There’s a slogan used in the U.S. National Parks that “half the Park is after dark.” It is certainly true at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta.
Last Friday night, March 29, I spent the evening at one of my favourite nightscape sites, Dinosaur Provincial Park, about an hour’s drive east of my home. It was one of those magical nights – clear, mild, dry, and no mosquitoes! Yet!
I wanted to shoot Orion and the photogenic winter sky setting into the evening twilight over the Badlands landscape. This was the last moonless weekend to do so.
I shot some individual images (such as above) and also multi-panel panoramas, created by shooting a series of overlapping images at equal spacings, then stitching them later at the computer.
There’s a narrow window of time between twilight and full darkness when the Milky Way shows up well but the western sky still has a lingering blue glow. This window occurs after the normal “blue hour” favoured by photographers.
The panorama above shows the arch of the winter Milky Way but also the towering band of the Zodiacal Light rising out of the twilight and distant yellow glow of Calgary. Zodiacal Light is sunlight scattering off meteoric and cometary dust orbiting in the inner solar system, so this is a phenomenon in space not in our atmosphere. However, the narrow streak is an aircraft contrail.
Later that night, when the sky was fully dark I shot this complete panorama showing not only the Milky Way and Zodiacal Light to the west, but also the faint arc of the Zodiacal Band continuing on from the pyramid-shaped Zodiacal Light over into the east, where it brightens into the subtle glow of Gegenschein. This is caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles in the direction opposite the Sun.
Both the Band and Gegenschein were visible to the naked eye, but only if you knew what to look for, and have a very dark sky.
A closeup shows the Zodiacal Light in the west as the subtle blue glow tapering toward the top as it meets the Milky Way.
It takes a dark site to see these subtle glows. Dinosaur Park is not an official Dark Sky Preserve but certainly deserves to be. Now if we could only get Calgary, Brooks and Bassano to turn down and shield their lights!
A closeup facing the other way, to the east, shows the area of sky opposite the Milky Way, in the spring sky. The familiar Big Dipper, now high our spring sky, is at top with its handle pointing down to Arcturus and Spica (just rising above the horizon) – remember to “arc to Arcturus, and speed on to Spica.”
Leo is at right of centre, flanked by the Beehive and Coma Berenices star clusters.
Polaris is at left — however, the distortion introduced by the panorama stitching at high altitudes stretches out the sky at the top of the frame, so the Dipper’s Pointer stars do not point in a straight line to Polaris.
The faint Zodiacal Band is visible at right, brightening toward the horizon in the Gegenschein.
I shoot images like these for use as illustrations in future eBook projects about stargazing and the wonders of the night sky. Several are in the works!
For two magical nights I was able to capture the Rockies by moonlight, with the brilliant stars of winter setting behind the mountains.
I’ve been waiting for nights like these for many years! I consider this my “25-Year Challenge!”
Back during my early years of shooting nightscapes I was able to capture the scene of Orion setting over Lake Louise and the peaks of the Continental Divide, with the landscape lit by the Moon.
Such a scene is possible only in late winter, before Orion sets out of sight and, in March, with a waxing gibbous Moon to the east to light the scene but not appear in the scene. There are only a few nights each year the photograph is possible. Most are clouded out!
Above is the scene in March 1995, in one of my favourite captures on film. What a night that was!
But it has taken 24 years for my schedule, the weather, and the Moon phase to all align to allow me to repeat the shoot in the digital age. Thus the Challenge.
Here’s the result.
Unlike with film, digital images make it so much easier to stitch multiple photos into a panorama.
In the film days I often shot long single exposures to produce star trails, though the correct exposure was an educated guess factoring in variables like film reciprocity failure and strength of the moonlight.
Below is an example from that same shoot in March 1995. Again, one of my favourite film images.
This year, time didn’t allow me to shoot enough images for a star trail. In the digital age, we generally shoot lots of short exposures to stack them for a trail.
Instead, I shot this single image of Orion setting over Mt. Temple.
Plus I shot the panorama below, both taken at Morant’s Curve, a viewpoint named for the famed CPR photographer Nicholas Morant who often shot from here with large format film cameras. Kevin Keefe of Trains magazine wrote a nice blog about Morant.
I was shooting multi-segment panoramas when a whistle in the distance to the west alerted me to the oncoming train. I started the panorama segment shooting at the left, and just by good luck the train was in front of me at centre when I hit the central segment. I continued to the right to catch the blurred rest of the train snaking around Morant’s Curve. I was very pleased with the result.
The night before I was at another favourite spot, Two Jack Lake near Banff, to again shoot panoramas of the moonlit scene below the bright stars of the winter sky.
A run up to the end of the Vermilion Lakes road at the end of that night allowed me to capture Orion and Siris reflected in the open water of the upper lake.
Unlike in the film days, today we also have some wonderful digital planning tools to help us pick the right sites and times to capture the scene as we envision it.
This is a screen shot of the PhotoPills app in its “augmented reality” mode, taken by day during a scouting session at Two Jack, but showing where the Milky Way will be later that night in relation to the real “live” scene shot with the phone’s camera.
The app I like for planning before the trip is The Photographer’s Ephemeris. This is a shot of the plan for the Lake Louise shoot. The yellow lines are the sunrise and sunset points. The thin blue line at lower right is the angle toward the gibbous Moon at about 10 p.m. on March 19.
Even better than TPE is its companion program TPE 3D, which allows you to preview the scene with the mountain peaks, sky, and illumination all accurately simulated for your chosen location. I am impressed!
Compare the simulation above to the real thing below, in a wide 180° panorama.
These sort of moonlit nightscapes are what I started with 25 years ago, as they were what film could do well.
These days, everyone chases after dark sky scenes with the Milky Way, and they do look wonderful, beyond anything film could do. I shoot many myself. And I include an entire chapter in my ebook above about shooting the Milky Way.
But … there’s still a beauty in a contrasty moonlit scene with a deep blue sky from moonlight, especially with the winter sky and its population of bright stars and constellations.
I’m glad the weather and Moon finally cooperated at the right time to allow me to capture these magical moonlit panoramas.
I present a tour of the deep-sky wonders of the winter sky.
While some might think the Milky Way is only a summer sight, the winter Milky Way is well worth a look!
In January and February we are looking outward from our location in the Milky Way, toward the Orion Spur, the minor spiral arm we live in. In it, and in the major Perseus Arm that lies beyond, lie hotbeds of star formation.
These star forming areas create a panorama of star clusters and glowing nebulas along the winter Milky Way and surrounding the constellation of Orion. The montage above shows the best of the deep-sky sights at this time or year.
(And yes, for southern hemisphere viewers I know this is your summer sky! But for us northerners, Orion is forever associated with frosty winter nights.)
The closeups below are all with a 200mm telephoto lens providing a field of view similar to that of binoculars. However, most of these nebulas are photographic targets only.
The Belt and Sword of Orion
This is the heart of the star formation activity, in the centre of Orion.
The bright Orion Nebula (or Messier 42 and 43) at bottom in Orion’s Sword is obvious in binoculars and glorious in a small telescope.
The Horsehead Nebula above centre and just below Orion’s Belt is famous but is a tough target to see through even a large telescope.
Barnard’s Loop at left is a wave of nebulosity being blown out of the Orion area by strong stellar winds. Any sighting of this object by eye is considered a feat of observing skill!
The Rosette Nebula and Area
The small cluster of hot young stars inside the Rosette Nebula is blowing a hole in the nebula giving it its Rosette name. Above is a loose star cluster called the Christmas Tree, surrounded by more faint nebulosity that includes the tiny Cone Nebula.
Gemini Clusters and Nebulas
This field of clusters and nebulosity is above Orion in Gemini, with Messier 35 the main open star cluster here at top. Below M35 is the tiny star cluster NGC 2158. The nebulosity at left between Mu and Eta Geminorum is IC 443, a remnant of a supernova explosion, and is aka the Jellyfish Nebula. The nebula at bottom is IC 2174, just over the border in Orion and aka the Monkeyhead Nebula.
Auriga Clusters and Nebulas
Above Gemini and Orion lies Auriga, with its rich field of clusters and nebulosity, with — from left to right — Messier 37, Messier 36, and Messier 38, as the main open star clusters here. Below M38 is NGC 1907. The nebulosity at right is IC 410 and IC 405, the Flaming Star Nebula.
In between them is the colourful asterism known as the Little Fish. Messier 38 is also known as the Starfish Cluster while Messier 36 is called the Pinwheel Cluster. The bright red nebula at top is Sharpless 2-235. The little nebulas at centre are NGC 1931 and IC 417.
The California Nebula
Now we enter Perseus, more an autumn constellation but well up through most of the winter months. It contains the aptly named California Nebula, NGC 1499, at top left, with the bright star Zeta Persei. at bottom A small region of reflection nebulosity, IC 348, surrounds the star Atik, or Omicron Persei, at bottom right. The star just below NGC 1499 is Menkib, or Xi Persei, and is likely energizing the nebula.
The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters
Obvious to the eye and central to the sky lore of many cultures is the Pleiades, aka the Seven Sisters, in Taurus the bull. It is also called Messier 45.
This is a newly formed cluster of hundreds of stars, passing through a dusty region of the Milky Way, which adds the fuzzy glows around the stars — an example of a reflection nebula, glowing blue as it reflects the blue light of the young stars.
Below the Pleiades in Taurus lies the larger Hyades star cluster. The V-shaped cluster stars are all moving together and lie about 150 light years away. Bright yellow Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, is an intruder and lies at only half that distance, so is not a member of Hyades but is a more nearby star. The smaller, more distant star cluster NGC 1647 appears at left.
Low in my northern winter sky is the brightest star in the sky of any season, Sirius. Just above and to the east of Sirius lies the Seagull Nebula (at top left), also called IC 2177, on the Canis Major-Monoceros border. Like many of these nebulas. the Seagull is too faint to easily see even with a telescope, but shows up well in photographs.
Lambda Orionis Nebula
This is the head of Orion, with the red supergiant star Betelgeuse at bottom left and the blue giant star Bellatrix right at bottom right. The brightest star at top is Meissa or Lambda Orionis, and is surrounded by a large and very faint area of hydrogen nebulosity. The open cluster around Meissa is catalogued as Collinder 69.
While the winter Milky Way might not look as bright and spectacular as the summer Milky Way of Sagittarius and Scorpius, it does contains a wealth of wonders that are treats for the eye and telescope … and for the camera.
PS.: The techniques for taking and processing images like these form the content of our new Deep Sky with Your DSLR video course now being promoted on KickStarter until the end of February, and available for purchase once it is published later this spring.
On a very clear night, Orion shines over the skyline of Calgary.
As I live in the country, it’s not often I shoot the stars from urban sites, and certainly not from downtown Calgary. But the combination of a clear night and a speaking commitment in Calgary provided a chance to see what was possible under ideal conditions.
The lead image is real – I did not paste an image of the sky taken at some other time or place over the skyline image.
However, the sky image is a longer exposure (10 seconds) than the ground (3 seconds) in order to bring out the stars better, while keeping the city lights under control with no overexposure. So it is sort of a high dynamic range blend.
The other factor that helped reveal stars as faint as shown here (fainter than what the naked eye can see) is the use of a light pollution reduction filter (a NISI Natural Night filter) to penetrate the yellow sky glow and provide a more pleasing colour to the sky.
Earlier in the night, during twilight when urban light pollution is not so much of an issue, I shot the waxing crescent Moon setting over the skyline.
This is a panorama image made from high dynamic range blends of various exposures, to again accommodate the large range in brightness in the scene. But I did not use the NISI filter here.
These images demonstrate how you can get fine astronomy images even from urban sites, with planning and timing.
To that end, I used my favourite app, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, to determine where the sky elements would be as seen from a couple of viewpoints over the city that I’ve used in the past.
The blue spheres in the left image of TPE in its Night mode represent the Milky Way. That chart also shows the direction toward Orion over the city core.
The right image of TPE in its Day mode shows the position of the Moon at 6 pm that evening, again showing it to the left of the urban core.
Other apps are capable of providing the same information, but I like TPE for its ease of use.
Meteors were raining down the sky on the peak night of the Geminid meteor shower.
Back in August, when I wrote my column for the November-December issue of our Canadian magazine SkyNews, I noticed how good the circumstances were this year for the annual Geminid meteor shower. Normally one of the best showers of the year, if not the best, the Geminids were really going to perform in 2017.
The Moon was near new so its light would not interfere. For western North America, the peak of the shower was also timed for midnight on the night of December 13/14, just when the radiant of the shower was high in the sky.
So in August when I saw the favourable combination of circumstances, I decided a meteor chase was in order. While the shower would be visible from home, Geminid peak night in December is often bitterly cold or cloudy at home in Alberta.
So I planned a trek to Arizona, for the shower and the winter sky.
While skies at home proved decent after all, it was still a chase worth making, with the shower visible under the perfectly clear and dry skies of southeast Arizona.
My chosen site was the Quailway Cottagenear the Arizona Sky Village, the chosen dark sky site for many amateur astronomers, and at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains. Skies are dark!
The Zodiacal Light was brilliant in the southwest sky for several hours after sunset. A tough sighting at this time of year from most sites, this glow was obvious in the Arizona sky. It is sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system.
On the peak night, the visual impression was of meteors appearing at a rate of at least one a minute, if not more frequently.
The images here are all composites of dozens of exposures taken over 2 to 5 hours, stacking many meteors on one frame. So they do provide an exaggerated record of the shower. Meteors weren’t filling the sky! But you certainly did not have to wait long for one to appear, making this one of the best meteor showers in many years.
Most of the Geminids were of average brightness. I didn’t see, nor did the camera catch many very bright “bolides,” the really brilliant meteors that light up the ground.
Nevertheless, this was a night to remember, and a fine way to end what has been a superlative year of stargazing, with a total solar eclipse, great auroras, and for me, a wonderful stay under southern skies on an April trip to Australia.
All the best of the season to you and your family and friends. Clear skies!
Here’s to 2018, which begins with a total eclipse of the Moon on January 31.
The clouds cleared to present a magical night under the Moon in the Badlands of southern Alberta.
At last, a break in the incessant clouds of November, to provide me with a fine night of photography at one of my favourite places, Dinosaur Provincial Park, declared a U.N. World Heritage Site for its deposits of late Cretaceous fossils.
I go there to shoot the night sky over the iconic hoodoos and bentonite clay hills.
November is a great time to capture the equally iconic constellation of Orion rising in the east in the early evening. The scene is even better if there’s a Moon to light the landscape.
November 27 presented the ideal combination of circumstances: clear skies (at least later at night), and a first quarter Moon to provide enough light without washing out the sky too much and positioned to the south and west away from the target of interest – Orion and the winter sky rising in the east.
Below is a slide show of some of the still images I shot, all with the Canon 6D MkII camera and fine Rokinon 14mm f/2.5 lens, used wide open. Most are 15-second exposures, untracked.
I kept another camera, the Nikon D750 and Sigma 24mm Art lens, busy all night shooting 1200 frames for a time-lapse of Orion rising, with clouds drifting through, then clearing.
Below is the resulting video, presented in two versions: first with the original but processed frames assembled into a movie, followed by a version where the movie frames show accumulating star trails to provide a better sense of sky motion.
To create the frames for this version I used the Photoshop actions Advanced Stacker Plus, from StarCircleAcademy. They can stack images then export a new set of frames each with the tapering trails, which you then assemble into a movie. I also used it to produce the lead image at top.
The techniques and steps are all outlined in my eBook, highlighted at top right.
The HD movie is just embedded here, and is not published on Vimeo or YouTube. Expand to fill your screen.
To help plan the shoot I used the astronomy software Starry Night, and the photo planning software The Photographer’s Ephemeris, or TPE. With it, you can place yourself at the exact spot to see how the Sun, Moon and stars will appear in sightlines to the horizon.
Here’s the example screen shot. The spheres across the sky represent the Milky Way.
Look east to see Orion now in the evening sky. Later this winter, Orion will be due south at nightfall.
This post shows that same area of sky (here at top) also setting into the west. But that’s the only area of sky familiar to northern hemisphere stargazers.
Everything below Orion and Sirius is new celestial territory for the northern astronomer. Welcome to the fabulous southern hemisphere sky.
And to the autumn sky – From home it is spring. From here in the southern hemisphere summer is giving way to cool nights of autumn.
Straight up, at centre, is the faint Milky Way area containing the constellations of Puppis and Vela, formerly in the constellation of Argo Navis.
Below, the Milky Way brightens in Carina and Crux, the Southern Cross, where dark lanes divide the Milky Way.
At right, the two patches of light are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of our Milky Way.
The bright object at left is Jupiter rising over the Tasman Sea.
I shot this 360° panorama on March 31, 2017 from Cape Conran on the Gippsland Coast of Victoria, Australia, at a latitude of 37° South.
I’ve turned the panorama so Orion appears as we’re used to seeing him, head up and feet below. But here in the southern hemisphere the image below despicts what he looks like, as he dives headfirst into the west in the evening twilight.
The bright object here is the waxing crescent Moon, here in Taurus. Taurus is below Orion, while Sirius (the bright star at top) and the stars of Canis Major are above Orion.
This view above takes in more of Canis Major. Note the Pleiades to the right of the Moon.
Visiting the southern hemisphere is a wonderful experience for any stargazer. The sky is disorienting, but filled with new wonders to see and old sights turned quite literally on their heads!
As we celebrate the official arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, we bid adieu to the stars of winter.
This was the scene last night from my backyard, of Orion and the surrounding constellations of the winter sky setting into the southwest in the early evening. Each night they will set sooner and sooner, even as the nights continue to grow shorter and the Sun sets later.
By late April Orion will be gone from our Northern Hemisphere sky — he hangs around until well into May for sites south of the equator.
In this version I’ve labeled the main characters in this winter hunting scene – including some of the deep-sky “Messier” objects like M45, the Pleiades; M44, the Beehive star cluster; and M42, the Orion Nebula.
At the same time this year, we also say goodbye to Venus which has shone so brightly these last few months as an evening star. By this weekend, it will be lost from sight as it passes between Earth and the Sun.
Meanwhile, Mercury is rising into view in the evening twilight, in its best evening showing of the year from northern latitudes. The view below is also from March 19, with Mercury to the left of brighter Venus.
Over the next two weeks, look low in the west for a bright star amid the twilight. Mercury appears farthest from the Sun on April 1, the date of its “greatest elongation.”
Having Mercury in our evening sky is a sure sign of spring.
Another sign of spring is Leo the lion.
While Orion sets in the west, the stars of spring are rising in the east. The panorama above depicts the scene in the eastern sky these nights, as Leo rises below the Big Dipper.
The Big Dipper is at upper left, with its handle pointing down to Arcturus at bottom left. The Bowl of the Dipper points down to the right to Regulus and the stars of Leo.
Above Leo is the star cluster M44, the Beehive, in Cancer. Below Leo at centre is the star cluster Mel 111, the Coma Berenices star cluster near the North Galactic Pole.
It takes a dark spring night to see it well, but now lurking near Jupiter is a ghostly sky glow called Gegenschein.
This diffuse glow lies directly opposite the Sun. It is caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles in the outer solar system. They reflect light more effectively at the anti-Sun point where each dust particle is fully lit by the Sun.
Like the Sun, the Gegenschein moves around the sky along the ecliptic, moving about a degree from west to east from night to night. March and April provide good nights for seeing the Gegenschein as it then lies in an area of sky far from the Milky Way.
Even so, it is very subtle to the unaided eye. Look south at about 1 a.m. local daylight time.
However, this year, in early April the Gegenschein will be more difficult as it will then lie right on top of Jupiter, as that planet reaches its point opposite the Sun on April 7. Jupiter will then be superimposed on the Gegenschein.
The main image at top is a 7-image vertical panorama of the spring sky, from Corvus and Virgo above the horizon, up past Leo, into Ursa Major and the Big Dipper overhead. Spica lies below bright Jupiter, Arcturus in Böotes is at left, while Regulus in Leo is at right. The grouping of stars near centre is the Coma Berenices star cluster.
Earlier in the night, I shot the sky’s other main glow – the Milky Way, as the winter portion of the Milky Way around Orion set into the southwest.
But over in the west, at the right edge of the frame, is the Zodiacal Light, caused by the same dust particles that create the Gegenschein, but that are located in the inner solar system between us and the Sun.
In a winter of cloud, the skies cleared for a magical night in the Alberta Badlands.
Two weeks ago, on February 28, I took advantage of a rare and pristine night to head to one of my favourite spots in Dinosaur Provincial Park, to shoot nightscapes of the winter sky over the Badlands.
A spate of warm weather had melted most of the snow, so the landscape doesn’t look too wintery. But the stars definitely belong to winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
The main image above shows the winter Milky Way arching across the sky from southeast (at left) to northwest (at right). The tower of light in the west is the Zodiacal Light, caused by sunlight reflecting off dust particles in the inner solar system. It is an interplanetary, not atmospheric, effect.
Above, this 360° version of the scene records the entire sky, with the winter Milky Way from horizon to horizon. With a little averted imagination you can also trace the Zodiacal Light from west (right) over to the eastern sky (left), where it brightens in the diffuse glow of the Gegenschein, where dust opposite the Sun in the outer solar system reflects light back to us.
A rectangular version of the panorama wraps the sky around from east (left), with Leo rising, to northeast (right), with the Big Dipper standing on its handle. I’ve added the labels in Photoshop of course.
Here, in a single-frame shot, Orion is at centre, Canis Major (with Sirius) is below left, and Taurus (with Aldebaran) is at upper right. The Milky Way runs down to the south. The clusters M35, M41, M46 and M47 are visible as diffuse spots, as is the Orion Nebula, M42, below Orion’s Belt.
This is certainly my best shot of the evening Zodiacal Light from my area in Alberta. It is obvious at this time of year on moonless nights, but requires a site with little urban skyglow to the west.
It is best visible in the evening from northern latitudes in late winter and spring.
Here, Venus is just setting above the badlands landscape. The Andromeda Galaxy is at right, the Pleiades at left. The Milky Way runs across the frame at top.
There is a common belief among nightscape photographers that the Milky Way can be seen only in summer. Not so.
What they mean is that the brightest part of the Milky Way, the galactic centre, is best seen in summer. But the Milky Way can be seen in all seasons, with the exception of spring when it is largely absent from the early evening sky, but rises late at night.
The crescent Moon rises into the western evening sky as 2016 ends, while Venus shines bright, and Orion rises into the east.
Getting clear skies is a rare treat of late, but these are images from two such nights this week. On December 30, the thin waxing Moon appeared in the colourful twilight of a winter night. Despite the clouds and the Moon’s low altitude, the dark side of the Moon is plainly visible illuminated by Earthshine.
Venus is now brilliant as an evening star in the southwest. Here is it over the old wood grain elevators at Mossleigh, Alberta, some of the few of these landmarks left standing on the prairies.
Fainter Mars shines above Venus and over the month of January, Venus will climb up to meet Mars by month’s end for a fine conjunction with the crescent Moon as well. Watch through January as Venus and Mars converge.
As the planets set into the southwest, Orion the Hunter rises into the east. Here it is over the Mossleigh elevators, illuminated by local lights.
I present a montage of time-lapses illustrating the motion of the sky in the Northern Hemisphere.
Any stargazer should be familiar with how the sky moves, with stars rising in the east and setting in the west.
From the northern hemisphere, when we look north we see the sky rotating counter-clockwise around the North Celestial Pole, near Polaris. As you’ll see in the video, even Polaris moves, though not much over the night. The stars that never set, but just move across the northern horizon, are the circumpolar stars.
When we look south we see the seasonal constellations, the ones that rise and set, and change over the seasons.
I shot the images for these sequences from southern Arizona, in early December 2015.
So the night starts with the summer stars setting in the west and the autumn stars dominating the sky. But then Orion and the winter stars rise and march across the sky over the night, setting before dawn, as the spring stars rise.
The south-looking movie is a dusk-to-dawn sequence. Note the Zodiacal Light in the west at right in the early evening, then reappearing in the east at left before dawn brightens the sky, and as Venus and the Moon rises.
Also note the moving bands of red and green airglow, a natural phenomenon of the upper atmosphere.
I posted a matching set of moviesin my previous blog post, shot from the Southern Hemisphere. But here’s the link to the movie.
Both sets of movies were shot from nearly identical latitudes – about 31°, but 31° N for Portal, Arizona and 31° S for Coonabarabran, Australia.
As such the Celestial Poles appear at equal altitudes above the horizon. And the angles that the stars rise and set at in relation to the horizon are the same.
But the direction they move is opposite. When looking 180° away from the Pole, the seasonal stars move from left to right in the Northern Hemisphere, but from right to left in the Southern Hemisphere.
Visitors from one hemisphere to the other are bound to get turned around!
I present a sweeping panorama of the winter and spring stars on a February night.
The lead image is a panorama I shot last Saturday, February 27 that takes in about 200° of sky from northeast to west, and nearly to the zenith. It encompasses most of the northern spring and winter stars and constellations.
I’ve added the labels to help you pick out the celestial highlights. The winter sky, containing Orion as the central constellation, is at right setting into the west. This area of sky contains a rich collection of bright stars and identifiable constellations.
The left side of the sky contains the spring constellations, now coming into view in the east. Note how that area of sky is sparsely populated by bright stars. You can see the Big Dipper, Regulus in Leo, and Arcturus rising at lower left.
The reason for the difference is the Milky Way – you can see it at right arcing up from the southern horizon passing by Orion and through Gemini, Taurus and Auriga. In that direction we are looking into the outlying spirals arms of our galaxy, toward rich areas of star formation.
To the east, at left, we are looking at right angles out of the plane of our spiral galaxy, toward the galactic North Pole, here just left of Leo. In that direction there are very few bright stars between us and the starless depths of intergalactic space. The spring sky is rather blank compared to the rich winter sky.
But you can see Jupiter, the brightest object in view here, and now prominent in the evening sky.
Note one other subtle glow just above Jupiter. That diffuse glow is the Gegenschein, caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust opposite the Sun in our solar system and in the plane of the ecliptic.
Jupiter is just east (left) of the Gegenschein here, as Jupiter was then just over a week before its date of opposition, March 8. By then the Gegenschein will have moved to superimpose right over Jupiter, as both then lie opposite the Sun.
I shot this scene from home on February 27, 2016, using the new iOptron iPano motorized “gigapan” unit, which I programmed to move and shoot 36 exposures with the Canon 5D MkII and 35mm lens, arranged in 4 rows high with 9 panels wide in each row from east to west. The result is a huge mosaic, 24,000 by 10,000 pixels.
Each exposure was 25 seconds at f/2 and at ISO 3200. The camera was not tracking the sky. I stitched the 36 segments with PTGui using its Spherical Fisheye projection. The image has black margins but I think the circular format is more suggestive of the spherical dome of the sky above and around you. But that’s me, a longtime planetarium show producer.
Next time I will shoot the zenith cap images as well!
Orion appears in his winter element, over snowscapes on crisp January nights.
A couple of clear-ish winter nights this past weekend allowed me to capture that most iconic of constellations, Orion, over snowy landscapes close to home here in Alberta.
At top, he rises over the famous Hoodoos near East Coulee, Alberta in the Red Deer River valley. Clouds moving in on Sunday night, January 10, added the photogenic glows around the stars, emphasizing their colour and brilliance.
Here, from a shot on Saturday, January 9, Orion appears down the end of my rural country Range Road, with Sirius, his companion Dog Star, following at his heels above the treetops and in some haze.
If this looks cold, it was – at minus 25° C. Though two hours later it was only -15° C and by morning it was 0° C. Winter in Alberta!
Both images are short exposures, 10 to 15 seconds, at f/2 or f/2.8 with the wonderful Sigma 24mm Art lens and my new favourite camera, the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. In both cases the ground is from a stack of several exposures to smooth noise but the sky is from a single exposure to minimize star trailing.
The New Year’s sky was filled with Northern Lights, a panorama of stars, and a comet at dawn.
It was a busy night for stargazing as 2015 turned to 2016. A fine display of Northern Lights kicked off the celebrations, as curtains danced in the east as Orion rose (below).
Toward midnight the Lights kicked up again, now with Jupiter (on the horizon) and Leo rising in the east (below).
I shot hundreds of frames for time-lapse sequences, and assembled them into a short music video. Click on the buttons to enlarge it to HD.
Just before midnight, while the second time-lapse was going and the aurora was still active, but before the Last Quarter Moon rose to light the sky, I shot a set of tracked images taking in the entire winter sky from horizon to well past the zenith.
That image is at top. It takes in the winter sky and northern winter Milky Way, from Canis Major just above the horizon, up past Orion, then on up to Perseus and Cassiopeia at top right.
It shows how Orion and Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, stand nearly due south at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The final show of the night, now before dawn on New Year’s Day 2016, was Comet Catalina sitting right next to the bright spring star Arcturus. The comet was visible in the moonlight as a fuzzy object next to brilliant Arcturus, but the photo begins to show its faint tails, just standing out in the moonlit sky.
The comet will become more visible later this month once the waning Moon exits the dawn sky, as Catalina is expected to remain a nice binocular comet for most of the month as it heads high into northern sky.
In a sweeping panorama, here is the entire northern hemisphere Milky Way from horizon to horizon.
This is the result of one of the major projects on my recent trek to Arizona and New Mexico – a mosaic of images shot along the Milky Way over several hours.
The goal is a complete 360° panorama of the entire Milky Way, and I’ve got most of the other segments in previous shoots from Alberta, Australia and Chile. But I did not have good shots of the northern autumn segments, until now.
The panorama sweeps from Cygnus (at top, setting in the western sky in the evening), across the sky overhead in Perseus, Auriga and Taurus (in the middle), and down into Orion, Canis Major, and Puppis (at bottom, low in the southern sky at midnight).
The view is looking outward to the near edge of our Milky Way, in the direction opposite the centre of our Galaxy. In this direction the Milky Way becomes dimmer and less defined. Notable are the many red H-alpha emission regions along the Milky Way, as well as the many lanes of dark interstellar dust nearby and obscuring the more distant stars.
However, a diffuse glow in Taurus partly obscures its Taurus Dark Clouds — that’s the Gegenschein, caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles directly opposite the Sun and marking the anti-solar point this night, by coincidence then close to galactic longitude of 180° opposite the galactic centre.
Here I provide a guided map of the mosaic. Orion is at lower right, while the Pleiades and Andromeda Galaxy lie near the right edge. The Andromeda Galaxy is the only thing in this image that is not part of the Milky Way.
The bright star Canopus is just rising at bottom, in haze. Vega and Altair are just setting at the very top. So the panorama sweeps from Altair to Canopus.
The sky isn’t perfect! Haze and airglow in our atmosphere add discolouration, especially close to the horizon. In my final 360° pan, I’ll use only the central portions of this panorama.
Now let’s put the horizon-to-horizon panorama into cosmic perspective…
In this diagram, based on art from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope Institute, I show my Northern Milky Way Panorama in perspective to the “big picture” of our entire Galaxy, using artwork based on our best map of how our Galaxy is thought to look.
We are looking in a “god’s eye” view across our Galaxy from a vantage point on the far side of the Galaxy.
Where we are is marked with the red dot, the location of our average Sun in a minor spiral arm called the Orion Spur.
The diagram places my panorama image in the approximate correct location to show where its features are in our Galaxy. As such it illustrates how my panorama taken from Earth shows our view of the outer portions of our Galaxy, from the bright Cygnus area at right, to Perseus in the middle, directly opposite the centre of the Galaxy, then over to Orion at left.
The panorama sweeps from a “galactic longitude” of roughly 90° at right in Cygnus, to 180° in Perseus, over to 240° in Orion and Canis Major at left.
In the northern autumn and early winter seasons we are looking outward toward the outer Perseus Arm. So the Milky Way we see in our sky is fainter than in mid-summer when we are looking the other way, toward the dense centre of the Galaxy and the rich inner Norma and Sagittarius arms.
Yet, this outer region contains a rich array of star-forming regions, which mostly show up as the red nebulas. But this region of the Milky Way is also laced with dark lanes of interstellar “stardust.”
The panorama is composed of 14 segments, most being stacks 5 x 2.5-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600 and 35mm lens at f/2.8.
The end segments near the horizons at top and bottom are stacks of 2 x 2.5-minute exposures.
Each segment also has an additional image shot through a Kenko Softon filter to add the star glows, to make the bright stars show up better.
The camera was oriented with the long dimension of the frame across the Milky Way, not along it, to maximize the amount of sky framed on either side of the Milky Way.
The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. I shot the segments for this pan from Quailway Cottage, Arizona on December 8/9, 2015, with the end segments taken Dec 10/11, 2015. I decided to add in the horizon segments for completeness, and so shot those two nights later when sky conditions were a little different.
The sky of December contains an amazing array of bright stars and deep-sky delights.
At this time of year we peer out toward the edge of our Galaxy, in the direction opposite to what we see in July and August. Even though we are looking away from the centre of our Galaxy, the Milky Way at this time of year contains a stunning collection of sights – for the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope.
I can’t list them all here, but most are in the lead image above! The image is a mosaic of the northern winter Milky Way, including the brilliant stars and constellations in and around Orion the Hunter.
The Milky Way extends from Perseus in the north at top, to Canis Major in the south at bottom. Throughout the scene are dark lanes and dust clouds, such as the Taurus Dark Clouds at upper right.
The Milky Way is dotted with numerous red “hydrogen-alpha” regions of emission nebulosity, such as the bright Rosette Nebula at lower left and the California Nebula at upper right. The curving arc of Barnard’s Loop surrounds the east side of Orion. Orion is below centre, with Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, at lower left.
The constellation of Taurus is at upper right and Gemini at upper left. Auriga is at top and Perseus at upper right.
There’s an unusually bright area in Taurus just right of centre in the mosaic which I thought might be an image processing artifact. No. It’s the Gegenschein – a glow of sunlight reflected off comet dust directly opposite the Sun.
Two highlights of this sky that are great regions for binoculars are the Hyades cluster in Taurus ….
…and the Belt and Sword of Orion.
The Hyades – the face of Taurus – is one of the nearest and therefore largest open star clusters.
Orion the Hunter, who battles Taurus in the sky, contains the famous Orion Nebula, here overexposed in order to bring out the much fainter nebulosity in the region.
The magenta and blue arcs in the image below are photographic targets, but the bright Orion Nebula in Orion’s Sword is easy in binoculars, shining below the trio of his Belt Stars.
For us in the northern hemisphere, Orion and company are winter sights. But for those down under, in the southern hemisphere, this is the summer sky. So pardon the northern chauvinism in the title!
Either way, on a dark, moonless night, get out and explore the sky around Orion.
I shot the segments for the main mosaic at top on a very clear night on December 5, 2015 from the Quailway Cottage at Portal, Arizona. This is a mosaic of 8 segments, in two columns of 4 rows, with generous overlap. Each segment was made of 4 x 2.5-minute exposures stacked with mean combine stack mode to reduce noise, plus 2 x 2.5-minute exposures taken through the Kenko Softon filter layered in with Lighten belnd mode to add the star glows. Each segment was shot at f/2.8 with the original 35mm Canon L-series lens and the filter-modified (by Hutech) Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, riding on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. All stacking and stitching in Photoshop CC 2015. The soft diffusion filter helps bring out the star colors in this area of sky rich in brilliant giant stars.
I got the comet but it isn’t what was hoped for – a faint fuzzball in binoculars.
This was Comet Catalina (aka C/2013 US10) in the dawn sky this morning, December 6, with the comet appearing as a fuzzy star below brilliant Venus in binoculars, and just revealing its two short tails in photos. It’s the cyan-colored object near the centre. Venus is the brilliant object.
This image is with a telephoto lens, and covers a little more of the sky than typical binoculars would show. I knew this would be a binocular comet at best, but it’s barely that. This is more a comet for telescopes.
But as the Moon departs the scene and the comet climbs higher the view may improve. Still, if you are pining for views of Comet Catalina and are stuck under cloudy winter skies at home, don’t be worried. You aren’t missing too much. Except …
This was the view of the autumn Milky Way from here in Arizona last night. Pretty impressive under nearly perfect sky conditions. And then there’s this …
This was the winter Milky Way with Orion setting into the west over the Chiricahuas at dawn. Turn around from looking at the comet and this was the view. So who cares if the comet isn’t too great? There’s lots more to see and shoot. With no snow, no frost, no dew.
Orion ascends into the sky on a clear autumn night, with its stars drawing trails behind it as it rises.
Only on November nights is it possible to capture Orion rising in the evening sky. Here, I used the light of the waxing gibbous Moon to illuminate the landscape … and the sky, creating the deep blue tint.
The lead image above is an example of a star trail, a long exposure that uses Earth’s rotation to turn the stars into streaks across the sky. In the old days of film you would create such an exposure by opening the shutter for an hour or more and hoping for the best.
Today, with digital cameras, the usual method is to shoot lots of short exposures, perhaps no more than 20 to 40 seconds each in rapid succession. You then stack them later in Photoshop or other specialized software to create the digital equivalent of a single long exposure.
The image above is a stack of 350 images taken over 2.5 hours.
With a folder of such images, you can either stack them to create a single image, such as above, or string them together in time to create a time-lapse of the stars moving across the sky. The short video below shows the result. Enlarge the screen and click HD for the best quality.
For the still image and time-lapse, I used the Advanced Stacker Plus actions from StarCircleAcademyto do the stacking in Photoshop and create the tapering star trail effect. A separate exposure after the main trail set added the point-like stars at the end of the trails.
My tutorial on Vimeo provides all the details on how to shoot, then stack, such a star trail image…
… While this video illustrates how to capture and process nightscapes shot under the light of the Moon.
The morning planets are now strung out along the ecliptic, visualizing this line in the sky.
This was the view this morning, November 14, of the three dawn planets lined up along the ecliptic, with the stars Spica and Regulus also defining this imaginary line.
The ecliptic is the Earth’s orbital path around the Sun projected into the sky. So it is along this line that we see the Sun appear to move around the sky over a year. But it is also the path along which we find the seven other major planets – in this case, three of them: Venus, Mars and Jupiter.
These three worlds were clustered together in October, but are now spreading out along the ecliptic, as Venus drops lower but Mars and Jupiter climb higher.
The stars Spica and Regulus also lie along the ecliptic, where the Moon can occasionally pass in front of, or occult, these stars.
So the two stars and three planets are now nicely drawing the ecliptic line for us in the dawn sky. At this time of year, the ecliptic is also steeply angled above the eastern horizon.
The main image above is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the ground, to smooth noise, and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1000 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens at f/2.8 and at 14mm.
This image just above is with the same gear but with the lens at the 24mm setting to more tightly frame the planets.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the sky at dawn, Orion and his winter sky friends were setting into the west (image below).
All the images here are shot with the Nikon D810a camera and the amazing Nikkor 14-24mm lens, two items in hand this month for testing and review. A thorough test will appear in future blogs.
Of course, as wonderful as the gear is, it cannot extract the ecliptic line and labels from the sky – those are added in Photoshop!
Skies were clear at dawn this morning for a fabulous view of the rare conjunction of three planets. And I could not have been at a more photogenic site.
This was the view before dawn on October 25, as brilliant Venus and dimmer Jupiter shone just a degree apart in the dawn sky. Mars, much fainter, shines just below the close duo. The three planets could easily be contained in a high power binocular field.
Not until November 2111 will these three planets be this close together again in a darkened sky.
Indeed, Venus could not have been higher, as it is just now reaching its maximum elongation from the Sun, placing it high in the eastern morning sky.
I shot from the shores of Lake Annette, site of one of the major events, the Friday star party, at the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival which just concluded, in Jasper National Park, Alberta. The Festival celebrates the Park’s status as one of the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserves.
The hotels and restaurants were full with stargazers from around the world, making the Festival a huge success, both educationally and financially. I was honoured to be able to present some of the public and school talks.
But this dawn sky was a fine way to end a fabulous weekend of astronomy.
The image above is a panorama in the twilight, sweeping from the planets in the east, to the winter stars and constellations, including iconic Orion, in the south and southwest.
Earlier in the morning, before twilight began to brighten the sky, I shot another even wider panorama from the south shore of the lake.
In this and other photos, high haze adds the glows around the stars and planets naturally. No special effects filters here!
But Venus and Jupiter are so close and bright their images almost merge into one glow.
Here they are, with Mars below, shining in the dark sky over the Watchtower peak and over the misty waters of Lake Annette.
The Moon, planets and Northern lights provided a wonderful show in the dawn sky.
What a superb scene this was. On October 8 the waning crescent Moon shone near Venus (brightest) and Regulus, with red Mars and bright Jupiter paired below.
If that wasn’t enough, as the wide-angle panorama below shows, the Northern Lights were also ending a night of performance, with an arc along the horizon and pulsing waves rising up the sky to the northeast near the planet grouping.
The panorama also sweeps right, to the south, to take in the winter Milky Way and constellations of Orion and Canis Major. Click on the image to bring it up full screen.
The Moon will appear near Mars and Jupiter on the morning of October 9, and then the three planets will begin to converge for a tight gathering for a few mornings around October 25.
Be sure to wake early for the dawn sky show that continues all this month!
Venus, now at its brightest as a morning star, shines amid the subtle glow of the Zodiacal Light.
This was the scene this morning, September 17, on a very frosty dawn at 5 a.m. from my backyard in southern Alberta.
Here, Venus shines nearly as bright as it can be, at magnitude -4.7, in the dawn sky as a brilliant “morning star.”
Venus appears amid the faint glow of the Zodiacal Light, sometimes called the “False Dawn,” stretching diagonally from the dawn horizon in the east, up and to the right, and reaching the Milky Way that runs vertically down the frame from top centre to bottom right.
Orion and the winter stars shine in the Milky Way, with Sirius above the trees at lower right.
The Beehive Cluster, M44, appears as the small group of stars above Venus. The Pleiades, M45, is at top right.
Mars is the brightest object left of Venus, with the bright star Regulus just below it and rising in the east. The stars of the Big Dipper are at far left at the edge of the frame.
The sky is beginning to brighten with the real glow of morning. It was a marvellous dawn sky delight.
This is a stack of 4 x 2-minute exposures, tracked and mean-combine stacked, for the sky and 2 x 2-minute exposures, untracked and stacked, for the ground to minimize blurring in the starlit ground. The Canon 6D was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker, shooting at ISO 1250 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/3.5. The stacking with a mean combine stack mode smooths noise in both sky and ground.
What a fabulous night for some nightscapes at Arches National Park, Utah.
I’m at Arches National Park for two nights, to shoot the stars over its amazing eroded sandstone landscape.
I started the night last night, April 6, shooting Orion over Turret Arch while the sky was still lit by deep twilight. That image is below. It shows Orion and the winter sky, with bright Venus at right, setting over the aptly-named Turret Arch.
I scouted the location earlier in the day and measured in person, as expected from maps, that the angles would be perfect for capturing Orion over the Arch.
But better still would be getting Orion setting through the Arch. That’s the lead photo at top.
I shot the star trail image later in the evening, over half an hour. It uses a stack of 5 exposures: a single, short 30-second one for the initial point-like stars, followed by a series of four 8-minute exposures to create the long star trails. The short exposure was at ISO 4000; the long exposures at ISO 250. All are with the Rokinon 14mm lens.
Arches is a popular and iconic place for nightscape photography.
I thought I’d likely not be alone, and sure enough another pair of photographers showed up, though they were armed with lights to illuminate the Arches, as many photographers like to do.
I shot this from afar, as they lit up the inside of Turret Arch where I had been earlier in the night.
I prefer not to artificially illuminate natural landscapes, or do so only mildly, not with bright spotlights. We traded arches! – while I shot Turret, the other photography couple shot next door at the North and South Window Arches, and vice versa. It all worked out fine.
Later in the night, after moonrise, I shot next door at the famous Double Arch. Those moonlit photos will be in tomorrow’s blog.
It was a very productive night, and a remarkable experience shooting at such a location on a warm and quiet night, with only a fellow photographer or two for company.
Tonight Comet Lovejoy paired with the Pleiades star cluster.
Sunday, January 18 was the night to catch the ever-photogenic Comet Lovejoy at its best and closest to the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. Its long blue ion tail stretched back past the Pleiades.
I thought the tail would be passing right over the star cluster, but not so. At least not when I was shooting it at about 7:30 pm MST.
Still, the combination made a fine pairing of cosmic blue objects for the camera. The top image is with a 135mm telephoto.
This wide-angle image, with a 24mm lens, takes in many of the northern winter constellations, from Orion at bottom, to Auriga at top, with Taurus in the middle. Notice the dark tendrils of the Taurus Dark Clouds.
At right, beside the Pleiades, is the green and blue comet, with its tail reaching back past the Pleiades.
I shot both images from the dark skies of City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico, which has proven to be one of the finest places on the planet for watching Lovejoy!
What a beautifully photogenic comet Lovejoy is proving to be!
On Friday, January 16, I caught Comet Lovejoy crossing the ecliptic as it travels through Taurus. The long exposure above shows it amid the star clusters, nebulas, and dark clouds of Taurus and Perseus.
The blue Pleiades is at centre, and the red California Nebula is at top. Throughout are the dark tendrils of the dusty Taurus Dark Clouds.
The long blue ion tail of Lovejoy now extends back 15° to 20° on photos and is easy to trace for half that distance in binoculars in a dark sky.
I turned the top photo 90° to orient the comet so it points “down.”
However, this wide-angle nightscape shows the real orientation of the comet, high in the sky above Orion, here rising over the rock formations of City of Rocks State Park, my favourite dark sky site in this area of New Mexico.
Taken earlier in the evening, this ultra-wide image shows the comet at top, with its blue tail oriented along the ecliptic and aligned with the Zodiacal Light, from the glow of sunlight reflecting off comet dust in the inner solar system.
The Zodiacal Light follows the ecliptic, the plane of the solar system and where we find the planets, such as Mars and Venus at bottom here. The comet seems to point toward the Sun, now below the horizon here at the base of the Zodiacal Light. That’s just as it should be! Comet gas tails always point away from the Sun, as they are blown away from the comet’s head by the solar wind.
This night Comet Lovejoy was crossing the ecliptic, as its orbit continues to take it north in a path almost perpendicular to the ecliptic. While planets orbit in the ecliptic plane, most comets do not. They can have orbits oriented at all kinds of angles off the ecliptic plane.
But on January 16 Comet Lovejoy crossed the ecliptic, placing it at the apex of the Zodiacal Light.
This wider view takes in the Zodiacal Light, the comet and Orion rising at left.
Comet Lovejoy glows above the granite spires of City of Rocks State Park.
With clouds forecast for the rest of the week I made the best of it tonight and headed out to my favourite local spot for nightscape images, the City of Rocks State Park on Highway 180 between Silver City and Deming, New Mexico.
It was a quick photo session tonight. I arrived at just the right time to catch the comet and Orion rising behind the rock formations, with the moonlight beginning to illuminate the rocky rims.
The comet is the small green spot just right of centre at the top. It is now climbing quite high in the southern sky as it comes up north. I could see it easily in binoculars as a large fuzzy spot and I thought I could just make it out with unaided eyes once I knew just where to look.
This will be a fine comet for binoculars once the Moon gets out of the way later this week, though you will need to be at a dark site. The comet is diffuse and will be utterly washed out by city lights. This is no Hale-Bopp! But as comets go, Comet Lovejoy C/2014 Q2 is a nice one.
Sunday night, January 4, proved stunningly clear, ideal for seeing and shooting Comet Lovejoy in the moonlight.
Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is moving rapidly north and this week sits just west of Orion. To capture it tonight I went out to the City of Rocks State Park, seeking a scenic foreground, with Orion rising with the comet.
The Full Moon is just off frame at left, unavoidably glaring into the frame.
Comet Lovejoy appears as a small green fuzzy spot at upper right.
In this view I had to crop Orion in order to fit in the landscape and the comet, at upper right. Three short aircraft contrails appear at the bottom. The Full Moon illuminates the southern New Mexico landscape.
In the coming week, with the Moon rising later each night, and the comet climbing higher, it will become much easier to see in a dark sky.
However, while Comet Lovejoy might be technically visible to the unaided eye, you really need binoculars to pick it out. We’ll see if it sports much of a tail once we sight it again in a dark moonless sky.
This was the sky on the night before Christmas, with the Moon setting and Orion rising.
It was a crisp and calm night on Christmas Eve, with the waxing Moon shining beside Mars in the west at right. The western sky was marked by the faint tower of light called the Zodiacal Lights. To the east at left, Orion was rising beside the Milky Way.
The main image is a 180° panorama taken at the City of Rocks State Park, south of Silver City, New Mexico, and a particularly photogenic site for nightscape images.
This was the scene earlier in the evening with the Moon beside Mars, and the pair well above Venus down in the twilight, all framed by one of the park’s windmills.
Here is a close-up of Orion climbing over the rock formations in the state park. This is a single exposure with the foreground lit by the waxing crescent Moon.
The waxing crescent Moon sets in deep twilight over the City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico.
This was the scene tonight, May 2, under fabulous skies on a warm spring evening in New Mexico. I drove 45 minutes south from Silver City to the City of Rocks State Park, and area of oddly-eroded rocks and a fabulous place for stargazing. It actually has an observatory.
For this twilight scene I shot a series of seven exposures from dark to bright with an ultra-wide 14mm lens, and stacked them in a high dynamic range composition to capture both the bright Moon and sky above and dark landscape below. You can see the stars of the winter sky disappearing into the evening twilight as well, plus Jupiter at top.
For the next three nights I’ll be back near the Arizona Sky Village just across the state line from Rodeo, New Mexico, under very dark skies, to shoot the summer Milky Way in the wee hours of the morning after moonset. The weather promises to be perfect.
After a brutal winter for most of us in the northern hemisphere, we’re glad to see the last of the winter sky.
This was the scene on Tuesday night, April 29 as the last of the winter sky descended into the evening twilight.
Here, Orion (left of centre) sets into the western sky, next to the gossamer glow of the zodiacal light (right of centre). The stars of Taurus sit amid the zodiacal light, with the Pleiades just about to set behind the ridge. Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, shines at far left.
The zodiacal light is the glow of sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system. It is a glow from interplanetary space, not from our atmosphere. Spring is the best time to see it in the evening sky, no matter your hemisphere. It also helps to be in the desert of the U.S. Southwest!
I took this parting shot of the winter sky from a favourite observing haunt from years’ past, Massai Point, at 6800 feet altitude in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. The sky was perfectly clear and the night warm and windless. I’m back in Arizona and New Mexico for a few days, checking out accommodations for a long-term stay next winter, so I won’t have to endure the snow and cold that plagued us last winter. Good bye winter sky! Good bye winter!
The Milky Way of the southern hemisphere arches across the sky from the Southern Cross to Orion.
I’ve arrived at my dark sky site near Coonabarabran, Australia, with a very clear night to start my two-week session under the southern stars. Tonight I had just a 2-hour window between end of twilight and moonrise. But I made good use of it by taking some ultra-wide-angle views of the Milky Way we never see from up north.
This horizon-to-horizon scene looks straight up and stretches from the Southern Cross at far left (in the east) through Vela and Puppis to Orion at right (in the west). This sweep includes much of the Milky Way forever below our horizon from northern latitudes. At centre is the wide loop of the Gum Nebula. At lower left is the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.
At upper right is Jupiter in Gemini. The two bright stars near the centre are Canopus (left of centre) and Sirius (right of centre).
This is a stack of five 5-minute exposures at f/4 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens on the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1000. The camera was on the iOptron Skytracker, its first time in the southern hemisphere and my first time aligning it on the South Celestial Pole. It took a few minutes but I got it! The tracker worked great.
The forecast is for clouds and rain the next few days. But I’m here for over two weeks, and the weather can’t be any worse than it was in 2010 when the area was flooding. So with luck there will be more images to come from down under.
Last night, February 7, the Northern Lights danced for us again, starting with a curtain of green and pink in the south.
Our second tour group at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre has been here a couple of days, all under what looked like hopeless cloud. But last night the clouds cleared unexpectedly to reveal a moonlit winter sky.
I completed my evening talk all about the Sun and aurora, during which we were monitoring the auroral activity indicators on SpaceWeather.com. Sure enough, about 9:30 pm, right on cue and perfectly timed for convenience, a curtain of light began to dance across the southern sky, appearing in Orion. The gibbous Moon is just off frame to the right. We began the viewing from the Centre’s second floor viewing deck which looks east and southeast.
This view shows the auroral curtain over the derelict launch towers of the Churchill Rocket Range. Built in 1957 for the International Geophysical Year, the Rocket Range was in use until the mid-1980s as Canada’s only launch facility. Hundreds of sounding rockets, many of them Canadian-built Black Brants, were launched from here, shooting up into the ionosphere on nights just like this to study the aurora.
Orion is at right. While we saw this curtain in our southern sky, others farther south in Canada were seeing it in their northern sky. The greens were easy to see with the eye but the magentas were visible only by the camera and I have punched up their intensity here.
This night, as the aurora display developed it moved north to the zenith, shown here, with the sky also lit by moonlight and with some high haze. But the combination makes for a wonderful abstract swirl of light and colour.
Orion and Sirius shine over the abandoned launch towers of the Churchill Rocket Range.
This was the view Monday night, during a lull in the aurora display when I took a few moments to shoot the stars. You can see Orion at centre, with his trio of Belt stars pointing left and down to Sirius, the Dog Star in Canis Major, and the brightest star in the night sky. The Belt stars point up and right to Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus the bull.
They look closer to the horizon than you might be used to as this is from 58° north latitude.
These winter stars shine above some of the launch structures of the old Churchill Rocket Range. Built in 1957 for the International Geophysical Year, the Rocket Range served for many years as Canada’s only launch facility. No satellites were launched here. Instead the towers were used to launch sub-orbital sounding rockets into the ionosphere to explore the aurora.
Some of the rockets were repurposed military missiles, like Nikes and Aerobees. But many were Black Brants, civilian research rockets still being built in Winnipeg by Bristol Aerospace.
But no Black Brants take off from here now. The Rocket Range was shut down in the mid-1980s as Canada’s space program focused on satellites, the Space Shuttle, and sending astronauts into space. Attempts by private companies to revive the site have all failed and the structures are now becoming derelict, being too costly to remove.
My 2-minute music video looks back at some of the celestial highlights of 2013, in images and videos I captured.
Some of the events and scenes I show were accessible to everyone who looked up. But some required a special effort to see.
• In 2013 we had a couple of nice comets though not the spectacle hoped for from Comet ISON.
• Chris Hadfield became a media star beaming videos and tweets from the Space Station. We on Earth could look up and see his home sailing through the stars.
• The sky hosted a few nice conjunctions of planets, notably Mars, Venus and Jupiter in late May.
• The Sun reached its peak in solar activity (we think!) unleashing solar storms and some wonderful displays of northern lights.
• Locally, record rain storms in Alberta unleashed floods of devastating consequences in June, with a much publicized super moon in the sky.
• For me, the summer proved a productive one for shooting the “star” of the summer sky, the Milky Way.
• But the year-end finale was most certainly the total eclipse of the Sun on November 3. Few people saw it. I did, from a ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The video ends with that sight and experience, the finest the sky has to offer.
I hope you enjoy this music video mix of time-lapse, real-time video and still images, shot from Alberta, New Mexico and from the Atlantic.
You can watch a better quality version of this video at my Vimeo channel.
A Geminid meteor in the moonlight streaks over a dish of the Very Large Array.
Tonight I was out at the VLA, the iconic radio telescope array on the high desert Plains of San Agustin in central New Mexico. Over three hours I shot 325 frames for a time-lapse movie, hoping that a few would “catch a falling star” or two.
Tonight was peak night for the annual Geminid meteor shower so the chances were better than normal. The Geminids are one of the best performing meteor showers of the year.
Despite the peak occurring in the evening, conditions weren’t ideal. Light from the gibbous Moon lit the landscape nicely but did wash out many meteors. Of course, I just wanted some bright ones anyway! Also, clouds drifted in and out all evening – mostly in!
At top, you can see a faint Geminid meteor shooting up from Gemini the twins, visible rising at lower right, with Jupiter (now in Gemini) marking the constellation’s location.
In this image I moved the camera, but the array was also now pointed at a new target in the sky so the dishes were turned to look west. This shot captures another faint-ish Geminid streaking toward Orion, just right of centre.
I didn’t nab the grand and brilliant meteor I had hoped for but it was a wonderful moonlit evening under the stars, watching the dishes dance the night away.
Canis Major and Orion rise into the desert sky from southwest New Mexico.
We had an excellent week of observing at the Painted Pony Resort. We had cloud on parts of most nights, and frost on the calm nights and wind on the frostless nights. So viewing conditions weren’t ideal but they were way better than back home where temperatures plunged to -35° C at night and snow piled waist high.
The shot above is of Sirius and Canis Major, the hunting dog, rising into the early evening sky after the Moon had set.
I took this image later in the week. It shows Orion rising above the main adobe house at the resort. His Belt points down to Sirius just coming up over the Peloncillo Mountains to the east. Moonlight provides the illumination and bands of airglow colour the sky.
All-Star Telescope is conducting another New Mexico Star Party next March, but most spaces are already filled. A couple of rooms may still be available in a newly renovated cottage off the main resort site. Check with Ken and Bev for details. I highly recommend the experience.
A mix of sky glows fills the pre-dawn sky in New Mexico.
To the eye the sky looked dark, marred only by some high haze drifting through. But the camera reveals a sky filled with an amazing wealth of colourful glows.
I took this 360° panorama in the pre-dawn hours (4:45 a.m.) this morning (December 8) from the Painted Pony Resortin southwest New Mexico. It reveals a swath of green airglow to the north, the zodiacal light, and the Milky Way. At northern latitudes there was bright aurora visible last night. We might have seen some sign of it here in New Mexico in the form of increased airglow activity.
The panorama takes in, from left to right:
• Arcturus, shining like an ornament on the treetop
• the zodiacal light rising up from the east
• red Mars embedded in the zodiacal light below Leo
• the Milky Way from Puppis and Canis Major at left arching up and across the sky down into Perseus at right
• Sirius the brightest star
• Orion setting over the main house
• Jupiter, the bright object at top centre in Gemini
• Aldebaran and the Pleiades setting right of the main house in Taurus
• Polaris over the smaller house at right
• the Big Dipper at upper right pointing down to Polaris
• a green glow along the northern horizon above the smaller house that is likely intense airglow.
• green and red bands throughout the sky are airglow, caused by atmospheric molecules flourescing at night
• bands of high cloud also permeate the sky adding natural glows around the stars.
I stitched this panorama using PTGui software, from 6 segments, all tracked, taken with the 14mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8 for 2.5 minutes each and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600.
Orion parades across the northern winter sky followed by his two odedient hunting dogs, Canis Major and Minor.
I shot the images for this panorama of the winter sky last night, December 6/7, on a frosty and cool night at our retreat in New Mexico.
The scene takes in Orion at upper right, with his signature stars, red Betelgeuse and blue Rigel, plus the dog stars Procyon at upper left (the brightest star in Canis Minor), and Sirius at lower centre (the brightest star in Canis Major). Canis Major itself appears in full at the bottom of the frame. Canis Major and Minor are depicted in mythology as Orion’s two Hunting Dogs .
The northern winter Milky Way runs from top to bottom of the frame, punctuated by patches of red nebulosity such as the circular Rosette Nebula above centre. Orion is wreathed in the sweeping arc of Barnard’s Loop, while his Belt and Sword contain the Horsehead Nebula and Orion Nebula.
While we are looking to the outer edge of our Galaxy in this view, this region of the Milky Way is one of the richest areas of star formation in the sky. It’s a wonderful field and lovely to shoot under civilized conditions in southern New Mexico, at the idyllic Painted Pony Resort.
For this mosaic, I shot 4 to 5 frames for each of the two mosaic segments, plus two images for each segment shot through a diffusion filter to add in the accentuated star glows. I stacked and stitched all of them using Photoshop CC.
So a total of 13 exposures went into the mosaic, each 4 minutes long, shot with the 35mm lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII, which helps bring out the red nebulosity.
Jupiter and the stars of the winter sky rise in the east on a December night in New Mexico.
This was the scene last night, December 4, as clouds cleared away enough for great views of Orion and the winter sky rising above distant mountains in New Mexico. (All the clouds, that is, except for one annoying dark blob in Gemini above Jupiter!)
The bright object at lower left is Jupiter, in Gemini this winter, rising with Castor and Pollux to the left of Jupiter. To the right of frame Orion comes up on his side, with his Belt pointed down to where Sirius will come up shortly after I took this image. The red-sensitive camera picks up swirls of nebulosity around Orion.
Above Orion are the stars of Taurus and Auriga.
This image is a framing of the Milky Way from Perseus at top right down to Taurus and the top of Orion at bottom left. At centre is the blue Pleiades star cluster, and the red arc of the California Nebula. Also at centre you can see the long dusty tendrils of the Taurus Dark Clouds, interstellar clouds between us and the Perseus arm of the Milky Way.
I shot both from the Painted Pony Resort in southeast New Mexico using a little iOptron SkyTracker and 2.5- to 3-minute exposures with a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII.
In ancient times these twin mountains marked the end of the known world – beyond lay a great unknown sea.
Two mornings ago, before dawn, we sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar, known in ancient times as the Pillars of Hercules. The two massive peaks guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean Ocean were supposedly created by the legendary figure of Greek mythology to separate the two continents, Europe and Africa. Beyond them was a vast and forbidding ocean that few dared to sail.
The feature image above shows Sirius and Canis Major shining above the African side of the Pillars, the mountain known as Jebel Musa. Illumination is by moonlight, twilight and streetlight.
The image above shows the more famous Rock of Gibraltar, on the European side of the Straits. This is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.
This image, with the nearly Full Moon in the sky, shows our ship, the Star Flyer, approaching Jebel Musa. We departed the Mediterranean to visit Morocco, then Cadiz in Spain. We’re now heading out into the once great unknown sea, the Atlantic, for a November 3 meeting with the shadow of the Moon.
The final image shows Orion, Sirius and Jupiter shining amid the rigging of our four-masted clipper ship, again by moonlight. We hope it’s clear skies and smooth sailing as we cross the Atlantic.
Say goodbye to the winter sky, now sinking fast into the sunset. The departure of Orion and company is an annual sign of spring.
Look west on a clear night in the next couple of weeks and you’ll see this scene, as Orion sinks into the sunset, surrounded by Taurus to the right of him, and Canis Major to the left of him. Taurus is his foe, Canis Major his friend.
Having so many bright stars in the April evening twilight makes for a beautiful scene in the deepening blue. But I suspect most of us are happy to see all signs of winter gone for a long time!
I shot this Monday night, April 1, on a very clear night. Orion’s Belt is just left of centre. The trio of Belt stars points left and down to Sirius, the Dog Star, and points right and up to Aldebaran, the Bull’s Eye. Above Aldebaran is brilliant Jupiter. Just at the right edge of the frame are the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades.
Say goodbye to these stars of winter. We won’t see them again until late summer in the pre-dawn sky.
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.
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 retreatin 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!
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!
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.
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.
What a hardy bunch we are in Canada, braving winter weather to see Orion and company.
A well-bundled group of sky fans partakes in an impromptu tour of Orion and his famous nebula.
I shot this scene last night, February 9, at the first of a series of monthly stargazing nights at the local university research observatory, the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. About 120 people and volunteers gathered to take in the sights of the winter sky, as best they could as transient clouds permitted. Inside, speakers presented talks themed to the Chinese New Year, which is governed by the timing of the New Moon each year. As this was a New Moon night, people were able to stargaze under reasonably dark skies to see deep-sky sights such as the Orion Nebula.
Want to know where it is? An astronomy club member points it out rather handily with one of the best tools astronomers have for public outreach, a bright green laser pointer. Controversial and dangerous in the wrong hands, when used responsibly these laser pointers are wonderful for conducting sky tours.
As a side note, this is a 3-second exposure with a new Canon 6D camera at ISO 8000, yet the photo shows very little noise. In just 3 seconds, the Milky Way is beginning to show up! I could have gone to previously unthinkable speeds of ISO 12000+ and still had a presentable shot. This will be a superb camera for nightscapes and available light shots.
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.
Everyone knows the Belt of Orion, but only the camera reveals the wealth of colours that surround it.
I shot this Friday night, February 8, under very clear sky conditions.
While I used a telescope, it had a short enough focal length, about 480mm, that the field took in all three stars in the Belt: from left to right, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. All are hot blue stars embedded in colourful clouds. The most famous is the Horsehead Nebula, running down from Alnitak at left. Above the star is the salmon-coloured Flame Nebula. All manner of bits of blue and cyan nebulas dot the field, their colour coming from the blue starlight the dust reflects.
Dimmer dust clouds more removed from nearby stars glow with browns and yellows. At left, a large swath of sky is obscured by gas and dust simmering in dull red. The entire field is peppered with young blue stars.
It is certainly one of the most vibrant regions of sky, though only long exposures and image processing bring out the colours.
This is another test shot with a new Canon 6D that has had its sensor filter modified to transmit more of the deep red light of these types of nebulas. The camera works very well indeed!
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!
This is the old house on my property that serves as an occasional foreground for test nightscapes. In this case, I was testing my veteran Canon 5D MkII camera against a new Canon 6D. This shot with the 5D MkII had the best arrangement of clouds and stars and works as a decent enough shot on its own.
You can see Orion dodging the clouds, with Sirius at left, and Aldebaran, Jupiter and the Pleiades at upper right.
So what of the tests? Initial impressions are that as far as noise is concerned (always the bane of astrophotographers) the new full-frame Canon 6D improves upon the 5-year old Canon 5D MkII by a factor of two. Noise looks to be about one f-stop better in the 6D, no doubt due to its new Digic V on-board processor.
What this means is:
• Images taken with the 6D at ISO 6400 have a similar level of noise as do images taken at ISO 3200 with the 5D MkII. ISO 3200 images with the 6D look like ISO 1600 images with the 5D MkII, and so on.
• So, if you were happy with shooting at ISO 1600 with the 5D MkII before, you could now shoot at ISO 3200 with the new 6D and get similar results, but with the added benefit of being able to cut your exposure times in half, always a nice thing to do.
• Or conversely, you could continue to shoot with the Canon 6D at ISO 1600 for the same exposure times as before but get shots with much less noise in them. Always a good thing, too!
It’s great to see camera state-of-the-art advancing.
The Moon lights up a sparkling snowscape on the night it was close to Jupiter, as Orion and the winter stars rise.
The Moon is the bright and overexposed glow at upper right. Look carefully and you can just make out Jupiter above the Moon, almost lost in its glare. Below shines Orion, with Sirius the Dog Star just coming up above the distant trees. The Pleiades, at top above the Moon, complete this winter sky scene from Monday, January 21, 2013.
I’m glad I didn’t have to go far to shoot it, just 20 feet out the front door. Standing there for just 15 minutes was a chore, with a wicked east wind blowing in -18° C temperatures. This was a night that would normally fall below my threshold of tolerance for winter observing. But with the Moon so close to Jupiter it was worth a little pain for the gain of a neat winter sky portrait.
The image is a composite of a long and short exposure, in order to capture Jupiter so close to the Moon which, in a single long exposure, would have overexposed so much its light would have swamped Jupiter.
He’s certainly the sky’s most photogenic mythological figure. Here’s my full-length portrait of Orion the hunter, captured from Alberta.
I’ve shot him many times before but this was a new combination of gear: the Canon 60Da camera and the Sigma 50mm lens, nicely framing the hunter in portrait format. This version of Orion isn’t as deep as the one I took last month from Australia. But skies were darker there, and I used my filter-modified Canon 5D MkII for his Oz portrait, a camera which picks up more faint red nebulosity than does the 60Da, Canon’s own specialized DSLR camera for astronomy. The 60Da does do a very good job though, much better than would a normal DSLR.
For this shot, as I do for many constellation images, I layered in exposures taken through a soft-focus filter, the Kenko Softon, to enlarge and “fuzzify” the stars! It really helps bring out their colours, contrasting cool, orange Betelgeuse with the hot blue-white stars in the rest of Orion.
I shot this January 4 on a fine clear winter night, the classic hunting ground for Orion.
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.
Swirls of pink, red and blue nebulas surround the Belt and Sword of Orion the Hunter.
For this closeup of Orion I used a 135mm telephoto lens under dark Australian skies to grab long exposures to reveal not only the bright Orion Nebula at bottom in Orion’s Sword, but also the Horsehead Nebula (below the left star of Orion’s Belt), Barnard’s Loop (at left) and the mass of red nebulosity between the Loop and the Belt & Sword. At right is a faint blue nebula reflecting the light of the hot blue stars in the area.
This is a gorgeous area of sky for the camera, but only the brightest nebulas, the tip of the cosmic iceberg, are visible to the eye even with the aid of a telescope.
The constellation Orion is a hotbed of star formation, from masses of colourful clouds.
I shot this portrait of Orion the Hunter a few nights ago in Australia where Orion stands upside down compared to our view from up north. But I’ve turned around the photo here to put him right side up with head at the top and feet at the bottom.
The three stars in a row in the middle are his famous Belt stars. Below shines the nebulas that outline his Sword, among them the Orion Nebula, the subject of an earlier post last week.
The giant arc is Barnard’s Loop, a bubble blown in space by the winds from hot new stars. The bubble around Orion’s head at top is a similar interstellar bubble. Most stars here are blue-white and hot, but the distinctively orange star is the red giant Betelgeuse, a good candidate for a supernova explosion.
Orion stands high in the sky at midnight these nights, summer here in Australia, but winter at home in Canada.
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.
My Australian nights are proving to be frequently and thankfully clear enough that I’ve got the luxury of shooting some familiar “home sky” objects. This is the famous Orion Nebula in the Sword of Orion, about 1500 light years away.
I’ve shot this nebula many times from the northern hemisphere but my Australian skies are darker than at home, and the nights a lot warmer than when this object is up in our winter sky.
The Orion Nebula is a complex consisting of Messier 42, the main nebula, M43, a small nebula attached to the north (above) and the bluish Running Man Nebula (can you see his dark figure?) at top that is officially catalogued as NGC 1973-5-7. Together, these make up the largest region of star formation in our corner of the Milky Way. It’s easy to see with the unaided eye on a dark night.
To shoot this, I blended three different exposures, short (4 x 1 minute), medium (4 x 5 minutes) and long (4 x 15 minutes), to preserve all the details from the intensely bright core our to the faint tendrils extending into deep space. I stacked the 4 frames taken at each of the exposure times, then blended those stacks using masks in Photoshop CS6 (and its wonderful and editable Refine Mask function) to mask out the overexposed area of the longer exposure and let the shorter exposure content shine through. The result is that the core still shows the little cluster of stars, the Trapezium, and the characteristic green tint of the core. But I applied lots of Curves to bring out the fainter bits and swirls in the periphery.
I shot this through my Astro-Physics Traveler 105mm refractor at f/5.8 using the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera, at ISO 400. This turned out to be certainly my best shot of Orion yet in my library.
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.
Not so long ago sailors used the Moon, Jupiter and the stars to chart their course on Earth. All are in this moonlit seascape.
I took this shot on November 27, as we set sail toward Hook Passage in the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia. The ship is the Solway Lass, a 110-year-old sailing ship that is now the oldest commercial ship plying the waters around Australia. It has been modernized and refitted, and at night runs with engines, not sails. And today, of course, GPS keeps the skipper informed of where the ship is. But before GPS and radio navigation, sailors used the sky to determine where on Earth they were.
Sextant sightings of the Sun and stars could give them their latitude and longitude. One star often used was Canopus, visible at far right in this image. Canopus has long been associated with the sea. It is the brightest star in Carina the Keel, once part of the sprawling constellation Argo Navis, the ship in the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts. Today, Canopus is still sighted by robot spacecraft bound for the planets to help them determine their position in the solar system.
Sirius and the stars of Orion (lying on his side here at a latitude of 20° South) appear through the rigging. At upper left is the bright glow of the nearly Full Moon, near the star Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster.
Before the acceptance in the late 1700s of the chronometer as an accurate time-keeping device, the position of the Moon near bright stars served as an astronomical clock in the sky to provide sailors with local time. Another source of time (more for land-based navigators) was the changing positions of the moons of Jupiter — Jupiter is the bright star-like object at left.
I just finished a superb 6 days of sailing around the Whitsundays and will have 2 or 3 more sea-bound posts from this wonderful area of the world.
This is stargazing in the tropics — on the beach, in shorts and sandals.
Here’s some of our eclipse chasing group enjoying a view of the southern hemisphere night sky, albeit though clouds. Jupiter is the bright object at left, Orion is rising on his side in the middle, Sirius is just above our stargazers, while Canopus is at far right. The Pleiades is at far left. We’re looking east, from a latitude of 16° south of the equator, where the sky takes on a completely new appearance that baffles and delights even seasoned northern stargazers.
Here was the scene on September 12, with Venus and the Moon in conjunction in the dawn sky.
Orion stands above the trees, and at top is Jupiter amid the stars of Taurus. The star Sirius is just rising below Orion. And both the Moon, here overexposed of necessity, and Venus shine together below the clump of stars called the Beehive star cluster in Cancer. This was quite a celestial panorama in the morning twilight.
This is a stack of two 2-minute exposures taken just as dawn’s light was breaking, so I get the Milky Way and even a touch of Zodiacal Light in the scene, as well as the colours of twilight. Pity I can’t avoid the lens flares!
This was the stunning scene in the dawn sky last Sunday — Venus, the Moon and Jupiter lined up above the Rockies.
Orion is just climbing over the line of mountains at right, while the stars of Taurus shine just to the right of Jupiter at top. I shot this at the end of a productive dusk-t0-dawn night of Perseid meteor photography. Being rewarded with a scene like this is always a great way to cap a night of astronomy.
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.
The winter sky contains a lot of bright stars but none so bright as Venus and Jupiter now in the west.
This wide-angle shot takes in the evening sky from the duo of planets in the west (right) to Sirius shining brightly in the south (left), with Orion in between. Above and to the right of Orion sit the two big naked eye star clusters of winter: the scattered Hyades and the compact Pleiades.
This was the picture-perfect scene last Tuesday night when I shot other frames of just the planets over the house in the foothills of the Rockies near Bragg Creek, Alberta. This is the wider scene, bathed in the deep blue of twilight.
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.
Orion sets over Sulphur Mountain and the Banff Springs Hotel in this nightscape from last weekend, February 3.
This is where Banff National Park – indeed the Canadian National Parks system – started, with the founding of a protected enclave around the hot springs and then the hotel, operated at first by the Canadian Pacific Railway, to serve visiting tourists seeking cure-all remedies from the sulphur springs.
Orion and Sirius shine above the Banff landmark, lit, unfortunately, far too brightly by sodium vapour lights. One day the ethic espoused by commercial interests of conserving the environment will extend to the night sky. When we set up telescopes at the Hotel a couple of years ago in honour of Earth Hour, we had to physically cover some lights — they could not be turned off!
So while this shot shows some of the beauty of the night sky from a site like Banff, it also shows what anyone under the veil of all those lights misses. Half the environment of the mountains.
I love the lighting in this shot from Saturday night. I took this by standing out on Lake Louise, from a spot you couldn’t be in summer without getting wet!
Moonlight grazes the east and north slopes of Mount Fairview, while spill from a skating rink flood lamp lights the trees. The sky is deep blue from moonlight making this look like a day scene.
But this is actually a 4-minute exposure, purposely long to allow the stars of Orion and the bright star Sirius at left to trail across the heavens over Fairview.
Unlike most nightscape shots, of necessity taken at high ISO speeds to grab lots of light in a short exposure, I took this shot at ISO 100. Even with the blog’s low resolution images, I think you can see the difference here – this slow-speed shot looks richer and smoother, lacking the fine noise that is inevitable in high ISO shots. It’s just like using slow speed film – in the old days I’d always carry two types of film for trips like this: slow Velvia 50 for long star trail shots, and fast Fuji or Ektachrome 400 for the untrailed nightscapes. I always loved the Velvia shots – they were indeed like smooth velvet.
Now with digital cameras you can switch settings as you like. And see the results instantly. How did we ever manage to get any results with film?
Here’s a picture postcard winter scene, one that thousands of people walk by each day — by day.
This is the Swiss guide cabin at Lake Louise, but seen at night. Light from the Moon just off the frame at top illuminates the scene, while Orion stands in the sky over the cabin and Mount Fairview.
I took this shot Saturday night, February 4, 2012, as one of many shots that night at Lake Louise, under crystal clear skies. It was a winter wonderland and a night photographer’s paradise.
Nightscape shots like this are surprisingly easy to take — typically being 20 to 40 seconds at f/2 to f/4 and ISO 400 to 800 with a good DSLR. The exact settings depend on how bright the Moon is. I used the Canon 5D MkII and 24mm Canon lens, a fine combination for night shooting.
For the past week I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, on a “cruise and learn” voyage, serving as one of the guest speakers to a group of astronomy enthusiasts who wanted an immersive vacation learning about the latest in astronomy research and, in my presentations, about the hobby side: choosing a telescope and doing astrophotography. The cruise was organized by Insight Cruises and by Sky and Telescope magazine.
The trip went great, with fabulous weather all along, and a welcome break to an awful winter in the north. However, a cruise ship is not the best place to actually do astrophotography!
This is a shot taken on Friday, March 11, from the upper deck and bow of the ship, the Holland America Line’s “Nieuw Amsterdam,” as we sailed on a northwest course back to Fort Lauderdale from our most southerly port of call in St. Maartens in the eastern Caribbean. The Moon is overexposed at right, and is directly ahead of us, making it look like we were sailing toward the Moon. At left is Orion and Canis Major, tipped over on their sides compared to our northerly view. This was from a latitude of about 20° North.
To keep the stars looking like stars (and not seagulls) and freeze the rolling of the ship, I had to bump the camera up to ISO 6400 and use a 5 second exposure at f/2.8 (wide open) with the 16-35mm lens. Not the best combination of settings, but it’s what it took to capture the “seascape” night scene.
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.
I’ve tried for years to create the effect of fuzzy haloes around stars to pop out the brighter stars and make the constellation pattern more obvious. It’s the “Akira Fuji” effect, named for the ace Japanese astrophotographer who has long perfected the technique with beautiful and widely-published results. I’ve tried various soft focus and diffusion filters, scratched UV filters, vaseline-smeared filters, breathing on filters, etc., etc. None have worked well. Till now.
The Kenko “Softon” filter offered by Hutech Scientific works fabulously well! It’s a tough filter to find in local camera stores here — but Hutech sells it. And it really changes the way I do constellation shooting, making any previous shots obsolete. I take several shots without the filter then one or more of the same exposure with the filter in place. I stack the two types of exposures in Photoshop, with the fuzz-filter layer blended with a Lighten mode to a varying opacity to “dial in” the level of fuzziness that looks good. Too much and it looks overdone and fake.
The technique also pops out the star colours, like here on red Betelgeuse amid the blue-white stars of Orion. This was from January 2011 from my backyard and is a stack of four 5-minute exposures w/o filter and one with. All with the Canon 5D MkII and 50mm Sigma lens, a terrific combination for constellation portraits.
Every astrophotographer has an object or field that seems to defy capture. For me, shooting the Sword of Orion has always been beset by haze, tints from light pollution and low altitude — something has always gone wrong. At last I managed to get a good shot of the region. It was a priority for me on my Australia trip of December 2010. Even though I ended up with only 2 clear nights to do any serious shooting, out of 15 I was there, I really wanted to grab this area, while Orion was high in the north, and higher in altitude than I can get it from home, so less hindered by sky gradient tints.
This is a shot with the wonderful Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph (which is tack sharp across the field) and the modified full-frame Canon 5D MkII camera — both items purchased from Hutech Scientific, a great source of astrophoto gear. This is a stack of five 7-minute exposures at ISO 800, processed in Photoshop CS5.