Following the Evening Star


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venus Near Inferior Conjunction from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.


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

Clear skies!

— Alan, May 31, 2020 / AmazingSky.com 

 

Follow Comet Wirtanen


Comet Wirtanen / 46P on December 6, 2018

A well-known comet is making its closest approach to Earth in many years and promises a good show. 

Comet Wirtanen is now climbing up the late autumn and winter sky for northern hemisphere viewers, and is already a fine binocular comet. By mid-December it might be bright enough to be visible to the naked eye, but only from a dark rural site.

Discovered in 1948 by Carl Wirtanen at the Lick Observatory, his namesake comet orbits the Sun every 5.4 years. So unlike other recent bright comets that have visited us for the first time, Comet Wirtanen (aka 46P) is well known. It is one of many “Jupiter-family” comets whose orbits have been shaped by the gravity of Jupiter and orbit the Sun about every 6 years.

So since it was discovered, Comet 46P (the 46th comet in the catalog of periodic comets) has been well observed. It isn’t better known because at most returns it never gets bright, and that’s because it never gets closer to the Sun than a little more than the distance from the Earth to the Sun. (Its perihelion distance is 1.06 AU, with 1 AU, or Astronomical Unit, being the average distance from Earth to the Sun.)

However, despite this, we’re expecting – indeed already enjoying – a good show at this return.

Due to the quirk of orbital clockwork, on this return the comet reaches its closest point to the Sun just before it is also closest to Earth.

That puts the comet “just” 11,680,000 kilometres from us at its closest approach to Earth on December 16, four days after perihelion, the point when the comet is closest to the Sun.

Comet Wirtanen from Space
The relative position of the Sun, Earth and Comet Wirtanen on December 16, 2018.

Comet Wirtanen will be relatively bright simply by virtue of its proximity.

But it is also an active comet, emitting a lot of gas and dust into a large “coma,” and that’s what we see, not the 1-kilometre-wide icy nucleus itself which is too small and shrouded by the coma. (As a footnote, Comet Wirtanen was to have been the comet that the European Rosetta probe was to visit, but launch delays forced ESA to switch cometary targets.)

Comet Wirtanen is glowing at magnitude 5 to 6, technically making it visible to the naked eye. However, because it is large and diffuse, in practice you need binoculars to see it – now.

But as it approaches Earth and the Sun, Wirtanen will brighten, perhaps to magnitude 3 (the brightest stars are magnitude 0 to 1), making it easier to see with the unaided eye from a dark site.

The one catch is that as it heads toward its brightest in mid-December the waxing Moon also begins to enter the sky and wash out the comet with moonlight.


The first two weeks of December will be prime time for Wirtanen


Comet Wirtanen Path
The path of Comet Wirtanen across the sky in December 2018. The yellow dots mark the position of the comet at nightly intervals for late evening (10 p.m.) for North America. While comet will be in the sky most of the night, it will be highest in late evening about 10 p.m. local time when the sky will look as depicted, with the comet high in the south to southeast. Click or tap to download a full-sized version.

The first two weeks of December will be prime time for Wirtanen, with a particularly good opportunity coming on the evenings of December 15 and 16 when it shines below the Pleiades star cluster. The gibbous Moon will set about 1 to 2 a.m. with the comet still high enough for a dark sky view and photos.

Those will be great nights to shoot the comet and the cluster with a telephoto lens, provided the camera is on a tracker for untrailed exposures of 1 to 4 minutes. A 135mm to 300mm lens will frame the pair well.

Winter Green Comet with Orion
Comet Wirtanen as a green glow at upper right here in Eridanus. and well to the west of Orion, rising here at left, on the evening of December 6, 2018. I shot this with a wide-angle 35mm lens in a blend of tracked and untracked 1-minute exposures.

After that, through late December, the bright Moon will interfere with  the view. For example, a close approach of the comet near the star Capella on December 23 happens with the nearly Full Moon not far away.

Comet Wirtanen / 46P on December 6, 2018
Comet Wirtanen in a close-up through a telescope on December 6, 2018 in a stack of short and long exposures.

I took the above close-up photo of Comet Wirtanen on December 6. It is a long-exposure telescopic view, but the comet is easy to see with binoculars. It appears visually and photographically as a diffuse fuzzball, with the camera recording a vivid cyan colour from glowing cyanogen and diatomic carbon molecules. You won’t see that colour with your eyes, even in a telescope.

Comet Wirtanen Path Dec 8 to 16
The path of Comet Wirtanen Dec 8 to 16 superimposed on an actual sky image with the comet taken December 8. The circle indicates the field of view of typical binoculars. On Dec 15 and 16 the comet will be in the same binocular field as the Pleiades star cluster. The positions are for about 10 pm Mountain Standard Time for each of those dates.

Even at the comet’s best in mid-December any tail might be hard to see and even photograph (it appears faintly above) as it will be both faint and pointed directly away from us because, as comet tails do, it will also be pointed away from the Sun.

Look for a large glow which will be grey to the eye but green to the camera.

While you can just take pictures for yourself, astronomers are asking amateur astrophotographers to participate in a worldwide observing campaign to monitor Comet Wirtanen. More details are available here at wirtanen.astro.umd.edu and at http://aop.astro.umd.edu/

Clear skies and happy comet hunting!

— Alan, November 30, 2018 (Revised December 6) / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

Heads Up! Sight the Thin Moon by Mercury & Venus


Jan 21 Planets

On Wednesday, January 21 look low in the southwest for a conjunction of the Moon and inner planets.

Mercury is ending its brief evening appearance and proximity to Venus. But this week you can still spot it a binocular field or so below Venus as it descends back toward the Sun.

On Wednesday, January 21, look low in the southwest to sight the thin waxing crescent Moon sitting near Venus and Mercury, forming a wide triangle of inner rocky worlds.

The other rocky planet in the inner solar system, Mars, shines higher up in the evening twilight as a moderate brightness reddish star. The next night, January 22, the waxing Moon will sit beside Mars in a wide conjunction.

Catch the Moon-Mercury-Venus trio early, as they will set an hour or so after local sunset.

Clear skies!

– Alan, January 19, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Relaunching Stargazing in Barbados


Observatory Viewing in Barbados (Nov 16, 2013) #1

Barbados is soon to have a new state-of-the-art public observatory for promoting astronomy.

On Saturday night, November 16, I was fortunate and privileged to be the guest speaker at the first event at the newly refurbished Harry Bayley Observatory in Bridgetown, Barbados. A grant from an educational foundation in the UK has allowed the Barbados Astronomical Society to renew the aging 50-year-old facility with a fresh new interior, and all the high-tech fittings of a modern public observatory.

A new dome was lifted into place on top of the 3-storey structure earlier in the week, and the painting and interior finishing was completed just a day or two before my talk, in time for a public RSVP event Saturday night.

Observatory Interior Panorama #1

I gave a talk on The Amazing Sky, showing images and movies from the November 3 total eclipse, among many other photos of the sights anyone can see in the day and night sky. I gave the same talk twice, to two packed houses of 40 people per session in the main floor meeting room/lecture hall. A wonderful spread of local food and drink was served upstairs.

Lots of work remains to complete the refurbishment but the facility was in good enough shape to host a public event. The official opening is in January.

Observatory Viewing in Barbados (Nov 16, 2013) #3

A new Meade 16-inch telescope on a Software Bisque MX2 mount is on its way for installation later this year, equipped with the latest robotic control and digital cameras for public viewing. A hydrogen-alpha solar telescope will also be part of the arsenal of equipment.

This night, members set up a portable Celestron 8-inch telescope outside for viewing the Moon and Jupiter. In contrast to viewing at home at this time of year, observing from 13° North latitude was in shorts and shirt-sleeves.

It was a terrific evening and I’m pleased to have been part of the relaunching of the Observatory and astronomy activities on the island. Many thanks go to my host on the island, Greg Merrick, for making the evening – and my stay this week – possible.

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