Lasers at Lovejoy


Lasers Converging on Comet Lovejoy

Laser beams point out Comet Lovejoy at a public star party at City of Rocks State Park.

It was a perfect night last night for public stargazing. I headed out to the State Park for the monthly star party, held at the Orion group campground (with Orion nicely placed in the sky above) and home to a fine public observatory.

Stargazing at the City of Rocks State Park Observatory

The Gene and Elizabeth Simon Observatory features a Meade 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope which gave great views of Jupiter with one of its moons, Callisto, in transit as a dark dot on the face of the planet.

Stargazing under Desert Skies

About 70 people turned out, from the Park’s campground and from the nearby communities. Here Matt starts the night with a laser guided tour of the constellations. These bright lasers are wonderful for public events like this but when in the wrong hands they can be dangerous.

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has issued guidelines for their use. Check their webpage for more details.

Stargazing at City of Rocks State Park, NM

Another technical innovation popular at the City of Rocks Star Parties is an iPad running Sky Safari software, and on a tripod with handles so people can move it about the sky to identify stars and constellations for themselves. It works great. Here, I pose with it for a staged photo, with the Big Dipper in the background.

Observatory Telescope at City of Rocks State Park

Here I pose with the Observatory’s 14-inch telescope.

In all, it was a superb night at surely one of the finest places on the planet for public stargazing. I recommended to the Park officials that they should apply for official Dark Sky Preserve status. They would qualify without question.

Clear skies!

– Alan, March 15, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Lovejoy Passes the Pleiades


Comet Lovejoy and the Pleiades (Jan 18, 2015)

Tonight Comet Lovejoy paired with the Pleiades star cluster.

Sunday, January 18 was the night to catch the ever-photogenic Comet Lovejoy at its best and closest to the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. Its long blue ion tail stretched back past the Pleiades.

I thought the tail would be passing right over the star cluster, but not so. At least not when I was shooting it at about 7:30 pm MST.

Still, the combination made a fine pairing of cosmic blue objects for the camera. The top image is with a 135mm telephoto.

Comet Lovejoy in the Winter Sky (Jan 18, 2015)

This wide-angle image, with a 24mm lens, takes in many of the northern winter constellations, from Orion at bottom, to Auriga at top, with Taurus in the middle. Notice the dark tendrils of the Taurus Dark Clouds.

At right, beside the Pleiades, is the green and blue comet, with its tail reaching back past the Pleiades.

I shot both images from the dark skies of City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico, which has proven to be one of the finest places on the planet for watching Lovejoy!

– Alan, January 18, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Night of the Comet


Comet Lovejoy's Long Ion Tail in Taurus

What a beautifully photogenic comet Lovejoy is proving to be! 

On Friday, January 16, I caught Comet Lovejoy crossing the ecliptic as it travels through Taurus. The long exposure above shows it amid the star clusters, nebulas, and dark clouds of Taurus and Perseus.

The blue Pleiades is at centre, and the red California Nebula is at top. Throughout are the dark tendrils of the dusty Taurus Dark Clouds.

The long blue ion tail of Lovejoy now extends back 15° to 20° on photos and is easy to trace for half that distance in binoculars in a dark sky.

I turned the top photo 90° to orient the comet so it points “down.”

Comet Lovejoy Nightscape (Jan 16, 2015)

However, this wide-angle nightscape shows the real orientation of the comet, high in the sky above Orion, here rising over the rock formations of City of Rocks State Park, my favourite dark sky site in this area of New Mexico.

Comet Lovejoy Crossing the Ecliptic (Jan 16, 2015)

Taken earlier in the evening, this ultra-wide image shows the comet at top, with its blue tail oriented along the ecliptic and aligned with the Zodiacal Light, from the glow of sunlight reflecting off comet dust in the inner solar system.

The Zodiacal Light follows the ecliptic, the plane of the solar system and where we find the planets, such as Mars and Venus at bottom here. The comet seems to point toward the Sun, now below the horizon here at the base of the Zodiacal Light. That’s just as it should be! Comet gas tails always point away from the Sun, as they are blown away from the comet’s head by the solar wind.

This night Comet Lovejoy was crossing the ecliptic, as its orbit continues to take it north in a path almost perpendicular to the ecliptic. While planets orbit in the ecliptic plane, most comets do not. They can have orbits oriented at all kinds of angles off the ecliptic plane.

But on January 16 Comet Lovejoy crossed the ecliptic, placing it at the apex of the Zodiacal Light.

Comet Lovejoy & Zodiacal Light (Jan 16, 2015)

This wider view takes in the Zodiacal Light, the comet and Orion rising at left.

This was a marvellous “night of the comet.”

— Alan, January 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

A Stunning Sky of Subtle Glows


Zodiacal Light Panorama (Circular)

What a fabulous night! The desert sky was full of subtle glows and myriad stars.

Friday, January 16 was a stunning evening for stargazing. I took the opportunity to shoot a 360° panorama of the evening sky, recording a host of subtle glows.

The Zodiacal Light reaches up from the western horizon and the last vestiges of evening twilight. This is the glow of sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system. From the clear desert skies it is brilliant.

The dark of the Moon periods in January, February and March are the best times of the year to see the evening Zodiacal Light from the northern hemisphere.

The Milky Way arches across the eastern sky from Cygnus to Canis Major. That’s light from billions of stars in our Galaxy.

At centre, in the circular fish-eye image above, is the small wisp of green Comet Lovejoy, near the zenith overhead and appearing at the apex of the Zodiacal Light’s tapering pyramid of light.

Zodiacal Light Panorama (Rectilinear)

This view is from the same images used to create the circular all-sky scene at top, but projected in a rectangular 360° format.

Technical notes:

I shot 8 segments for the panorama, each a 1-minute exposure at f/2.8 with a 15mm lens oriented in portrait mode, and using a Canon 6D at ISO 3200. There was no tracking – the camera was just on a tripod. Each segment is 45° apart.

I used PTGui software to stitch the segments into one seamless scene.

— Alan, January 16, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Shooting the Inner Planet Pairing


Mercury & Venus in Close Conjunction (Jan. 10, 2015)

Here is the Mercury-Venus conjunction for real, from Saturday night.

In my last post I described the upcoming weekend conjunction of Mercury near Venus. Well, here’s the real thing, in shots from Saturday night, January 10.

Mercury is the dimmer of the two objects in the colourful evening twilight in the enchanted skies of New Mexico.

The top photo is a “normal” lens view of the scene. The photo below zooms in on the pair with a telephoto lens.

Mercury & Venus Conjunction Closeup (Jan. 10, 2015)

Mercury is nearing its greatest angle away from the Sun and will remain near Venus for the next week. So if skies are clear in the early evening, take a look. Mercury is very easy to sight with unaided eyes. If you have not seen the innermost planet, this is a good chance to check it off your “to see” list.

A fact to keep in mind: both planets have probes orbiting them, but both are nearing the end of their missions. Europe’s Venus Express has ended its mission and is about to make its final plunge into the dense Venusian atmosphere.

At Mercury, NASA’s Messenger probe has gained a small reprieve, with it now expecting to impact on Mercury at the end of April, a month later than expected.

— Alan, January 10, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Comet on the Rocks


Orion & Comet Lovejoy over City of Rocks

Comet Lovejoy glows above the granite spires of City of Rocks State Park. 

With clouds forecast for the rest of the week I made the best of it tonight and headed out to my favourite local spot for nightscape images, the City of Rocks State Park on Highway 180 between Silver City and Deming, New Mexico.

It was a quick photo session tonight. I arrived at just the right time to catch the comet and Orion rising behind the rock formations, with the moonlight beginning to illuminate the rocky rims.

The comet is the small green spot just right of centre at the top. It is now climbing quite high in the southern sky as it comes up north. I could see it easily in binoculars as a large fuzzy spot and I thought I could just make it out with unaided eyes once I knew just where to look.

This will be a fine comet for binoculars once the Moon gets out of the way later this week, though you will need to be at a dark site. The comet is diffuse and will be utterly washed out by city lights. This is no Hale-Bopp! But as comets go, Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 is a nice one.

— Alan, January 5, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

Comet Lovejoy in the Moonlight


Orion and Comet Lovejoy in Moonlight #2

Sunday night, January 4, proved stunningly clear, ideal for seeing and shooting Comet Lovejoy in the moonlight.

Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is moving rapidly north and this week sits just west of Orion. To capture it tonight I went out to the City of Rocks State Park, seeking a scenic foreground, with Orion rising with the comet.

The Full Moon is just off frame at left, unavoidably glaring into the frame.

Comet Lovejoy appears as a small green fuzzy spot at upper right.

Orion and Comet Lovejoy in Moonlight #1

In this view I had to crop Orion in order to fit in the landscape and the comet, at upper right. Three short aircraft contrails appear at the bottom. The Full Moon illuminates the southern New Mexico landscape.

In the coming week, with the Moon rising later each night, and the comet climbing higher, it will become much easier to see in a dark sky.

However, while Comet Lovejoy might be technically visible to the unaided eye, you really need binoculars to pick it out. We’ll see if it sports much of a tail once we sight it again in a dark moonless sky.

– Alan, January 4, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com