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

Milky Way Over Moraine Lake


Milky Way over Moraine Lake (Aug 25, 2013)

The summer Milky Way shines from behind clouds coming over the Continental Divide at Moraine Lake, Banff.

Earlier in the day, thousands of people stood here, admiring the famous view of Moraine Lake set in the Valley of Ten Peaks. This was the view by night, before the waning Moon rose to light the scene. I was the only one there.

A couple of hours after I took this image, the peaks were well lit by moonlight, but clouds had moved in to obscure the stars. This shot from the start of the night shows the sky at its clearest and darkest.

The last time I visited Moraine Lake at night was back in the 1990s shooting with 6×7 film. I’ve wanted to get back with digital cameras for some years. Last Sunday, August 25 was my chance.

Despite the encroaching clouds, I managed to shoot time-lapses with three cameras: a dolly shot with the Dynamic Perception Stage Zero, a pan in azimuth with the new Radian controller, and a tilt-pan with the Sky-Watcher AllView mount. All worked well, but had the night been perfectly clear the movie clips and stills would have been all the nicer. But you go with what the mountains deliver.

This is one of the best of the frames from the night’s shoot, taken with a 14mm Rokinon lens for 60 seconds at f/2.8 and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 4000.

It shows one of the issues with shooting near lodges and resorts – yes, it’s convenient and safe (I’m reluctant to hike far in the dark alone, with Grizzly in Area and Travel in Groups signs about!) but even the most eco-friendly of resorts fail to realize the effects of their lights spilling out over the natural landscape. In this case, they do help light the dark scene, but they are pollution. When, oh when, will parks and resort operators begin to realize that the night is an environment to be protected as well, and not a jurisdiction to be ruled by lawyers and planners who dictate that the worst and usually cheapest types of lighting be installed.

P.S.: This was blog post #350 for me! 

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

Saturday Night Under the Stars


RAO Milky Way Night (Aug 3) #1

On a summer Saturday night hundreds gathered to enjoy the stars and Milky Way.

What a fine night this was. Last night, Saturday, August 3, I helped out at one of the annual Milky Way Nights presented by the University of Calgary’s Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. About 300 people attended, under nearly perfect conditions. The few clouds that rolled through later in the night didn’t detract from the views of the Milky Way and deep-sky objects.

Part way through the night I conducted a laser tour of the night sky. It was pretty neat presenting a “planetarium show” under the real stars to about 150 people gathered on the hillside lying on blankets and in lawn chairs. Astronomy outreach doesn’t get much better!

RAO Milky Way Night - Fish-Eye View #1 (Aug 3, 2013)

Folks from the local astronomy club set up their telescopes on the patio for public viewing. This is a fish-eye lens image I took in the twilight for use in an upcoming digital planetarium show I’m working on that will tour people through the Milky Way.

RAO Milky Way Night (Aug 3) #4

A highlight was the opportunity for people to look through one of the largest telescopes in Canada, the 1.8-metre ARC Telescope that is normally used for spectroscopy but can actually be equipped with an eyepiece. Here, observatory director Dr. Phil Langill lines up the telescope on Neptune.

The event went from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. We started these Milky Way Nights in 2009 for the International Year of Astronomy and they have been big hits every summer since, one of the legacies of IYA.

– Alan, August 4, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Star Rain


Star Rain - Big Dipper Star Trails

The sky seems to swirl in a rainstorm of stars.

I’ve combined several exposures of the stars in the northern sky to create a “comet trail” effect, showing them turning about the celestial pole. The top photo looks northwest to the stars around the Big Dipper and picks up the purple light of a faint aurora.

For the photo below, taken on a different night, I used a fish-eye lens to capture the entire sky, but looking north. You can see how the sky turns counterclockwise about the Pole Star. The Milky Way also appears as a blurred band of light.

Circumpolar Comet Star Trails (July 16, 2013)

I shot these last week from the cabin at Reesor Ranch in Saskatchewan during a wonderful week of nightscape photography in the Cypress Hills.

To create these images I used the Advanced Stacking Actions from Star Circle Academy.

– Alan, July 25, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Wild Rose Stars


Wild Roses and Stars on the Reesor Ranch

The floral emblem of Alberta, the wild rose, appears in front of a twilit starry sky.

Last night was another good one on the Ranch! I had three cameras shooting from my log cabin front yard – I had no ambition to travel farther afield this night, after 6 nights in a row of shooting around the Cypress Hills. This is a scene from one of the time-lapses taken from “home,” of prairie flowers in front of a prairie sky.

Milky Way over Log Cabin at Reesor Ranch (July 16, 2013)

I also took the opportunity to reshoot the popular “Milky Way over Log Cabin” scene, getting better results I think than the shot I posted from the first night I was here a week ago. This was with the specially-modified camera that picks up the red nebulosity in the Milky Way better. The colours are much nicer.

Reesor Ranch Night Sky Panorama (July 16, 2013)

Finally, this is a 360° panorama of the scene from last night, taken before the Moon set but when it was behind the trees out of sight. Its light still illuminates the sky blue, yet the Milky Way still stands out. The red lights are from two other cameras shooting time-lapses. This is big sky country for sure!

It’s been a wonderful week of shooting on the century-old Reesor Ranch in the Cypress Hills. I highly recommend the location for anyone who wants an authentic western experience in a stunning setting. I’m sure I’ll be back.

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

 

High Plains Panorama of the Night Sky


Cypress Hills Night Panorama (July 15, 2013)

The silvery Milky Way and green bands of airglow stretch across the high plains and big sky of the Cypress Hills.

The Moon had long set and the night looked as dark as it could be. No lights interrupted the flat clear horizon. These are the high plains of the Cypress Hills, the highest place in Canada between Labrador and the Rockies.

And yet, in the panoramic photos I took last night the sky revealed its true colours.

In the 360° panorama above, the Milky Way arches overhead from northeast to southwest. It was obvious to the naked eye. But stretching across the sky from east to west are also bands of green and red airglow that were completely invisible to the eye, except perhaps for making the sky look more grey than it might have otherwise.

These aren’t aurora but are emissions of light caused by oxygen atoms fluorescing as they give off some of the energy they absorbed by day. Time-lapse sequences show these bands moving slowly across the sky.

Shooting the Survivor Tree (July 15, 2013)

I drove up the Graburn Road last night, to the plateau of Cypress Hills, to shoot a time-lapse of the Milky Way moving above this lone tree on the plains. It’s called the Survivor Tree, subject to drought, blizzards fire, cattle, and even being cut down at one time. But still it survives. With a cold wind blowing last night I had a taste of what this tough Lodgepole Pine has had to endure.

Survivor Tree and Milky Way (July 15, 2013)

This is one frame from the final movie clip, with the tree and sky still lit by the light of the setting waxing Moon. An enduring tree beneath the timeless stars.

Noctilucent Clouds from Cypress Hills (July 15, 2013)

Early in the evening the northern sky was also marked by another sky phenomenon, noctilucent clouds – very high altitude clouds still lit by sunlight long after the Sun has set locally. These clouds made for a nice photo for a few minutes but soon faded from view as the Sun set even as seen from where these clouds live at the edge of space.

The night was left dark, with no aurora tonight – just the Milky Way and the faint wisps of airglow over the high plains of southern Alberta.

– Alan, July 16 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Road to the Northern Lights


Northern Lights Down the Road (July 14, 2013)

A country road winds off into the dancing Northern Lights.

The sky put on another fine show last night, the fourth in a row with some level of aurora activity. This was the scene Sunday night as a display blossomed for a while, dancing at the end of the back road through the Cypress Hills on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

I had one camera shooting north and devoted to the Northern Lights, while, as you can see below, I had two other cameras on rigs to shoot time-lapse movies looking south.

Self Portrait at Battle Creek, Cypress Hills (July 14, 2013)

This was the scene at the overlook to the Battle Creek valley, with the Moon setting and me getting the time-lapse gear going, to shoot the Milky Way moving over the hills. One camera was on a mount to pan across the landscape following the stars. The other camera was on a motion control dolly to travel down a track over the 3 hours of the shoot. I spent a lot of time in the car listening to BBC Desert Island Discs and The Life Scientific podcasts last night — the thrill of time-lapse shooting!

Milky Way over Battle Creek (July 14 2013)

This is one frame from one of the movies. Streaks of green and red airglow tint the sky around the Milky Way. Amazingly, the scene is lit only by starlight and by the aurora. You could never have done this with film. It’s the sensitivity of digital cameras that makes such scenes possible, though it takes some clever processing (such as Shadow Detail recovery in Raw, Shadows and Highlights, & masked Adjustment Layers) to balance Earth and sky in the final image.

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

 

 

Milky Way Over a Misty Lake


Milky Way over Misty Lake (July 13, 2013)

The misty starclouds of the Milky Way shine above the misty waters of Reesor Lake.

This was certainly a magical scene – the stars above the still waters of a misty lake. Above the tree-lined hills lies the constellation of Sagittarius and the heart of the Milky Way. The dark structure comes from interstellar dust, the stuff we’re made of. Everything in the foreground on Earth comes from the stuff you can see in the sky.

I shot this Saturday night, on a beautiful, if damp, night for nightscape photography in the Cypress Hills, Alberta. I helped the scene along by “painting” the mist with a white flashlight.

Milky Way over Misty Lake (July 13, 2013)

For those who like their Milky Way images in portrait mode, here’s one of the same scene, showing more of the sweep of the summer Milky Way up from the southern horizon, from Sagittarius to Aquila.

Self Portrait at Reesor Lake (July 13, 2013)

And while I don’t often take shots of people in scenes, I couldn’t resist getting into the photo myself here, standing on the boardwalk gazing at the centre of the Galaxy.

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

 

Log Cabin in the Milky Way


Milky Way over Log Cabin (July 11, 2013)

The summer Milky Way shines over a log cabin in the woods of the Cypress Hills.

This was the view this morning, at 2 a.m., as the Milky Way of northern summer shone over my vacation log cabin on the Reesor Ranch in Saskatchewan. After the clouds cleared the sky was beautifully dark for a while before the early dawn twilight came on.

The view here takes in the Milky Way from the Scutum star cloud above the trees to the dark dust clouds of northern Cygnus overhead. The trio of Summer Triangle stars, Deneb, Vega and Altair, flank the Milky Way.

This is a composite of five tracked and stacked images for the sky and one image for the foreground shot with the iOptron Skytracker running at half speed to minimize the blurring from the tracking motion. The lens was the 14mm Samyang at f/2.8.

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

 

The Purple Curtains of Northern Lights


Auroral Curtains (July 9, 2013)

Curtains of purple and pink top the usual green bands of aurora.

The last couple of nights have been very clear and filled with aurora. Two nights ago, July 9, the sky really let loose for a good display showing a great range of colours. Only the green was readily visible to the naked eye, but the cameras picked up the fainter bands of purple and magenta.

Most of the colours here come from oxygen atoms glowing. But high up, in the near vacuum of space, oxygen can glow red. The curtains can also be lit by sunlight coming over the pole, lending a blue tint to the aurora. The two colours blend to give purple.

Lower down in the atmosphere, green lines from oxygen predominate. When an aurora is very energetic, the incoming electrons can trigger nitrogen lower in the atmosphere to glow red and pink, giving the curtains a red fringe on the lower edge. That didn’t happen this night.

All-Sky Auroral Curtains (July 9, 2013)

This fish-eye shot of the entire sky shows the high purple curtains arching up the sky. Over several minutes they separated and ascended away from the main green band, shooting up the sky. It seemed as if they were their own curtains and not just a different coloration fringing the main display.

The Northern Lights have been active lately so keep an eye on Spaceweather.com and AuroraWatch for alerts and warnings.

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

 

The Milky Way over a Canola Field


Milky Way over Canola Panorama (July 6, 2013)

The Milky Way arches over a field of yellow canola on a dark summer night.

The night was beautifully clear and moonless with a glow to the north of perpetual twilight still lingering. The Milky Way was obvious so I hiked to the middle of the canola field next to my house, visible here lit by the red lights at left.

To shoot this panorama I used the same technique as in the The Colour of Dark panorama image from last month which has proved quite popular: I shot eight exposures at 45° spacings using the 8mm fish eye lens. Each was a 60 second exposure at ISO 4000 and f/3.5. I assembled the panorama using PTGui software, from images processed in Adobe Camera Raw.

The sky was well exposed but the ground was still dark, lit only by starlight. It took some processing in Camera Raw (Shadow Detail) and Photoshop (Shadows and Highlights) to bring out the yellow field of canola in the foreground.

While the sky looked neutral grey to the eye, I’ve punched up the colours a lot to reveal the blue twilight, green and magenta aurora to the north, bands of greenish airglow across the sky, and yellow glows of light pollution.

The odd streaks of light on the canola are reflections of the horizon lights in the soaking wet dew on the canola. It was a very damp night after a day of rain.

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

 

The Milky Way at Solstice


Centre of Galaxy on Horizon (June 9, 2013)

The centre of the Galaxy culminates over a starlit landscape on a night near the summer solstice.

This was last weekend, on the same night I took the images of the aurora and noctilucent clouds featured in the previous two blog posts. But toward the end of the shoot, I turned south to capture this scene, of the Milky Way over a grassy prairie field.

The landscape is lit only by starlight and by the glow of twilight and aurora to the north.

In the sky, the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius are peaking as high as they get for me in southern Alberta. The red giant star Antares is to the right while the bright star clouds toward the centre of our Galaxy are just left of centre. The sky is not dark because of the glow of perpetual twilight at this time of year near solstice.

Deep sky fans will note that the star cluster M7, the southernmost Messier object, is just clearing the horizon.

Remarkably, this is a mere 15 second exposure, at ISO 1600 but with the 24mm lens wide open at f/1.4. Normally I wouldn’t shoot at that wide an aperture as the images look too distorted at the corners of the frame. But for this shot I used the Canon 60Da camera – its cropped-frame sensor records only the central area of what the lens projects so it crops out the nasty stuff at the corners of the frame that would certainly have been detracting had I used the full-frame camera.

But shooting at f/1.4 allowed even this quickie 15-second shot to grab lots of detail in the Milky Way.

– Alan, June 14, 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

Milky Way and the Northern Lights


Aurora and the Milky Way (May 6, 2013)

The Milky Way appears from behind the colourful curtains of the Northern Lights.

This was the scene last Saturday night, into the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning, May 5, as the summer Milky Way rose in the east while a display of aurora  played across the northern sky. The Northern Lights weren’t particularly bright this night, but the long 2-minute exposure I used to bring out the Milly Way recorded the aurora with colours and an intensity only the camera could see this night.

The green is from oxygen glowing in the lower part of the atmosphere, though still some 80 km up, where only rockets and high-altitude balloons can fly. The tops of the auroral curtains are tinged with the pinks from another type of oxygen emission possible only at the very top of our atmosphere, where molecules are few and far between and what’s left of the air that surrounds us meets the vacuum of space some 150 km up.

From Earth it’s hard to visualize just what we are seeing when we look at display like this. But check out some of the Aurora videos at  NASA’s Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth. You’ll see time-lapse videos taken from the Space Station as it flies by and through the same types of aurorae with green lower bands and pink upper fringes, beautifully captured  floating high above the Earth in vertical curtains reaching up into the blackness of space.

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

 

The Milky Way of Spring on the Prairies


Summer Milky Way over Field (May 2013)

Late on a clear spring night on the Canadian Prairies the Milky Way rises over a fallow field.

Despite taking this not 200 feet from my home, this isn’t a view I see or photograph very often. In spring on the Canadian Prairies, it seems we go from dark winter nights to the bright skies of mid-summer with little in between to mark spring. Miss a dark-of-the-Moon period in late April or early May and you miss the opportunity to see and shoot this sight – the summer Milky Way rising late on a dark spring night, with Scorpius due south. In another month this same sky will be washed out by the glow of perpetual twilight around solstice.

By July or August when dark skies return, the Milky Way will be already well up at nightfall, and Scorpius on the way down past his prime for the year.

But in this shot, taken at 3 am this morning, during a welcome run of clear moonless nights, I framed Scorpius at lower right skimming the southern horizon as high as he gets from western Canada. The yellow star at lower right is Antares, the heart of the Scorpion. To the left of Scorpius, the spectacular starclouds of the summer Milky Way span the sky from Sagittarius in the southeast to Cygnus high in the east at upper left.

Around me now, farmers are beginning their work of tilling and seeding the fields. But this one will likely lay fallow this year, the furrows seeming to extend off into the distant Milky Way.

This is a stack of five 2.5-minute tracked exposures, but with the ground included from just one of the exposures, to minimize the blurring introduced by the moving camera. The lens was the wonderful 14mm Samyang, a manual lens that doesn’t register in the camera’s metadata, thus the reading at left that this was taken with a 50mm lens, the default setting when the camera doesn’t know what optics it is connected to.

– Alan, May 6, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

The Ghostly Glow of Gegenschein


Gegenschein from New Mexico (14mm 5DII)

The band of light at right is the familiar Milky Way. But what’s that faint stream of light to the left? It’s called the Gegenschein.

My last blog showed an image of the Zodiacal Light in the west. In fact, that glow extends up and continues all the way across the sky as a very faint stream of light at the threshold of vision called the Zodiacal Band. But at the place in the sky 180° opposite the Sun the Band intensifies to become a diffuse patch of light. It’s easy to see with the naked eye from a dark site if you know to look for it, and where it is likely to be. Last week, it was sitting below the constellation of Leo, in an area of sky that is pretty blank. So any faint glow stands out.

As with Zodiacal Light, what you are seeing is sunlight reflected off comet and asteroidal dust, but for the Gegenschein (German for “counterglow”) the light is coming from dust opposite the Sun that is scattering light back toward us and the Sun, mirror-like. The back-scattering effect makes the dust appear a little brighter at the point opposite the Sun.

Spring is a good time to spot the Gegenschein (true for the northern or southern hemisphere) as it then lies in a sparse area of sky away from the Milky Way. But you need a moonless sky and a dark site free of manmade light pollution. It and the fainter Zodiacal Band are among the sky’s most subtle sights. Again, Atmospheric Optics has more details.

A bonus with this shot are some short streaks of light below and to the right of the Gegenschein. I think those are from geostationary satellites flaring at the anti-solar point as they, too, acted as mirrors briefly catching the sunlight. Being geostationary – likely communications satellites you aimed fixed dishes at – they stayed still while the stars and tracking camera moved, and so created streaks.

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

 

The Zodiacal Light from the Desert


Zodiacal Light in Evening Sky (New Mexico)

From a dark site the glow of Zodiacal Light rivals the Milky Way in brightness. 

This was the scene every night last week in the evening sky from our New Mexico observing site. The vertical glow of Zodiacal Light was a source of natural light pollution brightening the western sky. I’ve never see it more obvious in the west and this was the perfect season to see it. In March from the northern hemisphere the ecliptic – the plane of the solar system – is angled high into the western sky, almost vertical from the latitude of southern New Mexico.

The Zodiacal Light lies not in our atmosphere but comes from interplanetary space, and follows the ecliptic. What we were seeing was a glow of sunlight being reflected off fine dust particles orbiting the Sun in the inner solar system, likely spread by passing comets like PANSTARRS. I blogged about the Zodiacal Light last month, in photo taken from home in southern Alberta. You can also read about it at the excellent Atmospheric Optics website.

You don’t need to be in the desert to see it, but you do need dark skies. And no Moon in the sky.

At last week’s dark of the Moon period, Jupiter sat at the apex of the Zodiacal Light, just above the Pleiades star cluster. Near the top, right of centre, you can also see a short satellite trail, likely from a flaring Iridium satellite.

– Alan, March 19, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

The Magnificent Milky Way


Sagittarius & Scorpius Over Adobe House (35mm 5DII)

What an amazing area of sky – the centre of the Galaxy hovering over the Earth below.

This was the scene two mornings ago, on our last clear night in New Mexico. This is what’s in the morning sky now and in the evening sky later in July and August. This is the area around Scorpius and Sagittarius and their rich star clouds toward the centre of the Milky Way.

It looks like a scene from an alien planet. But it’s here on Earth, gazing thousands of lights years toward the galactic core.

Enjoy!

– Alan, March 16, 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

The Arch of the Milky Way


New Mexico Milky Way Panorama

On March evenings the Milky Way arches overhead in a magnificent river of starlight.

This is the panoramic view we are getting every night this week at our astronomy retreat in New Mexico, as we gaze upwards to the northern winter Milky Way running across the sky from northwest to southeast, from Cassiopeia at right to Vela at left.

In the middle you can see the stars of Orion and his familiar Belt.

On March nights we are gazing outward, to objects farther out than we are from the centre of our Galaxy. This part of the Milky Way is dominated by stars and nebulas around the Orion complex several hundred light years away.

Above the main house a pillar of light rises from the western horizon and tapers out as it reaches the Milky Way high in the west. That’s the Zodiacal Light caused by sunlight reflecting off comet dust in the inner solar system. You need to be at a fairly dark site to see it, with no prominent urban sky glows to the west. But springtime is the best season for seeing the Zodiacal Light in the evening sky. From the latitude of New Mexico the Zodiacal Light rises almost straight up, perpendicular to the horizon. Here, Jupiter sits at the apex of the Zodiacal Light.

So this panorama includes the Earth, objects in our solar system (Jupiter and comet dust), and the distant stars and nebulas of the Milky Way Galaxy we live in.

For this scene I shot a panorama of 4 segments, each consisting of 2 images stacked for noise smoothing, and the segments stitched with Photoshop. Each frame was a 3-minute exposure with the Samyang 14mm lens at f/2.8. The camera was on a tracking platform, so it followed the sky during the 25 minutes or so it took for me to shoot the entire panorama. I reframed the camera between each segment to try to get the horizon and landscape horizontal and lined up as best I could from segment to segment.

The ground is from one frame out of each segment and is blurred slightly because the camera was tracking the sky. Despite shooting a moving target, Photoshop was still able to automatically assemble the frames into a seamless panorama that, in this case, covers about 250°. This was the first time I attempted such a tracked panorama. I was impressed that it worked!

– Alan, March 14, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Sagittarius and Scorpius Rising


Sagittarius & Scorpius Rising (24mm 5DII)

This is the view from early this morning as the centre of the Milky Way rises above the desert landscape of New Mexico.

Sagittarius (at centre) and Scorpius (at right) contain the rich starfields of the galactic core. To the eye this scene looks as if bright clouds are moving in to hide the stars, but in fact the glows are stars – clouds of stars forming the glowing bulge of the galactic core. Superimposed on the glowing core are lanes of dark interstellar dust, such as the silhouette of the Dark Horse prancing at centre, with lanes of dust flowing across the sky and converging onto yellow Antares, the heart of Scorpius right of centre.

I shot this before dawn this morning, March 12, from our site in southwest New Mexico. Skies were perfect.

This is a stack of five 5-minute exposures with the 24mm lens at f/2.8. A sixth exposure taken through a diffusion filter added the star glows to accentuate the bright stars and their colours. The foreground is from one exposure and has been processed to bring out the details, here lit only by starlight.

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

 

Skies of Enchantment – Summer Milky Way Rising


Summer Milky Rising over Adobe House (14mm 5DII)

If you lived here you’d be in astronomy paradise.

This is the summer Milky Way and galactic centre in Sagittarius and Scorpius rising before dawn early this morning. The setting is the Painted Pony Resort in New Mexico, and its adobe lodges.

There’s no more spectacular sight than this in the night sky, other than perhaps an all-sky aurora display. And they don’t get too many of those down here at 31° North in southern New Mexico.

This image is a stack of ten 3-minute exposures for the sky (to smooth out noise) but the ground is from just 2 of those exposures and is blurred because the camera was tracking the sky. Light from walkway lights, plus starlight itself, added just enough illumination to provide details in the foreground.

So to be clear – this is a real scene. The Milky Way has not been pasted onto a separate image of the foreground. However, colour and contrast have been boosted to bring out details your eye would not have seen had you been standing here early this morning in the frosty New Mexico night.

Again, as with my previous image taken earlier in the night, I used the new Samyang 14mm ultra-wide angle lens, at f/2.8. It works very well!

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

Skies of Enchantment – Winter Milky Way Setting


Winter Milky Way over Adobe House (14mm 5DII)

In the land of enchantment, the winter Milky Way sets over our adobe house.

I’m in New Mexico, enjoying wonderfully clear skies. In the early evening the winter Milky Way runs north and south then turns to set over in the west, as it’s doing here, over the main house at the Painted Pony Resort near Rodeo, in southwest New Mexico.

Jupiter and the stars of Taurus are at upper right, and Orion is just right of centre. Above the house shine Sirius and the stars of Canis Major and Puppis. The area of red in the Milky Way just above the house is the massive Gum Nebula in Vela, an area of sky hidden from us in Canada.

For this image I combined a stack of five 5-minute tracked exposures taken with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 14mm Samyang lens wide open at f/2.8. The ground details are from two of the exposures.

This was a fabulous night with more to come this week.

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

The Wide-Angle Winter Sky


Wide-Angle Winter Sky (March 1, 2013)

Orion and his friends are beginning their descent into the evening sky, signalling the welcome end of winter and the coming of spring. 

I shot this last night from home, in a scene similar to some earlier posts, such as Winter Stars Rising. But the difference here is that I’m using a new lens, testing it for the first time. I wasn’t really after a “keeper” shot, but I think this one turned out pretty well!

The lens is the Samyang (aka Rokinon) 14mm f/2.8, an ultra-wide angle lens that sells for a bargain price, a fraction of the cost of name brand 14mm lenses. The reason is that this lens dispenses with all the automatic features and electronic communication and is a classic manual lens, just like we used to recommend people buy for astrophotography in the old film days. For shooting stars you don’t need autofocus or having the aperture stay wide-open until you take the photo. So we’re not missing much employing a no-frills manual lens like the Korean-made Samyang series – they make well-respected 24mm and 35mm lenses as well.

Star images are quite sharp across the very wide field, with very good control over coma at the corners. Stopping the lens down to f/4 does sharpen them up but the lens is perfectly usable at f/2.8, as it is here. The big issue is the extreme amount of vignetting — darkening of the corners of the frame. In star shots, we often have to boost the contrast a lot to make the shot presentable, and that increases the visibility of any vignetting, making the photo look like it was taken through a porthole. For this shot I “flattened” the image by applying very generous levels (almost maximum) anti-vignetting both in Adobe Camera Raw (at the start of processing) and again in Photoshop (at the end of processing) with its Lens Correction routine. The final result looks very good and natural I think.

Another drawback to the Samyang manual lenses is that they feed no information to the camera about what lens is attached. The “EXIF” data that the camera records lacks any info on aperture and focal length. So in the photo info at left (which is picked off the image automatically by WordPress), you’ll see the lens listed as a 50mm and with no aperture specified.

So the verdict? The Samyang/Rokinon 14mm is a very nice lens for wide-angle piggyback shooting (like this stack of five 5-minute tracked exposures), and for nightscapes and time-lapse work. A bargain at ~ $360. Recommended!

– Alan, March 2, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Flying Through a Moonlit Winter Night


ISS Pass with Astronaut Chris Hadfield (Feb 15, 2013)

Tonight the Space Station flew out of the west and overhead as it faded into the shadow of the Earth.

Because tonight the ISS was coming up high into the north, almost directly overhead, I used a fish-eye lens to shoot the entire sky, and took three exposures, each 90 seconds with the camera tracking the stars.

The bright Moon is at right, but despite its light the Milky Way still shows up. The Space Station faded into sunset just as it crossed the Milky Way.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is on board, about to take command at the next crew change. He’s been tweeting lots of comments and photos from space. Check him out at @Cmdr_Hadfield.

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

 

Commander Hadfield Sailing Through the Stars


ISS Pass with Astronaut Chris Hadfield (Feb 10, 2013)

Here’s looking back at you Commander Hadfield! Here is our Canadian astronaut sailing into the Milky Way.

Since he launched to the International Space Station in December Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield has been tweeting many photos of places in Canada that he sees passing by his window 400 kilometres below. With the Space Station now entering our evening sky in western Canada, I can return the favour and photograph his home in space traveling among the stars. This night he flew through Orion and into the winter Milky Way.

This was the scene Sunday night, February 10, in a pass of the Space Station low across the south starting at 7:14 p.m. MST. The exposure was four minutes, long enough to just capture the entire pass from west to east, right to left in this image. At left, the trail of the Space Station fades out as the ISS entered Earth’s shadow and into night.

The image also captures the Milky Way at left and the Zodiacal Light rising from the last vestiges of blue twilight at right. Jupiter is the brightest object above centre. For the next two weeks we’ll be enjoying nightly passes of the ISS with our Canadian astronaut on board.

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

 

The Subtle Glow of Comet Dust


Zodiacal Light rfrom Home (Feb 8, 2013)

Out of the skyglow from lights and the remains of twilight rises a tapering pyramid of light. It’s one of the night sky’s most subtle sights for the naked eye.

This is the Zodiacal Light, and I’ve been trying to capture it in the evening sky from home for a number of years. Last night was a good night for it. The sky was very transparent, for the first couple of hours at least. An ultra-wide angle lens allowed me to capture the Light in context with the wider sky, towering out of the southwest at right, reaching up to the Pleiades and Jupiter high in the centre of the frame. The Milky Way is at left. Everyone knows the Milky Way but the Zodiacal Light is less famous.

It’s visible only in the hour or two after sunset or before sunrise. Late winter and spring are the best times to see it in the evening sky. That’s when the ecliptic – the plane of the solar system where the planets lie – is tipped up at its highest angle above the horizon putting it above obscuring haze. The Zodiacal Light lies along the ecliptic because it is part of our solar system, not in our atmosphere. It is sunlight reflected off dust orbiting in the inner solar system that’s been cast off over thousands of years by comets passing through. It is brightest closest to the Sun and fades out at greater angles away from the Sun. Thus its tapering appearance in my sky as the photo shows, very much as my eye saw it.

It takes a good night at a dark site to see the Zodiacal Light. But take a look at the next dark of the Moon. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to see once you know what to look for.

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

 

A Crisp Winter’s Night Under the Stars


Fish-Eye Winter Sky (8mm 5DII) (Feb 7, 2013)

It was crisp and frosty night filled with the bright stars of winter, and the Milky Way.

This was the sky from my backyard on Thursday, February 7, with Orion and his friends shining due south. It is a “fish-eye” shot taking in all of the sky from horizon to horizon. South is at bottom, north to the top. West is at right, east to the left.

The Milky Way runs from northwest, at top right, to southeast, at bottom left. When we look at this section of the Milky Way we are looking in the direction opposite the galactic core, toward the outer arms of our Galaxy.

Jupiter is the brightest “star” in the image, shining in Taurus. Rising out of the sky glow from towns to the west of me is the pillar of light called the Zodiacal Light. I think you can follow it stretching all the way across the sky from right to left (west to east) where it then becomes a subtle bright patch in the sky well east of the Milky Way. That’s the Gegenschein, a glow of light exactly opposite the Sun. It and the Zodiacal Light are caused by sunlight reflecting off comet dust in the inner solar system.

A night when you can see the Zodiacal Light and Gegenschein – they were visible to the unaided eye – is a good night indeed. Too bad this one was spoiled by some cloud and haze, reflecting the toxic yellow glow of ever-intruding sodium vapour lights.

Silhouetted in the sky glow at right is one of my telescopes, with camera #2 dutifully taking a closeup image of Orion’s Belt. That picture will be the subject of tomorrow’s blog!

– Alan, February 8, 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

The Natural Naked-Eye Milky Way


Centre of the Milky Way Panorama (2011)

In this image I’ve tried to render the Milky Way in a view that simulates what you see with your unaided eyes.

The result is a celestial portrait in subtle shades of black and white.

This is a photo mosaic, but processed contrary to the usual methods – eliminating colour rather than enhancing it, and reducing contrast rather than boosting it. The result is a view that I think quite nicely matches what your eyes see, though certainly from a dark site. And in this case, you would need to be in the southern hemisphere to see this sweep of the Milky Way, from Aquila at left, to the Southern Cross at right, with the bright star clouds around the centre of the Galaxy in Sagittarius and Scorpius in the middle.

I’ve removed colours except for the muted colours of stars. And I’ve tried to render the stars with an intensity and dynamic range that the eye sees but that is often lost in long exposures.

The dark lanes of dust seen here really do look like this under dark skies. The nearby Coal Sack next to the Southern Cross does look a little darker than the rest of the sky. This view also captures another effect you can see in the real sky – the brighter sky below the Milky Way plane beneath Sagittarius and Aquila – there are more stars there, which make the background sky brighter than above the Milky Way plane (along the top of the photo) where the sky is permeated by dark obscuring dust.

This scene also frames the “dark Emu” – the shape drawn in the dark lanes that looks like a flightless emu in the sky. It’s an important “constellation” in Aboriginal mythology in Australia. The emu’s head is the Coal Sack at far right, her neck the long dark lane curving up through Centaurus and Lupus, and her tail the dark lanes at left in Ophiuchus, Scutum and Aquila.

I shot the original images for this panoramic mosaic in Chile in May 2011. You can see the full colour version in my “Milky Way Mosaic” post from 2011. The colours are wonderful. But there’s something enthralling about “capturing” the view more as your eyes – and mind – remember it.

– Alan, February 3, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Timor Cottage R.I.P.


Magellanic Clouds in Moonlight

Word has reached me that my favourite observing site in the world is gone.

Over the weekend, devastating bush fires swept through Warrumbungles National Park and surrounding areas near Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia. Several dozen homes were lost. Some were homes of friends I’ve made there in my many visits to the area in the last 12 years. Among the buildings burned and lost, Timor Cottage, the rental cottage where I stayed in 2010 and in 2012. Previous posts have extolled the virtues of this site. I’m told it is now ashes. Ironically, just last week I confirmed my booking for it, for a stay in early 2014.

Fortunately, all residents were evacuated safely. No one lost a life, just property.

The nearby Siding Spring Observatory managed to survive the fires largely intact, due in no small part to the fire suppression safeguards implemented in the last 10 years since the fires of January 18, 2003 that destroyed Australia’s other major optical astronomy site, the Mt. Stromlo Observatory. Some lessons were learned. However, they did not help the people living near by, many of whom were Observatory employees. It was, and is, a wonderful astronomy community along Timor Road. I wish them the best in their efforts to rebuild their homes and their lives.

It is life in unforgiving Australia — one month paradise, the next hell on Earth.

– Alan, January 14, 2013 / © 2012 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

A Truly Amazing Sky — A New Year’s Gift


Timor Cottage Panorama #3

As we end 2012 and start a new year, I wish everyone a very happy 2013 and leave you with this view of a very amazing sky.

This is a 360° panorama of the Milky Way over Timor Cottage on a very clear night in mid-December in New South Wales, Australia. May all your skies be as wonderful and as inspiring as this in the coming year.

Indeed, we have some potentially remarkable sights to look forward to, with the prospects of two bright comets in 2013: Comet PANSTARRS in March and Comet ISON in November and December.

Let’s hope for more amazing skies in 2013. Keep looking up!

– Alan, December 31, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Giant Bubble in the Southern Sky


Gum Nebula in Vela

 

The southern sky contains what must be the largest nebula in our sky, a giant bubble spanning a wide swath of the Milky Way.

This is the object known as the Gum Nebula. You can see it in my previous post, in the ultrawide view of the southern sky. Here I’m framing it with a normal 50mm lens that covers about 50° of sky. The Gum Nebula is completely invisible to the eye and shows up only on photos. It wasn’t even discovered until the 1950s, by Australian astronomer Colin Gum. It is #12 in his catalog of southern sky nebulas. I’ve always thought this was an example of an interstellar bubble, blown by intense winds from hot blue stars, of which there are many in this part of the Milky Way in Vela and Puppis. At left are the four stars of the False Cross in Carina and Vela.

But some sources claim this is a supernova remnant, the blasted remains of a star that blew up 1 to 2 million years ago. It is big because it is close by, just 450 to 1500 light years away depending on what side if the remnant you measure. If that’s the case, the star that exploded would have been quite a shadow-casting sight in our prehistoric sky, assuming it was that close to us when it blew up and was in the night sky at the time.

Either way, it is a great target for amateur photographers, and now with digital cameras it is easy to record. This night, some haze moving through added the photogenic glows around all the stars to bring out their colours.

– Alan, December 18, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

 

Ultrawide Southern Sky


Ultrawide Angle Southern Milky Way - December 2012

This horizon-to-horizon image takes in a broad sweep of the southern Milky Way from Orion to the Southern Cross.

At upper left shines bright Jupiter in Taurus and the stars of Orion, upside down. To the right of Orion is Sirius in Canis Major, the brightest star in the night sky. To the right of Sirius above the Milky Way is Canopus, the second brightest star in the night sky and one we don’t see from up north. The two satellite galaxy Magellanic Clouds are at upper right. Below them is the bright Milky Way through Carina and Crux, the Southern Cross. Alpha and Beta Centauri are just above the dark trees at right. This is the entire Milky Way you see on an early austral summer night from down under.

What stands out is the huge red bubble of gas called the Gum Nebula in Vela and Carina. It is strictly a photographic object but shows up well on red-sensitive digital cameras.

I shot this with a filter-modified Canon 5D Mark II camera and a 15mm wide-angle lens on a mount tracking the stars. It is a stack of four 6-minute exposures, shot from Australia a few nights ago under nearly perfect sky conditions.

– Alan, December 17, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Southern Milky Way in the Blue of Dawn


Southern Milky Way at Dawn (December 2012)

At the end of a nearly perfect night of southern stargazing, I shot this wide-angle portrait of the southern Milky Way embedded in the deep blue of morning twilight.

In December at dawn, the southern Milky Way extends from Orion (at the extreme right) down through Canis Major, Puppis and Vela (where you can see a large faint red bubble-shaped nebula high in the south) then continues east (left) into Carina and Crux. The red Carina Nebula sits in the Milky Way and the Southern Cross is at left, rising before the two Pointer Stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri. The Magellanic Clouds sits above the cottage I’m using as my southern hemisphere home for stargazing while I am in Australia.

– Alan, December 12, 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

 

Southern Milky Way Setting & Zodiacal Light


On the eve of the November 14 total eclipse of the Sun, I was able to shoot the Milky Way setting amid the vertical glow of the evening Zodiacal Light.

This scene looks west toward the sunset point, but was taken well after sunset. The Milky Way and the area of Sagittarius where the centre of the Galaxy lies is just setting. The same area of sky contains a vertical pillar of light, very subtle, called the Zodiacal Light. This is sunlight reflected off dust particles orbiting the inner solar system and deposited by passing comets. The Zodiacal Light is best seen in the evening sky on dark moonless nights in spring, no matter what your hemisphere. But in this case it is November, spring in the southern hemisphere.

At left are the two Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of the Milky Way, and visible at their best only from south of the equator. In this case we are at 16° South latitude.

The site is a lookout on the Mulligan Highway inland from Port Douglas where we made for the day before the eclipse and camped out overnight, along with a parking lot full of fellow eclipse chasers. But the morning still brought worrying clouds in the direction of the Sun, so we moved farther north to the site you see in my earlier Great Australian Eclipse blogs.

– Alan, November 20, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Milky Way Amid the Trees


This is the classic summer campsite shot, looking up through the trees to the Milky Way.

I shot this Saturday night from a favourite viewpoint in Banff at Saskatchewan River Crossing. The night proved to be less than the perfectly clear I had hoped for, so I settled for Plan B and shots looking up to a nearby nightscape scene, rather than out across a landscape and into horizon clouds. Some drifting clouds in this shot blur the stars.

This is an example of the type of simple nightscape anyone can do with a camera on a tripod. There’s no tracking going on here, just a short 70-second exposure, enough to pick up the Milky Way. The little trailing of the stars that results isn’t objectionable. I could have shortened the exposure and decreased the trailing but only by going to a higher ISO speed like ISO 3200 which, with the Canon 7D camera, is pushing it too much for noise in a shot like this.

Better still would have been to place the camera on a tracking platform. expose longer at an even slower, less noisy ISO speed, and then let the trees blur from the camera’s motion as it followed the stars. It would have simply looked like a windy night.

Or, it’s possible to combine tracked and untracked exposures, one for the sky and one for the ground, using Photoshop magic.

But I did neither here. This is an unadulterated image of the summer sky shining through trees.

– Alan, September 11, 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

The Northern Nebulas of the Milky Way


This is the prime celestial real estate above us now on northern summer nights.

This wide-angle shot takes in the Milky Way from Cygnus at right to Perseus at left, an area populated by lots of nebulas, both bright and dark. A couple of previous posts (The Subtle Shades of Cepheus and The Dark Clouds of Cygnus) featured close-up views of sections of this sky, the areas at centre in this wider context image in northern Cygnus and southern Cepheus.

At bottom is the elliptical glow of the Andromeda Galaxy, another “milky way” beyond ours.

I boosted the contrast and colour more than I normally do for astrophotos, to punch out the nebulas and the subtle dark lanes of dust that permeate this part of the Milky Way. I shot this last weekend from the star party in Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan. With three clear nights it was a productive weekend!

– Alan, August 26, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

The Subtle Shades of Cepheus


The Milky Way in Cepheus presents a palette of colours revealed in long exposures.

This binocular-sized field contains the large magenta nebula IC 1396, a site of star formation. On its northern (upper) edge shines the orange star Mu Cephei, otherwise known as Herschel’s Garnet Star, for its very red appearance in the eyepiece. It is a bloated red supergiant, one of the largest stars known. A few other stars in the field are younger blue giants. Faint wisps of red hydrogen fill the field (the faint crescent at right is Sharpless 129, left of centre is Sharpless 132, at top left is NGC 7380). Diagonally along the Milky Way lie dark, yellow-tinted dust clouds. The darkest patch at centre is the Barnard 169/170/171 complex. These contrast with the dust-free blue starfields of the Milky Way at left.

This is a stack of five 5-minute exposures with the 135mm telephoto and Canon 5D MkII camera, which has been filter modified to record the faint red nebulas better than a stock camera.

– Alan, August 25, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Star Gazing


Happiness is a big telescope under a dark sky.

This is Regina astronomer Vance Petriew, gazing skyward at the Milky Way in Cassiopeia. Vance is the discoverer of Comet 185/P, aka Comet Petriew. This year, his comet returned to the August sky as a faint glow in Gemini, close to where it was when Vance found it exactly 11 years to the day before this image was taken, and at the very same spot in the campsite at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park in Saskatchewan.

We all revelled in the Saskatchewan comet’s return, staying up till 4 am to see it through Vance’s 20-inch telescope, a reflector made by the small company called Obsession. (When you have an Obsession, you are a serious observer!) Enjoying the view early that morning before dawn were  Vance’s three daughters, only one of whom was around 11 years ago and then as a baby. But this year even the four-year-old was able to see Dad’s comet up close.

At the afternoon talks Vance recounted the story of how the comet’s discovery changed his life, and led to immense changes at the Park. As a result of the media and political attention the comet brought, the Park has become a Dark Sky Preserve, one of the first in Canada, leading a nationwide movement, while astronomy programming is now an integral part of the Park’s interpretive programs, as it is becoming at other provincial and national parks. There is now a permanent public observatory and lecture hall nearby in Cypress Hills, just a short walk away from where the comet was found.

Comets can have quite an impact!

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

Horizon to Horizon Milky Way


The view doesn’t get any wider than this. This fish-eye image takes in the entire night sky and summer Milky Way.

I shot this last weekend at the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party in Cypress Hills. Red lights of observers streak along the horizon around the perimeter of the circular image. At centre is the zenith, the point in the sky straight overhead.

The sky was very dark, but the sky close to the horizon is tinted with the faint glows of aurora and airglow.

The Milky Way is the main feature of the summer sky, here stretching from Sagittarius in the south at bottom to Perseus at top in the north. Wide shots like this really put the giant lanes of dust into proper context; you can see their full structure and faint tendrils extending well off the Milky Way band.

For these fish-eye shots (suitable for projection in a planetarium) I used a Sigma 8mm fish-eye lens and a full-frame Canon 5D MkII camera. This is a stack of five 5-minute exposures, all tracked. The landscape is from just one of the images, to minimize blurring of the ground.

— Alan, August 23, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Lost in the Milky Way


Just lie back and lose yourself in the Milky Way.

That’s what one person is doing here, under the starry skies of Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan. In summertime the Milky Way is the main attraction at night. Here, it rises from the south, a region containing the centre of our Galaxy in Sagittarius, to climb up overhead through the star clouds of Scutum and Aquila, then into Cygnus in our local spiral arm, and on into Cassiopeia at the top of the frame in the north.

As in most deep sky photos, I’ve boosted the contrast and colour to make a dramatic image. To the eye the Milky Way appears in subtle shades of grey painted with the dark brushstrokes of dust lanes winding through the bright clouds of stars. But your eye does see much of this structure.

I like these types of ultra-wide images. They capture the mind’s eye impression of what the Milky Way looks like across the vault of heaven.

This is a stack of four 5-minute exposures, all tracked on a small equatorial mount, the Kenko SkyMemo, and all taken with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and Canon’s ultra-wide 15mm lens at f/4, as you can see from the photo data at left. I retained the ground from just one image, to minimize the blurring from the slowly moving camera tracking the stars. I masked out the ground in the other 3 images. They help smooth out noise in the sky.

— Alan, August 21, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Star Party Panorama


This image depicts a 360° panorama of the field and sky at the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party.

This was my first time shooting a nighttime panorama but it was easy. Just 12 exposures taken at 30° intervals panning around on a levelled tripod, in classic planetarium panorama style. Each exposure was 30 seconds at f/2 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 5D MkII and 24mm lens. It helps to have a high-quality fast lens.

North is at centre, south on either end.

The sky contains some interesting and subtle features that show up well in a wide-angle panorama like this:

– The bright summer Milky Way is setting at left in the southwest while the fainter winter half of the Milky Way is rising opposite, at right in the northeast.

– Jupiter and the Pleiades rise at right just off the Milky Way

– A meteor streaks over the trees at centre

– At centre, to the north, glows a faint yellow and magenta aurora

– The larger green glow left of centre is, I suspect, airglow rather than aurora. It has a striated structure, particularly at right of centre above the trees where it appears as subtle green and red bands arching across the northeast.

The sky this night was dark but did have a brighter than usual background, likely due to the presence of this faint airglow that the camera picks up better than the eye.

Even so, I can see another faint glow:

– A whitish band coming up from the northeast passing through Jupiter and below the Pleaides. That’s the Zodiacal Band, an extension of the brighter Zodiacal Light and caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust in the ecliptic plane.

The location of the panorama and star party was the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park in southwest Saskatchewan, one of the darkest places in southern Canada.

— Alan, August 20, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Party Under the Stars


For astronomers this is party central – under the starclouds of the summer Milky Way.

Over the past weekend, August 16-18, I attended the annual Saskatchewan Summer Star Party, held in the Cypress Hills of southwestern Saskatchewan. Skies could not have been better.

This was the scene Friday night, with telescopes under the Milky Way. About 350 people attended, and nearly as many telescopes it seemed! This is one small section of the observing and camping field.

Cypress Hill Park has been declared a Dark Sky Preserve, in recognition of the Park’s role in preserving and presenting the dark skies that are as much a part of our natural world as are the flora and fauna of the Earth. Every year astronomers converge on the Hills to revel in their pristine skies … and party – quietly! – under the Milky Way. Wandering the field you could overhear “Hey, look at this!”, “Wow!”, “O-o-o-h!”, “I found the __ nebula!” and many more exclamations of joy and wonderment.

My image is a composite of a single untracked exposure for the sharp foreground and a stack of 5 tracked exposures for the sky and Milky Way. All were 2 minute exposures, taken moments apart. Boosting the contrast makes the Milky Way stand out with far more detail and colour than the eye can see. Nevertheless, the Milky Way was a grand sight and the main attraction over the Cypress Hills this past weekend.

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

Perseid Meteors and Planets over a Mountain Lake


It was quite a night, and a wonderful dawn. This was the scene at the end of a night of falling stars.

A trio of Perseid meteors zips down at left, while at right a trio of solar system worlds rises into the pre-dawn sky. The overexposed waning Moon is flanked by Jupiter above and Venus below. Jupiter shines near the Hyades star cluster and below the Pleiades cluster.

I took this shot (it is actually a composite of three shots, each with its own meteor) on the morning of Sunday, August 12 on the peak night of the annual Perseid meteor shower, widely publicized this year due to the lack of a Moon for most of the night, and the convenience of falling on a weekend. The scene is looking east over Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park, Alberta, one of the few places in this part of the Rockies you can look east to a reasonably unobstructed sky.

Notice the glitter path on the water from not only the Moon but also Venus.

— Alan, August 13, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

A Cloud of Stars in Scutum


This is a binocular-sized gulp of sky in the northern summer Milky Way. Countless stars form a bright patch in the Milky Way called the Scutum Starcloud, named for the odd little constellation of Scutum the Shield that contains it.

Visible to the naked eye, this star cloud is a rich area for binoculars or a small telescope. One favourite object of stargazers lies embedded in the star cloud and can be seen here as a bright clump of stars at left of centre. That’s the Wild Duck Cluster, or Messier 11, a dense and populous cluster of stars within the already star-packed Scutum Starcloud. Look in this direction into the Milky Way and you are looking toward the next spiral arm in from ours, some 6,000 light years away.

The immensity of stars in just this small area of sky is hard to fathom. That’s why it’s called deep space!

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

 

A River of Starlight and Dust


 

Look up on a dark summer night in the northern hemisphere and you see a river of stars flowing across the sky.

This is the Milky Way, a glowing mass of millions of distant stars populating the spiral arms of the Galaxy we live in. Lining the arms are lanes of dark interstellar dust, seen here splitting the Milky Way in two from the bright red North America Nebula at top, down to the core of the Galaxy in Sagittarius on the horizon. The dust is the soot created in stars and blown into space to form a new generation stars and planets.

This ultra-wide-angle scene takes in almost the entire summer Milky Way from the southern horizon to beyond the zenith overhead at top. I shot this a couple of nights ago from my rural backyard on a particularly transparent and dark night. It was heaven on Earth.

— Alan, July 26, 2012 / © @ 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Under the Milky Way


What a marvellous night for the Milky Way. The sky was clear and the night warm and bug free, making for a perfect evening for public stargazing.

People only had to travel 30 minutes out of the city, but what an exotic, wonderful sky they discovered. The Milky Way is the main attraction, familiar by name but little seen by most. But this night, at the Rothney Observatory’s public starnight, hundreds got to see the marvels of the Milky Way and the deep sky for themselves. Astronomers, including yours truly, provided laser-guided tours of the naked eye night sky. A dozen or more telescopes and their owners provided close up views of nebulas and star clusters. After a summer so far of too much rain and cloud, this was a welcome and well-attended chance to see the stars.

— Alan, July 22, 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 Marvellous Mid-March Sky


We have a marvellous sky above us these nights, with an array of brilliant beacons in the evening sky.

This wide-angle scene captures the western and southern sky. To the west at right shine Venus and Jupiter. To the south at centre stands Orion. His famous Belt points up to Taurus and the Pleiades star cluster. His Belt points down to the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, the Dog Star in Canis Major. Above, at top left, is the other Dog Star, Procyon, in Canis Major.

The last vestige of twilight tints the sky deep blue. But some of the red nebulas in and around Orion are beginning to show up as the sky darkens on a late winter night.

I shot this Saturday night, March 10, on the last evening of Standard Time. Now, I and all astronomers have to wait up another hour to see and shoot the wonders of the night sky. Astronomers hate Daylight Saving Time.

— Alan, March 11, 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

Milky Way Mosaic


Centre of the Milky Way Panorama (2011)

It’s taken me a few months to get around to the task, but at last! — my mosaic of the Milky Way I shot in Chile back in May.

The panorama is made up of 6 frames, stitched and blended together, extending from Crux, the Southern Cross (at right) to Aquila the eagle (at left) — a sweep of the Milky Way from Acrux to Altair! The mosaic is centred on the core of the Galaxy in Sagittarius and Scorpius.

Panoramas like this allow you to step back a distance and take in the big picture:

— You can see the large-scale structure of the dust clouds and the odd diagonal sweep of many of the clouds cutting across the plane of the Galaxy. I’ve never heard an explanation of why the dust lanes seem to have that structure and direction. I also see a 3D effect, with the nearby dust clouds hanging in front of and obscuring the bright starclouds of the distant inner spirals arms of our Galaxy.

— Also apparent are the extensive dust clouds at left extending from Ophiuchus (at top) down into Aquila, well below the plane of the Galaxy. Most wide-angle shots of the Milky Way I see tend to process out the subtle brown clouds that extend far off the Galactic plane. And they are brown, not black.

— And what really stands out is the band of bright blue stars from Scorpius (at top centre) to the right above the Milky Way through Lupus, Centaurus then down into Crux. This is a section of Gould’s Belt, a ring of hot blue stars around the sky that runs at an angle of about 20° to the Milky Way. This ring of hot, nearby stars surrounds us in our spiral arm and is thought to be only about 65 million years old, likely caused by some disturbance in our spiral arm which set off a wave of star formation close to us.

— And … as my Australian friends will point out, you can see the entire Dark Emu, made of the dust lanes from the Coal Sack in Crux at right (his head and beak), through the curving lanes in Centaurus (his neck), then sweeping up and over the centre of the Galaxy (his body) then down into Scutum and Aquila (his two feet and his tail).

I took this panorama from the Atacama Lodge in north central Chile, using the Canon 5D MkII and Canon 35mm lens. Each of the 6 segments that went into this pan was itself a stack of 4 x 6 minute exposures, plus a fifth exposure through a soft-focus filter, all at f/4 and ISO 800. The camera was on a Kenko SkyMemo tracking platform. I assembled the pan with Photoshop CS5’s Photomerge command. This is actually only half of the full panorama mosaic, which extends for another 5 segments to the right along the Milky Way to Orion, taking in the entire southern portion of the Milky Way. But this is the best bit!

— Alan, Oct 2, 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

September Milky Way


 

This was the scene from my rural backyard on Tuesday night, September 20, with the Milky Way at its best across the sky.

September usually brings the best nights of the year for dark-sky observing and shooting the Milky Way. Nights are clear, dry, and transparent. The Milky Way stretches across the sky from southwest to northeast in the early evening.

Under clear skies on Tuesday the dark lanes and structure of the Milky Way really stood out, both to the eye and to the camera. Image processing for contrast does bring out the dust lanes, including the subtle patches off the main Milky Way band.

The centre of the image contains the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle. They frame the bright Cygnus starclouds and glowing red nebulas that mark the spiral arm that we live in. Above, at top left in the image, is a bluer section of the Milky Way formed by the more distant Perseus spiral arm, the one further out from us in the Galaxy.

I took this shot with the Canon 5D MkII and Canon 15mm lens, for a stack of five 6-minute exposures at f/4 and ISO 800.

— Alan, September 21, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

 

Saturday Night Stargazing


It was a marvellous night for the Milky Way … and some Saturday Night Stargazing.

This was the scene at the University of Calgary’s Rothney Astrophysical Observatory on Saturday night (Sept 17, 2011) as a crowd of about 250 people took in the wonders of the night sky at one of the Observatory’s monthly Open Houses. Skies were excellent and a late moonrise left dark skies early on for views of the Milky Way, a seldom seen part of nature for city-dwellers. A dozen volunteers from the local chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada provided telescopes and expertise to tour people around night sky wonders, from comets to star clusters. Many people are delighted just to have the constellations pointed out, so they can identify the patterns whose names they have heard of but have never seen.

What always impresses me about such events is how much interest the public shows, and how much the kids in attendance know about astronomy and space. One young man, age 10 or so, in seeing some of the images, like this one, that I was taking pop up on my camera screen, asked if I do piggyback photography! At his age I’m not sure I knew about piggyback photography!

We see all ages at our public stargazing events, all expressing the same “Wow! That’s cool!” reaction. Hearing the comments gives us astronomers a charge — we get as much back from the guests as we hope we provide them.

— Alan, Sept. 18, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

 

Milky Way over Peyto Lake


 

What a night this was! This was the view Sunday night, September 4, from the Peyto Lake viewpoint, of the Milky Way arching overhead, on a clear night at 7,000 feet altitude near the timberline of Bow Summit.

This is one frame of 275 of a time-lapse movie I took of the stars turning over Peyto Lake. This frame catches the Moon just as it sets over Peyto Glacier at left. At this altitude the Milky Way was obvious even with the Moon still in the sky.

It was a scene of a starry night that Bill Peyto would have enjoyed. As he wrote of nearby Bow Lake (see my shot here) … “Around the fire tonight Jim [Jimmy Simpson] said that for his money this campsite was the closest one could get to Heaven on Earth and I reckon he’s not far wrong.”

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

Bow Lake by Moonlight (The Movie)


Here is the time-lapse movie I took last Saturday night, August 20, on a perfect night at Bow Lake in Banff, Alberta.

The sequence starts in bright twilight then darkens to full night with the Milky Way over the  mountain silhouettes. The peaks then light up as they catch the light of the rising last quarter Moon coming up about 11:30 pm in the east. The moonlight creeps down the mountains to light up the entire valley and the lake. The sky brightens to deep blue again. The sequence ends about 3:30 am.

There was hardly a cloud in the sky all night, unusual for locations near the large icefields that straddle the continental divide.

I assembled the movie from 454 frames, each 40 seconds in exposure time, and taken 1 second apart.

— Alan, August 24, 2011 / Movie © 2011 Alan Dyer

Bow Lake By Moonlight


This was a truly magical scene — the Milky Way over Bow Glacier, and mountains lit by moonlight and reflected in the waters of Bow Lake.

Last Saturday night, August 20, 2011, brought some of the clearest skies I’ve seen in the Rockies. To take advantage of them, I headed to Bow Lake, in Banff, a favourite and very photogenic location for day and nighttime shooting. I hadn’t been there at night since the film days, pre-2004.

This shot is one of 450 frames taken as part of a time-lapse sequence, showing the Milky Way moving over Bow Lake. Here, at about 2 a.m. the light from the rising last quarter Moon is illuminating the peaks, and the Milky Way is perfectly placed over the end of Bow Lake and Bow Glacier, source of the waters of the Bow River and what Calgarians drink!

The sky is blue from moonlight. Last quarter moons are wonderful for nightscapes — providing enough light to illuminate the landscape but not so much as to wash out the sky and Milky Way. But making use of that phase of the Moon means very late nights of shooting. I packed it in this night at 4 a.m.

— Alan, August 22, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

 

The Glowing Heart of Cygnus


Look straight up on a summer night in the northern hemisphere and you are looking into this region of sky. This is the centre — the heart — of Cygnus the swan, marked here by the bright star called Sadr, or Gamma Cygni.

While the star is easily visible to the unaided eye, the glowing clouds of gas surrounding it are not. Only long exposure images reveal the amazing swirls of nebulosity in the middle of Cygnus.

The main cloud at left, split by a dark lane of dust, is catalogued as IC 1318. The little crescent-shaped nebula at right is NGC 6888, or more appropriately, the Crescent Nebula. It formed when a hot giant star blew off its outer layers, to add to the general melee of hydrogen and other elements. But note the little blue reflection nebulas at top left. Oddly out of place!

New stars are forming in this region, located about 1500 light years away down the Cygnus arm that we live in, in the Milky Way Galaxy.

This field can be framed nicely by binoculars or a low-power telescope, but only the brightest bits of this nebulosity will show up in the eyepiece as grey ghosts, and then only with the aid of a specialized nebula filter.

I took this shot on Saturday night, July 30, 2011 with the Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph lens and Canon 5D MkII camera. Other stats are similar to the previous blog post. It’s certainly my best shot of this area of sky.

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

 

Stars Over Waterton Lakes II


When I’m doing time-lapse sequences I often run two cameras, one with a wide-angle lens for a frame-filling rectangular view for “normal” HD movies (that’s what’s in the previous blog post), and another camera with a fish-eye lens for a circular format “all-sky” view. These scenes are for projection in full-dome digital planetariums.

This still image is one frame of 470 that I took over four hours on the night of July 20/21, showing the stars and clouds moving in the sky over Waterton Lakes National Park and the stately Prince of Wales Hotel on the bluff across the bay. North is at the bottom of the frame in this shot.

I took this image about 11:30 pm when the sky still had some twilight glow in it and just before the waning Moon was about to rise at right. So the eastern sky has a glow from the impending moonrise. However, the sky is dark enough that the Milky Way shows up running across the sky and down toward the hotel.

You can also see the Big Dipper at left and Cassiopeia at right. The Summer Triangle stars are at top right, in the south. Polaris, the North Star, is dead centre.

— Alan, July 22, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

 

An Island in a Sea of Stars


This image looks toward the inner spiral arm of our Milky Way called the Norma Arm, where stars bunch together to form the rich Norma Starcloud, a prominent patch in the southern Milky Way. What you see here is all stars, lots and lots of stars.

Seemingly embedded in the sea of stars is an island of brighter stars called the Norma star cluster, or more prosaically NGC 6067. It’s about 6800 light years away, much closer to us than the more distant stars behind it. It is literally floating in front of the background sea of stars.

As with the previous image, this is a wide field shot, taken with the 135mm telephoto, to frame the field much as it would appear in binoculars. This shot is a stack of six 2-minute unguided exposures at ISO 1250 with the Canon 7D riding on the little Kenko tracking platform. It’s one of a couple of dozen fields I shot the first night of shooting on Chile in May.

— Alan, June 4, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

 

The Galactic Cathedral


We’re on our last full day in Chile, packing up and sorting out. I’ll finish off my Chile blog series with this parting shot — the entire southern Milky Way from horizon to horizon.

In this view, we’re looking straight up, with the horizon at the edges of the frame of the 15mm fish-eye lens. The glowing starclouds of Sagittarius and Scorpius, seen in close up in the previous blog post, are in the centre of the frame. The Southern Cross is at far right, the Northern Cross at far left.

This scene is a superb way to end a night of southern sky stargazing – just lying back and looking up at the entire panorama of the Galaxy. You really do get the sense that we are indeed living at the edge of the Galaxy, looking off into its bright core, and with its spiral arms wrapping around us.

It’s a galactic cathedral of stars.

– Alan, May 7, 2011 / Image  © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Starfields of Sagittarius and Scorpius


I can’t get enough of this region of sky. I can and do shoot this with every lens I have and with all kinds of framing (horizontally, vertically, or at a rakish angle, like here) and it always looks great.

These are the rich and stunning starfields toward the centre of the Milky Way in Sagittarius (bottom) and Scorpius (at top). Look for the pinkish nebulas dotted along the Milky Way, the bright starclouds, and the dark lanes of interstellar dust. It’s all part of the galactic recycling program that our Milky Way participates in, as stars explode, cast off dust and gas, which then clump into glowing nebulas and form new generations of stars.

I took this shot about 5 a.m. a couple of mornings ago, with this area directly overhead. It’s a stack of six 3-minute exposures with the 35mm lens and Canon 5D MkII camera. I took some shots through a soft focus filter to add the star glows.

– Alan, May 7, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Best Nebula in the Sky


What a great field this is to explore with binoculars. The image here takes in about the same area of sky as most binoculars and look what it contains! Arguably, the best nebula in the sky: the Carina Nebula, and the best open star cluster: the Football Cluster (aka NGC 3532) to the left of the main nebula. And then there’s the Southern Pleiades star cluster, IC 2602, below the nebula, and lots more besides.

This one field is reason enough to travel to the southern hemisphere for stargazing.

I shot this last night, May 6, 2011, using a 135mm telephoto lens at the modified Canon 5D MkII camera. The filter modification allows the camera to pick up a lot more of the faint wispy bits of glowing nebulosity. This is a stack of four 3-minute exposures, with two of the exposures shot through some thin cloud (the first we saw all week!), adding the subtle but photogenic glows around the stars.

– Alan, May 7, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Dawn’s Early Light


This shot took getting up early (rather than staying up all night) to shoot the sky at 5 a.m. The main subject here is a subtle tower of light rising up vertically from the eastern horizon. That’s the Zodiacal Light, best seen from low latitudes.

The glow is from sunlight reflected off dust particles deposited in the inner solar system by passing comets. While it looks like dawn twilight coming on, the light actually comes from out in space and heralds the brightening of the sky by true twilight.

After a week of gazing in the evening sky, a number of us observers took the opportunity this morning to snooze through part of the night and get up prior to dawn to see a new set of objects. At that time of night, and at this time of year, the centre of the Milky Way sits straight overhead, and shows up here in an ultrawide shot from horizon to zenith.

I shot this with the 15mm lens at f/2.8 and the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800. It’s a stack of two 3-minute exposures.

– Alan, May 6, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Southern Crosses


The emblem of the southern hemisphere sky is here on the left: the Southern Cross, or Crux. But how many other crosses can you find in this field?

At the right is a larger version of Crux, made of two stars from Carina and two stars from Vela. So it’s not a proper constellation but an asterism well known in the southern hemisphere sky, called the False Cross.

You might also be able to pick out a third cross at lower centre, looking upside down but also made of four stars in an elongated diamond shape.

The prominent centre-stage object here is the massive Eta Carinae Nebula, sometimes just called the Carina Nebula (I’ve never determined what the proper and official name of it is). Surrounding it is an array of star clusters that make this area an absolute delight to explore with binoculars. But this week, at our stay at the Atacama Lodge, our small observing party has had fabulous views of the nebula in a big 18-inch telescope that reveals intricate structure in the swirls and eddies of its glowing clouds.

This is a stack of 6 exposures, each 3 minutes at f/4 with a 50mm Sigma lens and the Canon 5D MkII camera.

– Alan, May 6, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Southern Spectacular


Everyone from the north who sees this area of sky for the first time quickly realizes just how much better the sky is down south. This is the most spectacular region of the deep-south Milky Way, as it passes through the constellations of Carina, Crux and Centaurus.

Dead centre here is the symbol of the southern sky, the Southern Cross. To the right of it glow the reddish nebulas of Carina and Centaurus; to the left of the Cross lie the dark clouds of the Coal Sack and the pair of brilliant stars, Alpha (on the left) and Beta Centauri. Alpha is the closest bright star to our solar system.

This one field contains much of what makes the southern sky so memorable and a mecca for any backyard astronomer. You haven’t lived an astronomical life until you’ve seen this part of the Milky Way, accessible only from southern latitudes.

I took this shot last night, May 4, 2011, using a Sigma 50mm lens and a modified Canon 5D MkII camera. The image is a stack of four 6-minute exposures at f/4 and ISO 800, plus a stack of two more 6-minute exposures taken through a soft-focus filter, with those images layered into the final Photoshop image to add the star glows and make the constellation outlines, like the Southern Cross, pop out.

– Alan, May 5, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Toward the Centre of the Galaxy


This is without a doubt the most spectacular area of sky. Here we’re looking toward the centre of our Galaxy, toward the starfields of Scorpius (at right) and Sagittarius (bottom centre). The field is a riot of stars, dark lanes of dust, and patches of glowing red nebulas.

It is wonderful experience – wonder-filled! – just to lie back and scan these constellations with binoculars or a wide-field telescope. One outstanding feature are the parallel bands of dark dust that seem to form the shape of a dark prancing horse in the Milky Way.

The brightest area of the Milky Way here is the Sagittarius Starcloud, and marks the direction of the centre of our Galaxy. From here in Chile where I took this shot, this region of sky passes directly overhead, making it more prominent than at northern latitudes where the galactic core is often lost in horizon haze.

This image is a stack of four 6-minute exposures at f/4 with the 35mm lens and Canon 5D MkII camera. For one of the exposures I shot through a special soft-focus filter to add the fuzzy star glows that make it easier to see the outline of the constellations. The filter also emphasizes the colours of the stars.

The image is a segment of a 12-section panorama I shot all along the Milky Way from dusk to dawn.

– Alan, May 3, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Entangled in Dark Dust


This is a star cluster in Scorpius called NGC 6124 – it doesn’t have a name, to the best of my knowledge. But a good one might be the “Dark River Cluster.”

I’ve shot lots of stuff along the Milky Way on my various trips to the southern hemisphere, but this field was a pleasant new surprise. While I had photographed this star cluster before, previous portraits had been extreme closeups. I had not shot it with a wide field like this.

The field here takes in about the same area of sky as binoculars. One of my projects on this current trip to Chile has been to shoot binocular fields like this. And it’s a good one. The cluster is a little off the beaten track in Scorpius and tends to be ignored. But its position entangled with lanes of dark nebulosity makes it a wonderful contrast of stars and darkness.

The dark lanes are obscuring dust in the foreground, hiding the light of distant stars in the Milky Way. The cluster itself is about 18,000 light years away, quite a distance for a star cluster, and putting it a good portion of the way toward the centre of the Galaxy.

For this shot I used the Canon 7D camera and 135mm telephoto, for a stack of six 2-minute exposures at ISO 800 and f/2.8.

– Alan, May 3, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Galaxyrise


In the southern hemisphere sky we are treated to the stunning sight of the centre of the Galaxy rising each night, as the starfields of Scorpius and Sagittarius come up over the eastern horizon. In this shot, taken last night (May 2/3), we see the Milky Way’s heart rising behind some of the robotic, remotely-controlled domes and telescopes at the Atacama Lodge in Chile. Only the centre dome is operating, taking images or data under the command of someone half a world away.

Amazing technology to be sure, but … that robotic observer misses the experience of standing under the Milky Way, watching its heart rise over the Andes and swing overhead through the night. The Milky Way is so bright it lights the ground, as you can see here.

Last night our little group of 7 Canadian observers had a fantastic time exploring the southern sky with several telescopes, including an 18-inch reflector set up for us by lodge owner Alain Maury. With the help of a couple of wide-angle eyepieces we saw wonderful views of the Vela Supernova Remnant, dark nebulas in the Milky Way, and showpiece targets like Omega Centauri and the Tarantula Nebula – the list goes on! And will again tonight, as we compile another “hit-list” of targets to find tonight.

For this shot, I used the Canon 7D camera, a 15mm lens, and ISO 2500 for a 40 second exposure at f/2.8. This is one of about 500 frames taken for a time-lapse movie of “Galaxyrise.”

– Alan, May 3, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

The Milky Way from Chile


This was the Milky Way as it appeared toward the end of a long night of non-stop shooting from Chile. The centre of the Galaxy lies directly overhead and the Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon. This is one of the sky’s greatest sights, and this is an ideal time of year to see it. But only if you are in the magic latitude zone of 20° to 30° south.

In this shot, another skyglow stretches up from the eastern horizon at left – that’s the Zodiacal Light, so obvious from this latitude. It’s sunlight reflected off comet dust in the inner solar system, and heralds the coming dawn twilight.

My tracking platform – the device that allows a camera to follow the sky for a time exposure – is at lower right, with a second camera taking telephoto lens shots of star clusters in the Milky Way.

I took this shot with the Sigma 8mm fish-eye lens and the Canon 5D MkII camera that was on a fixed tripod – it was not tracking the sky. But the 45-second exposure at ISO 3200 was enough to bring out the Milky Way in all its glory. This frame is one of 660 or so that make up (or will once I assemble it) a time-lapse movie of the Milky Way turning about the pole and rising through the night. The fish-eye format makes it suitable for projection in a planetarium dome.

– Alan, May 2, 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

Eclipse in the Winter Milky Way


The December 20, 2010 total lunar eclipse promised to be a photogenic one. With the Moon smack dab in the middle of the winter Milky Way, it was going to be a great sight, as the Milky Way appeared during totality. The event did not disappoint. Though some haze intervened, I wasn’t complaining, as the weather has been so poor of late, we were lucky to get a clear night at all, despite having to endure -20° C temperatures to take in the event. This shot captures the scene from my backyard during totality, with the over-exposed eclipsed Moon sitting in the Milky Way above Orion. The naked and binocular view was truly stunning.

I got back from Australia in time to see this event from home, squeezed in between Oz and a Xmas trip to the rainy west Coast. The plan worked! I managed to catch the eclipse, against the odds, which defeated many across Canada. Alberta was one of the few clear places for this event. I had considered a hasty trip to Arizona for it, but decided against it — a good thing, as I think they had cloud. The winter of 2010/11 is proving to be an awful one for many.

— Alan, December 2010 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer

Shooting in Australia, Despite the Floods


I have not managed to get back to Australia since 2008, and had long planned for a trip in the November-December period, to get the Magellanic Clouds and “winter” Milky Way area of Orion, Canis Major, Puppis and friends, regions of the sky not well-placed in the usual months of my Oz trips in March and April. I planned a trip for late 2010, a month under southern skies, with 2 weeks at my favourite dark site, Coonabarabran, NSW, which bills itself as the Astronomy Capital of Australia — the Siding Spring Observatory, Oz’s major optical observatory complex is down the Timor Road. I rented a cottage for the period, which worked out great. The site could not have been better. The weather could not have been worse!

I go to Oz prepared to lose about 50% of nights to cloud, but this time, out of 15 nights in Coona, only 2 were clear and usable. Torrential rains deluged the area of the Central West of NSW, causing severe flooding all around me. On one trip back from Parkes, I had to detour 200 or 300 km around through the Hunter Valley just to avoid washed out roads and get back home. Indeed, at one point I had to plough through one town whose main streets were being inundated with a torrent of water. When it did clear, it was humid! But I got two nights of great shooting in. The skies were transparent. The one thing about Oz — when skies are clear they are dark and clean. The best I’ve ever seen.

This is a single, tripod-mounted shot of the southern Milky Way and Magellanic Clouds, over the cottage that was my retreat and home for two weeks. Would I go back? You bet! It is still astronomy paradise for me. Even if skies are cloudy it is a chance to enjoy a writing retreat and a time to quietly work on projects long put off.

– Alan, December 2010 / Image © 2010 Alan Dyer