Meteor Shower over the VLA


Raining Meteors over the VLA Dishes

Meteors from the Geminid shower rain over the dishes of the VLA radio telescope.

Sunday night was a prime night for the annual Geminid meteor shower, one of the best of the year. To capture it, I traveled to the Plains of San Agustin in the high desert of New Mexico.

It’s there that the National Radio Astronomy Observatory operates the 27 dishes of the Very Large Array radio telescope, one of the most photogenic – and photographed – astronomical facilities in the world.

I set up at a viewing point near the entrance, to look northwest over the dishes, arrayed that night, and all season, in its most compact configuration, with all the dishes clustered closest together.

It was an active meteor shower! One particularly bright meteor left a persistent “train” – a smoke trail that lasted over 15 minutes. It creates the fuzzy cloud around the meteor at right. The bright bolide is on two frames, as the shutter closed then opened again as the meteor was still flying! So its bright streak got cut in two. Pity!

I shot with two cameras. The image here is from one, using a 35mm lens to shoot 334 frames over 3 hours. Each exposure was 32 seconds at f/2 and at ISO 3200.

I’ve taken about two dozen of the frames, the ones with meteors, and stacked them here, with the sky and ground coming from one frame. The camera was not tracking the sky.

Bands of natural airglow and clouds illuminated by the lights of Albuquerque to the north add colour to the sky.

I would have shot for longer than three hours, but this was a very cold night, with a brisk wind and temperatures below freezing. A snowstorm had even closed some roads the day before. Three hours was enough on the high plains of San Agustin this night.

— Alan, December 14, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Comets, Conjunctions, and Occultations, Oh My!


The Moon, Venus and Comet Catalina

What a morning of sky sights, both before dawn and after sunrise.

December 7 – This was the prime day I came to Arizona to enjoy, to be better assured of clear skies. As it turned out this will likely be the cloudiest day of the week here, but skies were clear enough for a fine view of a conjunction and an occultation. The comet was a bonus.

Waning Moon and Venus Rising in Conjunction
This is a stack of 5 exposures: 30, 8, 2, 0.5 and 1/8s, blended with luminosity masks as HDR would not blend images with such a large range of brightness and content, with the shortest exposures having almost no content execept for two bright objects! The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker to follow the sky and keep the sky targets stationary and aligned, thus the blurred foreground. All with the 135mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 400.

At 4 a.m. the waning crescent Moon rose accompanied by Venus, as the two worlds appeared in close conjunction in the pre-dawn sky. The view above captures the scene as the Moon and Venus rose over the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico. Comet Catalina is in this scene but barely visible.

The Moon, Venus and Comet Catalina
This is a stack of 6 exposures: 30, 8, 2, 0.5, 1/8s and 1/30s, blended with luminosity masks as HDR would not blend images with such a large range of brightness and content, with the shortest exposures having almost no content execept for two bright objects! The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker to follow the sky and keep the sky targets stationary and aligned. All with the 135mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

An hour or so later, with the Moon and Venus higher and with skies a little less cloudy, I was able to capture this scene, above, that included Comet Catalina, as a tiny blue dot next to Venus and the Moon. But if I hadn’t labeled it, you wouldn’t know it was there! The comet is proving to be less wonderful than anticipated, and any cloud dims the view even more.

I had hoped for a superb scene of a bright comet next to the two brightest objects in the night sky. But comets do what comets do — surprise people with unexpected brightness (as Comet Lovejoy did last January) or with disappointing dimness … or by disappearing altogether, as Comet ISON did two years ago. I came here in December 2013, to this same location on the Arizona-New Mexico border, to catch ISON but no luck there at all!

Moon & Venus Conjunction at Sunrise (Dec 7, 2015)
This is a stack of 7 exposures from 10 seconds to 0.3 seconds at 1 stop intervals and blended with luminosity masks, to compress the huge range in brightness from the bright Moon and Venus, plus horizon sky, and the darker sky and sunrise clouds. All with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D.

Regardless of the comet, the conjunction of the Moon and Venus was stunning, about as good as such events get. Here’s the view, above, an hour later again, with the eastern sky brightening in the dawn twilight. The only thing that would have made this event even more spectacular is if the Moon had actually covered up Venus in this twilight sky. Not quite.

Daytime Occultation of Venus (Dec 7, 2015)
The occultation of Venus by the waning crescent Moon in the daytime on Monday, December 7 at 9:30 am local time. This is just about 3 minutes before the actual occultation as the advancing Moon is about to cover Venus on the bright limb of the Moon. This is a frame from a 100-frame time lapse. Unfortunately, as I shot this on my trip to Arizona, I did not have more focal length than the 135mm and 1.4x extender used here.

For the occultation itself, we had to wait until well after sunrise for an event in the blue daytime sky, at 9:30 a.m. local time.

All of North America got to see this fairly rare occultation of Venus by the Moon, albeit in the daytime. Nevertheless, the two objects are so bright, this was visible to the unaided eye, even with some cloud about. In binoculars it was wonderful.

To shoot it, all I had was a telephoto lens, so the image scale doesn’t do the event justice. But the image above provides a good impression of the binocular view, with Venus as a brilliant jewel on the “ring” of the Moon.

— Alan, December 7, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Ancient Solar Observatory at Fajada Butte


Sun over Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon

Sunlight and shadows at Fajada Butte served to mark the seasons a thousand years ago.

In the distance is Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. It is one of the most famous sites in archaeoastronomy. A thousand years ago, people of the Chaco Culture used it to observe the Sun.

Fajada Butte at Chaco Canyon

At a site now off limits to preserve its integrity, a set of three rocks cast shadows and daggers of sunlight onto a carved spiral petroglyph.

Fajada Butte Sign At Chaco Canyon

People used the position of the projected beams of light as a calendar to mark time through the year. In truth, simply watching the changing position of the rising and setting Sun along the horizon, which was also done here at Chaco Canyon, would have worked just as well.

Fajada Butte Viewpoint at Chaco Canyon

I visited the site today, as part of a trek north through New Mexico, Arizona and into Utah. Chaco Canyon is one of the preeminent sites for archaeoastronomy, demonstrating how well people a thousand years ago (the site was occupied from the mid 800s to the mid 1100s) observed the sky.

For example, a half-day hike takes you to a famous pictograph on a rock face showing a bright star near the crescent Moon, a drawing some have interpreted as being an observation of the supernova of 1054 AD.

Grand Kiva at Chetro Ketl, Chaco Canyon

In its height, thousands of people lived in the pueblos at Chaco Canyon and surrounding area. This is the Great Kiva at the Chetro Ketl pueblo. Wood columns used to hold a wood roof over this structure to make a space for ceremony and ritual.

Iridescent Clouds at Chaco Canyon

I did a little solar observing myself while there. While walking through the maze of rooms at Pueblo Bonito I looked up to see iridescent clouds near the Sun, created by diffraction of sunlight from fine ice crystals.

Public Observatory at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

In keeping with the site’s astronomical heritage, the Visitor Centre at the Chaco Culture Historical Park has a well-equipped observatory with several top-class telescopes (a 25-inch Obsession Dobsonian among them) and an outdoor theatre for regular stargazing sessions each weekend. This is a world-class Dark Sky Preserve and a World Heritage Site.

– Alan, April 2, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer  / www.amazingsky.com

Nova Sagittarii Close-Up


Nova Sagittarii (March 28, 2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moon and Venus at the Place of the Mountain Gods


Moon and Venus Meet Over Pond

The Moon meets Venus over a New Mexico pond in the heart of the Apache homelands.

This was the scene on Sunday evening, March 22, 2015, as the waxing crescent Moon appeared near Venus in one of the best conjunctions of the spring.

Earthshine lights the dark side of the Moon, while Mars also appears, below the Moon-Venus pair.

For these images I set up on the picturesque grounds of a resort called the Inn of the Mountain Gods, near Ruidoso, New Mexico, a ski resort in winter and a cool mountain retreat in summer.

The resort, run by and on land owned by the Mescalero Apache, honours the spirits of the four sacred mountains on Apache land: Sierra Blanca, Guadalupe Mountains, Three Sisters Mountain and Oscura Mountain Peak.

As the resort brochure states, “These four mountains represent the direction of everyday life for our Apache people. Our grandparents would often speak of the place called White Mountain. It was there that the creator gave us life and it is a special place.”

Moon & Venus Conjunction Over Pond #2

I shot this image a little later in the evening when the sky was darker, stars were beginning to appear, and thin clouds added haloes around the waxing Moon and Venus. I think the clouds added a photogenic touch.

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

The Waning Moon of Morning


Waning Moon in the Morning Sky

The waning crescent Moon shines with sunlight and Earthlight in the morning sky.

This was the Moon before dawn this morning, March 16, 2015. It’s the waning crescent Moon four days before the New Moon of March 20, when the Moon will eclipse the Sun.

This view shows the sunlit crescent and the dark side of the Moon also lit by sunlight, but sunlight reflecting off the Earth first. The night side of the Moon is lit by blue Earthshine.

To record details in both the bright and dark sides of the Moon I shot six exposures, from 1/160th second to 6 seconds, combining them in a high-dynamic range stack with Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw for the tone-mapping.

I shot it through my 92mm refractor, shown here in a beauty shot from the evening before.

TMB Refractor & Mach1 Mount

The upcoming solar eclipse by the Moon is visible as a partial eclipse from much of northern Europe (but not from North America, except from a teenie bit of Newfoundland), and as a total eclipse from a path running up the North Atlantic.

The only landfall for the total eclipse path are the Faroe Islands and the Arctic island of Svalbard.

For more details about the eclipse see The Great American Eclipse

I’ll be missing this eclipse, the first total solar eclipse I’ve chosen to sit out since 1995, 20 years ago. My next total solar eclipse will be August 21, 2017. At least, that’s the plan!

Clear skies to all my eclipse chasing friends, on land, on the sea, and in the air on Friday morning.

– Alan, March 16, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Ghostly Glows of a Truly Dark Sky


Ghostly Glows of a Truly Dark Sky

A truly dark sky isn’t dark. It is filled with glows both subtle and spectacular.

Last night, March 10, I drove up into the heart of the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico, to a viewpoint at 7,900 feet in altitude. I was in search of the darkest skies in the area. I found them! There was not a light in sight.

The featured image is a 180° panorama showing:

– the Zodiacal Light (at right in the west)
– the Milky Way (up from the centre, in the south, to the upper right)
– the Zodiacal Band (faintly visible running from right to left across the frame at top)
– the Gegenschein (a brightening of the Zodiacal Band at left of frame, in the east in Leo)

The Zodiacal Light, Zodiacal Band, and the Gegenschein are all part of the same phenomenon, glows along the ecliptic path – the plane of the solar system – caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary and meteoric dust in the inner solar system.

The Gegenschein, or “counterglow,” can be seen with the naked eye as a large and diffuse brightening of the sky at the spot exactly opposite the Sun. It is caused by sunlight reflecting directly back from comet dust, the scattering effect greatest at the point opposite the Sun.

The Zodiacal Light requires reasonably dark skies to see, but the fainter Zodiacal Band and Gegenschein require very dark skies.

Now is prime season for all of them, with the Moon out of the way, and the Zodiacal Light angled up high in the western as twilight ends. In March, the Gegenschein is now located in a relatively blank area of sky in southern Leo.

The Milky Way is much more obvious. Along the northern winter Milky Way here you can see dark lanes of interstellar dust, particularly in Taurus above and to the right of Orion. Red nebulas of glowing gas also lie along the Milky Way, such as Barnard’s Loop around Orion.

– Orion is at centre, in the south, with Canis Major and the bright star Sirius below and to the left of Orion. Canopus is just setting on the southern horizon at centre. It barely clears the horizon from 32° North latitude.

– To the right of Orion is Taurus and the Pleiades star cluster at the top of the Zodiacal Light pyramid.

– Venus is the bright object in the Zodiacal Light at right, in the west, while fainter Mars is below Venus.

– At far right, in the northwest, is the Andromeda Galaxy, M31.

– Jupiter is the bright object at upper left, in the east, in the Zodiacal Band, and near the Beehive star cluster.

– The Zodiacal Light, Band and Gegenschein all lie along the ecliptic, as do Mars, Venus and Jupiter.

Glows on the horizon are from distant SIlver City, Las Cruces and El Paso. The brighter sky at right is from the last vestiges of evening twilight. Some green and red airglow bands also permeate the sky.

Standing Under the Milky Way
I shot this March 10, 2015 from the summit of Highway 15, The Trail of the Mountain Spirits, that twists and winds through the Gila Wilderness.

It was a stunning night, clear, calm, and silent. Just me under the ghostly glows of a truly dark sky.

NOTE: I first published this March 11 but had to republish this blog March 15 after WordPress deleted the original post in a software bug. Thanks WordPress! 

– Alan, March 11, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / http://www.amazingsky.newt