As we celebrate the official arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, we bid adieu to the stars of winter.
This was the scene last night from my backyard, of Orion and the surrounding constellations of the winter sky setting into the southwest in the early evening. Each night they will set sooner and sooner, even as the nights continue to grow shorter and the Sun sets later.
By late April Orion will be gone from our Northern Hemisphere sky — he hangs around until well into May for sites south of the equator.
In this version I’ve labeled the main characters in this winter hunting scene – including some of the deep-sky “Messier” objects like M45, the Pleiades; M44, the Beehive star cluster; and M42, the Orion Nebula.
At the same time this year, we also say goodbye to Venus which has shone so brightly these last few months as an evening star. By this weekend, it will be lost from sight as it passes between Earth and the Sun.
Meanwhile, Mercury is rising into view in the evening twilight, in its best evening showing of the year from northern latitudes. The view below is also from March 19, with Mercury to the left of brighter Venus.
Over the next two weeks, look low in the west for a bright star amid the twilight. Mercury appears farthest from the Sun on April 1, the date of its “greatest elongation.”
Having Mercury in our evening sky is a sure sign of spring.
Another sign of spring is Leo the lion.
While Orion sets in the west, the stars of spring are rising in the east. The panorama above depicts the scene in the eastern sky these nights, as Leo rises below the Big Dipper.
The Big Dipper is at upper left, with its handle pointing down to Arcturus at bottom left. The Bowl of the Dipper points down to the right to Regulus and the stars of Leo.
Above Leo is the star cluster M44, the Beehive, in Cancer. Below Leo at centre is the star cluster Mel 111, the Coma Berenices star cluster near the North Galactic Pole.
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.
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!
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 ….
…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.
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.
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.
A lone meteor streaks away from the constellation of Gemini, part of the annual Geminid meteor shower.
Once again, as I did last month for the Leonid shower, I set up two cameras firing away hundreds of frames in hope that some would record a few meteors from the annual Geminid shower now going on.
I took about 700 frames, but only this one picked up a meteor. Clouds did intervene for a while – that’s when the brightest meteors would have appeared I’m sure. I observed from my front patio for a while and saw several Geminids, including two beautifully bright ones. But of course, both were just outside the field of both cameras.
I shot the shower tonight, Friday, the night before the peak on Saturday, as the forecast calls for cloud for the rest of the weekend here in southern New Mexico.
So this may be my best shot of the 2014 Geminid meteors.
A bubble of glowing gas blows away from an ancient dying star, next to a cluster of new stars in Gemini.
This image, from a week ago, captures contrasting stages in the life of a star.
At left is a crescent-shaped bubble of gas called IC 443, or the Jellyfish Nebula, billowing away from the site of an ancient supernova explosion, when a giant star ended its life in a blast thousands of years ago. Estimates put its age as between 3,000 and 30,000 years.
At upper right is the bright open star cluster, Messier 35, a gathering of hundreds of comparatively new stars at the beginning of their lives. M35 lies 2,800 light years away, close enough that its stars are nicely resolved in my photo and in any small telescope. M35 is one of the showpieces of the winter northern sky.
Just below M35 you can see a fuzzy glow. It’s another star cluster, NGC 2158. However, its great distance of 11,000 light years makes it appear as a small, partially-resolved glow, a nice contrast in clusters near and far.
This image focuses on IC 443, sitting between the stars Eta (right) and Mu Geminorum. The field is filled with other faint nebulosity, all part of the cycle of star birth and death.
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.
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.