The Living Skies of Saskatchewan


Gazing at the Milky Way in Grasslands National Park

I spent a wonderful week touring the star-filled nightscapes of southwest Saskatchewan.

On their license plates Saskatchewan is billed as the Land of Living Skies. I like the moniker that Saskatchewan singer-songwriter Connie Kaldor gives it – the sky with nothing to get in the way.

Grasslands National Park should be a mecca for all stargazers. It is a Dark Sky Preserve. You can be at sites in the Park and not see a light anywhere, even in the far distance on the horizon, and barely any sky glows from manmade sources.

The lead image shows the potential for camping in the Park under an amazing sky, an attraction that is drawing more and more tourists to sites like Grasslands.

Milky Way Panorama at 76 Ranch Corral

This is a multi- panel panorama of the Milky Way over the historic 76 Ranch Corral in the Frenchman River Valley, once part of the largest cattle ranch in Canada. Mars shines brightly to the east of the galactic core.

At the Two Trees site visitors can stay in the tipis and enjoy the night sky. No one was there the night I was shooting. The night was warm, windless, and bug-less. It was a perfect summer evening.

Twilight Panorama at SSSP 2018

From Grasslands I headed west to the Cypress Hills along scenic backroads. The main Meadows Campground in Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, another Dark Sky Preserve, is home every year to the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party. About 350 stargazers and lovers of the night gather to revel in starlight.

This year coincided with the annual Perseid meteor shower and we saw lots!

Most nights were clear, and warmer than usual, allowing shirt-sleeve observing. It was a little bit of Arizona in Canada. Everyone enjoyed the experience. I know I did!

SSSP and Cypress Hills are stargazing heaven in Canada.

Panorama of the Milky Way over the Great Sandhills

From Cypress Hills I drove due north to finally, after years of thinking about it, visit the Great Sandhills near Leader, Saskatchewan. Above is a panorama from the “Boot Hill” ridge at the main viewing area.

The Sandhills is not a provincial park but is a protected eco zone, though used by local ranchers for grazing. However, much of the land remains uniquely prairie but with exposed sand dunes among the rolling hills.

There are farm lights in the distance but the sky above is dark and, in the panorama above, colored by twilight and bands of red and green airglow visible to the camera. It’s dark!

Four Planets Along the Ecliptic at Great Sandhills

In the twilight, from the top of one of the accessible sand dunes, I shot a panorama of the array of four planets currently across the sky, from Venus in the southwest to Mars in the southeast.

This is the kind of celestial scene you can see only where the sky has nothing to get in the way.

Sunset at Great Sandhills

If you are looking for a stellar experience under their “living skies,” I recommend Saskatchewan.

— Alan, August 26, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

On Solstice Pond


Selfie at Solstice Pond

Solstice nights have been filled with twilights, planets, and noctilucent clouds.

Astronomers tend to curse the short nights and late sunsets of summer solstice. But the bright nights do offer unique sights.

Over the last few nights I’ve set up at what I call “Solstice Pond,” a prairie slough near home ideal for shooting the aurora to the north and, at this time of year, the glow of twilight and noctilucent clouds.

Below is the view on the night before solstice, looking north toward the glow of “perpetual twilight” that lights the northern horizon at solstice time from my latitude of 50° north.

Solstice Twilight Panorama over Prairie Pond
A 120° panorama of the summer solstice twilight (at 12:30 am local time) looking north over the prairie pond near home in southern Alberta, taken June 19/20, 2018. Some very faint noctilucent clouds are at left but fading, while some very faint rays of auroral curtains are also visible in the photo but were invisible to the eye. The bright star Capella is at centre and reflected in the calm waters. Perseus is at right of centre. The red lights at right are from the wind turbines at the Wintering Hills Wind Farm. This is a stitch of 6 segments, with the 35mm lens at f/2.5 for 20 seconds each with the Canon 6DMkII at ISO 400.

From farther north the twilight would be more prominent, while above the Arctic Circle at 66° N latitude, the twilight turns to full daylight as the Sun never sets.

The view looking south this night, with the Moon just off frame at right, includes the Milky Way at centre, with Saturn embedded, flanked by bright Jupiter at right and reddish Mars at left, both casting shimmering “glitter paths” on the still waters.

Planet Panorama at a Prairie Pond
A 160° panorama looking south near summer solstice time in June 2018, with the bright planets Mars (left) and Jupiter (right) and their glitter paths on the water flanking the Milky Way and Saturn in Sagittarius above the pinkish Lagoon Nebula. The waxing Moon is setting off frame at right brightening the sky and lighting the landscape. The sky is also blue from the solstice twilight. The stars of Scorpius shine between Jupiter and the Milky Way. Some faint bands of red and green airglow are visible at left, despite the bright sky. This is a stitch of 8 segments, all for 25 seconds with the 35mm lens at f/2.2 and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 800.

A few nights later (below), on June 24, the star of the solstice sky put in an appearance. Bright noctilucent clouds (NLCs) shone to the north, reflected in the pond.

These are water vapour clouds 80 kilometres high at the edge of the atmosphere – in the mesosphere – almost in space. They form over the Arctic in summer, and are high enough to remain sunlit even in the middle of the night as they catch the Sun shining over the pole.

Southern Western Canada – the Prairies where I live – is well-placed to see them, as we are far enough north to see them in our sky, but not so far north that our sky is too bright.

Noctilucent Clouds over Prairie Pond (June 24, 2018)
A fine display of noctilucent clouds (NLCs) or polar mesospheric clouds, reflected in a local prairie pond near home in southern Alberta. The display started with wisps much higher in the north but they faded as the Sun dropped lower, with the display at this extent by the time I reached my spot and took this panorama. Leo and Regulus are setting at far left in the west, as is Venus just above the horizon at left. Capella and Auriga are at centre, and circumpolar, while the stars of Perseus at right, rising. This is a panorama of 9 segments, at 15° spacings, with the 35mm lens at f/2.8 for 13 second exposures with the Canon 6D MkII at ISO 400. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

An even better display appeared two nights later, on June 26, brighter and with more structure.

The curving arc of the top of the display defines the most southerly edge where sunlight is able to reach. That edge drops lower through the first part of the night, as the Sun itself drops lower below the horizon. This causes less of the NLC display to be sunlit.

Panorama of Noctilucent Clouds (June 26, 2018)
A panorama of a fine display of noctilucent clouds across the northern horizon over an angle of about 60°. This was on June 26, 2018 at about 11:45 pm. Capella is just left of centre. The display faded as the solar illumination dropped and the clouds darkened from the top down. This was from the small pond near home in southern Alberta. This is a stitch of 7 segments, each 2 seconds at f/2.8 with the 85mm Rokinon lens and Canon 6D MkII at ISO 400. Stitched with ACR.

You can see this effect of the changing illumination of the clouds in this time-lapse compilation from June 26 (below).

Also notice the waving motion of the clouds. It is as if the NLC material is flowing over standing waves in the atmosphere – and it is! The waves are called “gravity waves,” and are bumps in the high atmosphere created by disturbances far below in the normal layers of the atmosphere, the stratosphere and troposphere.

The video includes two clips shot simultaneously: from a camera with a 24mm wide-angle lens, and from a camera with an 85mm moderate telephoto. Expand to view full screen in HD.

The motion, here over an hour or more, is hypnotic. The NLCs move right to left (east to west), while the dark normal weather clouds on the horizon are blowing left to right (west to east). The stars are also turning left to right. The water ripples in the wind, while ducks swim by.

It was a magical night at Solstice Pond.

– Alan, June 27, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

The Night-Shadowed Prairie


The Night Shadowed Prairie

“No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets; no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie.” – William Butler, 1873

In the 1870s, just before the coming of the railway and European settlement, English adventurer William Butler trekked the Canadian prairies, knowing what he called “The Great Lone Land” was soon to disappear as a remote and unsettled territory.

The quote from his book is on a plaque at the site where I took the lead image, Sunset Point at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.

The night was near perfect, with the Milky Way standing out down to the southern horizon and the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana. Below, the Milk River winds through the sandstone rock formations sacred to the Blackfoot First Nations.

The next night (last night, July 26, as I write this) I was at another unique site in southern Alberta, Red Rock Coulee Natural Area. The sky presented one of Butler’s unmatched prairie sunsets.

Big Sky Sunset at Red Rock Coulee

This is “big sky” country, and this week is putting on a great show with a succession of clear and mild nights under a heat wave.

Waxing Crescent Moon at Red Rock Coulee

The waxing crescent Moon adds to the western sky and the sunsets. But it sets early enough to leave the sky dark for the Milky Way to shine to the south.

The Milky Way at Red Rock Coulee

This was the Milky Way on Wednesday night, July 27, over Red Rock Coulee. Sagittarius and the centre of the Galaxy lie above the horizon. At right, Saturn shines amid the dark lanes of the Dark Horse in the Milky Way.

I’m just halfway through my week-long photo tour of several favourite sites in this Great Lone Land. Next, is Cypress Hills and the Reesor Ranch.

— Alan, July 27, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

Rivers of Earth and Sky


Shooting at Orkney Viewpoint

The arch of the Milky Way mirrors the sweep of the Red Deer River on a magical night in the Alberta Badlands.

Images of the Milky Way arching across the sky are now iconic. They are almost always assembled from individual frames stitched together to make a seamless panorama.

From the northern hemisphere, spring is the best season to shoot such a panorama as the Milky Way then remains confined to the eastern sky.

Later in summer, when the Milky Way passes directly overhead, panoramas are still possible, but the Milky Way looks distorted. The process of mapping a round sky onto a rectangular image, as I show here, inevitably stretches out the Milky Way near the zenith.

Last Saturday, in search of the Milky Way during prime panorama season, I set up for the night at Orkney Viewpoint overlooking the Red Deer River in the Alberta Badlands north of Drumheller. There, the river performs a grand curve through the valley below.

Above, the Milky Way, often described as a river of stars, sweeps in mirror-image fashion above the earthly river.

Rivers of Earth and Sky
This is a stitch of 8 segments with the Sigma 20mm Art lens, in portrait mode, and Nikon D750. Each 30 seconds at f/2 and ISO 3200. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw. Taken on a mild and moonless night, May 20, 2017.

The panorama above contains the reflection of stars – of the constellation of Delphinus in particular – in the smooth water on a windless night.

To the north at left, the Northern Lights put on a subtle show. While never spectacular to the eye, the camera records the aurora’s colour and forms that often elude the naked eye.

Aurora over Red Deer River
This is a stack of 4 x 15-second exposures for the ground to smooth noise, and one 15-second exposure for the sky, all with the 20mm Sigma lens at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. They were part of a 250-frame time-lapse.

The display was brightest early in the evening – that’s 11 p.m. now in May at my latitude.

The display then faded in intensity before I shot the two panoramas about 1 a.m., but the last few frames of the time-lapse show a final burst of colour from a lone curtain reflected in the river.

Lone Curtain of Aurora over Red Deer River
This is a stack of 84 x 15-second exposures for the ground to smooth noise, and one 15-second exposure for the sky, all with the 20mm Sigma lens at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. They were part of a 250-frame time-lapse.

This was a magical night indeed. And a rare one this spring with clouds more often the norm at night.

The next dark of the Moon coincides with summer solstice. So while the moonlight won’t interfere, critical for shooting the Milky Way, the glow of perpetual twilight at my latitude will. The Milky Way will be set in a deep blue sky.

By July’s dark of the Moon the Milky Way will be high overhead, making panorama arches tough to assemble. It looks like this might have been my one best night to capture such a scene this year. But it was a good one.

— Alan, May 24, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

Hello, Austral Autumn Sky


Southern Autumn Sky Panorama (Spherical)

The sky looks very different from down under. This is the entire sky of early evening as autumn begins in the southern hemisphere.

My last post showed Orion and the winter sky disappearing into the west, from home in Alberta.

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.

Southern Autumn Sky Panorama (with Labels)

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.

Orion and Waxing Moon Setting at Cape Conran

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.

Orion, the Milky Way and Waxing Moon at Cape Conran

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!

— Alan, April 4, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

The Ghostly Glow of Gegenschein


Northern Spring Sky Panorama

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.

Orion over the Old Barn

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.

The Zodiacal Light is better depicted in images in my previous post from Dinosaur Park

We bid adieu to the winter Milky Way now. As it departs we are left with an evening sky without the Milky Way visible at all. As seen from northern latitudes it lies along the horizon.

But later in spring, late at night, we’ll see the summer Milky Way rising, beginning its seasons of prominence until late autumn.

— Alan, March 19, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

A Starry Night in the Badlands


Winter Milky Way Arch and Zodiacal Light

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.

Winter Sky Panorama at Dinosaur Park (Fish-Eye View)
This is a stitch of 6 segments with the 12mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8 for 30 seconds each, with the Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, mounted portrait. Stitched with PTGui.

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.

Winter Sky Panorama at Dinosaur Park (with Labels)
This is a stitch of 6 segments taken with the 12mm full-fame fish-eye Rokinon lens at f/2.8, all 30-second exposures with the Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. The camera was aimed portrait with the segments at 60° spacings. Stitched with PTGui using equirectangular projection with the zeith pulled down slightly.

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.

Winter Stars over Dinosaur Park
This is a stack of 8 x 30-second exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, plus one 30-second exposure for the sky. All at f/2.2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

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.

Evening Zodiacal Light at Dinosaur Park
The late winter evening Zodiacal Light, from at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, February 28, 2017. This is a stack of 7 x 30-second exposures for the ground, mean combined for lower noise, plus one 30-second exposure for the sky, all at f/2 with the 20mm Sigma Art lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

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.

— Alan, March 14, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com