Urban Orion


Urban Nightscape – Orion over Calgary

On a very clear night, Orion shines over the skyline of Calgary.

As I live in the country, it’s not often I shoot the stars from urban sites, and certainly not from downtown Calgary. But the combination of a clear night and a speaking commitment in Calgary provided a chance to see what was possible under ideal conditions.

The lead image is real – I did not paste an image of the sky taken at some other time or place over the skyline image.

However, the sky image is a longer exposure (10 seconds) than the ground (3 seconds) in order to bring out the stars better, while keeping the city lights under control with no overexposure. So it is sort of a high dynamic range blend.

The other factor that helped reveal stars as faint as shown here (fainter than what the naked eye can see) is the use of a light pollution reduction filter (a NISI Natural Night filter) to penetrate the yellow sky glow and provide a more pleasing colour to the sky.

Earlier in the night, during twilight when urban light pollution is not so much of an issue, I shot the waxing crescent Moon setting over the skyline.

Crresent Moon over Calgary

This is a panorama image made from high dynamic range blends of various exposures, to again accommodate the large range in brightness in the scene. But I did not use the NISI filter here.

These images demonstrate how you can get fine astronomy images even from urban sites, with planning and timing.

To that end, I used my favourite app, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, to determine where the sky elements would be as seen from a couple of viewpoints over the city that I’ve used in the past.

The blue spheres in the left image of TPE in its Night mode represent the Milky Way. That chart also shows the direction toward Orion over the city core.

The right image of TPE in its Day mode shows the position of the Moon at 6 pm that evening, again showing it to the left of the urban core.

Other apps are capable of providing the same information, but I like TPE for its ease of use.

Clear skies!

— Alan, January 20, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Red Rivals in Scorpius


Red Rivals in Scorpius

Mars outshines his rival red star Antares in the heart of the Scorpion.

This was the view last night from my observing site in Australia, of red Mars shining near the red star Antares, whose very name means “rival of Mars.” But as Mars nears its closest approach to Earth next month it is already far brighter than Antares, easily winning the rivalry now.

The view takes in the head of Scorpius, one of the most colourful areas of the night sky when photographed in long exposures. Uniquely, Antares illuminates a nearby dust cloud with its light which is more yellow than red.

Other dust clouds reflect the blue light of hot young stars in this section of the Milky Way. Red nebulas are emitting their own light from glowing hydrogen.

The area around Antares is also streaked with lanes of dark dust that absorb light and at best appear a dull brown.

Mars reaches its closest point to Earth since 2005 on May 30. All through May and June Mars will shine as a brilliant red star near Antares. A telescope will provide the best view of the red planet we’ve had in a decade.

Saturn and Mars in Scorpius
This is a stack of 4 x 3 minute exposures with the 135mm telephoto lens at f/2.8 and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, shot April 14, 2016 from Tibuc Cottage, Australia.

While you are in the area aim your telescope a little to the east to catch Saturn, also in the area, though technically over the border in the constellation of Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer.

In the view above, Saturn is the bright “star” to the left of Mars. Saturn reaches its closest to Earth in early June. Its rings are now wide open and a spectacular picture postcard sight in any telescope.

Scorpius Rising in Moonlight
This is a stack of 2 x 30-second exposures for the sky and ground, both tracked, plus a 30-second exposure through the Kenko Softon A filter to add the star glows to make the constellation pattern stand out. All with the 35mm lens at f/2 and Canon 6D at ISO 1600. Taken from Tibuc Cottage, Australia.

This final view shows Mars and Saturn rising with Scorpius in the moonlight from two nights ago. From my current latitude of 32° south, Scorpius comes up on his side.

— Alan, April 15, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer  / www.amazingsky.com

Under the Southern Cross


Southern Milky Way Over OzSky Star Party

The Southern Cross, the iconic constellation of the southern sky, shines high in the south on austral autumn nights.

I’m in one of my favourite places, Australia, in particular at its self-proclaimed “astronomy capital,” Coonabarabran in New South Wales. Down the road from me is the Siding Spring Observatory.

But for 3 weeks I’m using my own telescope gear to observe and photograph the fabulous southern skies.

For part of my time here I’m attending the annual OzSky Star Party, a small and rather exclusive event for observers from around the world who come here to revel in celestial wonders visible only from southern latitudes.

The lead image at top is a 7-panel panorama of the star party in action, on the grounds of the Warrumbungles Mountain Motel, with a dozen or more large and premium telescopes set up for our use.

Overhead is the arch of the southern Milky Way, with the Southern Cross here at its highest about local midnight now in early April at the start of autumn. Below the Milky Way is the Large Magellanic Cloud, a companion galaxy to the Milky Way, itself a superb target for telescopes.

To the far right in the Milky Way is Sirius amid the gum trees, and the stars of Canis Major diving into the west. To the far left are the bright star clouds of Scorpius and Sagittarius rising in the east, bringing the glowing core of our Galaxy high into the austral sky. Bright Mars and Saturn shine in and around Scorpius.

This is a view of the Milky Way everyone should see – it is should be one of the top items on any amateur astronomer’s bucket list.

Star Trails over the OzSky Star Party
Circumpolar star trails over the OzSky star party near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia, on April 3, 2016. This is a stack of 49 frames, each 45 seconds at f/2.8 with the 15mm fish-eye lens on the Canon 6D at ISO 4000. The ground comes from three frames in the sequence. Stacked with Advanced Stacker Plus actions using Streaks mode.

Here, above, I’ve stacked images from a time-lapse to create a star trail scene with the stars of the southern sky rotating about the blank South Celestial Pole. Again, the Southern Cross is at top.

Southern Milky Way from Alpha Cen to False Cross
The deep south Milky Way from Alpha and Beta Centauri (at left) to the False Cross in Vela and Carina (at right). This is a stack of 5 x 4 minute exposures at f/2.8 with the 35mm Canon L-series lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1000, with an additional similar exposure layered in taken through the Kenko Softon A filter to provide the star glows. Tracked on the iOptron Sky Tracker. 

This view, above, focuses on the Milky Way of the deep south, from Vela to Centaurus, passing through Carina and Crux, with the bright Carina Nebula, the Southern Cross, and the dark Coal Sack front and centre.

Mosaic of Crux, the Southern Cross
A 3-panel mosaic of the Southern Cross, Crux, shot April 5, 2016 from Tibuc Cottage, Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia. This is a moasic of 3 panels, each a stack of 4 x 4-minute exposures with the Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600. Stacked and stitched in Photoshop.

Here I zoom into the Southern Cross itself, in a mosaic of 3 panels to cover the smallest constellation using a high-resolution astrograph, a 300mm f/4 lens. The Coal Sack is at lower left while numerous star clusters lie embedded within and around the Cross, including the famous “Jewel Box” at left, next to Beta Cruxis, aka Becrux.

The Southern Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds
The deep southern Milky Way arching across the sky, from Puppis and Vela at upper right, to Centaurus at lower left. The two Magellanic Clouds are at lower centre, with the Large Cloud at top. This is a stack of 5 x 1.5-minute exposures, all tracked on the iOptron Sky Tracker, at f/2.8 with the 15mm fish-eye lens, and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200. The ground comes from just one of the tracked exposures to minimize blurring. Taken from the Tibuc Gardens Cottage near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia on March 30, 2016.

I shot the Crux mosaic from my cottage site at Tibuc Gardens, a superb dark sky site and home to a new cottage built after the devastating bush fires of 2013 which destroyed all the other cottages I had stayed at in previous years.

There’s much more to come, as I rapidly fill up my hard drive with time-lapses and deep-sky images of the southern sky. I already have several blogs worth of images processed or about to be. In the meantime, check my Flickr site for the latest images hot off the hard drive and uploaded as best my Oz internet connectivity allows.

— Alan, April 7, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

A Panorama of the Spring and Winter Sky


Winter and Spring Sky Panorama

I present a sweeping panorama of the winter and spring stars on a February night. 

The lead image is a panorama I shot last Saturday, February 27 that takes in about 200° of sky from northeast to west, and nearly to the zenith. It encompasses most of the northern spring and winter stars and constellations.

I’ve added the labels to help you pick out the celestial highlights. The winter sky, containing Orion as the central constellation, is at right setting into the west. This area of sky contains a rich collection of bright stars and identifiable constellations.

The left side of the sky contains the spring constellations, now coming into view in the east. Note how that area of sky is sparsely populated by bright stars. You can see the Big Dipper, Regulus in Leo, and Arcturus rising at lower left.

The reason for the difference is the Milky Way – you can see it at right arcing up from the southern horizon passing by Orion and through Gemini, Taurus and Auriga. In that direction we are looking into the outlying spirals arms of our galaxy, toward rich areas of star formation.

To the east, at left, we are looking at right angles out of the plane of our spiral galaxy, toward the galactic North Pole, here just left of Leo. In that direction there are very few bright stars between us and the starless depths of intergalactic space. The spring sky is rather blank compared to the rich winter sky.

But you can see Jupiter, the brightest object in view here, and now prominent in the evening sky.

Note one other subtle glow just above Jupiter. That diffuse glow is the Gegenschein, caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust opposite the Sun in our solar system and in the plane of the ecliptic.

Jupiter is just east (left) of the Gegenschein here, as Jupiter was then just over a week before its date of opposition, March 8. By then the Gegenschein will have moved to superimpose right over Jupiter, as both then lie opposite the Sun.

Winter and Spring Sky Panorama

I shot this scene from home on February 27, 2016, using the new iOptron iPano motorized “gigapan” unit, which I programmed to move and shoot 36 exposures with the Canon 5D MkII and 35mm lens, arranged in 4 rows high with 9 panels wide in each row from east to west. The result is a huge mosaic, 24,000 by 10,000 pixels.

Each exposure was 25 seconds at f/2 and at ISO 3200. The camera was not tracking the sky. I stitched the 36 segments with PTGui using its Spherical Fisheye projection. The image has black margins but I think the circular format is more suggestive of the spherical dome of the sky above and around you. But that’s me, a longtime planetarium show producer.

Next time I will shoot the zenith cap images as well!

— Alan, February 29, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Mosaic of the Autumn Constellations


Mosaic of the Northern Autumn Constellations

I present a horizon-to-zenith panorama of the pantheon of autumn constellations.

Yes, I know it’s winter, but as it gets dark each night now in early January the autumn stars are still front and centre. I took the opportunity during a run of very clear nights at home to shoot a panorama of the autumn sky.

It is a mosaic that sweeps up the sky and frames many related Greek mythological constellations:

• from the watery constellations of Aquarius, Pisces, and Cetus at the bottom near the horizon…

• to Pegasus and Aries in mid-frame…

• on up to Andromeda and Perseus at upper left…

• and finally Cassiopeia and Cepheus at the top of frame embedded in the Milky Way overhead. The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is just above centre.

Mosaic of the Northern Autumn Constellations (with Labels)

Here, I’ve labeled the participating constellations, though only a few, such as the “square” of Pegasus and the “W” of Cassiopeia, have readily identifiable patterns.

Most of these constellations are related in Greek mythology, with Princess Andromeda being the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus, who was rescued from the jaws of Cetus the Sea Monster by Perseus the Hero, who rode on Pegasus the Winged Horse in some accounts.

Zodiacal Light brightens the sky at bottom right in Aquarius, and angles across the frame to the left.


 

TECHNICAL:

I shot this from home on a very clear night January 2, 2016 with the Zodiacal Light plainly visible to the naked eye.

This is a mosaic of 5 panels, each a stack of 5 x 2 minute exposures, plus each panel having another stack of 2 x 2 minute exposures blended in, and taken through the Kenko Softon filter to add the fuzzy star glows to make the constellations stand out.

All were shot with the 24mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 5DMkII at ISO 1600. All tracked on the AP Mach One mount.

All stacking and stitching in Photoshop CC 2015. Final image size is 8500 x 5500 pixels and 3.6 gigabytes for the layered master.

– Alan, January 3, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

A Panorama of the Entire Northern Milky Way


Panorama of the Northern Milky Way

In a sweeping panorama, here is the entire northern hemisphere Milky Way from horizon to horizon.

This is the result of one of the major projects on my recent trek to Arizona and New Mexico – a mosaic of images shot along the Milky Way over several hours.

The goal is a complete 360° panorama of the entire Milky Way, and I’ve got most of the other segments in previous shoots from Alberta, Australia and Chile. But I did not have good shots of the northern autumn segments, until now.

The panorama sweeps from Cygnus (at top, setting in the western sky in the evening), across the sky overhead in Perseus, Auriga and Taurus (in the middle), and down into Orion, Canis Major, and Puppis (at bottom, low in the southern sky at midnight).

The view is looking outward to the near edge of our Milky Way, in the direction opposite the centre of our Galaxy. In this direction the Milky Way becomes dimmer and less defined. Notable are the many red H-alpha emission regions along the Milky Way, as well as the many lanes of dark interstellar dust nearby and obscuring the more distant stars.

However, a diffuse glow in Taurus partly obscures its Taurus Dark Clouds — that’s the Gegenschein, caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles directly opposite the Sun and marking the anti-solar point this night, by coincidence then close to galactic longitude of 180° opposite the galactic centre.

Panorama of the Northern Milky Way (with Labels)

Here I provide a guided map of the mosaic. Orion is at lower right, while the Pleiades and Andromeda Galaxy lie near the right edge. The Andromeda Galaxy is the only thing in this image that is not part of the Milky Way.

The bright star Canopus is just rising at bottom, in haze. Vega and Altair are just setting at the very top. So the panorama sweeps from Altair to Canopus.

The sky isn’t perfect! Haze and airglow in our atmosphere add discolouration, especially close to the horizon. In my final 360° pan, I’ll use only the central portions of this panorama.

Now let’s put the horizon-to-horizon panorama into cosmic perspective…

Illustration of the Northern Milky Way Panorama

In this diagram, based on art from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope Institute, I show my Northern Milky Way Panorama in perspective to the “big picture” of our entire Galaxy, using artwork based on our best map of how our Galaxy is thought to look.

We are looking in a “god’s eye” view across our Galaxy from a vantage point on the far side of the Galaxy.

Where we are is marked with the red dot, the location of our average Sun in a minor spiral arm called the Orion Spur.

The diagram places my panorama image in the approximate correct location to show where its features are in our Galaxy. As such it illustrates how my panorama taken from Earth shows our view of the outer portions of our Galaxy, from the bright Cygnus area at right, to Perseus in the middle, directly opposite the centre of the Galaxy, then over to Orion at left.

The panorama sweeps from a “galactic longitude” of roughly 90° at right in Cygnus, to 180° in Perseus, over to 240° in Orion and Canis Major at left.

In the northern autumn and early winter seasons we are looking outward toward the outer Perseus Arm. So the Milky Way we see in our sky is fainter than in mid-summer when we are looking the other way, toward the dense centre of the Galaxy and the rich inner Norma and Sagittarius arms.

Yet, this outer region contains a rich array of star-forming regions, which mostly show up as the red nebulas. But this region of the Milky Way is also laced with dark lanes of interstellar “stardust.”

NOTE:

For larger images, see my Flickr site at https://www.flickr.com/photos/amazingsky/

TECHNICAL:

The panorama is composed of 14 segments, most being stacks 5 x 2.5-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600 and 35mm lens at f/2.8.

The end segments near the horizons at top and bottom are stacks of 2 x 2.5-minute exposures.

Each segment also has an additional image shot through a Kenko Softon filter to add the star glows, to make the bright stars show up better.

The camera was oriented with the long dimension of the frame across the Milky Way, not along it, to maximize the amount of sky framed on either side of the Milky Way.

The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. I shot the segments for this pan from Quailway Cottage, Arizona on December 8/9, 2015, with the end segments taken Dec 10/11, 2015. I decided to add in the horizon segments for completeness, and so shot those two nights later when sky conditions were a little different.

— Alan, December 19, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Wonder-Filled Winter Sky


Mosaic of the Wonder-filled Winter Milky Way

The sky of December contains an amazing array of bright stars and deep-sky delights.

At this time of year we peer out toward the edge of our Galaxy, in the direction opposite to what we see in July and August. Even though we are looking away from the centre of our Galaxy, the Milky Way at this time of year contains a stunning collection of sights – for the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.

I can’t list them all here, but most are in the lead image above! The image is a mosaic of the northern winter Milky Way, including the brilliant stars and constellations in and around Orion the Hunter.

The Milky Way extends from Perseus in the north at top, to Canis Major in the south at bottom. Throughout the scene are dark lanes and dust clouds, such as the Taurus Dark Clouds at upper right.

The Milky Way is dotted with numerous red “hydrogen-alpha” regions of emission nebulosity, such as the bright Rosette Nebula at lower left and the California Nebula at upper right. The curving arc of Barnard’s Loop surrounds the east side of Orion. Orion is below centre, with Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, at lower left.

The constellation of Taurus is at upper right and Gemini at upper left. Auriga is at top and Perseus at upper right.

There’s an unusually bright area in Taurus just right of centre in the mosaic which I thought might be an image processing artifact. No. It’s the Gegenschein – a glow of sunlight reflected off comet dust directly opposite the Sun.

Two highlights of this sky that are great regions for binoculars are the Hyades cluster in Taurus ….

The Hyades Cluster with Aldebaran
The Hyades open star cluster in Taurus with the bright star Aldebaran, not a part of the cluster iteslf. The smaller and more distant cluster NGC 1647 is at left. This is a telephoto lens image taking in a field similar to binoculars, and is a stack of 5 x 2.5-minute exposures with the 135mm lens at f/2 and Canon 5D MkII camera at ISO 800, plus two other exposures taken through the Kenko Softon filter to add the star glows. Taken from Quailway Cottage on Dec 7, 2015 using the iOptron Sky-Tracker.

…and the Belt and Sword of Orion.

The Hyades – the face of Taurus – is one of the nearest and therefore largest open star clusters.

Orion the Hunter, who battles Taurus in the sky, contains the famous Orion Nebula, here overexposed in order to bring out the much fainter nebulosity in the region.

The magenta and blue arcs in the image below are photographic targets, but the bright Orion Nebula in Orion’s Sword is easy in binoculars, shining below the trio of his Belt Stars.

Orion Belt and Sword Mosaic
A mosaic of the Sword and Belt region of Orion the Hunter, showing the diverse array of colourful nebulas in the area, including: curving Barnard’s Loop, the Horsehead Nebula below the left star of the Belt, Alnitak, and the Orion Nebula itself as the bright region in the Sword. Also in the field are numerous faint blue reflection nebulas. The reflection nebula M78 is at top embedded in a dark nebula, and the pinkish NGC 2024 or Flame Nebula is above Alnitak. The bright orange-red star at far right is W Orionis, a type M4 long-period variable star. This is a 4-panel mosaic with each panel made of 5 x 2.5-minute exposures with the 135mm Canon L-series telephoto wide open at f/2 and the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1250. The night was somewhat hazy which added natural glows on the stars. No filter was employed here. The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker for tracking but no guiding. Shot from outside Quailway Cottage near Portal, Arizona, Dec 7, 2015. All stacking and stitching performed in Photoshop CC 2015. Stacking done with median combine stack mode to eliminate geosat trails through the fields.

For us in the northern hemisphere, Orion and company are winter sights. But for those down under, in the southern hemisphere, this is the summer sky. So pardon the northern chauvinism in the title!

Either way, on a dark, moonless night, get out and explore the sky around Orion.

TECHNICAL:

I shot the segments for the main mosaic at top on a very clear night on December 5, 2015 from the Quailway Cottage at Portal, Arizona. This is a mosaic of 8 segments, in two columns of 4 rows, with generous overlap. Each segment was made of 4 x 2.5-minute exposures stacked with mean combine stack mode to reduce noise, plus 2 x 2.5-minute exposures taken through the Kenko Softon filter layered in with Lighten belnd mode to add the star glows. Each segment was shot at f/2.8 with the original 35mm Canon L-series lens and the filter-modified (by Hutech) Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, riding on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. All stacking and stitching in Photoshop CC 2015. The soft diffusion filter helps bring out the star colors in this area of sky rich in brilliant giant stars.

— Alan, December 11, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Last of the Summer Milky Way


Last of the Summer Milky Way

The summer Milky Way sets into the southwest on a late November night. 

On Saturday, November 28, well into winter here in Alberta, the stars of the Summer Triangle and the summer Milky Way set into the southwest on a clear, though slightly hazy, late November night.

This is the last of the summer Milky Way, with the centre of the Galaxy now long gone, but the Summer Triangle stars remaining in the evening sky well into autumn. Glows from light pollution in the west light the horizon, in a quick series of images shot in my rural backyard.

In the Summer Triangle, Vega is at right, as the brightest star; Deneb is above centre, and Altair is below centre, farthest south in the Milky Way.

I shot this as a test image for the Nikkor 14-24mm lens, here wide-open at f/2.8 and at 14mm, where it performs beautifully, with very tight star images to the corners. It does very well at 24mm, too! This is astonishing performance for a zoom lens. It matches or beats many “prime” lenses for quality.

The camera was the 36-megapixel Nikon D810a, Nikon’s “astronomical DSLR” camera, also on test. Here it shows its stuff by picking up the red nebulas in Cygnus and Cepheus.

Thorough tests of both the camera and lens will appear later in the year. Stay tuned.

Do subscribe to my blog (click below) to get email notices of new entries.

For the even more technically-minded, this image is a stack, mean combined, of five 2-minute tracked exposures, at f/2.8 and ISO 800. The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. So the stars are not trailed but the ground is! I made no attempt here to layer in an untracked ground shot, as there isn’t much detail of interest worth showing, quite frankly.

At least not in the ground. But the Milky Way is always photogenic.

– Alan, November 28, 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 

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

Nova Sagittarii Close-Up


Nova Sagittarii (March 28, 2015)

The nova star in Sagittarius has re-brightened. I captured it in a telephoto closeup.

Here is Nova Sagittarii – likely an exploding white dwarf star – as it appeared before dawn on the morning of March 28. This is the brightest nova visible from the northern hemisphere for many years, though even now it is barely naked eye at fifth magnitude.

After dimming for a few days the nova has re-brightened somewhat. What titanic forces are going on at this white dwarf star causing it to fade then brighten remain to be determined.

It will certainly be worth keeping an eye on. With luck it might really get bright!

This telephoto image frames the “Teapot” configuration of stars that forms the main part of Sagittarius the Archer. The nova has appeared from out of nowhere in the middle of the Teapot just below the lid!

The image is a stack of 4 x 90-second exposures, plus an exposure taken through a Kenko Softon A filter to add the star glows, to accentuate the brighter stars. I shot this from the backyard in New Mexico.

– Alan, March 28, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Nova Star in Sagittarius


Nova Star in Sagittarius

It’s a nova needle in a Milky Way haystack – an exploding star appears in Sagittarius. 

On March 15 a very observant amateur astronomer in Australia spotted a star in Sagittarius that wasn’t there the night before. It was a nova, Latin for “new.”

But this was not a new star forming, but an old star in the process of dying.

This star is likely an ancient white dwarf drawing material off a close companion. When the in-falling material builds up on the surface of the white dwarf it ignites in a nuclear explosion, causing the star to brighten, in this case by hundreds of times.

At its peak last week, Nova Sagittarii was just bright enough to see naked eye. It is now below 5th magnitude and barely naked eye. In my long exposure photo it appears lost amid the blaze of stars in the Sagittarius Milky Way.

Still, this was the brightest nova visible from the northern hemisphere in many years. Indeed, we haven’t had a really bright naked-eye nova since the 1970s.

Considering all those stars, you’d think some would blow up for us to enjoy!

– Alan, March 26, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Christmas Eve Sky


Christmas Eve at City of Rocks Panorama

This was the sky on the night before Christmas, with the Moon setting and Orion rising.

It was a crisp and calm night on Christmas Eve, with the waxing Moon shining beside Mars in the west at right. The western sky was marked by the faint tower of light called the Zodiacal Lights. To the east at left, Orion was rising beside the Milky Way.

The main image is a 180° panorama taken at the City of Rocks State Park, south of Silver City, New Mexico, and a particularly photogenic site for nightscape images.

Christmas Eve Moon in Twilight

This was the scene earlier in the evening with the Moon beside Mars, and the pair well above Venus down in the twilight, all framed by one of the park’s windmills.

Orion Rising at City of Rocks (Xmas Eve 2014)

Here is a close-up of Orion climbing over the rock formations in the state park. This is a single exposure with the foreground lit by the waxing crescent Moon.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

– Alan, December 24, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

Moon and Twilight Planets over the Bow River


Moon with Antares, Mars & Saturn over Bow River

The waxing Moon shines between Saturn and Mars over the waters of the Bow River.

It was a beautiful autumn evening for watching the twilight showing of the crescent Moon accompanied by Saturn (at right of centre) and the pairing of Mars (at left, above) with his rival red star, Antares in Scorpius (at left, below).

The river is the Bow, with its headwaters at Bow Glacier in Banff.

To shoot this scene I drove to the grounds of the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park south of Cluny, Alberta to take advantage of its viewpoint overlooking the Bow River and the heart of the traditional Siksika First Nations tribal lands.

It was here, in the valley below, that Treaty Seven was signed between Chief Crowfoot and Colonel James Macleod in September 1877. Today, a beautiful interpretive centre sits on the hillside at the heart of Blackfoot country.

– Alan, September 28, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Autumn Stars Rising over Dinosaur Park


Autumn Sky Rising over Badlands

The autumn constellations rise into a colourful sky at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta.

Last night the sky started out beautifully clear but as it got darker it was apparent even to the eye that the sky wasn’t really dark, despite the lack of any Moon.

The camera captured the culprit – extensive green airglow, to the east at right. A faint aurora also kicked up to the north, at left, adding a red glow. Light pollution from gas plants nearby and from Brooks 50 km away added yellow to the sky scattered off haze and incoming cloud.

The sky colours added to the scene of the autumn constellations of Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Perseus and Pegasus rising in the east. The Andromeda Galaxy is at centre. The Pleiades is (are?) just rising over the hill.

This is a composite of five stacked and tracked exposures for the sky (with the camera on the Star Adventurer tracking mount) and four stacked but untracked exposures I took at the end of the sequence for the sharp ground (I just turned the tracker motor off for these).

– Alan, September 26, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Pyramid Island Sky Panorama


Panorama from Pyramid Island Boardwalk, Jasper Park

The sky presents a panoramic show from Pyramid Island in Jasper National Park.

What a wonderful place to watch the stars. Last night I walked out to Pyramid Island in Jasper, via the historic boardwalk built in the 1930s. The site provides a panorama view around the lake and sky.

To the left is the “mainland.” Just left of centre the waxing gibbous Moon is setting over Pyramid Lake.

To the right of centre, the boardwalk leads out the small island, with Pyramid Mountain behind it.

To the right of the frame, a faint aurora glows to the northeast over the still waters of the lake.

This is a 360° panorama shot with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens in portrait orientation, with the segments stitched with PTGui software.

Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain from Pyramid Island

After shooting some panoramas I walked to the end of the island and shot this view looking north and northwest to Pyramid Mountain. The Big Dipper is to the right of the peak, and the aurora lights up the northern horizon at right.

As I shot these images, the night was absolutely quiet. Until the wolves began to howl at the north end of the lake, in mournful howls that echoed across the waters.

It was one of the most spine-chilling moments I’ve experienced in many years of shooting landscapes at night.

– Alan, September 5, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Mount Kobau Nightscapes


Big Dipper Down the Road

The pines and sagebrush landscape of the summit of Mount Kobau are illuminated by the light of just the stars and Milky Way.

This collection of images from Monday night, July 28, captures the night sky above and the land below in classic “nightscapes.”

I took all of these with a camera on a static tripod, with no tracking system involved here. All are about 40-second exposures at ISO 3200 to 6400 with a fast 24mm lens at f/2.5 on a Canon 6D.

However, for the image above I composited two exposures: a shorter 40 second shot for the sky and a longer 1 minute 40 second shot for the ground. I used Photoshop’s Quick Selection tool to make a rough selection of the ground, then the Refine Mask and Smart Radius tool to refine the edge to precisely mask the sky separately from the ground, for individual processing.

The top image shows the Big Dipper and a well-timed meteor, at the end of the summit road on Mt. Kobau, near Osoyoos, BC.

Big Dipper & Arcturus from Mt Kobau

This image takes in the Big Dipper at right pointing down to Arcturus at left. I used Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill to neatly eliminate a power pole and wires.

Sagebrush and Stars

Looking southwest reveals the Milky Way above the sagebrush and pine trees. This is a single exposure, with the ground processed with Shadow detail recovery to bring out the starlit ground.

Pleiades Rising Down the Road

This image, taken about 2 a.m., records the Pleiades star cluster rising down the end of the summit road, with Capella at left. It is a dual-exposure composite: 40 seconds for the sky and 1m40s for the ground.

I gave a talk at this year’s Mt. Kobau Star Party on how to shoot these kinds of nightscapes, illustrated with some of these images shot on site the night before. Very nice!

– Alan, July 30, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Star Scenes in Scorpius


Scorpius Overhead (50mm 5DII)

Scorpius, one of the most photogenic of constellations, contains a wealth of amazing sky sights.

My trip to the land down under is coming to an end but I’m still working through the dozens of deep-sky images I was able to take under the southern stars. The wide-field scene above takes in all of Scorpius, shot with the constellation sitting directly overhead in the pre-dawn hours of an austral autumn. You can trace the scorpion’s winding shape down from his head and claws at top, to his curving stinger tail at bottom.

M6 and M7 Star Clusters in Scorpius (77mm 5DII)

Off the stinger of the scorpion shine two naked-eye star clusters, Messier 6 and 7 (the close-up photo above). M6 is the Butterfly Cluster, seen here sitting in a dark region of the Milky Way at upper right. Its companion, M7, a.k.a. Ptolemy’s Cluster at left of the frame, is lost amid the bright star fields  that mark the direction of the galactic core.

NGC 6334 Cat's Paw Nebula (77mm 5DII)

In the curving tail of the scorpion lie two patches of nebulosity. At upper left is NGC 6357, but the triple-lobed NGC 6334 at bottom right is also known as the Cat’s Paw Nebula.

False Comet NGC 6231 Area (77mm 5DII)

Further up the tail of the scorpion sits this fabulous region of space that is a stunning sight in binoculars. NGC 6231 is the blue star cluster at bottom, which garnered the name The False Comet Cluster back in early 1986 when many people mistook its fuzzy naked eye glow for Comet Halley then passing through the area. The camera reveals the region filled with glowing hydrogen gas.

Antares & Rho Ophiuchi Area (77mm 5DII)

But the standout region of Scorpius lies at its heart. Here, the yellow-orange star Antares lights up a dusty nebula surrounding it, reflecting its yellow glow. At top, another dusty nebula surrounds the star Rho Ophiuchi, reflecting its blue light. Glowing hydrogen gas adds its characteristic magenta tints. This is one of the most colourful regions of the Milky Way.

I shot these images with 50mm normal and 300mm telephoto lenses two weeks ago during the OzSky Star Safari near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia. For all I used a filter-modified (by Hutech) Canon 5D Mark II camera.

— Alan, April 17, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

The Galactic Archway of the Southern Sky


Two Styx Night Sky Panorama (Rectilinear)

The southern Milky Way arches across the sky, with the centre of the Galaxy overhead at dawn.

This was the sky at 4:30 this morning, as Venus rose in the east (to the right) amid the zodiacal light, and with the Milky Way soaring overhead. This image is a 360° panorama of the scene, with the zenith, the overhead point, at the top centre of the frame.

The location is the Two Styx Cabins, on the border of New England National Park in New South Wales, Australia. The cabin with the light on (I left it on on purpose for the photo) is where I stayed for two nights in splendid isolation.

The panorama is a stitch of 6 frames shot with an 8mm fish-eye lens, each 1-minute exposures on an untracked tripod. I used the PTGui software program to assemble the pan.

Below is an alternative rendering, in spherical format, to create the more classic “fish-eye” view, but one extending well below the horizon. So this is not one image but a stitch of six.

Two Styx Night Sky Panorama (Fish-Eye)

In this version you can more readily see the spectacle of the Milky Way at dawn in the southern hemisphere autumn months, with the bulge of the galactic core directly overhead as seen from this latitude of 30° south. It is a wonderful sight.

This is my last view of it for this trip. Till next year!

— Alan, April 11, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Zooming into the Centre of the Galaxy


Sagittarius and Scorpius Milky Way (35mm 5DII)

A series of closer images zooms us into the Milky Way looking toward the centre of our Galaxy

Here are some images I took this past week at the OzSky Star Safari near Coonabarabran, Australia. The lead image above is a wide-angle lens image of all of Scorpius (above and to the right) and Sagittarius (below and to the left) straddling the Milky Way and its bright glowing core. The direction of the galactic centre is just left of centre of the image. We can’t see the actual centre of the Milky Way with our eyes and normal cameras because there are just too many stars and obscuring dust lanes in between us and the core.

The dust forms marvellous patterns across the glowing Milky Way — see the Dark Horse prancing at left? Long tendrils of dust reach from the feet of the Horse to the bright yellow star at top, Antares, the heart of Scorpius.

The Centre of the Milky Way (50mm 60Da)

This image with a longer lens zooms in closer to the bright Sagittarius Starcloud around the heart of the Galaxy. All along it you can see red and pink nebulas, from the Cat’s Paw at upper right to the Eagle Nebula at lower left. The larger pink object at centre is the Lagoon Nebula.

The next image zooms into the area at the centre of the above shot, just right of the Lagoon.

Sagittarius Starcloud (77mm 5DII)

This is the star-packed Sagittarius Starcloud. Everything you see is stars. Millions of stars.

I took this shot with a 300mm telephoto — a small telescope actually, the gear shown below. It’s what I was using most of this past week to shoot the Australian southern sky.

Borg 77mm Astrograph in Australia

This is some of my Oz gear, the equipment (except for the camera and autoguider on top) that stays in Australia for use every year or two. The mount is an Astro-Physics 400 and the scope is the Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph. I used it for the close-up photo.

The gear all worked great this time. I’ll have more photos to post shortly as my connection allows. Tonight, I am at the Parkes Radio Observatory where the internet connection is as good as it gets!

— Alan, April 4, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

The Southern Cross and Carina Nebula


Southern Cross and Carina Nebula (50mm 60Da)

Two icons of the southern hemisphere sky shine side by side in the Milky Way.

Last night was a hazy one at my site in Australia, with high clouds drifting through all evening. I made the best of it and shot some constellations, including the most famous in the southern sky, the Southern Cross, or Crux. It stands at left in the frame, with its distinctive four main stars, three of the blue and the top star of the cross, Gacrux, a very orange tint.

To the left of and below Crux the Milky Way is marred by a dark cloud of interstellar dust, the Coal Sack.

To the right of the frame you can see the pink “flower” of the Carina Nebula, one of the largest star forming regions in the sky. It is flanked by several star clusters, notably the very blue Southern Pleiades, or IC 2602, shining below the Carina Nebula.

The natural haze in the sky added glows around the stars, accentuating their colours.

In all, this is one of the richest and most colourful areas of the sky. It’s a highlight of any southern sky tour.

– Alan, March 23, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

The Milky Way from Down Under


15mm Ultrawide Southern Milky Way (March 2014)

The Milky Way of the southern hemisphere arches across the sky from the Southern Cross to Orion.

I’ve arrived at my dark sky site near Coonabarabran, Australia, with a very clear night to start my two-week session under the southern stars. Tonight I had just a 2-hour window between end of twilight and moonrise. But I made good use of it by taking some ultra-wide-angle views of the Milky Way we never see from up north.

This horizon-to-horizon scene looks straight up and stretches from the Southern Cross at far left (in the east) through Vela and Puppis to Orion at right (in the west). This sweep includes much of the Milky Way forever below our horizon from northern latitudes. At centre is the wide loop of the Gum Nebula. At lower left is the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.

At upper right is Jupiter in Gemini. The two bright stars near the centre are Canopus (left of centre) and Sirius (right of centre).

This is a stack of five 5-minute exposures at f/4 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens on the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1000. The camera was on the iOptron Skytracker, its first time in the southern hemisphere and my first time aligning it on the South Celestial Pole. It took a few minutes but I got it! The tracker worked great.

The forecast is for clouds and rain the next few days. But I’m here for over two weeks, and the weather can’t be any worse than it was in 2010 when the area was flooding. So with luck there will be more images to come from down under.

– Alan, March 21, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Aurora in Orion


Aurora - Feb 7, 2014 (Observers on the Deck)

Last night, February 7, the Northern Lights danced for us again, starting with a curtain of green and pink in the south.

Our second tour group at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre has been here a couple of days, all under what looked like hopeless cloud. But last night the clouds cleared unexpectedly to reveal a moonlit winter sky.

I completed my evening talk all about the Sun and aurora, during which we were monitoring the auroral activity indicators on SpaceWeather.com. Sure enough, about 9:30 pm, right on cue and perfectly timed for convenience, a curtain of light began to dance across the southern sky, appearing in Orion. The gibbous Moon is just off frame to the right. We began the viewing from the Centre’s second floor viewing deck which looks east and southeast.

Aurora - Feb 7, 2014 (Over the Rocket Range)

This view shows the auroral curtain over the derelict launch towers of the Churchill Rocket Range. Built in 1957 for the International Geophysical Year, the Rocket Range was in use until the mid-1980s as Canada’s only launch facility. Hundreds of sounding rockets, many of them Canadian-built Black Brants, were launched from here, shooting up into the ionosphere on nights just like this to study the aurora.

Orion is at right. While we saw this curtain in our southern sky, others farther south in Canada were seeing it in their northern sky. The greens were easy to see with the eye but the magentas were visible only by the camera and I have punched up their intensity here.

Aurora - Feb 7, 2014 (Zenith Curtains)

This night, as the aurora display developed it moved north to the zenith, shown here, with the sky also lit by moonlight and with some high haze. But the combination makes for a wonderful abstract swirl of light and colour.

– Alan, February 8, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Orion over the Rocket Range


Orion over the Churchill Rocket Range

Orion and Sirius shine over the abandoned launch towers of the Churchill Rocket Range.

This was the view Monday night, during a lull in the aurora display when I took a few moments to shoot the stars. You can see Orion at centre, with his trio of Belt stars pointing left and down to Sirius, the Dog Star in Canis Major, and the brightest star in the night sky. The Belt stars point up and right to Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus the bull.

They look closer to the horizon than you might be used to as this is from 58° north latitude.

These winter stars shine above some of the launch structures of the old Churchill Rocket Range. Built in 1957 for the International Geophysical Year, the Rocket Range served for many years as Canada’s only launch facility. No satellites were launched here. Instead the towers were used to launch sub-orbital sounding rockets into the ionosphere to explore the aurora.

Some of the rockets were repurposed military missiles, like Nikes and Aerobees. But many were Black Brants, civilian research rockets still being built in Winnipeg by Bristol Aerospace. 

But no Black Brants take off from here now. The Rocket Range was shut down in the mid-1980s as Canada’s space program focused on satellites, the Space Shuttle, and sending astronauts into space. Attempts by private companies to revive the site have all failed and the structures are now becoming derelict, being too costly to remove. 

– Alan, February 5, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

Geminid Meteors by Moonlight at the VLA


VLA by Moonlight with Geminid Meteor #1

A Geminid meteor in the moonlight streaks over a dish of the Very Large Array.

Tonight I was out at the VLA, the iconic radio telescope array on the high desert Plains of San Agustin in central New Mexico. Over three hours I shot 325 frames for a time-lapse movie, hoping that a few would “catch a falling star” or two.

Tonight was peak night for the annual Geminid meteor shower so the chances were better than normal. The Geminids are one of the best performing meteor showers of the year.

Despite the peak occurring in the evening, conditions weren’t ideal. Light from the gibbous Moon lit the landscape nicely but did wash out many meteors. Of course, I just wanted some bright ones anyway! Also, clouds drifted in and out all evening – mostly in!

At top, you can see a faint Geminid meteor shooting up from Gemini the twins, visible rising at lower right, with Jupiter (now in Gemini) marking the constellation’s location.

VLA by Moonlight with Geminid Meteor #2

In this image I moved the camera, but the array was also now pointed at a new target in the sky so the dishes were turned to look west. This shot captures another faint-ish Geminid streaking toward Orion, just right of centre.

I didn’t nab the grand and brilliant meteor I had hoped for but it was a wonderful moonlit evening under the stars, watching the dishes dance the night away.

– Alan, December 13, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Skyglows Galore in the New Mexico Dawn


New Mexico Pre-Dawn Skyglow Panorama (Dec 2013)

A mix of sky glows fills the pre-dawn sky in New Mexico.

To the eye the sky looked dark, marred only by some high haze drifting through. But the camera reveals a sky filled with an amazing wealth of colourful glows.

I took this 360° panorama in the pre-dawn hours (4:45 a.m.) this morning (December 8) from the Painted Pony Resort in southwest New Mexico. It reveals a swath of green airglow to the north, the zodiacal light, and the Milky Way. At northern latitudes there was bright aurora visible last night. We might have seen some sign of it here in New Mexico in the form of increased airglow activity.

The panorama takes in, from left to right:
• Arcturus, shining like an ornament on the treetop
• the zodiacal light rising up from the east
• red Mars embedded in the zodiacal light below Leo
• the Milky Way from Puppis and Canis Major at left arching up and across the sky down into Perseus at right
• Sirius the brightest star
• Orion setting over the main house
• Jupiter, the bright object at top centre in Gemini
• Aldebaran and the Pleiades setting right of the main house in Taurus
• Polaris over the smaller house at right
• the Big Dipper at upper right pointing down to Polaris
• a green glow along the northern horizon above the smaller house that is likely intense airglow.
• green and red bands throughout the sky are airglow, caused by atmospheric molecules flourescing at night
• bands of high cloud also permeate the sky adding natural glows around the stars.

I stitched this panorama using PTGui software, from 6 segments, all tracked, taken with the 14mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8 for 2.5 minutes each and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600.

As a postscript — this is blog post #401 from me.

– Alan, December 8, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Winter Sky Rising


Jupiter, Orion and Winter Sky Rising (24mm)

Jupiter and the stars of the winter sky rise in the east on a December night in New Mexico.

This was the scene last night, December 4, as clouds cleared away enough for great views of Orion and the winter sky rising above distant mountains in New Mexico. (All the clouds, that is, except for one annoying dark blob in Gemini above Jupiter!)

The bright object at lower left is Jupiter, in Gemini this winter, rising with Castor and Pollux to the left of Jupiter. To the right of frame Orion comes up on his side, with his Belt pointed down to where Sirius will come up shortly after I took this image. The red-sensitive camera picks up swirls of nebulosity around Orion.

Above Orion are the stars of Taurus and Auriga.

Milky Way in Perseus, Auriga and Taurus (24mm)

This image is a framing of the Milky Way from Perseus at top right down to Taurus and the top of Orion at bottom left. At centre is the blue Pleiades star cluster, and the red arc of the California Nebula. Also at centre you can see the long dusty tendrils of the Taurus Dark Clouds, interstellar clouds between us and the Perseus arm of the Milky Way.

I shot both from the Painted Pony Resort in southeast New Mexico using a little iOptron SkyTracker and 2.5- to 3-minute exposures with a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII.

— Alan, December 5, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Comet Lovejoy Beside the Big Dipper


Comet Lovejoy & Big Dipper (Nov 27, 2013)

The handle of the Big Dipper seems to point down to Comet Lovejoy, low in the northern sky.

While the astronomy world waits and watches as Comet ISON rounds the Sun in the next day, another comet is appearing in the evening sky.

This is Comet Lovejoy, aka C/2013 R1, captured in a set of exposures I took about 6:30 pm on Wednesday evening, November 27, when the comet shone off the handle of the Big Dipper. It was not visible to the naked eye but was easy in binoculars. The photo shows Comet Lovejoy as cyan-tinted star at left with a spiky tail pointed away from the Sun.

From my latitude of 51° N Comet Lovejoy sits far enough north to be circumpolar, though just barely. However, as it heads south it will become just a morning sky object, especially for those at more southerly latitudes. In the coming days it will join Comet ISON (or what’s left of it) in the December dawn.

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

 

 

Stars Over the Pillars of Hercules


Sirius over the Pillars of Hercules

In ancient times these twin mountains marked the end of the known world – beyond lay a great unknown sea.

Two mornings ago, before dawn, we sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar, known in ancient times as the Pillars of Hercules. The two massive peaks guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean Ocean were supposedly created by the legendary figure of Greek mythology to separate the two continents, Europe and Africa. Beyond them was a vast and forbidding ocean that few dared to sail.

The feature image above shows Sirius and Canis Major shining above the African side of the Pillars, the mountain known as Jebel Musa. Illumination is by moonlight, twilight and streetlight.

Rock of Gibraltor

The image above shows the more famous Rock of Gibraltar, on the European side of the Straits. This is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Pillars of Hercules

This image, with the nearly Full Moon in the sky, shows our ship, the Star Flyer, approaching Jebel Musa. We departed the Mediterranean to visit Morocco, then Cadiz in Spain. We’re now heading out into the once great unknown sea, the Atlantic, for a November 3 meeting with the shadow of the Moon.

Orion in the Rigging of Star Flyer

The final image shows Orion, Sirius and Jupiter shining amid the rigging of our four-masted clipper ship, again by moonlight. We hope it’s clear skies and smooth sailing as we cross the Atlantic.

– Alan, October 22, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

The Princess Stars


Andromeda (50mm 5DII)

The stars of Andromeda the Princess highlight the autumn sky.

Here’s an image from last night, October 4, that frames all of the constellation of Andromeda, now high in the northern autumn sky. A trio of coloured stars arcs across the centre of the image, forming the main pattern in Andromeda. In Greek legend she was the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia and was rescued by Perseus from the devouring jaws of Cetus the Sea Monster.

Above the centre star lies the constellation’s most famous feature, the Andromeda Galaxy, shining at us from 2.5 million light years away. It is the most distant object easily visible to the unaided eye.

An equal distance below the centre star of Andromeda you can see another smaller fuzzy spot. That’s the Pinwheel or Triangulum Galaxy, a dwarf spiral 2.8 million light years away, but also a member of the Local Group of galaxies that contains our Milky Way and Andromeda as its two main members.

At left, just below centre, is a large open cluster of stars, NGC 752, easily visible to the naked eye.

For this shot, as I do for most constellation portraits, I used Photoshop to layer in a shot taken through a diffusion filter (the Kenko Softon A) on top of a stack of shots taken without the filter. This allows me to add the enhanced glows around stars to bring out their colours, and to do so in a controlled fashion by varying the opacity of the filtered view. Shooting on a night with high haze or cirrus clouds has the same end effect but that’s hardly a reliable way to take constellation images. Combining filtered and unfiltered views works great, and gives the “look” made popular years ago by Japanese astrophotographer Akira Fuji.

– Alan, October 5, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

King and Queen of the Sky


Cassiopeia and Cepheus (50mm 5DII) Sept 29, 2013

Cassiopeia and Cepheus reign over the autumn sky amid the Milky Way.

This is a photo from last night’s shoot, taken on a very clear autumn night with the Milky Way prominent across the sky. I shot sets of constellation images, among them this one framing Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus.

Cassiopeia is the well-known “W” pattern at lower left. Cepheus is harder to pick out – he’s a crooked square at right, topped by a tall triangle, like a child’s drawing of a house.

The Milky Way runs across the frame, peppered with red nebulas, from IC 1396 at far right in the bottom of Cepheus, to the NGC 7822 complex at centre, and the IC 1805 complex at far left. Lots of smaller nebulas dot the scene. At far left is the Double Cluster, two adjacent clumps of stars in the outer Perseus Arm of the Milky Way. Most of the deep-sky objects in this frame lie thousands of light years away in the next spiral arm out from the one we live in, or in the space between the two arms.

Most of the bright stars here are young blue stars. But a couple of exceptions stand out: yellow Shedar (or Alpha Cassiopeiae, the bottommost star in the W and an orange giant), and red Mu Cephei, at far right bordering the round IC 1396 nebula. That star is also known as Herschel’s Garnet Star. It is a red supergiant star 1400 times larger than our Sun and one of the most luminous stars in the catalog.

– Alan, September 30, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Pleiades Rising Through the Old Farm Gate


Pleiades Through the Old Farm Gate

The Pleiades rises beyond the old farm gate on a moonlit prairie night.

It’s been a wonderful few nights for nightscape photography, with a bright gibbous Moon lighting the golden prairie landscape. Skies have been clear and the nights warm, ideal for 3-hour shoots of old farmsteads and prairie scenes.

I’ve spent the last few nights at the abandoned farm near home, shooting time-lapses. This is from Monday night, and is one frame from a 360-frame dolly-motion time-lapse.

The Pleiades star cluster rises in the east over the old barn and farm gate. A car travels through the coulee, leaving a streak of headlights.

I hope the weather continues, so I can harvest some more images, making time-lapse “hay” while the Moon shines!

– Alan, September 17, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

The Summer Triangle Stars


Summer Triangle in the Milky Way

The trio of Summer Triangle stars flank the Milky Way in the dying days of summer.

I shot the featured image above two nights ago on a perfect late summer night from home. Skies were dark and transparent, with no aurora and little airglow to taint the sky.

The image takes in the Summer Triangle stars of Vega (top), Deneb (left) and Altair (bottom). Vega and Altair straddle the summer Milky Way, but Deneb lies right in the thick of it, way down the Local Arm that we live in. Vega and Altair are nearby normal stars, only 25 and 16 light years away. But Deneb is a blue supergiant, shining from 1400 light years away, and one of the most luminous stars in the catalog.

The Milky Way through this area of sky is riven by twisting lanes of interstellar dust. A particularly dark patch sits above Deneb at top left. Then below Deneb the Milky Way gets split by the Great Rift that continues down into Aquila and Ophiuchus at lower right.

All along this part of the Milky Way, particularly around Deneb, the camera picks up a string of glowing red nebulas where stars are forming. The red comes from hydrogen atoms emitting deep red light, as hydrogen is wont to do.

Summer Milky Way from Backyard (Sept 9, 2013)

This image is from a couple of nights earlier. I used a wider angle lens to take in the full sweep of the summer Milky Way, from Sagittarius skimming the horizon, to Cassiopeia past the zenith at the top. You can see the Summer Triangle in the top half of the image, the part of the sky now overhead on early September nights from the northern hemisphere.

I took both shots with a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII placed on a little iOptron SkyTracker for tracked long exposures (4 to 5 minutes). The main image was with a 24mm Canon lens, the bottom image with a 14mm Rokinon lens.

– Alan, September 12, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Waterton Lakes by Night


Waterton-Lakes-Panorama-(Aug-29,-2013)

The Milky Way shines over the peaks of Waterton Lakes National Park on a clear summer night.

This was the view last night, August 29, under very clear skies, on the Red Rock Canyon Road in Waterton Lakes National Park, a UN World Heritage Site and a beautiful place for day and nighttime photography.

This is a 7-frame panorama sweeping over about 180° from the southeast at left and into the northwest at right, taking in the autumn constellations rising at left, over to the Milky Way in the south and to the Big Dipper skimming across the northwest horizon at right. Each frame was a 30-second exposure at f/2.2 and ISO 1600.

The green glow at left is from airglow, while the yellow and magenta colours at right are from low-level aurora and from the lights of Pincher Creek and the Crowsnest Pass communities. The bright light at left of centre is from the lights adorning the Prince of Wales Hotel, set amid the general glow of streetlights from the townsite of Waterton Lakes.

The foreground is lit only by starlight.

– Alan, August 30, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Big Dipper Over Castle Mountain


Big Dipper over Castle Mountain, Banff (Aug 24, 2013)

The famous stars of the Big Dipper dip behind the moonlit crags of Castle Mountain.

I just got back from four days in Banff, always a great place to be, even if it is cloudy. And it was!

I lost one night to forest fire smoke and another to rain clouds. On Saturday and Sunday nights I managed to seek out some clearer skies for nighttime shooting. This is a shot from Saturday, from a favourite photo stop on the Bow Valley Parkway overlooking the cliffs of Castle Mountain.

Despite the dew from rains earlier in the day I managed to shoot a time-lapse here. These two shots are frames from the movie which pans slowly across the scene.

Iridium Flare over Castle Mountain

This frame catches an Iridium satellite flare above the Dipper.

Light from the waning gibbous Moon, which was in and out of clouds itself, illuminates the scene and nicely cross-lights the Castle cliffs.

– Alan, August 26, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Cassiopeia Rising in the Badlands


Cassiopeia Rising Behind Hoodoos (Aug 18, 2013)

The stars of Cassiopeia rise behind hoodoo formations in the Alberta Badlands.

I took this Sunday night, August 18, as part of my shoot at Dinosaur Provincial Park. This is a particularly striking pair of hoodoos at the start of the Badlands Trail where I’ve been meaning to take some moonlit nightscapes for a couple of years.

This night’s conditions were perfect, with the “W” of Cassiopeia nicely placed, and the Moon providing excellent cross-lighting, under a clear blue sky, for the contrasting colours of earth and sky.

– Alan, August 20, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Aurora over a Prairie Lake


Aurora over Crawling Lake (June 30, 2013)

A brief display of Northern Lights shines over a prairie lake.

Last night I went out to a nearby lake (there aren’t many in southern Alberta!) to shoot the twilight over water, and hoping to catch some aurora or noctilucent clouds as well.

There was lots of twilight but very little sign of aurora or NLCs. But at about 1 am the aurora kicked up briefly, enough to make a good photo but certainly nothing to get excited about for its visual appearance. It was just visible.

Shooting at Crawling Lake, June 30, 2013

However, it was a fine evening of shooting at a quiet prairie lake. Crawling Lake is one of several reservoirs in the area that are part of the extensive irrigation system in southern Alberta. Despite the recent floods, this area is usually dry and drought-sticken.

Capella in Twilight (June 30, 2013)

This shot, which I took early in the evening, shows the lone star of Capella, shining in the twilight of a solstice summer sky. From my latitude of 51° N, Capella, normally considered a winter star, is circumpolar. It never sets and so can be seen skimming along the northern horizon on short summer nights.

Star in Twilight over Crawling Lake (June 30, 2013)

An ultra-wide view shows the perpetual twilight of summer to the north, with the circumpolar  stars of summer above. A campfire from some late-arriving campers is on the shore at right.

Happy Canada Day!

– Alan, July 1, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

The Colour of Dark


Colors of the Dark Sky Panorama

What colour is the dark night sky? Depending on conditions, it can be any colour you want.

I shot this 360° panorama last night from my backyard under what looked like a clear and fairly dark, moonless sky. Looks can certainly be deceiving. The camera picked up all kinds of colours the eye couldn’t see.

Let’s review what’s causing the colours:

• To the north just left of  centre the horizon is rimmed with a bright yellow glow from all-night perpetual twilight present around summer solstice at my mid-northern latitude.

• Above that shines a green and magenta band from a low-level aurora just visible to the naked eye.

• Much of the sky is tinted with bands of green from ever-present airglow, caused by oxygen atoms at the top of the atmosphere giving off at night some of the energy they absorbed by day. I had thought the sky would look blue from the perpetual twilight but the airglow seems to overwhelm that.

• Yellow glows around the horizon at left (west) and right (southeast) are from urban light pollution from towns 50 km away.

• Some strands of remaining cloud from a departing thunderstorm add streams of brown as they reflect lights from below.

• Finally, the Milky Way shows up in shades of yellow and pale blue, punctuated here and there by red patches of glowing hydrogen hundreds of light years away.

The only thing missing this night was a display of electric blue noctilucent clouds.

The sources of most of these colours are an anathema to observers of faint deep-sky objects. Aurora, airglow and certainly light pollution just get in the way and hide the light from the distant deep sky.

A word on technique:
I shot this panorama using an 8mm fish-lens to shoot 8 segments at 45° spacings. I used the excellent software PTGui to stitch the segments together, which it did seamlessly and flawlessly. Each segment was an untracked 1 minute exposure at ISO 3200 and f/3.5. The panorama covers 360° horizontally and nearly 180° vertically, from the ground below to the zenith above. It takes in everything except the tripod and me!

– Alan, June 8, 2013 / © Alan Dyer

Scorpius Rising on the Prairies


Sagittarius and Scorpius on the Horizon (50mm 5DII)

Scorpius and the star clouds of the Milky Way skim along the southern horizon on the western Canadian prairie.

Scorpius crawls along the horizon at right, with dark lanes of dust converging onto yellowish Antares. Just left of centre a dark horse prances above the treetops. At lower left shines the pink Lagoon Nebula.

With its intricate mix of dark dust lanes and bright star clouds this is the richest region of the Milky Way. It marks the direction toward the centre of our Galaxy. Pity it lies so low in our sky from here in western Canada, at a latitude of 50° North. Compare this view to what I saw two months ago from New Mexico and you can see the advantage of a southerly latitude for any lovers of the Milky Way.

However, I was lucky to get this shot, taken last weekend during the only decent time of the year when I can see Scorpius in a dark sky from my prairie home. The night was very clear, allowing a clean shot to the southern horizon.

– Alan, May 9, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Orion and the Winter Triangle


Winter Triangle & Orion (35mm 5DII)

The Milky Way runs through the middle of the Winter Triangle, three of the bright stars of the northern winter sky.

At right is the familiar pattern of Orion the Hunter. But if you take his shoulder star, the orange-looking Betelgeuse, you can form an equilateral triangle with Sirius below centre and Procyon at upper left. The trio are sometimes called the Winter Triangle. The pattern seems obvious here but with so many other bright stars in the winter sky, I’ve never found the pattern too obvious. But in this image I’ve chosen to nicely centre and frame the Triangle.

I’ve also increased the contrast and saturation to emphasize the wealth of nebulosity that fills this area of the Milky Way. Streamers seem to reach out from Orion and connect to the reddish Seagull Nebula above Sirius, and also to the round Rosette Nebula above centre. The background sky west of the Milky Way under Orion is filled with a faint red glow, in contrast to the neutral black sky east (left) of the Milky Way.

I shot this last night, from New Mexico, on our last good clear night on a week-long observathon. This is a stack of 5 exposures, each 8 minutes long, plus two other exposures shot through a diffusion filter to add the glows around stars. I used a 35mm lens and a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera, riding on an iOptron Skytracker tracking platform.

– Alan, March 15, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

Celestial Scorpion in the Desert


Scorpius over Adobe House (35mm 5DII)

This is one of the few constellations that looks like what it is supposed to be – a desert-dwelling scorpion.

This is Scorpius in his native habitat of the desert. Here, from the latitude of southern New Mexico, he is standing on end, his claws at top, his curving tail and stinger at bottom.

The bright yellow star is Antares, the heart of the scorpion, embedded in a colourful mix of magenta, yellow and blue nebulas. Scattered along the Milky Way in the tail of the scorpion you can see several magenta emission nebulas shining by the combined red and blue light of hydrogen atoms.

What I love about this area of sky is the lacework of dark foreground nebulas, and the contrast between the bright star clouds and dark lanes of stardust. At centre left is the Dark Horse, the darkest part of which also carries the name Pipe Nebula.

I shot this image this morning at about 5 a.m, in the hour before the sky brightened with dawn twilight. This is a stack of seven 3-minute exposures with a 35mm lens, including two exposures taken through a diffusion filter to add the accentuated star glows. The ground details come from just one of the exposures.

As it’s been all week, the location is the Painted Pony Resort in southwest New Mexico.

– Alan, March 15, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Constellation of the Queen


Cassiopeia (135mm 5DII)

After the 7 stars of the Big Dipper and the 3 stars of Orion’s Belt, these 5 stars are likely the most well-known in the northern sky.

These are the 5 bright stars of Cassiopeia the queen, better known simply as “the W” in the sky. Her five stars come in a range of colours, from blue giant Segin at upper left to yellow giant Shedar at lower right.

Scattered around Cassiopeia you can also spot at least one bright red nebula, the “Pacman Nebula,” plus a faint patch of purple nebulosity just above central Navi, the middle star of the W also known as Gamma Cassiopeiae. A few wisps of fainter reddish nebulosity and lanes of dark dust wind around the queen’s celestial throne. The left side of the W – the back of the throne –  is also home to several clumps of stars, nice open clusters suitable for binoculars or any telescope.

I shot this portrait of the Queen on Wednesday night, February 6, on a cool and frosty winter night in my backyard. For the set of 8 images that went into this stack I used a new tracking device, the iOptron SkyTracker. It’s a nifty little battery-powered tracker, compact but very solid. And it tracks very well. For this portrait I used a 135mm telephoto lens, and most, though not all, shots were very well tracked with pinpoint stars. A few frames showed a bit of trailing, not unusual for small portable tracking mounts. At $400 the little iOptron SkyTracker is a great accessory for anyone wanting to shoot constellations and the Milky Way with wide-angle to telephoto lenses.

– Alan, February 7, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

An Orion Portrait from Alberta


Orion in Porttrait Format

He’s certainly the sky’s most photogenic mythological figure. Here’s my full-length portrait of Orion the hunter, captured from Alberta.

I’ve shot him many times before but this was a new combination of gear: the Canon 60Da camera and the Sigma 50mm lens, nicely framing the hunter in portrait format. This version of Orion isn’t as deep as the one I took last month from Australia. But skies were darker there, and I used my filter-modified Canon 5D MkII for his Oz portrait, a camera which picks up more faint red nebulosity than does the 60Da, Canon’s own specialized DSLR camera for astronomy. The 60Da does do a very good job though, much better than would a normal DSLR.

For this shot, as I do for many constellation images, I layered in exposures taken through a soft-focus filter, the Kenko Softon, to enlarge and “fuzzify” the stars! It really helps bring out their colours, contrasting cool, orange Betelgeuse with the hot blue-white stars in the rest of Orion.

I shot this January 4 on a fine clear winter night, the classic hunting ground for Orion.

– Alan, January 11, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Winter Stars Rising


The Winter Sky, Northern Hemisphere

Yes, it’s cold out there, but a clear evening away from city lights this week – or this winter – will reward you with the sight of a rising star-filled sky.

This is the winter sky of the northern hemisphere, rising above a snowy prairie landscape, in a shot I took Sunday night, January 6, 2013. The sky is populated by a ream of bright stars and constellations, anchored by Orion, just below centre. You can see his three Belt stars pointing down to Sirius, just peering above the horizon in the glow of a distant town. Orion’s Belt points up to Aldebaran, the V-shaped Hyades star cluster, and bright Jupiter (the brightest object in the scene, above centre), all in Taurus. Above Jupiter is the Pleiades star cluster.

The Milky Way runs down the sky from Auriga to Canis Major. This week, January 6 to 13, is a good week to see the winter Milky Way, as it’s New Moon and the sky is dark.

In this scene the camera was looking southeast about 9 p.m. Sirius has just risen. By midnight the Dog Star shines due south. I used a 15mm wide-angle lens to take in the entire sweep of the winter sky from horizon to zenith. This is a stack of four 4-minute exposures, though the landscape is from just one of the frames, to minimize the blurring caused by the camera tracking the sky. Some clouds moving in add the streaks on either side of the frame. It was a wonderful sky, while it lasted!

And I’m pleased to note that this is my 250th blog post since beginning AmazingSky.net two years ago in early 2011. I hope you have enjoyed the sky tours.

– Alan, January 6, 2013 / © 2013 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

 

The Colourful Clouds of Orion – #2


The Nebulas of Orion v2

Swirls of pink, red and blue nebulas surround the Belt and Sword of Orion the Hunter.

For this closeup of Orion I used a 135mm telephoto lens under dark Australian skies to grab long exposures to reveal not only the bright Orion Nebula at bottom in Orion’s Sword, but also the Horsehead Nebula (below the left star of Orion’s Belt), Barnard’s Loop (at left) and the mass of red nebulosity between the Loop and the Belt & Sword. At right is a faint blue nebula reflecting the light of the hot blue stars in the area.

This is a gorgeous area of sky for the camera, but only the brightest nebulas, the tip of the cosmic iceberg, are visible to the eye even with the aid of a telescope.

– Alan, December 19, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Australian Sky Panorama


Timor Cottage Panorama #1

This is the southern hemisphere sky in a 360° panorama.

From left to right in the sky, you can see:

– in the South: the two Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of the Milky Way

– in the West: the diagonal glow of Zodiacal Light

– in the North: Orion, Jupiter and the Pleiades above the outline of Timor Rock

– in the East: the southern Milky Way just rising

I shot this last night in the early evening, Sunday, December 9, from my observing site in Australia, Timor Cottage at Coonabarabran, NSW. It’s a panorama of 8 images, each a 1 minute untracked exposure with the 10-22mm lens at 10mm. I’m amazed at how well the sections join together, considering the stars are moving from one frame to the next and about 16 minutes separates the beginning and end frames.

– Alan, December 10, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Sailing Toward Orion


Sailing Toward Orion

Not so long ago sailors used the Moon, Jupiter and the stars to chart their course on Earth. All are in this moonlit seascape.

I took this shot on November 27, as we set sail toward Hook Passage in the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia. The ship is the Solway Lass, a 110-year-old sailing ship that is now the oldest commercial ship plying the waters around Australia. It has been modernized and refitted, and at night runs with engines, not sails. And today, of course, GPS keeps the skipper informed of where the ship is. But before GPS and radio navigation, sailors used the sky to determine where on Earth they were.

Sextant sightings of the Sun and stars could give them their latitude and longitude. One star often used was Canopus, visible at far right in this image. Canopus has long been associated with the sea. It is the brightest star in Carina the Keel, once part of the sprawling constellation Argo Navis, the ship in the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts. Today, Canopus is still sighted by robot spacecraft bound for the planets to help them determine their position in the solar system.

Sirius and the stars of Orion (lying on his side here at a latitude of 20° South) appear through the rigging. At upper left is the bright glow of the nearly Full Moon, near the star Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster.

Before the acceptance in the late 1700s of the chronometer as an accurate time-keeping device, the position of the Moon near bright stars served as an astronomical clock in the sky to provide sailors with local time. Another source of time (more for land-based navigators) was the changing positions of the moons of Jupiter — Jupiter is the bright star-like object at left.

I just finished a superb 6 days of sailing around the Whitsundays and will have 2 or 3 more sea-bound posts from this wonderful area of the world.

– Alan, November 30, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Big Dipper Over the Badlands


The Big Dipper swings low over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, with an aurora added for good measure.

This another shot from my very productive night last Sunday out at Dinosaur Park, 100 km east of me. Here the curtains of aurora that made the news that evening shimmer below the iconic seven stars of the Big Dipper, now low in the northern sky on autumn evenings.

Light from the Full Moon provides the illumination. People wonder how we astrophotographers can take pictures of the stars in the daytime. We don’t. We take them at night, letting the Moon light the scene. Its light is just reflected sunlight, so a long enough exposure (and in this case it was only 8 seconds) records the landscape looking as if it were daytime, complete with blue sky, but with stars – and this night an aurora – in the sky.

– Alan, October 2, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Milky Way Over Calm Water


This is a scene I’ve been after for some time – the Milky Way and stars reflected in calm water.

In Friday night I was at a small lake, a pond really, at the south end of the Icefields Parkway in Banff. Herbert Lake is small enough it is usually calm and reflective. Friday night was as clear and calm as you could hope for. This image is from the beginning of the night with some blue twilight still illuminating the sky, but no moonlight. The waning Moon did not rise until 11:30 pm. I shot this prior to starting a 3-hour time-lapse from the same position on the lakeshore.

The scene is looking south toward glacier-clad Mount Temple and Mount Fairview near Lake Louise.

This is a single exposure with the Canon 5D MkII and 16-35mm lens.

– Alan, September 9, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Meteor and Windmill in the Moonlight


A rare bright meteor pierces the northern sky beside a spinning windmill in the moonlight.

I shot this Thursday night, August 30, as one frame of 300 or so shot for a time lapse sequence. Having a camera taking hundreds of frames at rapid interval, as you do for a time-lapse movie, is the only way to capture the chance and fleeting appearance of a bright meteor like this.

You can see the Big Dipper behind the machine and Polaris, the North Star, directly above the well-placed meteor.

I drove out to the new Wintering Hills Wind Farm now operating northeast of me and found a machine I could get close to. And they are huge! This is a sequence from a dolly shot I took. But the other camera was on a fixed tripod and I’ll stack those images into a long star trail scene, to get the circumpolar stars spinning alongside the windmill. But the machine was turning so fast that even 4 second exposures in bright moonlight blurred the blades more than I would have liked.

— Alan, August 31, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Little Schoolhouse Under Prairie Skies


There aren’t many left now. Here on a bare prairie hilltop near where I live stands one of the last of the one-room schoolhouses.

Located near the now-vanished town of Majorville, Alberta is the Liberty School, built in 1909. I tried to look up the history of this particular school but found only references to other similar schools in the area. The stories from teachers who worked in such schools were fascinating. Amy Corbiell, a relative of one of my neighbours, taught at a nearby school in the 1930s. Imagine the scene on the prairies back then:

“Some days when the dust blew I remember it got so dark the pupils couldn’t see to work. I would light our one little coal-oil lamp and read to them until I could safely send them home.”

The lone teacher would live either in the home of one of the students. Or she would be put up in what we would now call a shack – the teacherage – next to the school. She would attend to the students ages 6 to 16, keep the pot-bellied stove going, bring in water from the hand pump outside, perhaps play the piano (if there was one), and organize the big annual Christmas concert. There might be a barn nearby for the kids to shelter their horses. Yes, they really did ride to school each day. It was a hard life by today’s soft standards.

But as Helen Courtney, another teacher from the era, remarked in her reminiscences,

“The 1930s are remembered as the depression years, the years of crop failures, and blizzard-like dust storms. They were also the times when neighbours helped neighbours, people shared what they had, extended kindness and friendship and looked hopefully toward a better future.”

My photo, taken under bright moonlight on August 4, shows the Big Dipper over the little schoolhouse, and a summer thunderstorm rolling across the far horizon.

— Alan, August 15, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Planetary Dawn


This was the stunning scene in the dawn sky last Sunday — Venus, the Moon and Jupiter lined up above the Rockies.

Orion is just climbing over the line of mountains at right, while the stars of Taurus shine just to the right of Jupiter at top. I shot this at the end of a productive dusk-t0-dawn night of Perseid meteor photography. Being rewarded with a scene like this is always a great way to cap a night of astronomy.

— Alan, August 15, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Driving to Andromeda


Are we there yet? It would take a long time to get to the end of this road.

A road in Banff appears as if it is heading toward the autumn constellations rising over the peaks of the Fairholme range in the Canadian Rockies. The stars of Andromeda (centre), Pegasus (right), Perseus (left), and Cassiopeia (above left) make up the panorama of mythological heroes populating the northern autumn sky. In the sky above the road the small smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy is visible, shining from 2.5 million light years away. A faint aurora at left adds to the moonlit scene.

I shot this Sunday, July 29, moments after taking the image in the previous blog, which was looking the other way, north toward Cascade Mountain, from the meadows north of Banff. This was a very photogenic spot.

— Alan, August 4, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Stars over Cascade Mountain, Banff


Last Sunday night I was in Banff for a concert at the Banff Centre but ended the night with a round of nightscape shooting near the town.

I shot this from the Lake Minnewanka scenic loop road just north of the townsite. It captures the Big Dipper and Arcturus swinging down over Cascade Mountain, the iconic peak that stands as the background for so many photos of Banff. Moonlight provided ideal side-lighting.

I hope to head back to this area for next weekend’s Perseid meteor shower. The weather prospects look good!

— Alan, August 3, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Orion the Hunter, A Full-Length Portrait


Orion is quickly disappearing from the dark night sky now, as spring begins and the winter constellations depart the sky. This is a shot from February, one I only just now processed.

The Belt of Orion really stands out as do the nebulas that wind all through and around Orion. This is a rich region of the sky for star formation.

I took this portrait of Orion using the 50mm Sigma lens, taking four 5-minute exposures and stacking them. In this case each exposure had varying amounts of haze in the sky as light clouds moved in. So the fuzzy glows around stars are from natural causes here, and are not produced by filters (as in the blog from last year called Fuzzy Constellations) or by post-processing. The glows bring out the star colours, particularly orangish Betelgeuse at upper left and blue Rigel at lower right.

This is the first image I’ve processed using the new Beta version of Photoshop CS6 and Adobe Camera Raw 7 software, just released this past week. Very nice indeed! You can download it for free from Adobe Labs. I like the new interface and functions. I’m not sure the final image quality is any better but some of the new features will be very nice for astrophotography and day to day use. Increased speed is promised but I haven’t seen much evidence for that. But this is a Beta version.

— Alan, March 24, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

The Wow Sky of Winter


The winter sky contains a lot of bright stars but none so bright as Venus and Jupiter now in the west.

This wide-angle shot takes in the evening sky from the duo of planets in the west (right) to Sirius shining brightly in the south (left), with Orion in between. Above and to the right of Orion sit the two big naked eye star clusters of winter: the scattered Hyades and the compact Pleiades.

This was the picture-perfect scene last Tuesday night when I shot other frames of just the planets over the house in the foothills of the Rockies near Bragg Creek, Alberta. This is the wider scene, bathed in the deep blue of twilight.

— Alan, March 16, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Chariot of the Sky


Auriga the Charioteer rides high across the northern winter sky these nights. This is a wide-field image I took last week of the constellation that now shines overhead from northern latitudes.

My image takes in all of Auriga, the pentagon-shaped charioteer of Roman mythology, as well as the feet of Gemini the twins, spanning a wide area of the winter Milky Way. Sprinkled along this bit of Milky Way you can see a few clusters of stars. They include four of the best open star clusters in the catalogue of Charles Messier: M35 in Gemini at bottom, and M36, M37 and M38 in Auriga at centre, all wonderful targets for a small telescope. Some of these targets lie in the next spiral arm out from the one we live in.

The star colours show up nicely here, with the brightest star at top appearing a little off white. That’s Capella, 42 light years away and classified as a type G “yellow” star not unlike our own Sun in temperature but much larger – a giant star. Indeed, it is really two yellow-giant stars in close orbit around each other. It’s interesting that Capella doesn’t really show up as yellow. Just like our Sun does to our eyes, Capella appears white because it still emits such a broad range of colours that even though its peak energy does fall in the yellow part of the spectrum, all the other colours remain strong enough that the star looks white to our eyes. Remember, our eyes evolved under the light of a type G star to see all the colours of the spectrum from red to blue.

Only the cool red giant stars take on a yellow or orange hue to our eyes, and to the camera. You can see a few in this image, as well as hot blue stars. The pinky red bits are nebulas in the Milky Way – clouds of hydrogen gas emitting deep red light.

When we look in this direction in the Milky Way we are looking out toward the edge of our Galaxy, exactly opposite the galactic centre.

– Alan, February 21, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Orion over the Grand Hotel


Orion sets over Sulphur Mountain and the Banff Springs Hotel in this nightscape from last weekend, February 3.

This is where Banff National Park – indeed the Canadian National Parks system – started, with the founding of a protected enclave around the hot springs and then the hotel, operated at first by the Canadian Pacific Railway, to serve visiting tourists seeking cure-all remedies from the sulphur springs.

Orion and Sirius shine above the Banff landmark, lit, unfortunately, far too brightly by sodium vapour lights. One day the ethic espoused by commercial interests of conserving the environment will extend to the night sky. When we set up telescopes at the Hotel a couple of years ago in honour of Earth Hour, we had to physically cover some lights — they could not be turned off!

So while this shot shows some of the beauty of the night sky from a site like Banff, it also shows what anyone under the veil of all those lights misses. Half the environment of the mountains.

— Alan, February 10, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Orion Over the Cozy Cabin


Here’s a picture postcard winter scene, one that thousands of people walk by each day — by day.

This is the Swiss guide cabin at Lake Louise, but seen at night. Light from the Moon just off the frame at top illuminates the scene, while Orion stands in the sky over the cabin and Mount Fairview.

I took this shot Saturday night, February 4, 2012, as one of many shots that night at Lake Louise, under crystal clear skies. It was a winter wonderland and a night photographer’s paradise.

Nightscape shots like this are surprisingly easy to take — typically being 20 to 40 seconds at f/2 to f/4 and ISO 400 to 800 with a good DSLR. The exact settings depend on how bright the Moon is. I used the Canon 5D MkII and 24mm Canon lens, a fine combination for night shooting.

— Alan, February 5, 2012 / © @2012  Alan Dyer

 

Legends of the Fall


These stars are as much a part of autumn in the northern hemisphere as are the changing colours of leaves and the flying south of geese.

These are the stars of legend, outlining the mythical constellations of Queen Cassiopeia (at top left), her daughter Andromeda (arcing across the bottom half of the image), and the hero Perseus (the stars at lower left) who rescued Andromeda from the ravages of Cetus the sea monster.

These stars are now high in the east in the evening sky, heralding the start of autumn and the return of frosty nights.

There are lots to see with binoculars or a telescope in these constellations. Look around this image and you can pick out several clumps, or clusters, of stars in Perseus and Andromeda. But the most obvious object is the oval-shaped Andromeda Galaxy, visible to the unaided eye from dark rural skies. This is the nearest sizeable galaxy to our Milky Way, and yet its light still takes 2.5 million years to reach us.

I took this shot earlier this week during a run of clear and warm autumn nights, perhaps the last before the chill nights of fall come on. It’s a wide-angle shot with a 35mm lens and Canon 5D MkII camera, tracked for a stack of four 6-minute exposures plus a fifth taken with a soft-focus filter.

— Alan, October 1, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

 

The Stellar Triangle of Summer




When the Summer Triangle sinks into the west, we know summer has come to an end. While the stars of the Summer Triangle are now high overhead from northern latitudes as the sky gets dark, by late evening the Summer Triangle is setting into the west.

These three bright stars are an example of stellar variety:

– At bottom is Altair in Aquila the eagle. It’s a white main-sequence star 17 light years away, fairly nearby by stellar standards. Leslie Nielson and his crew went to Altair in the 1950s movie Forbidden Planet.

– At top right is Vega, in Lyra the harp, a hotter and more luminous blue-white star than Altair, making it appear brighter than Altair, despite Vega being farther away, at 25 light years distant. Jodi Foster went to Vega in the movie Contact.

– But the third member of the Triangle, Deneb, at top left, is an extreme star. It appears a little fainter than Vega, but looks can be deceiving. Deneb is actually a luminous supergiant star, putting out 54,000 times the energy of our Sun. Deneb is about 1,400 light years away and yet, due to its fierce output of light, appears almost as bright as Vega. Light from Deneb left that star in the 6th century. I don’t know of any movie heroes who went to Deneb. The name means “tail of the Swan,” hardly a romantic destination for space-faring adventurers.

Look toward the Summer Triangle and you are looking down the spiral arm of the Milky Way that we live in. The stars of that arm appear as a packed stellar cloud running through Cygnus the swan, the constellation that contains Deneb.

I took this shot Saturday night, from home, on what turned out to be a very clear night, once some clouds got out of the way in the early evening. This is a 4-image stack of 8-minute exposures, at f/4 with the 35mm Canon lens, a favourite of mine, on the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800. I added in exposures taken through a soft-focus filter to give the added glows around the stars to help make the bright stars and their colours more visible.

— Alan, September 25, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Big Dipper over Peyto Lake


 

After taking the twilight shots at Waterfowl Lakes on Sunday night (click back to the previous blog), I continued up the Icefields Parkway, ascending to Bow Summit and the viewpoint that overlooks one of the most famous scenes in the Canadian Rockies, Peyto Lake.

Named for legendary mountain man and guide Bill Peyto, the lake was a favourite place for him, to give him solitude away from the madding crowds of Banff.

As with so many of these places, by day this very spot swarms with tourists by the bus load. Peyto would have cringed. But at nightfall, I am the only one there, enjoying the stars coming out in the solitude of the darkening sky.

Here, we look north, to the Big Dipper and Arcturus over the lake in the valley below.

This is a single exposure of 30 seconds at ISO 800 with the Canon 7D and 10-22mm lens.

— Alan, September 5, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Centaurus, Creator of Constellations


In George Lucas mythology, Luke Skywalker went to Yoda to learn the wisdom and ways of heroes. In Greek mythology, heroes the likes of  Achilles, Jason and Hercules sought out Chiron, the wise and kindly Centaur, who taught them science, astronomy, medicine, music, arts, hunting and archery.

Centaurs, the romping half man/half horse creatures, were a riotous and drunken lot, but not immortal Chiron. He was the offspring of Kronos and the ocean nymph Philyra and served as tutors to many legendary heroes. One reference in my library suggests Chiron actually invented the constellations, to make it easier for mankind to keep track of the stars and the season. To reward his work, Zeus placed Chiron in the stars, becoming by some accounts, this southern sky constellation, Centaurus.

However, most writings suggest Chiron is actually the Zodiac constellation of Sagittarius, while the constellation we call Centaurus is one of the wilder bunch, depicted in the sky as carrying the slain Lupus the wolf, drawn here in the fainter blue stars at top centre.

The bright stars at right are the main stars of Centaurus, including Alpha and Beta Centauri at lower right. Beta Centauri is the blue star, a giant some 390 light years away. But just to the left of Beta is yellow-white Alpha Centauri, a Sun-like star (or actually a pair of them orbiting each other) just 4.3 light years away.

Alpha and Beta Centauri sit at the start of a long dark rift in the Milky Way that splits into fingers of nebulosity reaching into Norma, Ara and Scorpius, here at the left edge of the frame.

I took this shot of Centaurus and Lupus in Chile last month, using a 50mm lens and a Canon 5D MkII. It’s a stack of four 6-minute exposures at f/4 and ISO 800, layered in with two exposures shot through a Kenko Softon-A filter to produce the photogenic star glows.

— Alan, June 26, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

 

 

Under the Southern Cross


I’m back home in Canada now, after 24 hours of travel from Chile. Despite having to check my carry-on bag filled with cameras and the Mac laptop for the Calama to Santiago domestic flight, all the gear arrived home intact. Now to process the 40+ gigs of images I shot. And properly reprocess some of the images worked on at the dining room table at the lodge, under the bright Chilean sun.

Here’s a shot taken the last night of shooting, of the icon of the southern sky, the Southern Cross, more formally called the constellation of Crux. Next to it, at left, are the dark clouds of the Coal Sack. To the eye, these clouds looks like a uniform dark spot in the sky. But photos, and even binoculars, reveal it as a complex mess of shapes and densities.

What stands out are the colours of the Cross stars. Most are hot blue Type B stars – energetic blue giants. But Gacrux at top is very red – it’s a cool red giant star.

Scattered amid the Cross are Coal Sack are several clumps of stars – open star clusters, such as the Jewel Box Cluster to the left and just below Becrux, the left star of the Cross. On our final night at the Atacama Lodge, we helped out at the lodge in a public stargazing session to a group of tourists from all over the world. I ran a telescope aimed at the Jewel Box and heard lots of ooohs and aaahs at the sight of its multicoloured stars.

This shot is a Mean-combine stack of five 3-minute exposures at f/2.8 with the wonderful Canon L-series 135mm telephoto, and the Canon 5D MkII camera, filter-modified, at ISO 800. The camera was on a Kenko SkyMemo tracking platform, which followed the stars during the 15 minutes worth of exposures.

– Alan, May 9, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Awesome Auriga


My previous post was a profile of Perseus. Right next door in the current evening sky is Auriga the Charioteer, embedded right in the middle of the Milky Way. This is a 50mm “normal” lens shot of all of Auriga showing its distinctive pentagon shape with the bright yellow star, Capella, at top. It’s the bright star shining high overhead on winter nights, at least if you live in the northern hemisphere at latitudes like the US and Canada. What is not obvious (because it can’t be resolved through a telescope) is that Capella is a close double star, made of twin suns orbiting each other at about the same distance apart as are the Sun and Venus. A planet orbiting the pair would definitely see a Tatooine-style double-Sun sunset. Not to say Luke Skywalker was from the Capella system — remember Luke’s tale took place in a Galaxy far, far away! Capella is just 42 light years from Earth.

What shows up here just below centre is some of the wisps of red nebulosity in the middle of Auriga (tough to see visually but easy for the camera to see), as well as the trio of star clusters first catalogued by Charles Messier in the 18th century and that are great objects for any telescope. Notice how the Milky Way brightens through Auriga, partly by way of contrast to the lanes of dark nebulosity to the right that weave through Taurus and Perseus. The streak of nebulosity at right is the California Nebula in Perseus. Flip back to the previous blog to see more of Perseus, in a shot taken the same night.

I took this shot on January 23, 2011 (just about the last decent night we’ve had!) with the Canon 5D MkII set at ISO 800 and the 50mm Sigma lens set at f/2.8. It’s stack of  five 4-minute exposures, plus three 4-minute exposures with the Kenko soft filter to add the star glows. The blog “Fuzzy Constellations” a few posts back gives some more details about my technique.

– Alan, February 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Pursuing Perseus


One of the tenets of my astrophotography “philosophy,” if there can be such a thing (my university degree is in Philosophy after all), is to not spend an enormous amount of time and money chasing after the same images others do, knowing they will likely get far better results than I might achieve, given my location and choice number of clear skies. I don’t live in Arizona, New Mexico or Chile.

Yes, there are certain showpiece objects one is obliged to shoot, to add to the portfolio. But rather than go after many of the usual galaxies and nebulas, I often prefer to shoot wider-field targets that others often bypass.

Simple shots of constellations are often more in demand by publishers than closeups of deep-sky objects, and yet are usually in short supply, as many astrophotographers dismiss them as being “just for beginners.” But good constellation shots still take the right gear, techniques and skies to stand out. Only now am I getting the results I’ve long sought.

With new techniques now in hand, one of my goals is to accumulate a complete portfolio of constellation portraits, though not all of these star patterns stand out as being photogenic. But this one does.

This shot is a recent favourite of mine, of the constellation of Perseus, a rich area of sky. Modern digital cameras show it as the old film cameras never could, laced with reddish dark nebulas of different densities. The Milky Way through this region takes on such a variety of subtle hues achieving correct colour balance is tough.

At top is the loose collection of hot blue stars known as the Perseus Association. At bottom is the most famous tightly bound cluster of stars, the Pleiades. Between is the finger of glowing hydrogen gas called the California Nebula. This photo is an example of how “simple constellation” shots can take on a beauty of their own.

– Alan, February 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Wonderful Winter Sky


While I took this image a year ago in early 2010, I thought I’d post this up now, with the new blog now underway. This is a mosaic of what surely ranks as one of the most amazing areas of sky — the vast panorama of the night sky visible in the northern hemisphere each winter. Here we see more bright stars than at any other season of the year, in the constellations (in clockwise order) of Orion, Canis Minor, Gemini, Auriga, and Taurus. Canis Major and its luminary, Sirius, are just off the bottom of the frame.

This is a 4-panel mosaic, each panel consisting of four 4-minute exposures plus two 4-minute exposures with a soft diffuser filter to add the star glows. Each was taken at ISO 800 with the Canon 5D MkII and a 35mm lens at f/4. Slight haze, changing sky fog, and changing elevation of the fields make it tough to get consistent colours across the sky during the couple of hours of exposure time needed to grab the images for such a mosaic, especially from my home latitude. But this attempt worked pretty well and records the wealth of bright red and dark nebulosity throughout this area of sky, a region of the Milky Way in our spiral arm but a little farther out from the centre of the Galaxy than where we live.

– Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer

Fuzzy Constellations


I’ve tried for years to create the effect of fuzzy haloes around stars to pop out the brighter stars and make the constellation pattern more obvious. It’s the “Akira Fuji” effect, named for the ace Japanese astrophotographer who has long perfected the technique with beautiful and widely-published results. I’ve tried various soft focus and diffusion filters, scratched UV filters, vaseline-smeared filters, breathing on filters, etc., etc. None have worked well. Till now.

The Kenko “Softon” filter offered by Hutech Scientific works fabulously well! It’s a tough filter to find in local camera stores here — but Hutech sells it. And it really changes the way I do constellation shooting, making any previous shots obsolete. I take several shots without the filter then one or more of the same exposure with the filter in place. I stack the two types of exposures  in Photoshop, with the fuzz-filter layer blended with a Lighten mode to a varying opacity to “dial in” the level of fuzziness that looks good. Too much and it looks overdone and fake.

The technique also pops out the star colours, like here on red Betelgeuse amid the blue-white stars of  Orion. This was from January 2011 from my backyard and is a stack of four 5-minute exposures w/o filter and one with. All with the Canon 5D MkII and 50mm Sigma lens, a terrific combination for constellation portraits.

— Alan, January 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