moon rises. But if you aren’t outside watching you miss it.
The clouds paint the sky at sunset over a pioneer cabin in the Cypress Hills.
This is a scene the original resident of this cabin would have enjoyed – and painted.
This lonely log cabin in the Battle Creek valley was built by Robert David Symons, renowned as a rancher, naturalist, game warden, and painter, in the style of western artists such as Charlie Russell.
The cabin looks like it dates from the pioneer days of the first European settlement of the area, in the late 19th century. But Symons settled here and built this log cabin in 1939, during the time he worked as a game warden in the Hills, posted at the Battle Creek Ranger Station. He lived in the cabin for only three years before selling it to Albert and Sylvia Noble in 1942.
The Nobles expanded the cabin to accommodate their family. They lived here for 10 years, working a sawmill in the area.
Today the cabin is a scenic stop on the rough and often muddy Battle Creek Road that winds from the Alberta to the Saskatchewan side of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park. Travelling it is like being back in the 1940s, when roads were no better than improved cart tracks.
I spent an evening here two nights ago on a perfect summer night, shooting the sunset and then the cabin scene by moonlight using time-lapse cameras and gear.
The main scene at top is a high dynamic range stack of 6 images to preserve details in the bright sky and dark foreground.
The self-portrait is a single shot taken by moonlight. Mars and Spica are just setting as a pair of stars over the hills across the valley.
The sky lights up pink to match the wild roses in Cypress Hills.
Last night the twilight sky over the Cypress Hills was simply stunning. The clouds contrasted with the blues and pinks of twilight. On the way out to an evening shoot I stopped to take this image of the darkening sky colours behind the blooming wild roses, the floral emblem of Alberta.
In this photograph I’m looking east, opposite the sunset. The dark blue on the horizon is the shadow of the Earth rising. Above the shadow is a fringe of pink, the Belt of Venus, from red sunlight still lighting the upper atmosphere in that direction. Its colour nicely matches the pink roses – Earth and sky in colour coordination.
This is a high dynamic range stack of 6 exposures, to capture the bright sky and darker foreground in one image, to render the scene as the eye saw it but the camera could not, at least not with a single exposure.
The setting Sun provided a fine light show on the open range of the Canadian Prairies.
This was the scene Friday evening, July 4, as the Sun lit up the clouds in the big sky of the Historic Reesor Ranch.
I’m here for a week of intensive shooting and writing. On the first night the setting Sun put on a fine show, captured in still images, like the high dynamic range composite above, and in time-lapses captured with the motion control gear below.
When I took these shots I was likely right on the 105th meridian, the line of longitude that marks the boundary of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Either way, the land is expansive and stunning.
Just to the south the land rises to the Cypress Hills and the namesake provincial park where I’m spending most nights shooting stills and time-lapses. More to come this week I’m sure!
It was windy day out on the wind farm, with some wonderful cloudscapes blowing by.
Shooting time-lapse movies by day is so much easier than shooting at night! Yesterday, to try out some new gear and grab footage for some demo videos, I drove to the nearby Wintering Hills Wind Farm, site of some previous images and movies I’ve posted. It’s a wonderful place for nightscapes, but in this case I shot cloudscapes by day.
The movie compiles five time-lapse clips into a short demo of cloudscapes and time-lapse techniques: using fixed cameras and using cameras on motorized devices that move the camera a little between each time-lapse frame – what’s called “motion control.”
It might take a moment to load and play through. But do expand it to full screen.
For two clips in the movie I used a Dynamic Perception Stage Zero dolly rail, a unit I bought two years ago and have used a lot for time-lapse shooting.
Here I show it on the new pair of Induro tripods, a much more stable arrangement than the single large tripod I had been using up to now. What’s also new is the Stage R panning unit, now attached to the dolly platform, here on the left (the controller is on the right).
What this motorized unit does is allow the camera to slowly turn in azimuth as it is running down the rail, to keep the camera aimed at a foreground subject, or to pan along the horizon, as I do in one of the clips in the movie.
This is a brand new piece of kit, purchased last month through Dynamic Perception’s Kickstarter campaign. I got one of the first batch of units shipped out. It works very well but takes a little practice to get the speeds set right. I’m still working on that!
I hope you enjoy the little demo movie. It shows that even cloudy skies can be photogenic at times!
The waning Moon and Venus rise together into the summer dawn.
This was the scene this morning, June 24, as the waning crescent Moon rose together in conjunction with Venus, into the dawn sky.
The morning could not have been more clear for a great view of them coming up over the distant hills in southern Alberta.
Pity there was not also some noctilucent clouds, but this morning there was no sign of them. Nor of any aurora through the night, despite promising signs of activity. But the morning show made up for their absence.
The waning Moon and Venus are together again on the morning of July 24, exactly a month from now.
Look north in June and July from the Canadian Prairies and you are likely to see iridescent clouds shimmering in the mid-summer twilight.
It’s been a good couple of nights for sighting noctilucent clouds – literally “night shining” clouds, or NLCs. These are odd water vapour clouds that form at the edge of space 80 km up where no self-respecting cloud has a right to exist.
But there they are. Existing and moving in waves in a near vacuum.
We see them because at solstice time the Sun’s light pours over the pole (where the midnight Sun is shining) and lights up the clouds that hang over the Canadian Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
From the Prairies we see them far in the distance to the north, as here, shining low on the horizon amid the deep blues and reds of a perpetual twilight that never ends on our short summer nights.
The top photo, taken Saturday night, is a 5-section panorama with a short telephoto lens. The bottom image, taken early this morning, is just the opposite – a very wide angle shot showing the clouds in context, with the Big and Little Dippers at top left and centre.
On the eve of summer solstice the sky was filled with an amazing light show.
Living on the great plains of southern Alberta gives me access to the big sky right outside my door. On summer nights, the entertainment is often watching thunderstorms roll across the northern horizon down “hailstorm alley” to the north of me.
That was the case on Friday night, the eve of summer solstice. What a photogenic storm this was! Lightning lit up the roiling cloud from within and, as below, shot out in an escape path toward the ground.
Despite the midnight hour, the sky is blue with the glow of perpetual twilight at this time of year at 51° north.
As this storm receded, another rolled in, this time directed at my area. Lightning flashed all around (it was too rainy to shoot).
As I was processing these shots, the power flickered, then went off, as a bolt hit someplace critical to the power system. In the country it doesn’t take much to knock out the power to outlying areas. Mine was out for another 14 hours. Thank goodness for laptop batteries!
A field of fireflies dances under the stars on the eve of summer solstice.
On Friday, June 20, the night before summer solstice, I had a superb night at home watching storm clouds, fireflies and the glow of perpetual solstice twilight.
June is firefly season and on a warm night I see them dancing and flickering above the grassy field. They appear here as green sparkles and streaks, with the stars above and Milky Way just showing through in the blue of a solstice twilight.
Flashes from distant lightning help illuminate the ground and clouds.
These frames are from a time-lapse sequence, with the frame above picking up few fireflies. But it did reveal the streak from an Iridium satellite flaring in the sunlight as it flew overhead.
While the sky from my latitude of 51° North never gets dark at this time of year it is filled with other beautiful sky glows and phenomena.
What a fabulous night this was! Forewarned about an impending solar storm I headed to the site of a rustic barn near home to shoot the Northern Lights.
The night started with cloud but upon looking out after midnight (it pays never to go to bed too early!) the skies were clear. Checking Spaceweather.com showed an active auroral oval lit up red and Storm in Progress warnings!
That was all the cue I needed to pack up the gear and head over to the old barn site where I have been shooting time-lapses all this week.
The aurora remained quiet and diffuse for the first hour and a half, but then about 2 a.m., the substorm hit. Within seconds the curtains began to light up with well-defined rays and beams shooting to the zenith. And they danced.
The notable feature of this display, as with one in May 2013, was the blue and purple colour of the tops of the curtains. I think this is partly due to sunlight illuminating the tops of the curtains, possible at this time of year when the upper atmosphere is perpetually lit by the midnight Sun.
From the start I shot with two cameras taking time-lapses (the main still image at top is a frame from one of the movies). Then toward the end of the night I switched to just shooting still images framed to suit the curtains towering up to the zenith.
As above, I also shot a “selfie” of me shooting the vertical image in the middle of the set.
But below is the result of a night of shooting time-lapse movies and stills, in a montage set to music. The link takes you to my Vimeo site. Do turn on HD mode.
As the setting Sun broke through clouds it created a rainbow over my backyard.
I see lots of fine sky phenomena right from my back deck. Such was the case last evening as a storm retreated east as they typically do. Clearing skies in the west allowed the Sun to shine through, the perfect combination for a rainbow.
For the main image above I shot the double rainbow with the ultra-wide 14mm Rokinon lens …
… and also with the 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens for this image. It’s angled to be suitable for re-projection in a tilt-dome planetarium theatre.
We’re into stormy spring weather here in Alberta, so there will be many more rainbows to follow the dark clouds. Let’s hope for no more floods like last June.
The thin waxing crescent Moon returned to the evening sky tonight, seen here in the deepening blue of a New Mexico evening.
I’m in Silver City, New Mexico (altitude 5900 feet) for a few days and nights, checking out places to spend next winter, under clearer and warmer skies than back home … and with rarely any snow to shovel.
This was the scene tonight, on the ranch road with one of the prime property choices – astronomers check real estate locations by day and night!
The crescent Moon is lit by Earthshine as it sits amid the deep blue twilight. The stars of Taurus show up flanking the Moon, with the Hyades at left and Pleiades at right.
This image is a high-dynamic range stack of 6 exposures from 2 to 20 seconds, to capture the ground detail without blowing out the Moon. Lights from an approaching pickup truck nicely lit the trees during the final longest exposure.
For the technically minded, I stacked the images using Photoshop CC HDR Pro, then “tone-mapped” them using Adobe Camera Raw in 32 bit mode.
The sky was hazy all day and evening, from wind-blown dust common to the area. Fierce southerly winds were whipping up dust all day, which hung in the sky all evening as well.
The sunset was a golden yellow from all the dust in the air. Once it got dark the sky lacked the ideal desert transparency, muting the zodiacal light I saw last night from the Chiricahuas.
The thin waning Moon sits in the red clouds of sunrise on a winter morning.
This was the scene this morning, February 27, just before sunrise when I was able to catch the thin crescent Moon – a waning Moon – amid the sunrise clouds. The Moon just happened to appear in a clearer hole in the clouds, in a blue patch above the pinks and oranges of the clouds. They contrast with the cold blue snow below.
An ice crystal halo surrounds the Moon while a jet contrail crosses the sky.
On our last nights earlier this week at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre we had a bright gibbous Moon in our sky (as did everyone in the world!). We also had high-altitude clouds filled with ice crystals, the source of the “ring around the Moon” effect. This is a lunar halo, created by moonlight shining through six-sided ice crystals. This halo exhibits rainbow-like colours as well.
But this night, conditions were also ideal for seeing the contrails from jets flying overhead on polar routes from Europe to North America. In the main image above, you can see the jet departing to the west at lower right. Its high-altitude contrail is casting a dark shadow onto the lower cloud deck.
This view, taken earlier in the evening shows a more pronounced lunar halo with a horizon-to-horizon contrail shooting straight across the Moon and also casting a shadow.
I used an 8mm fish-eye lens to capture this 360° image of the entire sky. I was able to shoot this image in shirt-sleeve comfort through the rooftop plexiglas viewing dome at the Centre.
In this image, taken outside at -25° C, the sky is clearer but still contains enough ice crystal cloud to create a bright lunar halo. When I took this image on February 9 the Moon was to the right of bright star-like Jupiter, and in the middle of the winter stars and constellations, such as Orion just below the Moon.
Lunar haloes can be seen at any season. On any night with a nearly Full Moon embedded in high haze, look up!
Watch waves of aurora wash over the sky rising out of the west to swirl overhead.
This was the spectacle we saw Friday night at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, as the northern lights filled our sky. I set up my camera on the east side of the main building, out of the bitterly cold west wind. The fish-eye lens is aimed west but its view takes in most of the sky.
The bright object at lower left is the Moon.
The still image above is a frame from the 349-frame time-lapse movie below.
Each frame is a 7-second exposure at f/3.5 and ISO 1250. The interval is 1 second.
The movie covers about 45 minutes of time, compressed into 30 seconds. It shows the aurora peaking in intensity, then fading out behind the ever-present thin cloud drifting through all night.
What amazes me are the waves and loops of auroral curtains that come at us from the west (bottom behind the building) then swirl around the zenith overhead. They move off to the east and north at the top of the frame.
Even watching this in real-time the scene was astonishing. The curtains rippled so quickly, forming and reforming over the sky, you didn’t know where to look. As the image above shows, people just stood amazed.
Last night, February 7, the Northern Lights danced for us again, starting with a curtain of green and pink in the south.
Our second tour group at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre has been here a couple of days, all under what looked like hopeless cloud. But last night the clouds cleared unexpectedly to reveal a moonlit winter sky.
I completed my evening talk all about the Sun and aurora, during which we were monitoring the auroral activity indicators on SpaceWeather.com. Sure enough, about 9:30 pm, right on cue and perfectly timed for convenience, a curtain of light began to dance across the southern sky, appearing in Orion. The gibbous Moon is just off frame to the right. We began the viewing from the Centre’s second floor viewing deck which looks east and southeast.
This view shows the auroral curtain over the derelict launch towers of the Churchill Rocket Range. Built in 1957 for the International Geophysical Year, the Rocket Range was in use until the mid-1980s as Canada’s only launch facility. Hundreds of sounding rockets, many of them Canadian-built Black Brants, were launched from here, shooting up into the ionosphere on nights just like this to study the aurora.
Orion is at right. While we saw this curtain in our southern sky, others farther south in Canada were seeing it in their northern sky. The greens were easy to see with the eye but the magentas were visible only by the camera and I have punched up their intensity here.
This night, as the aurora display developed it moved north to the zenith, shown here, with the sky also lit by moonlight and with some high haze. But the combination makes for a wonderful abstract swirl of light and colour.
The sky simply does not get any more amazing than this, as the Northern Lights dance across the heavens.
On the last night for our first aurora tour group of the season, the sky performed perfectly. Clouds cleared to reveal a star-filled winter sky, and after the evening talks and farewell drinks, the aurora began to appear. First it was a bright arc across the north, prompting me to try some self-portraits, as below.
But at about 2 a.m. a diffuse arc across the zenith exploded into activity, with rapidly waving and weaving curtains.
Everyone was awestruck. Some cheered and hollered. Others just watched in stunned silence. Some were busy with cameras. Others just enjoyed the view of a lifetime.
It was a cold night, but the aurora kept performing in waves, dimming for a time – allowing us to retreat to the warm cafeteria for hot chocolate. Then the display would brighten again to the west and a new wave of intensity would sweep across the sky to the east.
You didn’t know quite where to look to take it all in. The sight was overwhelming. Here the curtains ripple through Orion, Taurus and Auriga, all setting into the west.
The Churchill Northern Studies Centre has a new building opened in 2011 that is ideally set up for aurora watching. The building can go dark, and is located far enough from Churchill that local light pollution is not an issue. On the roof is a plexiglas dome where several people can view the Northern Lights and the entire sky in shirtsleeve comfort. The image is good enough for wide-angle photography. Sheer luxury!
But there’s nothing like being outside on a cold Arctic night, looking up and seeing this sight – thin curtains of light twisting and turning more quickly than you can take in and comprehend. It is one of nature’s greatest shows. And what a fantastic place to see it.
Our tour group to see the Northern Lights finally saw what they traveled north to experience – the aurora borealis dancing across the sky.
This week and next I’m helping to lead some tour groups who have come to Churchill, Manitoba to see the aurora. We’ve been here 3 nights so far but last night was the first with clearing skies and when the Northern Lights appeared above us.
Our home base is the beautiful Churchill Northern Studies Centre, far enough from the main townsite to give us dark skies. Being able to sleep, eat and take in lectures (or for me, give lectures) right where we can see the aurora is a tremendous luxury and convenience. The Centre is perfectly set up for aurora viewing, with a rooftop dome, and the ability to “go dark” with all lights off.
Here in Churchill, on the shores of Hudson Bay, we are at a latitude of 58° north. But critically, we are right under the usual position of the auroral oval, the main band of Northern Lights that circles the world at high latitudes.
As such, even though last night the various aurora and magnetic field indicators were registering a quiet display with little disturbance in the field, we still saw a beautiful display. It wasn’t very active but did display curtains and rays shooting up to the zenith.
As seen here, for much of the time the main band of aurora was actually in the south. That’s Jupiter glowing through the aurora and thin clouds at upper right.
We’ve been fighting clouds all week but last night skies cleared for long enough and it seemed at just the right time to coincide with the brightest outburst of this display. After I took these images, the aurora died down to a more diffuse glow then the clouds thickened in again. By then it was 3 am and we all retired to our rooms.
My 2-minute music video looks back at some of the celestial highlights of 2013, in images and videos I captured.
Some of the events and scenes I show were accessible to everyone who looked up. But some required a special effort to see.
• In 2013 we had a couple of nice comets though not the spectacle hoped for from Comet ISON.
• Chris Hadfield became a media star beaming videos and tweets from the Space Station. We on Earth could look up and see his home sailing through the stars.
• The sky hosted a few nice conjunctions of planets, notably Mars, Venus and Jupiter in late May.
• The Sun reached its peak in solar activity (we think!) unleashing solar storms and some wonderful displays of northern lights.
• Locally, record rain storms in Alberta unleashed floods of devastating consequences in June, with a much publicized super moon in the sky.
• For me, the summer proved a productive one for shooting the “star” of the summer sky, the Milky Way.
• But the year-end finale was most certainly the total eclipse of the Sun on November 3. Few people saw it. I did, from a ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The video ends with that sight and experience, the finest the sky has to offer.
I hope you enjoy this music video mix of time-lapse, real-time video and still images, shot from Alberta, New Mexico and from the Atlantic.
You can watch a better quality version of this video at my Vimeo channel.
A solar halo and sundogs surround the Sun on a cold winter day in Alberta.
I’m back home amid the snow and cold. The one celestial treat to such a clear but cold winter day is the appearance of sundogs and solar halos around the cold Sun.
This was this morning, with the low winter Sun above my snow-covered backyard, and the air filled with tiny ice crystals. You can see them as sparkly “stars” in the sky and in the foreground. Those crystals are refracting the sunlight and making the coloured “rainbows” on either side of the Sun called “parhelia” or sundogs. A faint halo encircles the Sun, topped by an upper tangent arc.
You can read more about halos and their origin at Les Cowley’s AtmosphericOptics website.
Here’s another view with a wider-angle lens. I’ve punched up the vibrance to bring out the fact that the shadows on such a day are not black or grey but blue, coloured by the intense blue light streaming down from the sky.
With these winter scenes, I wish all my blog fans and followers a very Merry Christmas, happy holidays and a very happy New Year. Clear skies to all in 2014!
The waxing gibbous Moon rises over the Chiricahua Mountains of southeast Arizona.
This was the stunning scene on Sunday night, December 15, as I drove out to Chiricahua National Monument south of Willcox, Arizona for some moonlight photography. I stopped on Highway 186 to catch the colourful twilight in the east with the Moon rising over the desert mountains.
This image, taken a few minutes later, shows a darker sky but with more prominent crepuscular rays – shadows cast by distant clouds to the west where the Sun set. A photogenically placed windmill adds to the scene.
I love the contrast of Earth tones and twilight tints – a very desert-like palette.
High clouds shimmer with iridescent colours near the Sun in an unusual display of atmospheric optics.
As I was getting ready to shoot the sunset at White Sands National Monument last evening, December 10, I looked up at the late afternoon Sun and saw it embedded in thin clouds tinted with iridescent colours. My dark sunglasses helped me see the phenomenon by eye, and underexposing the image helped me capture the colours by camera.
The effect is more common than you might think, but being so close to the blinding Sun iridescent clouds often go unnoticed. The almost metallic-looking colours are caused by clouds made of water droplets of such a uniform size they diffract the sunlight and spread the white light into a stunning range of colours.
This image frames the scene in portrait mode. I took several images over the few minutes the effect lasted. But the clouds soon moved off or changed structure and the iridescence faded. Despite the Sun shining through similar looking thin clouds the next evening, December 11, I saw no such iridescence.
The setting Sun sets the sky on fire above the gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument.
A week ago I was at Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona for the sunset. This was the scene tonight, at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.
I was on top of a sand dune at the Yucca picnic area on the Loop Road, watching an amazing sunset over the dunes. The clouds lit up on cue and Venus began to appear, visible here left of centre. The horizon was rimmed with a rainbow of twilight tints.
It was a cool evening, and driving on the unpaved Loop Road graded out of the white sand made me feel I was back home driving on a snow-covered back road. But the white stuff wasn’t snow but pure white gypsum.
This image is a High Dynamic Range (HDR) stack of seven exposures taken at 2/3rd stop increments and composited with Photomatix Pro. The technique brings out details in the shadowy landscape while preserving the bright sky. I used the 14mm Rokinon lens on the Canon 5D MkII. Final processing was in Photoshop CC.
A mix of sky glows fills the pre-dawn sky in New Mexico.
To the eye the sky looked dark, marred only by some high haze drifting through. But the camera reveals a sky filled with an amazing wealth of colourful glows.
I took this 360° panorama in the pre-dawn hours (4:45 a.m.) this morning (December 8) from the Painted Pony Resortin southwest New Mexico. It reveals a swath of green airglow to the north, the zodiacal light, and the Milky Way. At northern latitudes there was bright aurora visible last night. We might have seen some sign of it here in New Mexico in the form of increased airglow activity.
The panorama takes in, from left to right:
• Arcturus, shining like an ornament on the treetop
• the zodiacal light rising up from the east
• red Mars embedded in the zodiacal light below Leo
• the Milky Way from Puppis and Canis Major at left arching up and across the sky down into Perseus at right
• Sirius the brightest star
• Orion setting over the main house
• Jupiter, the bright object at top centre in Gemini
• Aldebaran and the Pleiades setting right of the main house in Taurus
• Polaris over the smaller house at right
• the Big Dipper at upper right pointing down to Polaris
• a green glow along the northern horizon above the smaller house that is likely intense airglow.
• green and red bands throughout the sky are airglow, caused by atmospheric molecules flourescing at night
• bands of high cloud also permeate the sky adding natural glows around the stars.
I stitched this panorama using PTGui software, from 6 segments, all tracked, taken with the 14mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8 for 2.5 minutes each and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600.
The colours of twilight illuminate the eroded rock formations of Chiricahua National Monument in southeast Arizona.
This was the scene tonight, Tuesday, December 3, as night fell over the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona. The landscape below is a maze of eroded towers of ancient volcanic ash. The sky above is one of the finest on the continent for stargazing.
I spent a week or so here back in May 1995, stargazing with friends from the parking lot at Massai Point at the summit of the Chiricahuas. Tonight was my first visit back to that parking lot in 18 years. The evening was just as windy as I remember it in 1995. And as it was back then, Venus was in the western sky tonight.
This was sunset a few minutes earlier when the clouds were lit red by the setting Sun. I used a 24mm lens for this shot but a 14mm lens for the main image above.
Both shots are 7- to 8-frame “high dynamic range” composites that stack images taken in quick succession over a range of exposures from 2 stops under to 2 stops overexposed. The stack of images, when merged with HDR software, captures what one exposure cannot, due to the huge contrast between the bright sky and the dark foreground at twilight. I used Photomatix Pro software to do the merging and tonal balancing. Such amazing digital tools were unheard of and undreamed of in 1995!
We saw many wonderful sunsets on our sail across the Atlantic, but this was one of the finest.
This was the sky two nights ago, on the evening of November 8, as the Sun, now below the horizon, lit up the clouds to the west. You can see a few people out in the netting of the bow sprit taking in the view.
Here was the view looking up into the square rigged sails on the foremast. “The sky is on fire” was the comment I heard from folks on deck.
Contributing to our theme of a rainbow eclipse trip, a red rainbow appeared to the east, lit by the light of the setting Sun. What a wonderful sky this was!
Indeed, one of the other astronomers on board tallied up the number of naked eye sky sights he had seen on the voyage. It was an impressive list, equalling what had previously taken him over 30 years of sky gazing to accumulate.
I’m writing this post from back on land, now in Barbados at a latitude of 13° north. However, now that I have high-speed connectivity I can get caught up with posts from the sea voyage, with a couple of more to come from at sea.
As we continue our sail across the Atlantic, our heading takes us southwest, directly toward the setting Sun.
This was the scene last night, a day out from the Canary Islands, as we set our course toward the eclipse intercept point. Our heading of roughly 245° takes us into the setting Sun each evening.
We’re now often under sail alone, with engines off. As Columbus and all trans-Atlantic explorers did, we’re letting the northeast trade winds blow us across the ocean. Under their steady force, we’re making a good 8 to 9 knots, sufficient to get us to the eclipse path on the appointed day and time on November 3.
On that day the Moon, seen here as a waning crescent in yesterday morning’s sky amid our square-rigged sails on the 4-masted Star Flyer, will cover the Sun for 44 seconds.
Tonight, October 28, was a magical night. Many of the eclipse tour folks gathered on the aft deck with all the lights off to lie back on deck chairs and gaze up at the Milky Way, with us now hundreds of kilometres away from any other lights.
We had the Milky Way above, while below, the ocean in our wake was exploding with flashes of bioluminescence. The night was warm and of course windless because we’re travelling with the wind. It was an amazing experience.
These were views seen from my airplane window earlier this evening as we descended into Madrid, Spain. The lighting, direction and timing were perfect for catching the crystal clear gibbous Moon shining in a beautifully clear sky (as it should be from this altitude) with a low Sun illuminating the clouds.
The view below, taken later after sunset, catches the Moon in a twilight sky, with the shadow of the Earth sharply defined as a dark blue band above the horizon.
In two days, on Friday October 18, the Moon passes through the outer part of Earth’s shadow, for a mild penumbral eclipse of the Moon.
I’ll be perfectly positioned in Spain to see it, but that’s not what I’m here for. I’m off to chase not the shadow of the Earth but the shadow of the Moon, as it hits the Earth two weeks after the lunar eclipse. On November 3 worlds will align again for a total eclipse of the Sun across the Atlantic Ocean and central Africa. I’ll be on the ocean.
Internet connections willing, I’ll be blogging from shipboard about the eclipse and views of sea and sky as we cross the Atlantic from Spain to Barbados chasing moonshadows.
The Harvest Moon rises into the dark arc of the Earth’s shadow.
What a perfect night this was. The Full Moon rose into a crystal clear sky, tinted with the dark blue shadow of our planet arching across the eastern sky.
The main image above is a 7-section panorama sweeping from northeast to southeast, but centred on the rising Harvest Moon rising almost due east.
The Moon came up just before the Sun set. The panorama below shows that scene. It’s a crop of a full 360°, 45,000-pixel-wide panorama, taken just as the Sun was setting almost due west and the Moon was rising 180° away in the east.
I took both panoramas with a Canon 5D MkII and 50mm Sigma lens, with the segments at a 30° spacing. That way I take 12 segments to cover a full 360°, a habit leftover from the days of shooting photo pans for planetarium projection systems consisting of 12 Kodak slide projectors.
My previous post showed some still frames from a time-lapse movie of the rising Harvest Moon. The final movie is above, assembled from 670 frames taken at 2-second intervals with the Canon 60Da and 200mm lens. I’ve shot this subject a few times now, but this was my best capture of the rising Full Moon at harvest time, always the most photogenic Moon it seems.
The Milky Way sweeps in a great arch of light across the sky.
It’s been a wonderful week for shooting the Milky Way. I had a very clear night on Tuesday but ventured no further than a few hundred feet from home to the harvested canola field next door.
The Milky Way was beautifully placed, as it always is at this time of year, right across the sky from northeast to southwest, with the starclouds of Cygnus passing directly overhead.
The top photo is a panorama of 8 shots, with a camera on a tripod, and each exposure being just 60 seconds with a 14mm lens in portrait orientation. I stitched the segments with PTGui software,rendering the scene with its spherical projection mode which wraps the dome of the sky onto a flat surface in a way that retains the zenith detail as your eye saw it, but greatly distorts the extremities of the scene at either end.
My house is at lower right.
For this image, I used the same lens to take a single view from horizon to well past the zenith. Here the camera was tracking the stars for a set of stacked 5-minute exposures to grab even more detail in the Milky Way.
What stands out as much as the Milky Way are the green fingers of airglow stretching across the sky. These were invisible to the eye but the camera sure picks them up.
Airglow is caused by oxygen atoms, in this case, fluorescing at night as they release some of the energy they absorbed by day. It’s not aurora and generally covers more of the sky, sometimes with a diffuse glow or, as here, with more structured bands that slowly shift over minutes. It varies from night to night and can occur at any latitudes. But usually only cameras pick it up. To the eye, airglow just makes the sky look inexplicably a little less dark than you think it should be on such a clear night.
The waxing Moon shines above a ripening field of wheat on a prairie August evening.
A track winds off through the wheat field toward the western twilight sky, while a waxing Moon shines in the south.
This was the scene tonight just down the county road where I live, on a warm August night on the Canadian Prairies.
For this shot, I assembled a high dynamic range set from eight exposures taken over a range of 8 f-stops, to compress the wide range of brightness into the one photo. Even so, the Moon remains overexposed. But I like shooting these scenes in deep twilight for more saturated colours and for some stars in the sky.
The Sun sets over the pines and prairie of Cypress Hills, Alberta.
Tonight it was too cloudy for meteors. But the sky did provide a very fine sunset.
I was at the Horseshoe Canyon viewpoint on the Alberta side of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, to catch a deep-red Sun going down into haze and cloud. This is looking northwest, from the pine-covered hills out over prairie plains of southern Alberta. The image is a high-dynamic range stack of 7 images.
The viewpoint also had an interpretive sign explaining the virtues of dark sky preservation – Cypress Hills Park is a large dark sky preserve – and I was pleased to see one of my photos used as an illustration on the sign. I had sent it to the Park several years ago.
But alas, no meteors in view tonight. And while there were a few visible the night before at the star party, out of 200+ shots I took, not one recorded a decent Perseid meteor! Of course!
The play of light and shadow in the open air create wonderful effects by night and day.
The Moon and Sun have each created some wonderful sky scenes of late, aided by clouds casting shadows and sunbeams across the sky.
Above, the rising waning Moon on Saturday night shone its warm light across the prairies. Clouds cast dark shadows diverging away from the Moon.
By day, clouds created the opposite effect. Holes in the clouds let through beams of sunlight, creating rays descending from the sky dancing across the land.
Both effects are technically known as crepuscular rays. You can read much more about the phenomenon at the wonderful Atmospheric Optics website. Clouds aren’t always the evil presence in the sky astronomers take them for. They can produce stunning effects. Just look up!
The silvery Milky Way and green bands of airglow stretch across the high plains and big sky of the Cypress Hills.
The Moon had long set and the night looked as dark as it could be. No lights interrupted the flat clear horizon. These are the high plains of the Cypress Hills, the highest place in Canada between Labrador and the Rockies.
And yet, in the panoramic photos I took last night the sky revealed its true colours.
In the 360° panorama above, the Milky Way arches overhead from northeast to southwest. It was obvious to the naked eye. But stretching across the sky from east to west are also bands of green and red airglow that were completely invisible to the eye, except perhaps for making the sky look more grey than it might have otherwise.
These aren’t aurora but are emissions of light caused by oxygen atoms fluorescing as they give off some of the energy they absorbed by day. Time-lapse sequences show these bands moving slowly across the sky.
I drove up the Graburn Road last night, to the plateau of Cypress Hills, to shoot a time-lapse of the Milky Way moving above this lone tree on the plains. It’s called the Survivor Tree, subject to drought, blizzards fire, cattle, and even being cut down at one time. But still it survives. With a cold wind blowing last night I had a taste of what this tough Lodgepole Pine has had to endure.
This is one frame from the final movie clip, with the tree and sky still lit by the light of the setting waxing Moon. An enduring tree beneath the timeless stars.
Early in the evening the northern sky was also marked by another sky phenomenon, noctilucent clouds – very high altitude clouds still lit by sunlight long after the Sun has set locally. These clouds made for a nice photo for a few minutes but soon faded from view as the Sun set even as seen from where these clouds live at the edge of space.
The night was left dark, with no aurora tonight – just the Milky Way and the faint wisps of airglow over the high plains of southern Alberta.
The Northern Lights sweep across the northern horizon in a classic arc of green and magenta curtains.
The aurora on the night of July 13/14 never got very bright but the sweep of the auroral oval still made for an interesting panoramic image.
I shot this at about 2 a.m. local time, from the high plains of southwest Saskatchewan, right on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, on the rolling hills of the historic Reesor Ranch. The only man-made light visible is a glow on the horizon just left of the auroral arc, from the city of Medicine Hat, Alberta.
The panorama takes in about 180° of sky, framing the sweep of the auroral oval across the northern horizon from northeast to northwest. In fact, you can see the gravel road I was on at far left and far right. The main band of green from glowing oxygen is topped by curtains of magenta, from oxygen and nitrogen atoms.
If you could see this display from space you would see it as an oval of light across the top half of North America. From my perspective on Earth, I could see just a portion of the complete oval, as an arc across the northern sky.
To create this image I shot 6 segments at 30° spacings, each a 30-second exposure with a 24mm lens at f/2.8 on a Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600. I used Photoshop to stitch the segments. It blended them seamlessly.
The summer Milky Way shines over a log cabin in the woods of the Cypress Hills.
This was the view this morning, at 2 a.m., as the Milky Way of northern summer shone over my vacation log cabin on the Reesor Ranch in Saskatchewan. After the clouds cleared the sky was beautifully dark for a while before the early dawn twilight came on.
The view here takes in the Milky Way from the Scutum star cloud above the trees to the dark dust clouds of northern Cygnus overhead. The trio of Summer Triangle stars, Deneb, Vega and Altair, flank the Milky Way.
This is a composite of five tracked and stacked images for the sky and one image for the foreground shot with the iOptron Skytracker running at half speed to minimize the blurring from the tracking motion. The lens was the 14mm Samyang at f/2.8.
The setting Sun lights up a classic Canadian prairie skyscape.
This was sunset last night, July 11, from the historic Reesor Ranch in southwest Saskatchewan, on the north edge of the Cypress Hills. The clouds opened up across the sky in a Chinook arch, with clearing to the west where the waxing Moon and Venus were also setting into the twilight.
It was a stunning scene looking out over the plains from the highlands of the hills.
I’m in the area for a week of shooting, weather permitting.
This shot is a 7-section panorama, stitched with Photoshop’s Photomerge command.
The Sun rises into a pastel palette of sky and earth tones.
I woke up early, just at sunrise, looked outside and wow!
I grabbed the camera and telephoto and got another nice shot right from my back deck. The canola field next to my yard is proving to be a photogenic foreground now that it’s in full bloom, just in the last couple of weeks.
There was enough haze and humidity in the air to dull the Sun to a fiery orange. The range of shades in earth and sky was wonderful. It was a classic prairie scene worth getting up for.
Being able to see the horizon is why I live on the plains and not in the foothills or mountains. And certainly not in the city!
A horizon-hugging rainbow shines over a blooming field of canola.
You don’t often see a rainbow like this. Just the top of the bow pokes above the horizon and a field of yellow canola.
The reason is the Sun’s altitude. When I shot this in late afternoon yesterday, July 4, the Sun was 40 degrees up in the northwest. That means the point opposite the Sun was 40 degrees below the horizon in the southeast. Rainbows are centred on this anti-solar point and are always 42 degrees in radius. So doing the math shows that only the top 2 degrees of the rainbow arc could be visible above the horizon, creating a rainbow chord.
Later in the evening as another storm receded, a more classic bow appeared, this time as a double rainbow. With the Sun now much lower the anti-solar point was higher and more of the semi-circular bow appeared in the sky. I wish I could have shot a time-lapse of “rainbow rise” but downpours of rain prevented me from leaving the camera out.
These are neat examples of the play of light and colour in the open air. For lots more information, check out the wonderful Atmospheric Opticswebsite.
A brief display of Northern Lights shines over a prairie lake.
Last night I went out to a nearby lake (there aren’t many in southern Alberta!) to shoot the twilight over water, and hoping to catch some aurora or noctilucent clouds as well.
There was lots of twilight but very little sign of aurora or NLCs. But at about 1 am the aurora kicked up briefly, enough to make a good photo but certainly nothing to get excited about for its visual appearance. It was just visible.
However, it was a fine evening of shooting at a quiet prairie lake. Crawling Lake is one of several reservoirs in the area that are part of the extensive irrigation system in southern Alberta. Despite the recent floods, this area is usually dry and drought-sticken.
This shot, which I took early in the evening, shows the lone star of Capella, shining in the twilight of a solstice summer sky. From my latitude of 51° N, Capella, normally considered a winter star, is circumpolar. It never sets and so can be seen skimming along the northern horizon on short summer nights.
An ultra-wide view shows the perpetual twilight of summer to the north, with the circumpolar stars of summer above. A campfire from some late-arriving campers is on the shore at right.
The Northern Lights danced all night, as Earth was buffeted by winds from the Sun.
As soon as I saw the warning notices at Spaceweather.com I was hoping we would be in for a wonderful night of aurora watching. I wasn’t disappointed.
Forewarned, I headed out to the Wintering Hills Wind Farm near my home in southern Alberta. I thought it would be neat to get shots of the effects of the solar wind from beneath and beside the wind turbines of the farm. The shot above is from a time-lapse movie taken with a fish-eye lens that will look great when projected in a full-dome digital planetarium.
I shot with three cameras, with two aimed east to where the brightest part of the auroral arc usually sits. It was also exactly where the Moon would rise after midnight. This shot, above, captures the scene right at moonrise, which was also right when the aurora kicked into high gear as a sub-storm of solar particles rained down on our upper atmosphere. The ground lit up green with the glow of oxygen in the mesosphere, some 100 kilometres up.
This shot, taken moments later with a longer focal length lens, grabs the waning Moon shining behind the distant wind machines, and beneath the arc of auroral curtains.
In all, I shot 50 gigabytes of raw images, both still images and frames for time-lapse movies. I’ve assembled most of them into a musical collage that honours the night. In the final sequence of the movie, it almost looks like the wind machine is facing into the brunt of the solar wind, as pulses of aurora surge from out of the east toward the turbine towering overhead.
The music is by a new favourite artist of mine, the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. His latest album of alt-classical/new age music is called “In a Time Lapse.” How could you not like that?! Buy it on iTunes. It’s stunning.
I hope you got to see the Night of the Northern Lights in person. If not, I trust these images and movies give you a sense of the wonder of what the solar wind can do.
It was a beautiful summer evening, with stars wheeling overhead in a moonlit sky and the only clouds far away and interesting.
This was one of those nights we get once or twice a summer when the much-anticipated noctilucent clouds – the clouds of summer – put on a perfect show. In my previous post I featured an image from early in the night, last night, June 26, 2013.
These are images and time-lapse movies from later in the night. The composite image above shows stars trailing over 90 minutes with the brilliant noctilucent clouds on the horizon, and fringed by a rosy glow of red twilight where the southern edge of the cloud display, which sits over the Northwest Territories, is being lit by a setting Sun with red sunlight filtering through our atmosphere as it passes over the North Pole.
This telephoto lens shot above captures a close-up of the rosy-fringed noctilucent clouds, behind a lightning-lit thunderstorm rolling through storm alley in central Alberta. The storms can stay there! We’ve had enough of them for a while!
My time-lapse sequence extends over about 90 minutes and opens with a wide-angle view of the display as it appeared low on the horizon. What follows are two closeup views that really show the intricate wave-like motion of these high-altitude mesospheric clouds, and their changing lighting and colours.
These are beautiful clouds drifting on the edge of space but it takes time-lapse to reveal their fluid-like motion.
This is the prairie night sky taken at the moment of summer solstice.
I shot this 360° panorama in the field near my house just before midnight on June 20, 2013, right about the official time of summer solstice. This is the longest night of the year and the brightest. The presence of the gibbous Moon contributes most of the night light, but there to the north at left you can see the glow of twilight and an aurora. At right, the waxing Moon shines in clouds, surrounded by a faint halo from ice crystals in the clouds.
Nights around solstice are always bright and filled with wonderful colours and atmospheric phenomena.
The tranquility of the solstice scene is in contrast with the horrific weather disaster taking place west of me near the mountains, as record floods from torrential rains wash away roads, railway lines, and houses. Roads are closed in and out of the mountains and entire neighbourhoods of Calgary near rivers are being evacuated.
Everyone knows somebody who is affected. For many this is indeed a very long and stressful night. I hope everyone keeps safe.
A stunning storm cloud retreats across the prairies leaving clear skies in its wake.
The timing could not have been better. On Monday night, June 17, a thunderstorm retreated to the east at just the perfect time to catch the light of the setting Sun.
As these prairie storms often do, this one left behind clear skies, with a quarter Moon at right to the south and the Sun to the west, off frame but illuminating this amazingly sculpted cloud. Downdrafts in the thunderhead produced the mammatus clouds – the bulbous structures hanging from the thundercloud. The low Sun angle emphasizes their form.
We’ve had a lot of rain and storms lately, but when a storm puts on as fine a show as this one, I’ll take it!
This image is a 3-segment panorama using the Canon 5D MkII and 16-35mm lens at 16mm. I used Photoshop’s Photomerge and Adaptive Wide Angle filter to stitch and straighten the image.
What strange clouds these are, moving where there shouldn’t be winds, and forming where there’s barely any air.
These are noctilucent clouds, sometimes called polar mesospheric clouds. Their icy strands form around particles at the top of the atmosphere some 80 km up. There’s almost no air up there so just how these clouds form has always been a mystery. They may be condensing around meteoric dust particles. They may also be more common now than in past decades and centuries, as the upper atmosphere cools due to an odd quirk of global warming that sees the lower troposphere warm while the upper mesosphere cools.
This was the first display of NLCs I’ve seen so far this season. They can only be seen, and indeed they only form, in summer. Sunlight streams over the pole and lights these clouds all night long. They are literally “night-shining” clouds. Only from a latitude range of 45° to 60° north and around summer solstice is the geometry right to see the clouds, usually as electric blue cirrus strands moving slowly along the northern horizon.
The time-lapse movies capture their motion over 30 to 90 minutes of shooting.
The 40-second movie contains three clips:
• The first, a wide-angle view of the amazing aurora that danced in fast accompaniment to the slow noctilucent clouds.
• The second clip, very short, zooms in a little more to the northern horizon. However, I cut that sequence short so I could switch lenses and take the next clip.
• The third scene is with a telephoto lens, framing the east-to-west slow motion of the clouds. I took 4-second exposures at 1-second intervals so it shows some pretty fine motion.
This was certainly one of the best NLC displays I’d seen and my best shot at capturing them.
What was especially rare was seeing them accompanied by auroral curtains actually moving among the clouds (or so it appeared). Both are up high in the near vacuum of near space, but they may have been miles apart in latitude.
Colourful sky phenomena combine to provide a remarkable sky show.
What a night this was! On Sunday, June 9 the aurora kicked off with a burst in the bright twilight but really got going as the sky got dark, shooting beams of magenta and blue up from the main green arc.
Then on cue, streamers of noctilucent clouds appeared low in the north, shining with their characteristic electric blue. These are odd clouds at the edge of space lit by sunlight streaming over the Pole.
Both these apparitions of the upper atmosphere glowed above a horizon rimmed with the orange of perpetual twilight set in a deep blue background sky.
Yes, the camera has brought out the colours more intensely than the eye saw, but nevertheless it was a remarkable evening close to solstice. This is a magical time of year when all kinds of sky glows light the night.
This night the European Einstein ATV cargo craft also flew over, twice, each time about 10 minutes ahead of the even brighter Space Station that it is chasing for a docking later this week.
More images to come from this night, including time-lapses of the Lights and Clouds.
What colour is the dark night sky? Depending on conditions, it can be any colour you want.
I shot this 360° panorama last night from my backyard under what looked like a clear and fairly dark, moonless sky. Looks can certainly be deceiving. The camera picked up all kinds of colours the eye couldn’t see.
Let’s review what’s causing the colours:
• To the north just left of centre the horizon is rimmed with a bright yellow glow from all-night perpetual twilight present around summer solstice at my mid-northern latitude.
• Above that shines a green and magenta band from a low-level aurora just visible to the naked eye.
• Much of the sky is tinted with bands of green from ever-present airglow, caused by oxygen atoms at the top of the atmosphere giving off at night some of the energy they absorbed by day. I had thought the sky would look blue from the perpetual twilight but the airglow seems to overwhelm that.
• Yellow glows around the horizon at left (west) and right (southeast) are from urban light pollution from towns 50 km away.
• Some strands of remaining cloud from a departing thunderstorm add streams of brown as they reflect lights from below.
• Finally, the Milky Way shows up in shades of yellow and pale blue, punctuated here and there by red patches of glowing hydrogen hundreds of light years away.
The only thing missing this night was a display of electric blue noctilucent clouds.
The sources of most of these colours are an anathema to observers of faint deep-sky objects. Aurora, airglow and certainly light pollution just get in the way and hide the light from the distant deep sky.
A word on technique:
I shot this panorama using an 8mm fish-lens to shoot 8 segments at 45° spacings. I used the excellent software PTGui to stitch the segments together, which it did seamlessly and flawlessly. Each segment was an untracked 1 minute exposure at ISO 3200 and f/3.5. The panorama covers 360° horizontally and nearly 180° vertically, from the ground below to the zenith above. It takes in everything except the tripod and me!
The Milky Way appears from behind the colourful curtains of the Northern Lights.
This was the scene last Saturday night, into the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning, May 5, as the summer Milky Way rose in the east while a display of aurora played across the northern sky. The Northern Lights weren’t particularly bright this night, but the long 2-minute exposure I used to bring out the Milly Way recorded the aurora with colours and an intensity only the camera could see this night.
The green is from oxygen glowing in the lower part of the atmosphere, though still some 80 km up, where only rockets and high-altitude balloons can fly. The tops of the auroral curtains are tinged with the pinks from another type of oxygen emission possible only at the very top of our atmosphere, where molecules are few and far between and what’s left of the air that surrounds us meets the vacuum of space some 150 km up.
From Earth it’s hard to visualize just what we are seeing when we look at display like this. But check out some of the Aurora videos at NASA’s Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. You’ll see time-lapse videos taken from the Space Station as it flies by and through the same types of aurorae with green lower bands and pink upper fringes, beautifully captured floating high above the Earth in vertical curtains reaching up into the blackness of space.
The photogenic dishes of the Very Large Array aim skywards as the setting Sun casts shadows across the sky.
If these were optical telescopes I could write that the telescopes were getting ready for a night of sky viewing. But radio telescopes can observe day and night.
Still, there is something magical about catching any type of telescope in action as the Sun sets and night falls. Here, the last beams of sunlight coming from the west illuminate the dishes, while dark shadows – crepuscular rays – cast by clouds converge toward the anti-Sun point in the east.
As part of my trek around New Mexico this past week, I shot this on Sunday, March 17, about an hour before I took the image of Comet PANSTARRS over the VLA dishes – for that image I was east of the array looking back to the west and to the comet.
But for this image I was at one of the public access areas, standing under one of the dishes, looking east.
At first, all the dishes were aimed up to the zenith, stowed I assume due to the high winds that were blowing all afternoon. But then, right on cue as I began shooting, all the dishes began to move in unison. The dishes first aimed toward me, then turned to aim up to the south, as here. It was an amazing dance to watch. It gave me goosebumps. And tears.
There is likely no more iconic image of our exploration of the universe from Earth than this array of antennas listening for the faintest signals from deep space – not alien radio programs, but the natural signals emitted by atoms and molecules where stars are forming and dying.
This was a perfect sunset for displaying the subtle shades of twilight.
On this evening the sky over the ocean showed off the classic sunset gradient from deep orange though yellow, purple and into deep twilight blue. I shot this on the water on my cruise around the Whitsunday Islands on board the Solway Lass. Note the dark reflections of clouds in the water.
We’re looking west, of course – the Sun still sets in the west in the southern hemisphere! – which is back toward the mainland of Queensland, Australia.
One of the great joys of sailing and being out on the water is the wonderful sunsets. In this case, sunset included a fine moonrise.
This is the gibbous Moon of November 26 in the evening sky over the Whitsunday Islands in Australia. On this evening we were moored in Baur Bay, at South Molle Island. The bright waxing Moon shines amid the red clouds in the east still lit by the last rays of the setting Sun from the west. It is everyday scenes like this, painted with the wonderful palette of colours only the sky can provide, that you begin to appreciate all the more – or more to the point, simply see – as you become “sky aware.” So no great science lessons to learn here – just some beautiful colours to soothe the soul as gentle waves lap against the side of the ship.
Oh, to be on the beach in the tropics now that winter’s here at home.
That’s where I was tonight, at the same beach on Magnetic Island, Queensland where I shot last night’s images of cloud shadows. You can see some of the same effect here, as the few darker clouds cast their dark shadows across the twilight. But in the clearer sky tonight, the classic colours of twilight are more pronounced than they were the previous night. The sunset sky goes from deep yellow near the horizon, through pinkish-purple and into deep blue high in the sky. The “twilight purple” is caused by red sunlight still illuminating the high atmosphere.
We see the same colour effects at temperate latitudes. It’s just a lot more pleasant enjoying a sunset on a warm beach in winter.