Dawn Planets, Part Two


I began my night sky shooting stint earlier this week in Chile with a shot of the dawn gathering of planets. I’ve ended it with another, taken this morning at 7 a.m., on May 7, 2011.

This scene shows four planets partaking in a rare close mutual conjunction in the morning sky. From top to bottom they are: Venus (brightest) with Mercury just to the right of Venus (both inner worlds appear close together for the next week or so), then below that pair, Jupiter, then at the bottom and faintest, Mars.

Notice how Venus, Jupiter and Mars are almost equally spaced, forming a straight line that defines the ecliptic path of the planets, here seen coming up vertically from the horizon. This is the view from 23° south latitude; from Canada these planets would be arrayed more horizontally low across the eastern horizon.

The conical peak at left is 5,900-metre-high Licancabur Volcano. The lights are tail lights of pre-dawn traffic going over the high pass over the Andes into Bolivia.

– Alan, May 7, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Dawn’s Early Light


This shot took getting up early (rather than staying up all night) to shoot the sky at 5 a.m. The main subject here is a subtle tower of light rising up vertically from the eastern horizon. That’s the Zodiacal Light, best seen from low latitudes.

The glow is from sunlight reflected off dust particles deposited in the inner solar system by passing comets. While it looks like dawn twilight coming on, the light actually comes from out in space and heralds the brightening of the sky by true twilight.

After a week of gazing in the evening sky, a number of us observers took the opportunity this morning to snooze through part of the night and get up prior to dawn to see a new set of objects. At that time of night, and at this time of year, the centre of the Milky Way sits straight overhead, and shows up here in an ultrawide shot from horizon to zenith.

I shot this with the 15mm lens at f/2.8 and the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800. It’s a stack of two 3-minute exposures.

– Alan, May 6, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Southern Crosses


The emblem of the southern hemisphere sky is here on the left: the Southern Cross, or Crux. But how many other crosses can you find in this field?

At the right is a larger version of Crux, made of two stars from Carina and two stars from Vela. So it’s not a proper constellation but an asterism well known in the southern hemisphere sky, called the False Cross.

You might also be able to pick out a third cross at lower centre, looking upside down but also made of four stars in an elongated diamond shape.

The prominent centre-stage object here is the massive Eta Carinae Nebula, sometimes just called the Carina Nebula (I’ve never determined what the proper and official name of it is). Surrounding it is an array of star clusters that make this area an absolute delight to explore with binoculars. But this week, at our stay at the Atacama Lodge, our small observing party has had fabulous views of the nebula in a big 18-inch telescope that reveals intricate structure in the swirls and eddies of its glowing clouds.

This is a stack of 6 exposures, each 3 minutes at f/4 with a 50mm Sigma lens and the Canon 5D MkII camera.

– Alan, May 6, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Southern Spectacular


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

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

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

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

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

Exploring the Large Magellanic Cloud


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

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

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

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

Toward the Centre of the Galaxy


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

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

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

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

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

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

Entangled in Dark Dust


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

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

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

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

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

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