New Year’s Eve Sky: Aurora, Orion, and a Comet


New Year's Eve Winter Sky

The New Year’s sky was filled with Northern Lights, a panorama of stars, and a comet at dawn.

It was a busy night for stargazing as 2015 turned to 2016. A fine display of Northern Lights kicked off the celebrations, as curtains danced in the east as Orion rose (below).

New Year's Eve Aurora, Dec. 31, 2015

Toward midnight the Lights kicked up again, now with Jupiter (on the horizon) and Leo rising in the east (below).

New Year's Eve Aurora #2 (Dec 31, 2015)

I shot hundreds of frames for time-lapse sequences, and assembled them into a short music video. Click on the buttons to enlarge it to HD.


 


 

Just before midnight, while the second time-lapse was going and the aurora was still active, but before the Last Quarter Moon rose to light the sky, I shot a set of tracked images taking in the entire winter sky from horizon to well past the zenith.

That image is at top. It takes in the winter sky and northern winter Milky Way,  from Canis Major just above the horizon, up past Orion, then on up to Perseus and Cassiopeia at top right.

It shows how Orion and Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, stand nearly due south at midnight on New Year’s Eve.


 

Comet Catalina near Arcturus on New Year's Day
Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) near Arcturus in the constellation of Bootes, at pre-dawn on the morning of January 1, 2016, with the Last Quarter Moon nearby illluminating the sky. A long, faint ion tail is visible extending 2 to 3 degrees to the right while a brighter but stubby dust tail extends down to the south. Shot from home using the 200mm Canon telephoto and 1.4x extender at f/4.5 for a stack of 8 x 2-minute exposures at ISO 800 with the Canon 6D. Median combined stacked to eliminate satellite trails. The comet is slightly blurred due to its own motion in that time.
The final show of the night, now before dawn on New Year’s Day 2016, was Comet Catalina sitting right next to the bright spring star Arcturus. The comet was visible in the moonlight as a fuzzy object next to brilliant Arcturus, but the photo begins to show its faint tails, just standing out in the moonlit sky.

The comet will become more visible later this month once the waning Moon exits the dawn sky, as Catalina is expected to remain a nice binocular comet for most of the month as it heads high into northern sky.

Happy New Year to all! Have a celestial 2016!

 

Don’t forget, you can download my free 2016 Sky Calendar as a PDF. See my previous blog for details and the link. 

— Alan, January 1, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / amazing sky.com

Dawn Sky Delight – the Real Scene


A gathering of planets in the dawn sky on October 8, 2015, with - from bottom to top: Jupiter, Mars, Venus and the Moon, with the star Regulus in Leo left of Venus.  This is a 15-second exposure with shorter exposure blended in for the area around Venus and the Moon to avoid them overexposing too much. So not a true HDR, but using masking to blend the short exposure elements.

The Moon, planets and Northern lights provided a wonderful show in the dawn sky.

What a superb scene this was. On October 8 the waning crescent Moon shone near Venus (brightest) and Regulus, with red Mars and bright Jupiter paired below.

If that wasn’t enough, as the wide-angle panorama below shows, the Northern Lights were also ending a night of performance, with an arc along the horizon and pulsing waves rising up the sky to the northeast near the planet grouping.

A panorama of the pre-dawn sky on October 8, 2015, with a sky full of wonders: • the Northern Lights, or aurora • The Big Dipper above the aurora, somewhat distorted by the panorama projection • at centre, a conjunction and line-up of planets, with from bottom to top: Jupiter, Mars and Venus, with the bright waning crescent Moon beside Venus at top, and also beside the star Regulus in Leo • The Beehive star cluster well above the planet grouping • Orion and Canis Major in the winter sky at right with the Milky Way. I shot this from home, using the Canon 6D and 24mm lens on a fixed tripoid (no tracking), for 7 segments, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.2 and at ISO 1250. Stitched in Photoshop.

The panorama also sweeps right, to the south, to take in the winter Milky Way and constellations of Orion and Canis Major.  Click on the image to bring it up full screen.

The Moon will appear near Mars and Jupiter on the morning of October 9, and then the three planets will begin to converge for a tight gathering for a few mornings around October 25.

Be sure to wake early for the dawn sky show that continues all this month!

– Alan, October 8, 2015 / © 2015  / www.amazingsky.com

The Night Sky’s Two Brightest Stars


Sirius, Canopus & Gum Nebula (35mm 5DII)

The two brightest stars in the night sky shine in the southern sky.

Here are Sirius (at right) and Canopus (at bottom left), the brightest and second brightest stars in the night sky, together near the southern Milky Way.

My image also captures the huge loops of the Gum Nebula, thought to be the remains of a supernova that blew up a million years ago. It’s utterly invisible to the naked eye, but Sirius and Canopus stand out as brilliant stars even from light polluted sites.

Sirius can be seen from northern latitudes but Canopus is below the horizon for any location north of 37° North or so. I shot this image from Australia where these stars pass overhead.

Sirius is a hot blue-white star 8.6 light years away. Canopus appears slightly dimmer but only because it lies much farther away, at some 310 light years. In reality it is a supergiant yellow-white star that shines with a luminosity 15,000 times that of our Sun.

Canopus to Carina with LMC (35mm 5DII)

This image takes in Canopus at bottom right, next to the Large Magellanic Cloud, and with the southern Milky Way sweeping across the top, with the Carina Nebula and its attendant star clusters at top left and parts of the Gum Nebula at right.

Here are a few cocktail party facts about Canopus:

• In 480,000 years its motion around the Galaxy will bring Canopus close enough to Earth that it will become the brightest star in our night sky, outranking Sirius.

• The origin of its name is a mystery. One idea is that the star is named for the pilot of the ship that took Menelaus to Troy on the quest to re-capture Helen.

• Canopus, the star, was used in ancient times as a key navigation star for those sailing to southern seas, as it would have risen above the southern horizon from latitudes below 35° North back around 2000 BCE.

• Today, Canopus is charted as the brightest star in the constellation of Carina the Keel, part of the ancient constellation of Argo Navis, named for the ship sailed by Jason and the Argonauts.

— Alan, April 27, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Orion and Canis Major Rising


Sirius & Canis Major Rising from New Mexico (35mm)

Canis Major and Orion rise into the desert sky from southwest New Mexico.

We had an excellent week of observing at the Painted Pony Resort. We had cloud on parts of most nights, and frost on the calm nights and wind on the frostless nights. So viewing conditions weren’t ideal but they were way better than back home where temperatures plunged to -35° C at night and snow piled waist high.

The shot above is of Sirius and Canis Major, the hunting dog, rising into the early evening sky after the Moon had set.

Orion Rising over Adobe House v2 (New Mexico)

I took this image later in the week. It shows Orion rising above the main adobe house at the resort. His Belt points down to Sirius just coming up over the Peloncillo Mountains to the east. Moonlight provides the illumination and bands of airglow colour the sky.

All-Star Telescope is conducting another New Mexico Star Party next March, but most spaces are already filled. A couple of rooms may still be available in a newly renovated cottage off the main resort site. Check with Ken and Bev for details. I highly recommend the experience.

— Alan, December 10, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Orion and His Hunting Dogs in the Milky Way


Orion and Canis Major Panorama

Orion parades across the northern winter sky followed by his two odedient hunting dogs, Canis Major and Minor.

I shot the images for this panorama of the winter sky last night, December 6/7, on a frosty and cool night at our retreat in New Mexico.

The scene takes in Orion at upper right, with his signature stars, red Betelgeuse and blue Rigel, plus the dog stars Procyon at upper left (the brightest star in Canis Minor), and Sirius at lower centre (the brightest star in Canis Major). Canis Major itself appears in full at the bottom of the frame. Canis Major and Minor are depicted in mythology as Orion’s two Hunting Dogs .

The northern winter Milky Way runs from top to bottom of the frame, punctuated by patches of red nebulosity such as the circular Rosette Nebula above centre. Orion is wreathed in the sweeping arc of Barnard’s Loop, while his Belt and Sword contain the Horsehead Nebula and Orion Nebula.

While we are looking to the outer edge of our Galaxy in this view, this region of the Milky Way is one of the richest areas of star formation in the sky. It’s a wonderful field and lovely to shoot under civilized conditions in southern New Mexico, at the idyllic Painted Pony Resort.

For this mosaic, I shot 4 to 5 frames for each of the two mosaic segments, plus two images for each segment shot through a diffusion filter to add in the accentuated star glows. I stacked and stitched all of them using Photoshop CC.

So a total of 13 exposures went into the mosaic, each 4 minutes long, shot with the 35mm lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII, which helps bring out the red nebulosity.

As a footnote — this is Blog post #400 from me.

— Alan, December 7, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Goodbye Winter Sky!


Orion & Winter Sky Setting (24mm 5DMkII)

Say goodbye to the winter sky, now sinking fast into the sunset. The departure of Orion and company is an annual sign of spring.

Look west on a clear night in the next couple of weeks and you’ll see this scene, as Orion sinks into the sunset, surrounded by Taurus to the right of him, and Canis Major to the left of him. Taurus is his foe, Canis Major his friend.

Having so many bright stars in the April evening twilight makes for a beautiful scene in the deepening blue. But I suspect most of us are happy to see all signs of winter gone for a long time!

I shot this Monday night, April 1, on a very clear night. Orion’s Belt is just left of centre. The trio of Belt stars points left and down to Sirius, the Dog Star, and points right and up to Aldebaran, the Bull’s Eye. Above Aldebaran is brilliant Jupiter. Just at the right edge of the frame are the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades.

Say goodbye to these stars of winter. We won’t see them again until late summer in the pre-dawn sky.

– Alan, April 2, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

The Wide-Angle Winter Sky


Wide-Angle Winter Sky (March 1, 2013)

Orion and his friends are beginning their descent into the evening sky, signalling the welcome end of winter and the coming of spring. 

I shot this last night from home, in a scene similar to some earlier posts, such as Winter Stars Rising. But the difference here is that I’m using a new lens, testing it for the first time. I wasn’t really after a “keeper” shot, but I think this one turned out pretty well!

The lens is the Samyang (aka Rokinon) 14mm f/2.8, an ultra-wide angle lens that sells for a bargain price, a fraction of the cost of name brand 14mm lenses. The reason is that this lens dispenses with all the automatic features and electronic communication and is a classic manual lens, just like we used to recommend people buy for astrophotography in the old film days. For shooting stars you don’t need autofocus or having the aperture stay wide-open until you take the photo. So we’re not missing much employing a no-frills manual lens like the Korean-made Samyang series – they make well-respected 24mm and 35mm lenses as well.

Star images are quite sharp across the very wide field, with very good control over coma at the corners. Stopping the lens down to f/4 does sharpen them up but the lens is perfectly usable at f/2.8, as it is here. The big issue is the extreme amount of vignetting — darkening of the corners of the frame. In star shots, we often have to boost the contrast a lot to make the shot presentable, and that increases the visibility of any vignetting, making the photo look like it was taken through a porthole. For this shot I “flattened” the image by applying very generous levels (almost maximum) anti-vignetting both in Adobe Camera Raw (at the start of processing) and again in Photoshop (at the end of processing) with its Lens Correction routine. The final result looks very good and natural I think.

Another drawback to the Samyang manual lenses is that they feed no information to the camera about what lens is attached. The “EXIF” data that the camera records lacks any info on aperture and focal length. So in the photo info at left (which is picked off the image automatically by WordPress), you’ll see the lens listed as a 50mm and with no aperture specified.

So the verdict? The Samyang/Rokinon 14mm is a very nice lens for wide-angle piggyback shooting (like this stack of five 5-minute tracked exposures), and for nightscapes and time-lapse work. A bargain at ~ $360. Recommended!

– Alan, March 2, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Winter Sky in Moonlight


Orion & Winter Stars over Old House

Earlier this week I shot a similar scene with the Moon in the photo, when it was near Jupiter. This is the same sky but 5 days later, on January 26, with the Moon now out of the picture, but serving to light up the landscape.

This is the old house on my property that serves as an occasional foreground for test nightscapes. In this case, I was testing my veteran Canon 5D MkII camera against a new Canon 6D. This shot with the 5D MkII had the best arrangement of clouds and stars and works as a decent enough shot on its own.

You can see Orion dodging the clouds, with Sirius at left, and Aldebaran, Jupiter and the Pleiades at upper right.

So what of the tests? Initial impressions are that as far as noise is concerned (always the bane of astrophotographers) the new full-frame Canon 6D improves upon the 5-year old Canon 5D MkII by a factor of two. Noise looks to be about one f-stop better in the 6D, no doubt due to its new Digic V on-board processor.

What this means is:

• Images taken with the 6D at ISO 6400 have a similar level of noise as do images taken at ISO 3200 with the 5D MkII. ISO 3200 images with the 6D look like ISO 1600 images with the 5D MkII, and so on.

• So, if you were happy with shooting at ISO 1600 with the 5D MkII before, you could now shoot at ISO 3200 with the new 6D and get similar results, but with the added benefit of being able to cut your exposure times in half, always a nice thing to do.

• Or conversely, you could continue to shoot with the Canon 6D at ISO 1600 for the same exposure times as before but get shots with much less noise in them. Always a good thing, too!

It’s great to see camera state-of-the-art advancing.

– Alan, January 27, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Zooming into Canis Major – #3


NGC 2359 Thor's Helmet NebulaIn the third instalment in my trilogy of Canis Major zooms, I present this close-up of another neat nebula in the Great Hunting Dog, called Thor’s Helmet.

You can tell just by the colour that this is a different type of nebula than the typical red hydrogen gas clouds, such as the Seagull Nebula of my previous post. Yes, this is glowing gas but this nebula originates from a different source than most. Rather than being a site where stars form this is a nebula surrounding an aging star, a massive superhot star that is shedding shells of gas in an effort to lose weight – or mass as we should say.

Intense winds from the star blow the gas into bubbles, and cause it to fluoresce in shades of cyan. The central star is one of a rare stellar type called a Wolf-Rayet star, named for the pair of French astronomers who discovered this class of star in the 19th century. WR stars are likely candidates to explode as supernovas.

This particular Wolf-Rayet nebula, catalogued as NGC 2359, has a complex set of intersecting bubbles that, through the eyepiece, do take on the appearance of a Viking helmet with protruding horns, like you see in the Bugs Bunny cartoon operas! It’s a neat object to look at with as big a telescope as you can muster. And, as you can see, it’s rather photogenic as well, embedded in a rich field with faint star cluster companions.

– Alan, December 28, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Zooming into Canis Major – #2


IC 2177 Seagull Nebula Complex

Zooming in closer yet again to the field in Canis Major I showed in my previous post, I’m now framing the large nebula known as the Seagull. Perhaps you can see him flying through the stars.

The catalog number for this object is IC 2177, but the bright round nebula at right (the head of the Seagull?) is object #1 in the catalog of Australian astronomer Colin Gum. It’s also object #2327 in the familiar NGC listing that all stargazers use.

Some of this nebulosity is just visible through a small telescope, especially with the aid of a nebula filter than accentuates the emission lines – the colours – emitted by these kinds of glowing gas clouds.

This is certainly a photogenic field, with a nice mix of pinks, blues, purples and deep reds.

I used my 4-inch (105mm aperture) f/5.8 apo refractor to shoot this target, so the field is fairly narrow, framing what a telescope would show at very low power.

(FYI – The image info listed at left, automatically picked off the image’s EXIF data by the WordPress blog software, fails to record the focal length of the optics properly, as I didn’t use a standard camera lens but a telescope the camera doesn’t know about.)

I’ve been after a good shot of this object for some years, but haven’t been successful until this past observing run in Australia, in December 2012. While I can see and shoot the Seagull Nebula from home in Alberta, it’s always very low in my home sky. From Australia the challenge was framing the field with the Seagull overhead at the zenith. Just looking through the camera aimed straight up took some ground grovelling effort. Plus avoiding having the telescope hit the tripod as it tracked the object over the hour or so worth of exposures – typically 4 to 5 that I then stack to reduce noise.

– Alan, December 28, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Zooming into Canis Major – #1


M50 - M46/M47 Area Bino Field

My last post featured a wide view of Canis Major. Here, we zoom in closer to one of the most interesting regions in that constellation, filled with nebulas and clusters.

The prominent red arc is the Seagull Nebula, aka IC 2177. Above and to the right of the Seagull is a clump of stars called Messier 50, which lies over the border in the constellation of Monoceros the Unicorn.

At the lower left edge of the frame sits a pair of dissimilar star clusters, Messier 46 (the left one) and Messier 47 (the right one). M46 is a dense rich cluster of stars while M47 is brighter but looser and more scattered.

Several other non-Messier clusters punctuate the field. This is a great area of sky to explore with binoculars.

Just below centre you might see a small green-blue patch. That’s the nebula called Thor’s Helmet, or NGC 2359, a fine telescopic object.

If you get a clear night this season when the Moon is out of the way and you can head to a dark sky, Canis Major, the Hunting Dog, is a great hunting ground for deep-sky fans.

As the data at left shows, I shot this with a 135mm telephoto lens, giving a field of view similar to what binoculars would show.

– Alan, December 28, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Canis Major and the Dog Star


Canis Major from Australia (50mm 5DII)

Shining in the southern sky these nights are the stars of Canis Major, the big hunting dog of Orion the Hunter. Among them is the famous Dog Star, Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

Can you see a dog outlined in stars? Sirius marks his head – or it is sometimes depicted as a jewel in his collar. His hind legs and tail are at the bottom of the frame.

I shot this earlier this month from Australia, where Sirius and Canis Major stand high overhead. From northern latitudes you can see these stars due south low in the sky about midnight. Sirius is hard to miss, often sparkling through many colours as our atmosphere distorts its light. But as the photo shows, it is really a hot blue-white star. While it is intrinsically a bright star, much of its brilliance in our sky comes from its proximity, only 9 light years away from us.

For this portrait of the celestial canine I used a 50mm “normal” lens. The atmosphere provided some natural haze this night, to add the glows around the stars accentuating their colours.

This area of sky also contains several nebulas, notably the red arc of the Seagull Nebula to the left of Sirius. Below Sirius you can also see the star cluster Messier 41, a good target for binoculars.

Toward the left edge of the frame you can see a pair of star clusters, Messier 46 and Messier 47, two other excellent binocular objects in the Milky Way, which runs down the frame to the left of Canis Major. The dog is just climbing out of the Milky Way after a swim in this river of stars.

– Alan, December 28, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Sailin’ Toward the Moon


For the past week I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, on a “cruise and learn” voyage, serving as one of the guest speakers to a group of astronomy enthusiasts who wanted an immersive vacation learning about the latest in astronomy research and, in my presentations, about the hobby side: choosing a telescope and doing astrophotography. The cruise was organized by Insight Cruises and by Sky and Telescope magazine.

The trip went great, with fabulous weather all along, and a welcome break to an awful winter in the north. However, a cruise ship is not the best place to actually do astrophotography!

This is a shot taken on Friday, March 11, from the upper deck and bow of the ship, the Holland America Line’s “Nieuw Amsterdam,” as we sailed on a northwest course back to Fort Lauderdale from our most southerly port of call in St. Maartens in the eastern Caribbean. The Moon is overexposed at right, and is directly ahead of us, making it look like we were sailing toward the Moon. At left is Orion and Canis Major, tipped over on their sides compared to our northerly view. This was from a latitude of about 20° North.

To keep the stars looking like stars (and not seagulls) and freeze the rolling of the ship, I had to bump the camera up to ISO 6400 and use a 5 second exposure at f/2.8 (wide open) with the 16-35mm lens. Not the best combination of settings, but it’s what it took to capture the “seascape” night scene.

— Alan, March 13, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Canis Major Hopping


On one of the few clear nights so far this winter I was able to make Canis Major obey for a while and pose for a shot of the canine constellation hopping along my horizon in the south. From my latitude of 51° N he never appears high in the sky, though the placement on the horizon does make for a photogenic winter scene. Here, you can see the Messier star cluster M41 just below Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky and the bright jewel in the collar of Canis Major (according to some depictions of the constellation). This is a stack of five 4-minute exposures  with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and a 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.8, plus a single 4-minute exposure with the Kenko soft filter to add the enhanced hazy star glows.

– Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer