Following the Evening Star


Selfie with Binoculars Looking at Moon (Feb 27, 2020)It’s been a marvelous few months following Venus rise and fall across the evening sky, in its best show in eight years.

Venus is now gone from our western sky, but since late 2019 until late May 2020 it had dominated the sky as a brilliant evening star.

Here’s a gallery of Venus portraits I shot during its wonderful show these last few months.


The show began in November 2019 when rising Venus met declining Jupiter on November 23 for a fine conjunction of the two brightest planets in the evening twilight.

Venus and Jupiter over the Rockies
The conjunction of Venus and Jupiter of November 23, 2019, as seen over the foothills and front ranges of the Rocky Mountains in southwest Alberta. I shot this from the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, prior to their monthly Open House event that night with about 400 in attendance. But at this time it was just me and one other ardent photographer present to shoot this scene. This is an HDR blend (stacked using Adobe Camera Raw) of 5 exposures at 2/3-stop intervals, with the Rokinon 85mm lens at f/4 on the red-sensitive Canon EOS Ra camera at ISO 100.

A week later I captured the line of the then three evening planets and the Moon across the southwest, defining the path of the ecliptic across the evening sky.

Moon and Three Planets Line-Up
The waxing crescent Moon and three planets in a line across the southwestern evening sky on Nov. 30, 2019, a chilly and frosty night. Saturn is below and to the right of the Moon, Venus is brightest at centre, while Jupiter is to the lower right of Venus just above the horizon. Those two planets were in conjunction a week earlier. The line of Moon and planets visibly defines the ecliptic low across the late autumn evening sky. This is from latitide 51° N. I shot this from the viewpoint at Blackfoot Crossing overlooking the Bow River in Alberta.

A week after that I took the opportunity to shoot some selfies of me with binoculars looking at Venus, as it met Saturn in a wide conjunction, with Venus then still low in the southwest. It was just beginning its climb up into the western sky.

Observing Venus and Saturn (Dec 8, 2019)
A selfie of me observing the grouping of Venus and Saturn in the evening twilight on Dec 8, 2019, using binoculars. They were closest to each other two nights later.

A month later in mid-winter, Venus was still rather low but brilliant even in a hazy moonlit sky, as I posed for another selfie, this time with a small telescope. These images are always useful for illustrations in books and magazines. And blogs!

Observing Venus in Clouds
A selfie of me observing Venus in clouds and in the moonlight. I am using the Explore Scientific 80mm refractor on the Twilight Nano alt-az mount. This was January 9, 2020.

By the end of February Venus had climbed high into the west, and was appearing monthly near the waxing crescent Moon. This is another binocular selfie from February 27.

Selfie with Binoculars Looking at Moon (Feb 27, 2020)
A selfie looking at the waxing crescent Moon near Venus on Feb 27, 2020, using the Celestron SkyMaster 15×70 Pro binoculars on the Sky-Watcher AZ5 mount for a steady view. This is a single shot with the Nikon D750 and Sigma 24mm lens, using the flash on the camera.

In March I visited Churchill, Manitoba just as the lockdown and travel restrictions were coming into effect. But our lone and last tour group at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre saw some fine auroras, as here on this evening with the Northern Lights appearing even in the twilight. And what’s that bright star? Venus, of course!

Aurora in Twilight at Churchill Northern Studies Centre
The Northern Lights in the evening twilight on March 18, 2020, as the aurora appeared in the early evening sky. Orion is at far left in this panorama, with Cassiopeia at top centre. Part of the Big Dipper is at far right. The bright object over the Centre is Venus, with the Pleiades above. This is a panorama of 8 segments with the Venus Optics 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 800 for 1.6 seconds each. Stitched with Photoshop.

Upon my return home to Alberta, I was able to shoot more panoramas on the prairies of the wonderful early spring sky with Orion setting into the twilight and Venus in Taurus shining below the iconic Pleiades star cluster.

Panorama of  Venus and the Winter Stars (March 25, 2020)
This is a panorama of the evening sky on March 25, 2020, with brilliant Venus high in the west at centre just after the date (March 24) of its greatest elongation in the evening sky for 2020. It appears here about as high as it can get with the ecliptic tipped up to a high angle in spring. To the left is Orion and the winter stars in the twilight, including Sirius at far left. Just above the horizon right of centre in the bright twilight is the day-old thin crescent Moon about to set. Above Venus are the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters. This is a panorama of 5 segments with the Nikon D750 and 24mm Sigma lens, stitched with PTGui. Each segment was 8 seconds at ISO 400 and f/2.8.

March 26 was a superb night for catching Venus now at its highest and almost at its brightest at this appearance, as the waxing Moon appeared below it.


The highlight of the spring Venus season was its close approach to the Pleiades, which it passes only every 8 years. Here I am viewing the conjunction two days before the closest approach, with Orion over my shoulder.

Viewing Venus & Pleiades with Big Binoculars
A selfie of me viewing the close approach of Venus to the Pleiades star cluster on April 1, 2020, using big 15×70 Celestron SkyMaster Pro binoculars mounted on a Canadian-built Starlight Innovations binocular mount, a parallelogram-style mount. Orion is over my left shoulder; the Hyades is at centre above the mount. The waxing gibbous Moon provided the illumination. This is a stack of 4 images for the ground to smooth noise and 1 image for the sky to minimize trailing, all 13 seconds at f/5.6 with the Sigma 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 1600. Topaz Sharpen AI and DeNoise AI applied.

The night of closest approach, April 3, was cloudy, but here is a consolation closeup taken the next night with brilliant Venus departing the Seven Sisters.

Venus and the Pleiades - Close-Up (April 4, 2020)
Venus above the Pleiades star cluster, M45, on April 4, 2020, in the twilight and moonlight. Light from the gibbous Moon illuminated the sky, so no long exposure would reveal much detail in and around the Pleiades. Venus passes close to the Pleiades only every 8 years. Some light cloud this night added the glow. This is a stack of multiple exposures of varying lengths: 2 minutes, 30 seconds, 10 seconds and 2 seconds, blended with masks to prevent Venus from being too blown out while still recording the stars. All were with the SharpStar 140mm PH apo refractor with the 0.73x flattener/reducer for f/4.8 and at ISO 400 with the Canon EOS Ra.

Later in April Venus reached its greatest brilliancy, at magnitude -4.7, the date when the size of is disk, phase, and proximity to Earth converge to make Venus as bright as possible. On this night I shot the Moon, then 30° away from Venus and the planet with the same gear to show their relative sizes and similar crescent phase this night. The caption provides more details.

Moon and Venus Crescents Compared
A collage of two images of the Moon and Venus taken minutes apart on April 28, 2020, to show the similarity in their phases this night, April 28, 2020. Both images were shot with the same focal length and camera and so are identical in image scale, to compare their apparent sizes. I have not enlarged Venus, but I have put a frame around it to emphasize that its image has been layered in as a composite. The Moon was a 5.6-day-old waxing crescent this night, 32% illuminated. Venus was at its greatest brilliancy, or Greatest Illuminated Extent, with a disk 38 arc seconds across and 27% illuminated, so slightly less. Taken with the 130mm Astro-Physics refractor with a 2X Barlow lens for an effective focal length of 1600mm and with the Canon 60Da APS-sensor camera. The Moon image is the full frame of the sensor, uncropped. Both images are single short exposures at ISO 100.

A week later, with Venus just past its point of greatest brilliancy, I shot the planet by daylight in the early evening sky, using a telescope to zoom into the planet to show its waning crescent phase. By this time the phase was obvious in binoculars.

Venus in the Day Sky
Venus in the daytime sky and through some thin clouds, on May 5, 2020, with Venus at a very high apparition. This was at about 7 pm with the Sun still well up in the early evening, to show how well Venus can be seen in the daytime sky when it is at a wider angle from the Sun; and indeed is often the best time to view it as the planet’s brilliance is muted. This is a single 1/400-second exposure at ISO 100 with the Canon 60Da through the Astro-Physics 130mm refractor and 2X Barlow for f/12 and 1600mm focal length.

But Venus was now dropping rapidly from sight. By May 23, it was low in the twilight and below Mercury, then at its best for 2020 for an evening appearance from my latitude. Note the thin Moon below the planets. This was a superb sight for binoculars.

Thin Moon below Venus and Mercury
On May 23, 2020, the very thin crescent Moon (then 34 hours old) shines below bright Venus (10 days before its inferior conjunction with the Sun) and above it dimmer Mercury , then 10 days before its greatest elongation from the Sun in the evening sky. All were beautifully visible to the naked eye and a great sight in binoculars, looking very much like this scene captured with a 135mm telephoto lens. Venus was magnitude -4.4, Mercury was -0.7. This is a single shot at f/2.8 and 1/ 5 second at ISO 100 with the Canon EOS Ra which does bring out the sunset reds well.

By May 29, Venus was now tough to pick out of the evening sky, and a challenge to shoot even by day, as it then stood only 8° away from the Sun. What was once obvious to the naked eye now took a computerized telescope to pick out of the noon-day blue sky. A telescope showed the now razor-thin crescent as Venus approached its June 3 “inferior conjunction” — its passage between Earth and the Sun.

Venus Near Inferior Conjunction (May 29, 2020)
Venus as a razor-thin crescent and only 8° east of the Sun on May 29, 2020, five days before its June 3 inferior conjunction. The crescent is extending a little beyond 180° here due to scattering in the Venusian clouds. The disk was 57 arc seconds across and 0.9% illuminated. The magnitude was -3.9. This was at midday, shot with the 130mm Astro-Physics f/6 refractor with a 2X Barlow and the Canon 60Da camera, but the frame cropped further in processing. This is a single 1/1250th second exposure at ISO 100, the sharpest of 70 still frames taken.

I shot and narrated video footage of the thin crescent Venus, my parting shots of Venus for its evening appearance in 2020.

But in June, post inferior conjunction, it will rise very quickly into our morning sky, providing a mirror-image repeat performance as a morning star for the rest of 2020.

Venus Near Inferior Conjunction from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.


I wish you all the best and a safe and healthy time in 2020. Take some solace in what the sky can show us and in the beauty of the night.

Clear skies!

— Alan, May 31, 2020 / AmazingSky.com 

 

End of Year Skies


New Moon for a New Year

The crescent Moon rises into the western evening sky as 2016 ends, while Venus shines bright, and Orion rises into the east.

Getting clear skies is a rare treat of late, but these are images from two such nights this week. On December 30, the thin waxing Moon appeared in the colourful twilight of a winter night. Despite the clouds and the Moon’s low altitude, the dark side of the Moon is plainly visible illuminated by Earthshine.

Venus in Twilight over Pioneer Grain Elevators

Venus is now brilliant as an evening star in the southwest. Here is it over the old wood grain elevators at Mossleigh, Alberta, some of the few of these landmarks left standing on the prairies.

Fainter Mars shines above Venus and over the month of January, Venus will climb up to meet Mars by month’s end for a fine conjunction with the crescent Moon as well. Watch through January as Venus and Mars converge.

Orion and Pioneer Grain Elevators

As the planets set into the southwest, Orion the Hunter rises into the east. Here it is over the Mossleigh elevators, illuminated by local lights.

Enjoy the winter skies as clouds permit!

Clear skies and Happy New Year!

— Alan, December 31, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Urban and Rural Moons


The waxing crescent Moon near Venus in the spring evening sky over the skyline of Calgary, Alberta, May 21, 2015. I shot this from Tom Campbell Hill near the Telus Spark science centre. This is a single exposure with the 16-35mm lens and Canon 60Da, shot as part of a 360-frame time-lapse sequence.

The waxing Moon and Venus shine over contrasting landscapes, both urban and rural.

I shot the main image at top last night, May 21, from a site overlooking the urban skyline of Calgary, Alberta. The waxing Moon shines near Venus in the twilight sky.

By contrast I shot the image below the night before, from a location that couldn’t be more different – remote, rural Saskatchewan, on a heritage farmstead first settled in the 1920s by the Butala family. It is now the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area.

The waxing crescent Moon and Venus (above) over the old farm house at the Visitor Centre at the Old Man on His Back Natural and Historical Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan, May 20, 2015, on a very clear night. The old house was the original house lived in by the Butala family who settled the area in the 1920s. This is a single exposure taken as part of an 850-frame time-lapse sequence with the 14mm Rokinon lens and Canon 60Da camera.

Here, the crescent Moon shines a little lower, below Venus, amid the subtle colours of twilight in a crystal clear prairie sky.

However, as the top image demonstrates, you don’t need to travel to remote rural locations to see and photograph beautiful sky sights. Twilight conjunctions of the Moon and bright planets lend themselves to urban nightscapes.

– Alan, May 22, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – Mercury Rising


May 6 Mercury

The next two weeks are the best in 2015 for sighting Mercury in the evening sky.

Mercury is coming into view in our evening sky, climbing as high as it can get for us in the Northern Hemisphere. This is our best chance for us to sight Mercury as an evening star in 2015.

Spring is always the best time to catch elusive Mercury. The angle of the ecliptic – the path of the planets – swings up highest above the horizon in spring, putting Mercury as high into the evening twilight as it can get. This makes it easier to sight Mercury than at other times of the year when, particularly for observers at northern latitudes, Mercury can be lost in the twilight glow and horizon haze.

When it is at its highest Mercury is surprisingly bright, appearing as a bright star easily visible to the naked eye. However, locating it at first in the twilight usually requires a scan with binoculars.

Mercury will be at its highest on May 6 when it reaches “greatest elongation.” However, it will be almost as good for a week on either side of that date.

So set aside a clear evening during the first two weeks of May to search for the inner planet. (The green line is Mercury’s path relative to the horizon with the green dots marking its position at daily intervals.)

Mercury will be shining above fainter Mars, and well below brilliant Venus, now dominating our evening spring sky. Look north of due west during the hour after sunset.

Mercury & Venus Conjunction Closeup (Jan. 10, 2015)
Mercury and Venus on January 10, 2015 from New Mexico.

This view captures Mercury at its last good evening appearance, back in early January when it appeared close to Venus, then emerging into the evening sky. You can compare their relative brightness.

By coincidence, the emergence of Mercury into our evening sky comes just as it loses its lone visitor from Earth. Since 2011, NASA’s Messenger probe has been orbiting and mapping Mercury.

On April 29, with the probe exhausted of its maneuvering fuel, Messenger is scheduled to end its mission by crashing onto the planet, adding a new crater to Mercury’s barren and volcanic surface.

A global false-color map of the mineral composition of Mercury from Messenger data.
A global false-color map of the mineral composition of Mercury from Messenger data.

This is a recent map of Mercury from Messenger. For more details, see the mission’s website.

– Alan, April 30, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – Moon Meet-ups in March


March 21-24, 2015 Evening Sky

This weekend and early next week look for the Moon passing planets and star clusters in the evening sky.

The waxing Moon returns to the evening sky on Saturday night, March 21, a day and half after it eclipsed the Sun over the North Atlantic and Europe.

On Saturday, March 21 look for the thin crescent Moon very low in the west sitting just a degree (two Moon diameters) left of reddish and dim Mars.

The next night, Sunday, March 22, the Moon, now a wider crescent, shines three degrees (half a binocular field) left of brilliant Venus, for a beautiful close conjunction of the night sky’s two brightest objects. The photo ops abound!

This is one of the best Moon-Venus meet-ups of the current “evening star” apparition of Venus this winter and spring. Next month, for example, the Moon will sit six degrees away from Venus on April 21.

On Monday, March 23, the crescent Moon sits between Venus and its next destination, the bright star Aldebaran.

On Tuesday, March 24, the Moon, still a crescent, shines amid the stars of the Hyades star cluster near Aldebaran in Taurus, for a wonderful binocular scene. The more famous Pleiades star cluster is near by.

On all nights, you’ll see the night side of the Moon dimly illuminated by Earthshine, sunlight reflecting off the Earth and lighting up the dark side of the Moon.

March 24, 2015 CU

Here’s a close-up of the March 24 scene, with the Moon in the V-shaped face of Taurus the bull that is marked by the widely scattered Hyades star cluster.

Please note: This diagram and the main chart above, are for western North America. From eastern North America, the Moon will be 2 to 4 Moon diameters lower in the sky for each of the dates indicated.

Clear skies and enjoy the Moon meet-ups in March!

– Alan, March 19, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.net