Touring the Wonders of the Winter Sky

The Wonders of the Winter Sky

I present a tour of the deep-sky wonders of the winter sky.

While some might think the Milky Way is only a summer sight, the winter Milky Way is well worth a look!

In January and February we are looking outward from our location in the Milky Way, toward the Orion Spur, the minor spiral arm we live in. In it, and in the major Perseus Arm that lies beyond, lie hotbeds of star formation.

Artist's impression of the Milky Way (updated - annotated)
Courtesy European Southern Observatory

These star forming areas create a panorama of star clusters and glowing nebulas along the winter Milky Way and surrounding the constellation of Orion. The montage above shows the best of the deep-sky sights at this time or year.

(And yes, for southern hemisphere viewers I know this is your summer sky! But for us northerners, Orion is forever associated with frosty winter nights.)

The closeups below are all with a 200mm telephoto lens providing a field of view similar to that of binoculars. However, most of these nebulas are photographic targets only.

The Belt and Sword of Orion

The Belt and Sword of Orion with Barnard's Loop
This is a stack of 16 x 2- to 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 to 1250 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker as part of testing. Taken from home on January 8, 2019 during a clear couple of hours between passing haze and cloud.

This is the heart of the star formation activity, in the centre of Orion.

The bright Orion Nebula (or Messier 42 and 43) at bottom in Orion’s Sword is obvious in binoculars and glorious in a small telescope.

The Horsehead Nebula above centre and just below Orion’s Belt is famous but is a tough target to see through even a large telescope.

Barnard’s Loop at left is a wave of nebulosity being blown out of the Orion area by strong stellar winds. Any sighting of this object by eye is considered a feat of observing skill!

The Rosette Nebula and Area

Rosette and Christmas Tree Cluster with 200mm
The area of the Rosette Nebula (bottom) and Christmas Tree Cluster (top) in Monoceros with the Fornax Lightrack tracker and 200mm lens and filter modified Canon 5D MkII. This is a stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800.

The small cluster of hot young stars inside the Rosette Nebula is blowing a hole in the nebula giving it its Rosette name. Above is a loose star cluster called the Christmas Tree, surrounded by more faint nebulosity that includes the tiny Cone Nebula.

Gemini Clusters and Nebulas

The Clusters and Nebulas of Gemini
This is a stack of 10 x 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. Some light haze passing through in some exposures added the natural star glows. I left those in as part of the stack to add the glows. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker as part of testing. Taken from home on a rare fine and mild winter night, January 4, 2019.

This field of clusters and nebulosity is above Orion in Gemini, with Messier 35 the main open star cluster here at top. Below M35 is the tiny star cluster NGC 2158. The nebulosity at left between Mu and Eta Geminorum is IC 443, a remnant of a supernova explosion, and is aka the Jellyfish Nebula. The nebula at bottom is IC 2174, just over the border in Orion and aka the Monkeyhead Nebula.

Auriga Clusters and Nebulas

The Clusters and Nebulas of Auriga
This is a stack of 5 x 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker as part of testing. Diffraction spikes added with Astronomy Tools actions. Taken from home on January 4, 2019.

Above Gemini and Orion lies Auriga, with its rich field of clusters and nebulosity, with — from left to right — Messier 37, Messier 36, and Messier 38, as the main open star clusters here. Below M38 is NGC 1907. The nebulosity at right is IC 410 and IC 405, the Flaming Star Nebula.

In between them is the colourful asterism known as the Little Fish. Messier 38 is also known as the Starfish Cluster while Messier 36 is called the Pinwheel Cluster. The bright red nebula at top is Sharpless 2-235. The little nebulas at centre are NGC 1931 and IC 417.

The California Nebula

The California Nebula in Perseus
This is a stack of 5 x 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. An additional exposure taken through the Kenko Softon A filter is layered in to add the star glows to bring out their colours. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker. Taken from home on a rare fine and mild winter night, January 4, 2019.

Now we enter Perseus, more an autumn constellation but well up through most of the winter months. It contains the aptly named California Nebula, NGC 1499, at top left, with the bright star Zeta Persei. at bottom A small region of reflection nebulosity, IC 348, surrounds the star Atik, or Omicron Persei, at bottom right. The star just below NGC 1499 is Menkib, or Xi Persei, and is likely energizing the nebula.

The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters

Pleiades M45 with 200mm Lens
The Pleiades with the Fornax Lightrack tracker and 200mm lens + Canon 5D MkII in a stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800.

Obvious to the eye and central to the sky lore of many cultures is the Pleiades, aka the Seven Sisters, in Taurus the bull. It is also called Messier 45.

This is a newly formed cluster of hundreds of stars, passing through a dusty region of the Milky Way, which adds the fuzzy glows around the stars — an example of a reflection nebula, glowing blue as it reflects the blue light of the young stars.

The Hyades

The Hyades Star Cluster with NGC 1647 in Taurus
This is a stack of 5 x 2-minute exposures with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. An additional exposure taken through the Kenko Softon A filter is layered in to add the star glows to bring out their colours. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker. Diffraction spikes added with Astronomy Tools actions for artistic effect.

Below the Pleiades in Taurus lies the larger Hyades star cluster. The V-shaped cluster stars are all moving together and lie about 150 light years away. Bright yellow Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, is an intruder and lies at only half that distance, so is not a member of Hyades but is a more nearby star. The smaller, more distant star cluster NGC 1647 appears at left.

Seagull Nebula

Seagull Nebula and Sirius with 200mm
This is a stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800 (with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII and Canon 200mm lens at f/2.8). The rings of colour around Sirius are an artifact of the sensor filter, I think!

Low in my northern winter sky is the brightest star in the sky of any season, Sirius. Just above and to the east of Sirius lies the Seagull Nebula (at top left), also called IC 2177, on the Canis Major-Monoceros border. Like many of these nebulas. the Seagull is too faint to easily see even with a telescope, but shows up well in photographs.

Lambda Orionis Nebula

Lambda Orionis Nebula with 200mm
With the Fornax Lightrack tracker and 200mm lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII. A stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800 with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII and Canon 200mm lens at f/2.8.

This is the head of Orion, with the red supergiant star Betelgeuse at bottom left and the blue giant star Bellatrix right at bottom right. The brightest star at top is Meissa or Lambda Orionis, and is surrounded by a large and very faint area of hydrogen nebulosity. The open cluster around Meissa is catalogued as Collinder 69.

While the winter Milky Way might not look as bright and spectacular as the summer Milky Way of Sagittarius and Scorpius, it does contains a wealth of wonders that are treats for the eye and telescope … and for the camera.

PS.: The techniques for taking and processing images like these form the content of our new Deep Sky with Your DSLR video course now being promoted on KickStarter until the end of February, and available for purchase once it is published later this spring.

See my previous blog post for details.  Thanks and clear skies!

— Alan, February 17, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / 


The Christmas Sky of 2013

Orion & Winter Sky (Christmas 2013)


” ‘Twas the night of Christmas, and all across the sky,

All the stars were twinkling, and Orion shone on high.”


Here’s my Christmas postcard, presenting the winter stars and constellations as they appeared over my Alberta backyard on Christmas night. The night was clear and calm, and not too cold.

Orion stood “on high” in the south, above bright Sirius, and below even brighter Jupiter at left, now blazing away in Gemini.

The winter Milky Way runs down the sky from Perseus at top to Canis Major on the horizon.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

– Alan, December 25, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Winter Sky Rising

Jupiter, Orion and Winter Sky Rising (24mm)

Jupiter and the stars of the winter sky rise in the east on a December night in New Mexico.

This was the scene last night, December 4, as clouds cleared away enough for great views of Orion and the winter sky rising above distant mountains in New Mexico. (All the clouds, that is, except for one annoying dark blob in Gemini above Jupiter!)

The bright object at lower left is Jupiter, in Gemini this winter, rising with Castor and Pollux to the left of Jupiter. To the right of frame Orion comes up on his side, with his Belt pointed down to where Sirius will come up shortly after I took this image. The red-sensitive camera picks up swirls of nebulosity around Orion.

Above Orion are the stars of Taurus and Auriga.

Milky Way in Perseus, Auriga and Taurus (24mm)

This image is a framing of the Milky Way from Perseus at top right down to Taurus and the top of Orion at bottom left. At centre is the blue Pleiades star cluster, and the red arc of the California Nebula. Also at centre you can see the long dusty tendrils of the Taurus Dark Clouds, interstellar clouds between us and the Perseus arm of the Milky Way.

I shot both from the Painted Pony Resort in southeast New Mexico using a little iOptron SkyTracker and 2.5- to 3-minute exposures with a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII.

— Alan, December 5, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

A Luminous Starfield

M38 & IC 405-410-417 Complex (92mm 6D)

The Starfish and the Flaming Star combine to create a rich star field in the Charioteer.

I shot this last week, using a favourite small refractor that takes in a generous field of view for a telescope. In this case, it frames the star cluster at left called the Starfish Cluster, or better known as Messier 38. At right the large number 7-shaped patch of nebulosity is the Flaming Star Nebula, known by its catalog number as IC 405. At bottom, the nameless companion nebulas are IC 417 at left and IC 410 at bottom centre.

Of note is the colourful grouping of six stars at right called the Little Fish. It’s not a proper star cluster but an asterism, a chance alignment of stars that happens to look like something imaginative. David Ratledge presents a nice list and photo gallery of similar whimsical asterisms at his website.

The entire field is a rich hunting ground for the eyepiece or camera. You can find it these nights, in winter from the northern hemisphere, straight overhead in the evening, in the middle of Auriga the Charioteer.

For this portrait I shot and stacked eight 7-minute exposures at ISO 800 using a filter-modified Canon 6D on my TMB 92mm apo refractor at f/4.8.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

– Alan, February 14, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer


Chariot of the Sky

Auriga the Charioteer rides high across the northern winter sky these nights. This is a wide-field image I took last week of the constellation that now shines overhead from northern latitudes.

My image takes in all of Auriga, the pentagon-shaped charioteer of Roman mythology, as well as the feet of Gemini the twins, spanning a wide area of the winter Milky Way. Sprinkled along this bit of Milky Way you can see a few clusters of stars. They include four of the best open star clusters in the catalogue of Charles Messier: M35 in Gemini at bottom, and M36, M37 and M38 in Auriga at centre, all wonderful targets for a small telescope. Some of these targets lie in the next spiral arm out from the one we live in.

The star colours show up nicely here, with the brightest star at top appearing a little off white. That’s Capella, 42 light years away and classified as a type G “yellow” star not unlike our own Sun in temperature but much larger – a giant star. Indeed, it is really two yellow-giant stars in close orbit around each other. It’s interesting that Capella doesn’t really show up as yellow. Just like our Sun does to our eyes, Capella appears white because it still emits such a broad range of colours that even though its peak energy does fall in the yellow part of the spectrum, all the other colours remain strong enough that the star looks white to our eyes. Remember, our eyes evolved under the light of a type G star to see all the colours of the spectrum from red to blue.

Only the cool red giant stars take on a yellow or orange hue to our eyes, and to the camera. You can see a few in this image, as well as hot blue stars. The pinky red bits are nebulas in the Milky Way – clouds of hydrogen gas emitting deep red light.

When we look in this direction in the Milky Way we are looking out toward the edge of our Galaxy, exactly opposite the galactic centre.

– Alan, February 21, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Awesome Auriga

My previous post was a profile of Perseus. Right next door in the current evening sky is Auriga the Charioteer, embedded right in the middle of the Milky Way. This is a 50mm “normal” lens shot of all of Auriga showing its distinctive pentagon shape with the bright yellow star, Capella, at top. It’s the bright star shining high overhead on winter nights, at least if you live in the northern hemisphere at latitudes like the US and Canada. What is not obvious (because it can’t be resolved through a telescope) is that Capella is a close double star, made of twin suns orbiting each other at about the same distance apart as are the Sun and Venus. A planet orbiting the pair would definitely see a Tatooine-style double-Sun sunset. Not to say Luke Skywalker was from the Capella system — remember Luke’s tale took place in a Galaxy far, far away! Capella is just 42 light years from Earth.

What shows up here just below centre is some of the wisps of red nebulosity in the middle of Auriga (tough to see visually but easy for the camera to see), as well as the trio of star clusters first catalogued by Charles Messier in the 18th century and that are great objects for any telescope. Notice how the Milky Way brightens through Auriga, partly by way of contrast to the lanes of dark nebulosity to the right that weave through Taurus and Perseus. The streak of nebulosity at right is the California Nebula in Perseus. Flip back to the previous blog to see more of Perseus, in a shot taken the same night.

I took this shot on January 23, 2011 (just about the last decent night we’ve had!) with the Canon 5D MkII set at ISO 800 and the 50mm Sigma lens set at f/2.8. It’s stack of  five 4-minute exposures, plus three 4-minute exposures with the Kenko soft filter to add the star glows. The blog “Fuzzy Constellations” a few posts back gives some more details about my technique.

– Alan, February 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer