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

A Dawn Gathering of Planets


The joys of stargazing at southern latitudes! Here’s a shot from this morning, May 2, 2011, of the gathering of four planets now coming together in the pre-dawn sky. From Canada, you won’t see this well at all. The planets will be hugging the horizon and lost in the twilight. But from here in Chile, at a latitude of 23° south, the planets are arranged vertically straight up from the horizon. Over the next couple of weeks the planets will converge as Venus and Mercury drop down to meet Jupiter and Mars – they’ll be tightest, within 6° of each other on the mornings of May 11 and 12, when Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest objects here, will be closest together.

It was very neat watching them rise this morning over the Andes, first brilliant Venus popping over the ridge, then fainter Mercury, the Jupiter, and finally, at the bottom here, Mars. Venus and Mercury pair at top, and Jupiter and Mars are together at bottom.

The conical peak at left is 5,900-metre (19,400-foot) Licancabur, an extinct volcano, one of many along the line of the Andes. I shot this from just outside our dining room at the Atacama Lodge near San Pedro de Atacama. It was the finale of an all-night session shooting the Milky Way in stills and time-lapse. All the gear worked great and the raw images look fabulous. More to come!

– Alan, May 2, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Jupiter and Mercury Amid the Clouds



One of the rules of astrophotography is that clouds always position themselves right over the objects you are trying to shoot. When the subject in question is a pair of planets, then a cloud will always cover one or the other planet, making it impossible to capture both at once and therefore record the conjunction.

Tonight, March 15, I chased out west of Calgary to get the conjunction of Mercury and Jupiter over the scenic skyline of the Rockies. Of course, clouds drifted slo-0-0-0-w-ly across the sky. But with a little patience (and I do have very little to spare in situations like this!) I was able to catch a few moments when both Jupiter (at left here) and Mercury (upper right) shone in view amid the clouds.

The highway (Highway 66 to Bragg Creek) adds a nice touch, with cars seeming to come and go from the distant planets.

Again, as with the previous night’s shot, this is a “high dynamic range” stack of three shots taken in quick succession but with EV values 1 1/3rd f-stops apart, to retain both ground and sky detail in an inherently contrasty situation. Photoshop CS5’s HDR Pro feature does a great job. This is with the Canon 7D and 135mm lens.

– Alan, March 15, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Mercurial Encounter


Mercury is the elusive planet. Yet, when conditions are right, it is surprisingly easy to see. And you wonder what everyone is complaining about!

That was certainly the case tonight, March 14, 2011. I just walked out, looked west and there it was, shining bright and obvious to the right of Jupiter. No binoculars needed! Having brighter Jupiter nearby helps to be sure. But Mercury is certainly not dim. It’s wonderful that this week is the best time of the year for us northerners to spot Mercury, just as NASA’s Messenger probe enters orbit around the inner planet, becoming the first to orbit, not just fly past, Mercury. It is always nice to look up and see the planet that you can point to and say, “We have a probe exploring that world.” Later this year, one will be on its way to Jupiter as well — the Juno orbiter.

This shot shows the scene with Mercury (at right) approaching its March 15 close conjunction with Jupiter in the evening twilight. This image captures the view much as the eye saw it. But to do that I took a “High Dynamic Range” composite of three exposures about 1 stop apart, taken in rapid succession with a Canon 7D camera and Sigma 50mm lens.

– Alan, March 14, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer