Orion and Canis Major Rising


Sirius & Canis Major Rising from New Mexico (35mm)

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.

Orion Rising over Adobe House v2 (New Mexico)

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.

— Alan, December 10, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Skyglows Galore in the New Mexico Dawn


New Mexico Pre-Dawn Skyglow Panorama (Dec 2013)

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 Resort in 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.

As a postscript — this is blog post #401 from me.

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

Zodiacal Light and the Phantom Comet


Zodiacal Light at Dawn from New Mexico (Dec 2013)

The Zodiacal Light shines bright in the New Mexico dawn, near where the ill-fated Comet ISON would have been.

This was the dawn sky on the morning of December 6, 2013 looking east from our observing site at the Painted Pony Resort in New Mexico.

The zodiacal light was bright pre-dawn extending up from the horizon to high overhead. This glow is from sunlight reflected off comet dust in the inner solar system.

Adding to that cloud of dust is presumably the remains of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) – this image includes the position where ISON would have appeared had it survived, with its head left of centre, just left of the zodiacal light, and just above the mountain ridge. Its tail would have arched up and to the left, had it grown an extensive dust tail as was hoped.

As it is, there is a comet in the field – Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) is a tiny blue blip at far left, a minor consolation prize for missing ISON. Pity ISON didn’t work out, as we would have had two photogenic and naked eye comets in the dawn sky together.

The field also contains two planets: Mars in Leo above and right of centre, and Saturn in Libra just coming up over the mountains in the middle of the zodiacal light. Both lie in the zodiacal light because the light follows the ecliptic – i.e. the plane of the solar system and the orbits of the planets.

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

Enjoying Lovejoy, the Consolation Comet


Comet Lovejoy from New Mexico (Dec 6, 2013)

Comet Lovejoy shines above the New Mexico desert in the pre-dawn sky. 

We came here for Comet ISON but have had to settle for Comet Lovejoy, a decent enough comet in the morning sky, but not the spectacle we had hoped for.

This was Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) as it appeared this morning, December 6, under very good New Mexico skies marred only by some scattered clouds and patches of airglow. The main image is a 50mm lens shot of the wide scene looking east.

The comet was visible to the naked eye, but just barely as a fuzzy star. It took the long exposure photos to bring out its blue ion tail, stretching 6° to 10° across the sky and pointed down toward the sunrise point in the east.

Comet Lovejoy from New Mexico (Dec 6, 2013) 135mm

I took the close-up shot above with a 135mm telephoto lens showing the bright head and faint ion tail. The tail here measures 6° long, though a deeper exposure might have picked up more, up to 10° long. But I think reports of seeing a tail up to 5° long with the naked eye are wishful seeing. The comet and tail are not that obvious, and we are in superb skies.

Still, Lovejoy makes a fine comet consolation prize, substituting for the ill-fated Comet ISON. It was a beautiful morning to enjoy Lovejoy in the quiet and star-filled New Mexico dawn.

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

Adobe Moon and Venus


Crescent Moon & Venus Over Adobe House (Dec 5, 2013)

The waxing crescent Moon shines above Venus and our adobe house in New Mexico.

Tonight, December 5, the clouds cleared in time for us to catch a glimpse of the crescent Moon above Venus, now at its most brilliant for the year.

They shine above the main house at the Painted Pony Resort where I am this week for a stint of astrophotography with a dozen other Canadians escaping winter up north. But it’s cold here, too – it might go down to freezing tonight. Horrors!

For this shot I made liberal use of shadow and highlight recovery at the Adobe Camera Raw stage and in Photoshop to recover as much detail as I could in the overexposed Moon at top. However, the long exposure nicely brings out the stars in the moonlit sky. I also like the contrast of pastel colours.

– Alan, December 5, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Winter Sky Rising


Jupiter, Orion and Winter Sky Rising (24mm)

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.

Milky Way in Perseus, Auriga and Taurus (24mm)

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.

— Alan, December 5, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Zodiacal Light & Light Pollution


Zodiacal Light & Light Pollution (New Mexico)

The subtle glow of zodiacal light competes with the artificial glow of light pollution.

This was the scene earlier this evening, December 4, from our dark sky retreat at the Painted Pony Resort in southeast New Mexico. In the distance the yellow glow of light pollution reflecting off the clouds comes from Douglas, Arizona.

Above, in the sky, you can see a subtle band of light reaching up and tipped slightly to the left. That’s the zodiacal light, caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust in the inner solar system.

At right is part of the summer Milky Way, setting into the west.

The clouds are orographic clouds hovering over the Chiricahua Mountains, where I was last evening shooting the sunset.

Our first night here has proven to be much better than we had expected, with scattered cloud but mostly clear skies. We’re here for another 4 nights. More is coming!

— Alan, December 4, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

The Ghostly Glow of Gegenschein


Gegenschein from New Mexico (14mm 5DII)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Magnificent Milky Way


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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

– Alan, March 16, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

Orion and the Winter Triangle


Winter Triangle & Orion (35mm 5DII)

The Milky Way runs through the middle of the Winter Triangle, three of the bright stars of the northern winter sky.

At right is the familiar pattern of Orion the Hunter. But if you take his shoulder star, the orange-looking Betelgeuse, you can form an equilateral triangle with Sirius below centre and Procyon at upper left. The trio are sometimes called the Winter Triangle. The pattern seems obvious here but with so many other bright stars in the winter sky, I’ve never found the pattern too obvious. But in this image I’ve chosen to nicely centre and frame the Triangle.

I’ve also increased the contrast and saturation to emphasize the wealth of nebulosity that fills this area of the Milky Way. Streamers seem to reach out from Orion and connect to the reddish Seagull Nebula above Sirius, and also to the round Rosette Nebula above centre. The background sky west of the Milky Way under Orion is filled with a faint red glow, in contrast to the neutral black sky east (left) of the Milky Way.

I shot this last night, from New Mexico, on our last good clear night on a week-long observathon. This is a stack of 5 exposures, each 8 minutes long, plus two other exposures shot through a diffusion filter to add the glows around stars. I used a 35mm lens and a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera, riding on an iOptron Skytracker tracking platform.

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

 

 

Celestial Scorpion in the Desert


Scorpius over Adobe House (35mm 5DII)

This is one of the few constellations that looks like what it is supposed to be – a desert-dwelling scorpion.

This is Scorpius in his native habitat of the desert. Here, from the latitude of southern New Mexico, he is standing on end, his claws at top, his curving tail and stinger at bottom.

The bright yellow star is Antares, the heart of the scorpion, embedded in a colourful mix of magenta, yellow and blue nebulas. Scattered along the Milky Way in the tail of the scorpion you can see several magenta emission nebulas shining by the combined red and blue light of hydrogen atoms.

What I love about this area of sky is the lacework of dark foreground nebulas, and the contrast between the bright star clouds and dark lanes of stardust. At centre left is the Dark Horse, the darkest part of which also carries the name Pipe Nebula.

I shot this image this morning at about 5 a.m, in the hour before the sky brightened with dawn twilight. This is a stack of seven 3-minute exposures with a 35mm lens, including two exposures taken through a diffusion filter to add the accentuated star glows. The ground details come from just one of the exposures.

As it’s been all week, the location is the Painted Pony Resort in southwest New Mexico.

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

The Arch of the Milky Way


New Mexico Milky Way Panorama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Comet and Earthlit Moon Amid the Stars


Comet PANSTARRS & the Moon (March 13, 2013)

This was the scene tonight, March 13, as Comet PANSTARRS set over the mountains in deep twilight, with the waxing Moon hanging overhead.

The small comet sits low in the orange glow of twilight, where the Moon was last night when it was down beside the comet. Tonight, a day later, the Moon appeared much higher in the sky as it waxes toward first quarter Moon in another few days. Tonight it was a crescent with most of the dark part of the lunar disk lit by Earthshine. I took this shot just before the comet set behind the mountains, to get the sky as dark as possible and the exposure longer to bring out some stars in the deepening blue of twilight.

I took this from the Painted Pony Resort in New Mexico where about 15 of us are gathered for a week-long star party and dusk to dawn “observathon.”

Indeed, I have to get back outside to continue shooting the Milky Way. It is another stunningly perfect night under New Mexico skies.

– Alan, March 13, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Night of the Comet on a Desert Highway


Comet PANSTARRS & the Moon in Twilight (March 12, 2013)

Sometimes the best sky experiences just happen spontaneously. This was one of them – a night of the comet on a desert highway.

This was the scene at our impromptu roadside star party last night, north of the Painted Pony Resort in southwest New Mexico. About a dozen of us, mostly Canadians, gathered at a highway pull off to watch the unforgettable sight of the waxing crescent Moon setting alongside Comet PANSTARRS. You can see the comet to the left of the Moon in the background wide-field image, more or less as it appeared to the naked eye. But the real treat was the view through binoculars and my own small 80mm telescope. The series of closeups with a telephoto lens captures that view.

It was amazing to watch the comet tail and dark side of the Moon setting together as the last bits to disappear behind the mountains. All the while the winter stars and Milky Way were appearing overhead in a perfect sky, all on a mild desert night. A stunning astronomical experience.

Thank you PANSTARRS!

– Alan, March 13, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Skies of Enchantment – Summer Milky Way Rising


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skies of Enchantment – Winter Milky Way Setting


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comet PANSTARRS at Perihelion


Comet PANSTARRS C/2011 L4 (March 10, 2013)

Got it! After a few days of cloud, the skies cleared perfectly tonight for our first look at Comet PANSTARRS.

This is the comet on March 10, the day it rounded the Sun at perihelion, its closest point to the Sun. The comet, which came from the Oort Cloud, is now on its way back to where it came from. But for the next few days, it will be at its best in our evening sky in the northern hemisphere. Friends down under in the southern hemisphere have been enjoying views of the comet for the last two weeks, but the comet has now moved far enough north it has entered our northern hemisphere skies.

The view is actually best from higher latitudes but I’m here at latitude 31° N, in southwestern New Mexico, seeking the clearest skies for the comet. We got them tonight. This view is of the comet about 7° up, just above the rim of the Chiricahua Mountains to the west of us, in Arizona.

The comet will climb higher over the next few days, with a prime night on March 12 when the waxing Moon appears near the comet.

– Alan, March 10, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer