Comets, Conjunctions, and Occultations, Oh My!


The Moon, Venus and Comet Catalina

What a morning of sky sights, both before dawn and after sunrise.

December 7 – This was the prime day I came to Arizona to enjoy, to be better assured of clear skies. As it turned out this will likely be the cloudiest day of the week here, but skies were clear enough for a fine view of a conjunction and an occultation. The comet was a bonus.

Waning Moon and Venus Rising in Conjunction
This is a stack of 5 exposures: 30, 8, 2, 0.5 and 1/8s, blended with luminosity masks as HDR would not blend images with such a large range of brightness and content, with the shortest exposures having almost no content execept for two bright objects! The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker to follow the sky and keep the sky targets stationary and aligned, thus the blurred foreground. All with the 135mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 400.

At 4 a.m. the waning crescent Moon rose accompanied by Venus, as the two worlds appeared in close conjunction in the pre-dawn sky. The view above captures the scene as the Moon and Venus rose over the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico. Comet Catalina is in this scene but barely visible.

The Moon, Venus and Comet Catalina
This is a stack of 6 exposures: 30, 8, 2, 0.5, 1/8s and 1/30s, blended with luminosity masks as HDR would not blend images with such a large range of brightness and content, with the shortest exposures having almost no content execept for two bright objects! The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker to follow the sky and keep the sky targets stationary and aligned. All with the 135mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

An hour or so later, with the Moon and Venus higher and with skies a little less cloudy, I was able to capture this scene, above, that included Comet Catalina, as a tiny blue dot next to Venus and the Moon. But if I hadn’t labeled it, you wouldn’t know it was there! The comet is proving to be less wonderful than anticipated, and any cloud dims the view even more.

I had hoped for a superb scene of a bright comet next to the two brightest objects in the night sky. But comets do what comets do — surprise people with unexpected brightness (as Comet Lovejoy did last January) or with disappointing dimness … or by disappearing altogether, as Comet ISON did two years ago. I came here in December 2013, to this same location on the Arizona-New Mexico border, to catch ISON but no luck there at all!

Moon & Venus Conjunction at Sunrise (Dec 7, 2015)
This is a stack of 7 exposures from 10 seconds to 0.3 seconds at 1 stop intervals and blended with luminosity masks, to compress the huge range in brightness from the bright Moon and Venus, plus horizon sky, and the darker sky and sunrise clouds. All with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D.

Regardless of the comet, the conjunction of the Moon and Venus was stunning, about as good as such events get. Here’s the view, above, an hour later again, with the eastern sky brightening in the dawn twilight. The only thing that would have made this event even more spectacular is if the Moon had actually covered up Venus in this twilight sky. Not quite.

Daytime Occultation of Venus (Dec 7, 2015)
The occultation of Venus by the waning crescent Moon in the daytime on Monday, December 7 at 9:30 am local time. This is just about 3 minutes before the actual occultation as the advancing Moon is about to cover Venus on the bright limb of the Moon. This is a frame from a 100-frame time lapse. Unfortunately, as I shot this on my trip to Arizona, I did not have more focal length than the 135mm and 1.4x extender used here.

For the occultation itself, we had to wait until well after sunrise for an event in the blue daytime sky, at 9:30 a.m. local time.

All of North America got to see this fairly rare occultation of Venus by the Moon, albeit in the daytime. Nevertheless, the two objects are so bright, this was visible to the unaided eye, even with some cloud about. In binoculars it was wonderful.

To shoot it, all I had was a telephoto lens, so the image scale doesn’t do the event justice. But the image above provides a good impression of the binocular view, with Venus as a brilliant jewel on the “ring” of the Moon.

— Alan, December 7, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – A Comet in the December Dawn


Dec 7 Venus & Moon

A new comet is coming into our morning sky, for our binocular viewing pleasure.

Comet Catalina, aka C/2013 US10, has emerged from behind the Sun and is beginning to rise into our northern hemisphere dawn sky. The new comet promises to be visible in binoculars, but likely won’t be obvious to the unaided eyes.

On the morning of December 7 the comet sits within a binocular field of the waning crescent Moon which itself sits just above brilliant Venus. That in itself will be a remarkable view, best appreciated in binoculars, and a fine photogenic sight for the camera.

The close conjunction of the crescent Moon with Venus alone will be enough of an attraction on December 7, but the comet should add to the scene.

December 7 Venus Occultation

Even more, later in the day the Moon actually passes in front of, or “occults,” Venus in the daytime sky for most of North America.

That occultation happens in the morning for western North America and in the early afternoon for eastern North America. However, you’ll need a telescope to see it well, and very clear blue skies.

Stellarium Occultation

Use planetarium software (the free Stellarium program, for example, shown above, if you do not own astronomy software) to simulate the sky and provide the occultation times for your location. Zoom into the Moon and run time back and forth on December 7 to see when Venus goes behind the Moon and reappears. The screen shot above is for Calgary.

Back to the Comet

Comet Catalina was discovered in October 2013 at the Catalina Observatory in Arizona. The comet spent the last few months in the southern hemisphere sky, but is now coming north and into our sky, but at dawn.

Comet Catalina Path

It rises higher and higher each morning  through December and into the new year. It may remain at fifth magnitude, bright enough to be easily visible in binoculars from a dark site, but likely not naked eye.

The chart above plots the comet at daily intervals, from December 4 to January 1. The comet is shown for December 15. Note that on the morning of January 1 it sits within a telescope field of the bright star Arcturus.

The distance from Earth to the comet decreases through December and early January, keeping the comet at a constant brightness even as it recedes from the Sun. We are closest to Catalina on January 17, at a far distance of 108 million km. But in late January the comet fades rapidly to become a telescope target.

To see Comet Catalina this month, get up 1 to 2 hours before sunrise and look southeast to east. But you will need dark skies to see it well. This will not be a good urban comet.

Nevertheless, as far as we know, this will be the best comet of 2016.

— Alan, December 2, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

The Visible Ecliptic at Dawn


Venus (brightest), with dim Mars above it, then bright Jupiter, in a diagonal line across the dawn sky on November 14, 2015. Regulus and Leo are at top right, Arcturus in Bootes is at left, and Spica in Virgo is just rising at centre. Spica, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Regulus more or less define the line of the ecliptic in the autumn morning sky here. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the ground, to smooth noise, and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1000 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens at f/2.8 and at 14mm

The morning planets are now strung out along the ecliptic, visualizing this line in the sky.

This was the view this morning, November 14, of the three dawn planets lined up along the ecliptic, with the stars Spica and Regulus also defining this imaginary line.

The ecliptic is the Earth’s orbital path around the Sun projected into the sky. So it is along this line that we see the Sun appear to move around the sky over a year. But it is also the path along which we find the seven other major planets – in this case, three of them: Venus, Mars and Jupiter.

These three worlds were clustered together in October, but are now spreading out along the ecliptic, as Venus drops lower but Mars and Jupiter climb higher.

The stars Spica and Regulus also lie along the ecliptic, where the Moon can occasionally pass in front of, or occult, these stars.

So the two stars and three planets are now nicely drawing the ecliptic line for us in the dawn sky. At this time of year, the ecliptic is also steeply angled above the eastern horizon.

The main image above is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the ground, to smooth noise, and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1000 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens at f/2.8 and at 14mm.

Venus (brightest), with dim Mars above it, then bright Jupiter, in a diagonal line across the dawn sky on November 14, 2015, with the Zodiacal Light barely visible in the brightening twilight sky. Arcturus is a left and Spica is just rising at centre. Corvus is just above the treetops at right. Spica, Venus, Mars and Jupiter more or less define the line of the ecliptic in the autumn morning sky here. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the ground, to smooth noise, and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1000 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens at f/2.8 and at 24mm
Venus (brightest), with dim Mars above it, then bright Jupiter, in a diagonal line across the dawn sky on November 14, 2015, with the Zodiacal Light barely visible in the brightening twilight sky. Arcturus is a left and Spica is just rising at centre. Corvus is just above the treetops at right. Spica, Venus, Mars and Jupiter more or less define the line of the ecliptic in the autumn morning sky here. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the ground, to smooth noise, and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1000 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens at f/2.8 and at 24mm

This image just above is with the same gear but with the lens at the 24mm setting to more tightly frame the planets.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the sky at dawn, Orion and his winter sky friends were setting into the west (image below).

Orion and the winter constellations setting over the old Farmhouse at home, in the dawn twilight on the morning of November 14, 2015. Canis Major and Sirius are at left; Taurus and Aldebaran and the Pleiades are at right. Procyon is at upper left.  This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposoures for the ground to smooth noise and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1600 and 14-24mm Nikkor zoom lens at f/2.8.
Orion and the winter constellations setting over the old Farmhouse at home, in the dawn twilight on the morning of November 14, 2015. Canis Major and Sirius are at left; Taurus and Aldebaran and the Pleiades are at right. Procyon is at upper left. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposoures for the ground to smooth noise and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1600 and 14-24mm Nikkor zoom lens at f/2.8.

All the images here are shot with the Nikon D810a camera and the amazing Nikkor 14-24mm lens, two items in hand this month for testing and review. A thorough test will appear in future blogs.

Of course, as wonderful as the gear is, it cannot extract the ecliptic line and labels from the sky – those are added in Photoshop!

– Alan, November 14, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

Three Planets and the Moon in the Morning


The waning crescent Moon below Jupiter, with that pair of worlds above the pairing of Venus (bright) and red Mars (just above Venus), all in the dawn sky, November 6, 2015.  This is a composite of 4 exposures: 30 seconds for the ground (to bring out detail there), 8 seconds for the sky (short enough to prevent star trailing), and 2 and 1/4 seconds for the Moon itself to prevent it from being totally blown out as a bright blob. All with the Nikon D750 at ISO 1600 and Sigma 24mm Art lens at f/4. Taken from home.

The waning crescent Moon joined the planet trio this morning for a fine sight in the dawn.

This was the scene on November 6 with the waning crescent Moon just below Jupiter, and those two worlds just above the pairing of bright Venus with dim red Mars.

On Saturday, November 7, the waning Moon will sit beside Venus for an even more striking conjunction.

The waning crescent Moon below Jupiter, with that pair of worlds above the pairing of Venus (bright) and red Mars (just above Venus), all in the dawn sky in Leo, November 6, 2015. The stars of Leo are above, including Regulus. This is a composite of 4 exposures: 15 seconds for the ground (to bring out detail there), 4 seconds for the sky (short enough to prevent star trailing), and 1 and 1/4 seconds for the Moon itself to prevent it from being totally blown out as a bright blob. All with the Nikon D750 at ISO 2000 and Sigma 24mm Art lens at f/4.5. Taken from home.
The waning crescent Moon below Jupiter, with that pair of worlds above the pairing of Venus (bright) and red Mars (just above Venus), all in the dawn sky in Leo, November 6, 2015. The stars of Leo are above, including Regulus.
This is a composite of 4 exposures: 15 seconds for the ground (to bring out detail there), 4 seconds for the sky (short enough to prevent star trailing), and 1 and 1/4 seconds for the Moon itself to prevent it from being totally blown out as a bright blob. All with the Nikon D750 at ISO 2000 and Sigma 24mm Art lens at f/4.5. Taken from home.

This meeting of the Moon with the planet trio more or less concludes the superb series of dawn sky conjunctions we’ve been enjoying over the last month.

The planets remain in the morning sky but now go their own ways as Mars and Jupiter climb higher, while Venus drops lower.

— Alan, November 6, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Dawn Dance of Planets Concludes


The planet trio of Venus (brightest), Jupiter (above Venus) and Mars (dim and red to the left of Venus), all in Leo in the morning sky on November 1, 2015, with the waning gibbous Moon illuminating the landscape and sky. Even in the moonlight, the Zodiacal Light seems to be faintly visible along the ecliptic defined by the line of planets.  This is a stack of 6 x 30-second exposures at f/5.6 and ISO 2500 for more depth of the field for the ground, plus a 13-second exposure at f/2.5 and ISO 800 to minimize star trailing. The ground exposures were mean combined in a stack to smooth noise. Diffraction spikes added with Astronomy Tools Actions for Photoshop.

The gathering of planets at dawn is coming to an end as Venus meets Mars.

This was the view this morning from home in southern Alberta of the trio of planets in the moonlit morning sky.

Venus is the brightest, while dim red Mars shines just to the left of Venus. Jupiter is above the Venus & Mars pairing, with all the planets shining in Leo.

The planet trio of Venus (brightest), Jupiter (above Venus) and Mars (dim and red to the left of Venus), all in Leo in the morning sky on November 1, 2015, with the waning gibbous Moon illuminating the landscape and sky. The stars of Leo, including Regulus, shine above the planets. This is a stack of 4 x 30-second exposures at f/5.6 and ISO 2000 for more depth of the field for the ground, plus a 10-second exposure at f/2.8 and ISO 2000 to minimize star trailing. The ground exposures were mean combined in a stack to smooth noise. Diffraction spikes added with Astronomy Tools Actions for Photoshop.

Mars and Venus will appear closest to each other on November 2 and 3. Then the group breaks apart as Venus descends but Mars and Jupiter climb higher.

But as they do so they are joined by the waning Moon, by then a thin crescent, on November 6, when the Moon shines near Jupiter, and November 7, when it joins Venus for a stunning dawn sky scene.

After that the morning planet dance comes to an end. But in two months, in early January, Venus will meet up with Saturn for a very close conjunction in the winter dawn sky on January 9.

— Alan, November 1, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Triangle of Planets in the Twilight


Mars, Venus and Jupiter (in that order from top to bottom) in a triangle, in conjunction, at an old farmstead near Vulcan, Alberta, in the morning twilight, October 28, 2015. Illumination is from the nearly Full Hunter’s Moon in the west. The trio of planets were in Leo in a fine conjunction not to be repeated until November 21, 2111. Almost all of Leo is visible here, with Regulus, the constellation’s brightest star, just to the right of the windmill blades at top. This is a stack of 6 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky, all  10 seconds at f/4 and ISO 800 with the Canon 6D and Canon 24mm lens.

This was the trio of planets at their best in the morning sky. 

On the morning of October 28, Mars, Venus and Jupiter formed a neat isosceles triangle in the twilight. Venus, the brightest, was in the middle, with Mars below and Jupiter above. The grouping shone amid the stars of Leo, with its brightest star, Regulus, above the windmill in the lead image above. The rest of Leo lies above the planets.

To capture the scene I drove west at 5 am to a farmstead I had shot at before, in June, to capture Venus and Jupiter, also then in Leo near Regulus, but in the evening sky looking west. Click here for that blog post from mid-June.

This morning, the Moon, just past full as the annual Hunter’s Moon, shone in the west off camera lighting the landscape.

Mars, Venus and Jupiter (in that order from top to bottom) in a triangle, in conjunction, over an old red barn near Vulcan, Alberta, in the morning twilight, October 28, 2015. Illumination is from the nearly Full Hunter’s Moon in the west. The trio of planets were in Leo in a fine conjunction not to be repeated until November 21, 2111.  This is a stack of 6 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky, all  10 seconds at f/4 and ISO 800 with the Canon 6D and Canon 24mm lens.

The dawn sky colours and the moonlit red barn made for a fine colour contrast.

After today, the planet configuration breaks up, as Venus descends to meet Mars on November 2 and 3, while Jupiter climbs higher. But another great morning sight awaits on November 7 when the waning crescent Moon will shine near the Venus-Mars pairing, with Jupiter above.

The conjunction of Mars, Venus and Jupiter (from bottom to top) in the dawn sky over the misty waters of Lake Macgregor in southern Alberta, on October 28, 2015. This is a single 1/4-second exposure at f/4 and ISO 400 with the Canon 6D and 24mm Canon lens.

On the way home I stopped at fog-bound Lake MacGregor to capture the planets in a brightening dawn sky over the misty waters.

This morning the three planets lay just 4.5 degrees apart, close enough to frame in high-power binoculars.

We won’t see these three planets this close to each other in a darkened sky — as opposed to being so close to the Sun we really can’t see them — until November 21, 2111.

Be sure to catch the dawn show while it lasts!

— Alan, October 28, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

A Stunning Gathering of Worlds


The conjunction of Venus (brightest), Jupiter (above Venus) and Mars (dimmer below Venus & Jupiter) looking east in the morning twilight on October 25, 2015, as seen from the west shore of Lake Annette, in Jasper National Park, Alberta. The mountain is the Watchtower. Morning mist covers the lake waters. Haze in the sky adds the natural glows around the planets — no filters were empolyed here. This is a layered stack of 4 images: 10, 5, 2.5 and 1.3-second exposures, with the longer exposure for the ground and the shorter exposures adding the sky to maintain tonal balance between the dark ground and bright sky. All with the 24mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 400. It was not possible to capture the reflection of the planets in the water as they were too high in the sky.

Skies were clear at dawn this morning for a fabulous view of the rare conjunction of three planets. And I could not have been at a more photogenic site.

This was the view before dawn on October 25, as brilliant Venus and dimmer Jupiter shone just a degree apart in the dawn sky. Mars, much fainter, shines just below the close duo. The three planets could easily be contained in a high power binocular field.

Not until November 2111 will these three planets be this close together again in a darkened sky.

Indeed, Venus could not have been higher, as it is just now reaching its maximum elongation from the Sun, placing it high in the eastern morning sky.

A panorama of roughly 120° showing a star- and planet-filled sky in the dawn twilight over Lake Annette in Jasper National Park, Alberta, on the morning of October 25, 2015.  At left, to the east, are the two bright planets, Venus (brightest) and Jupiter in a close conjunction 1° apart (and here almost merging into one glow), plus reddish Mars below them, all in Leo, with the bright star Regulus above them. Right of centre, to the south, is Orion and Canis Major, with the bright star Sirius low in the south. At upper right are the stars of Taurus, including Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster. Venus was near greatest elongation on this morning.  No special filter was employed here — the hazy planets and stars and colourful star images comes naturally from a high haze over the sky this morning. It bloats the images of Venus and Jupiter so they almost merge.  The stars are partly reflected in the waters, with rising mist in the distance on the lake. Distant Whistler peak below Orion is lit by lights from the Jasper Townsite. The site is the shore of Lake Annette near the Jasper Park Lodge and site of the annual star party held as part of the Jasper Dark Sky Festival. I shot this scene the morning after the 2015 Festival. This is a panorama of 8 segments, shot with the 24mm lens mounted vertically (portrait), each for 25 seconds at f/2.8 with the Canon 6D at ISO 3200. Stitched with Photoshop, with some vertical scaling to reduce the distortion introduced by the pan mapping process.

I shot from the shores of Lake Annette, site of one of the major events, the Friday star party, at the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival which just concluded, in Jasper National Park, Alberta. The Festival celebrates the Park’s status as one of the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserves.

The hotels and restaurants were full with stargazers from around the world, making the Festival a huge success, both educationally and financially. I was honoured to be able to present some of the public and school talks.

But this dawn sky was a fine way to end a fabulous weekend of astronomy.

The image above is a panorama in the twilight, sweeping from the planets in the east, to the winter stars and constellations, including iconic Orion, in the south and southwest.

A panorama of roughly 180° showing a star- and planet-filled sky in the pre-dawn hours over Lake Annette in Jasper National Park, Alberta, on the morning of October 25, 2015.  At left, to the east, are the two bright planets, Venus (brightest) and Jupiter in a close conjunction 1° apart (and here almost merging into one glow), plus reddish Mars below them, all in Leo, with the bright star Regulus above them. At centre, to the south, is Orion and Canis Major, with the bright star Sirius low in the south. At upper right are the stars of Taurus, including Aldebaran and the Pleiades star cluster. Venus was near greatest elongation on this morning.  The Milky Way runs vertically at centre, between Sirius and Procyon, the bright star above centre. The faint glow of morning Zodiacal Light rises in a diagonal band at left in the east through the planets and stars of Leo and into Cancer and the Beehive Cluster at top left.  No special filter was employed here — the hazy planets and stars and colourful star images comes naturally from a high haze over the sky this morning. It bloats the images of Venus and Jupiter so they almost merge.  The stars are partly reflected in the waters with wind distorting some of the reflections. Some green airglow appears in the south as well. Distant Whistler peak below Orion is lit by lights from the Jasper Townsite. The site is the shore of Lake Annette near the Jasper Park Lodge and site to the annual star party held as part of the Jasper Dark Sky Festival. I shot this scene the morning after the 2015 Festival. This is a panorama of 12 segments, shot with the 24mm lens mounted vertically (portrait), each for 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the Canon 6D at ISO 3200. Stitched with Photoshop, with some vertical scaling to reduce the distortion introduced by the pan mapping process.

Earlier in the morning, before twilight began to brighten the sky, I shot another even wider panorama from the south shore of the lake.

In this and other photos, high haze adds the glows around the stars and planets naturally. No special effects filters here!

But Venus and Jupiter are so close and bright their images almost merge into one glow.

Brilliant Venus, in conjunction with dimmer Jupiter above, and with even dimmer Mars below, at left here, on the morning of October 25, 2015 when Venus and Jupiter were only 1° apart.  I shot this from Lake Annette in Jasper National Park before the sky started to brighten with dawn twilight. High haze in the sky adds the glows around the stars and planets, in particular the colored halo around Venus. The mountain is the Watchtower. The site is used as the main star party location for the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival. This is a 30-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 35mm lens and as ISO 1600 with the Canon 6D.

Here they are, with Mars below, shining in the dark sky over the Watchtower peak and over the misty waters of Lake Annette.

Keep an eye on the sky at dawn, as these three worlds will be close to each other for the next few mornings. See my earlier blog for details.

— Alan, October 25, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com