A Panorama of Planets


This was a beautiful night, with the array of five worlds stretched across the sky, a parade of planets and the Moon.

Mercury is now at its greatest angle away from the Sun and easiest to see in the evening sky this week for the year, at least from Canadian latitudes. Even so, it is low in the western twilight.

You can’t miss Venus and Jupiter higher in the west. Watch them close up and trade places in mid-March.

Mars is now at opposition, closest to Earth, and rising at sunset. It shines brightly as a red star in the east, 180° away from Mercury. It will be in our sky for several more months.

Orion shines due south amid the clouds. The arc of clouds rather nicely defines the arc of the ecliptic path across the sky, the path along which we always find the planets.

I took the shots for this panorama on Sunday, March 4. I took five segments, each 13 second exposures with a 16-35mm lens, then combined them in Photoshop CS5 with its Photomerge command.

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

Mercury Rising Over Calgary


Mercury is elusive but here it is, showing up as a speck over the skyline of Calgary, as it begins its best evening appearance of the year, rising a little higher into the twilight sky each night for the next few evenings.

To find it, follow the line down from the Moon and then bright Jupiter and Venus at upper left and continue that line to the lower right. Just to the right of the tallest building (the new Bow tower) and just above the rooftops there’s a tiny dot of light. That’s the inner planet Mercury. It’ll get higher in the first week of March but not by much. Mercury is bright. It’s just not very high and is easy to miss.

But with Mercury coming into view, and with Venus and Jupiter so prominent now in the evening, and Mars now bright in the east after sunset – look for a red star – we have a nice array of 4 naked eye planets across the sky at once. Saturn comes up later after midnight now. So you can see 5 naked eye planets in one night.

It’s a great evening sky show now in early March.

– Alan, March 1, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Jupiter and Mercury Amid the Clouds



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

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

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

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

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

Mercurial Encounter


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

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

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

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