Mars in the Moonlight


Mars in the Badlands

Mars is approaching! It now shines brightly in the midnight sky as a red star in Scorpius.

You can’t miss Mars now. It is shining brighter than it has since 2005, and is about to come as close to Earth as it has in 11 years as well.

Mars is now approaching opposition, when the Earth comes closest to Mars, and the Sun, Earth and Mars lie along the same line. Opposition date is May 22. That’s when Mars shines at its brightest, at magnitude -2.1, about as bright as Jupiter. Only Venus can be a brighter planet and it’s not in our sky right now.

A week later, on May 30, Mars comes closest to Earth, at a distance of 75 million kilometres. That’s when the disk of Mars looks largest in a telescope. And you will need a telescope at high power (150x to 250x) to make out the dark markings, north polar cap, and bright white clouds on Mars. 

Mars in the Moonlight (May 13, 2016)
Mars above Antares, with Saturn to the left, low in the south on May 13, 2016, in the moonlight of a waxing quarter Moon, from home in Alberta. This was one week before opposition and two weeks before closest approach, so Mars is particularly bright and red. However, from my latitude of 50° N Mars appears low in the south. This is a single 15-second exposure, untracked, at f/2.5 with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 2000.

In these views, I show Mars shining as a bright reddish star low in my western Canadian sky. I shot the lead image from Dinosaur Provincial Park on May 16. The image just above was from my backyard the night before.

This week, Mars is passing between Beta and Delta Scorpii, two bright stars in the head of Scorpius, as the red planet retrogrades westward against the background stars.

Saturn shines to the east (left) of Mars now, with both planets shining above the red giant star Antares in Scorpius. In these photos they form a neat triangle.

Even without a telescope to magnify the view, it’ll be rewarding to watch Mars with the unaided eye or binoculars as it treks west out of Scorpius into Libra this spring and summer. It stops retrograding on June 30, then starts looping back into Scorpius, for a rendezvous with Antares and Saturn in late August.

This little compilation of time-lapse movies shows Mars, Saturn, and the rest of the sky, rising into the southeast and across the south on two nights this past week.

Be sure to explore Mars this month and next, whether by eye or by telescope. It’s the best we’ve seen it in a decade.

It’s next close approach in 2018 will be even better, though Mars will appear even lower in our northern sky.

– Alan, May 17 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

 

The Dancing Lights over Dinosaur Park


The Northern Lights over the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on September 11, 2015. This is one frame from a 280-frame time-lapse sequence. Although, in this image the ground came from a later exposure in the sequence when passing car headlights lit the ground briefly on an otherwise dark, moonless night, to help sculpt the ground. This was with the Nikon D750 and 24mm lens for 15 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 6400.

The Northern Lights dance over the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, a World Heritage Site.

Aurora alerts called for a fine display on Friday, September 11. Forewarned, I headed to one of my favourite shooting spots at Dinosaur Provincial Park, and aimed three cameras at the sky. It didn’t take long before the lights appeared, right on cue.

An aurora and the autymn Milky Way over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on September 11, 2015. The stars, constellations and Milky Way of the autumn and early winter sky are rising in the northeast, including the objects: the Andromeda Galaxy at top, and the Pleiades at bottom.  This is one frame from a 200-frame time-lapse sequence, though in this image the ground comes from a Mean Combine stack of 7 images to smooth noise but the sky is from one image, each 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the Rokinon 14mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200 on a dark moonless night.

The display started out with lots of promise, but did fade after 12:30 a.m., just when it was supposed to be peaking in intensity. I let the cameras run for a while but eventually stopped the shutters and packed it in…

…But not before I captured this odd bit of aurora in the east, shown below, that appeared as an isolated and stationary band pulsing up and down in brightness, but with little movement.

An odd isolated arc of aurora in the eastern sky over the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, on September 11, 2015. This arc sat stationary and pulsed up and down in brightness over a few seconds. It was in some frames but not others. The winter stars of Taurus, including the Pleiades cluster, and Auriga are rising in the east.  The sky here is from a single exposure but the ground came from a Mean Combine stack of 8 exposures to smooth noise. Each was 40 seconds at f/2.8 with the 14mm Rokinon lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200 on a moonless night.

I’ve seen these before and have never heard a good explanation of what process creates such an effect, with a patch of sky appearing to “turn on” and off.

You can see the effect at the end of the time-lapse compilation, linked below from Vimeo.

As usual, please enlarge to full-screen and watch in HD for the best quality.

Unfortunately, a patrolling park official checking on things, spoiled some frames with her truck’s headlights. It’s one of the hazards of time-lapse imaging.

As a final image, here are all the fish-eye lens frames stacked into one image, to create a single star trail showing the sky rotating about the celestial pole.

A composite stack of 198 images creating a circumpolar star trail image of the entire sky, with the motion of the stars and the Northern Lights over an hour recorded onto one frame.  The 8mm fish-eye lens take in almost all the sky, with the camera aimed northeast to the centre of the auroral arc, with Polaris, the centre of the sky’s rotation, at left. The scene is at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, from September 11, 2015.  Each exposure was 20 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 8mm lens and at ISO 6400 with the Canon 6D. The ground comes from a stack of 16 images taken early in the sequence turned into a smart object and mean combined with Mean stack mode, to average out and smooth noise. The sky comes from 198 exposures, Lighten stacked using the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com.
Each exposure was 20 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 8mm lens and at ISO 6400 with the Canon 6D. The ground comes from a stack of 16 images taken early in the sequence turned into a smart object and mean combined with Mean stack mode, to average out and smooth noise. The sky comes from 198 exposures, Lighten stacked using the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com.

It’s been a good week for auroras, with a promise of more to come perhaps, as we approach equinox, traditionally a good time for magnetic field lines to align, funnelling solar storm particles into our magnetosphere.

Keep looking up!

— Alan, September 13, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Sunset over Horsethief Canyon


Sunset on August 1, 2015 at the Horsethief Canyon Viewpoint overlooking the Red Deer River, north of Drumheller, Alberta, on the Dinosaur Trail scenic drive. The name comes from the pioneer days when horses would get lost in the Badlands here and then re-emerge found, but with a new brand on them. The region is home to rich deposits of late Cretaceous dinosaur fossils. Just south of here is the world class Royal Tyrrell Museum, a centre of research into dinosaurs and prehistoric life.  This is a single-exposure frame (not HDR) from a 300-frame time-lapse sequence, with the Canon 6D and 16-35mm lens.

The Sun sets over the Red Deer River Badlands at Horsethief Canyon

This was sunset last night, Saturday, August 1, at the Horsethief Canyon Viewpoint overlooking the Red Deer River, north of Drumheller, Alberta.

The viewpoint is one stop on the Dinosaur Trail scenic drive that winds up and down the river valley, with a crossing just north of here by one of the few remaining river ferries in Alberta, the historic Bleriot Ferry.

The Canyon’s name comes from the pioneer days when horses would get lost in the Badlands here, then re-emerge found, but with a new brand on them.

The region is home to rich deposits of late-Cretaceous dinosaur fossils. Just south of here is the world-class Royal Tyrrell Museum, a centre of research into dinosaurs and prehistoric life.

This is a single-exposure frame (not HDR) from a 300-frame time-lapse sequence, with the Canon 6D and 16-35mm lens.

– Alan. August 2, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Solstice Sky at Dinosaur Park


Summer solstice twilight and circumpolar star trails over the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta. Some bright noctilucent clouds are visible low on the northern horizon. I shot this June 15, 2015 as part of a shoot for a “star trail” video tutorial, as an example image. This is a stack of the first 200 frames of 275 shot for a time-lapse, each 15 seconds at f/2.8 with the Rokinon 14mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 1600. I stacked them in Advanced Stacker Actions with the ultrastreak mode. The foreground comes from a mean blend of the first 8 frames, to smooth noise, and to provide a brighter foreground from early in the sequence when the sky and ground were brighter.

The stars circle the bright northern sky at solstice time over the Alberta Badlands.

I spent the evening and well into the night on Monday shooting at a favourite spot, Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta. The result of about an hour of shooting around midnight is the circumpolar star trail composite at top.

It shows the stars spinning about Polaris, while the northern horizon is rimmed with the bright glow of all-night twilight.

Particularly bright in the northwest are noctilucent clouds low on the horizon. These are high-altitude clouds near the edge of space catching the sunlight streaming over the pole at this time of year.

Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) over the silhouette of the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta, on the night of June 15/16, 2015. The clouds remained low on the northern horizon and faded as the Sun angle dropped through the night but then reappeared in the northwest prior to dawn. The bright star at left is Capella, circumpolar at this latitude of 50° N.  This is a single exposure for 10 seconds at f/3.2 with the 16-35mm lens and at ISO 800 with the Canon 60Da.

They are a phenomenon unique to the weeks around solstice, and for our latitudes on the Canadian Prairies.

The close-up shot above shows their intricate wave-like formation and pearly colour. They faded though the night as the Sun set for the clouds. But they returned in the pre-dawn light.

If you live at mid-northern latitudes, keep an eye out for these clouds of solstice over the next month. It’s now their peak season.

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

Evening Stars Over the Red Deer River


Evening Stars Over Red Deer River

Mercury and Venus shine as “evening stars” over the Red Deer River in southern Alberta.

What a fine night this was for nightscape shooting. Mercury and Venus are both now about as high as they will get for the year in the evening sky from my western Canadian latitude.

Venus is easy to spot as the brilliant object in the west. But Mercury is more elusive. You can see it here low in the twilight glow and much dimmer than Venus.

The photo illustrates how far each of the two inner planets swings away from the Sun in our skies, and why Mercury has its reputation for being difficult to sight. Also, it appears at its best for only a couple of weeks at a time. By mid-May it will be gone.

Venus, however, continues to dominate our western sky for the next two months.

I shot the main photo from the deck of a rickety wooden bridge over the Red Deer River near Dorothy, Alberta, just off Highway 10 east of Drumheller in the Badlands.

The image is a high-dynamic-range “HDR” stack of five exposures.

Venus over the Atlas Coal Mine

Shortly after taking the lead photo, I drove west to the Atlas Coal Mine to shoot it by the light of the now high and nearly Full Moon. Mercury can still be seen low and to the right of the historic tipple building. Venus shines above it.

This is a single 25-second exposure at ISO 800.

The Atlas Coal Mine is now a National Historic Site and is the last standing from what was once a booming coal mining centre in the Red Deer River Valley.

Now, mostly dinosaur fossils are unearthed here.

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

Autumn Stars Rising over Dinosaur Park


Autumn Sky Rising over Badlands

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Red Rock Coulee Cloudscapes


Red Rock Coulee Cloudscape Panorama

The strange rock formations of Red Rock Coulee, Alberta lie below the cloudscape of a prairie sky.

Yesterday afternoon I visited the Red Rock Coulee Natural Area, a dramatic but little known geologic wonder in southern Alberta. I was inspecting the site for a possible return one night to shoot time-lapse nightscapes. But while there I took the time to shoot daytime cloudscapes.

The image above is a two-section panorama with an ultra-wide 14mm lens.

Red Rock Coulee Cloudscape #1

This image and the one below are other compositions in this very photogenic spot. In the distance lie the peaks of the Sweetgrass Hills in Montana.

These odd rock formations are sandstone concretions deposited in prehistoric seas and are apparently some of the largest examples of this type of formation in the world. Iron content gives them their red tone.

Red Rock Coulee Cloudscape #2

As a technical note, all the images are high-dynamic range (HDR) stacks of 8 exposures taken over a wide range of shutter speeds to record details in both the bright sky and darker shadows.

I processed them with Photoshop CC’s HDR Pro module and then Adobe Camera Raw in 32-bit mode. I aimed for a more natural look than you see in most HDR images, but even so the cloud contrast is exaggerated for dramatic effect. The wide-angle lens perspective adds to the effect.

This was a wonderful place to stand under the big skies of southern Alberta on a warm spring afternoon.

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