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.
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.
Mars and the Milky Way over the tipis at Two Trees area in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan on August 6, 2018. Some light cloud added the haze and glows to the planets and stars. Illumination is by starlight. No light painting was employed here. This is a stack of 8 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and a single untracked exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the Sigma 20mm lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400 with LENR on.
Mars (at left) and the Milky Way (at right) over a single tipi (with another under construction at back) at the Two Trees site at Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, August 6, 2018. I placed a low-level warm LED light inside the tipi for the illumination. This is a stack of 6 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and one untracked exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.2 with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
The Big Dipper and Arcturus (at left) over a single tipi at the Two Trees site at Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan, August 6, 2018. This is a stack of 10 exposures, mean combined to smooth noise, for the ground, and one untracked exposure for the sky, all 30 seconds at f/2.8 with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. Light cloud passing through added the natural star glows, enlarging the stars and making the pattern stand out. No soft focus filter was employed, and illumination is from starlight. No light painting was employed. Some airglow and aurora colour the sky. A Glow filter from ON1 Photo Raw applied to the sky to further soften the sky.
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.
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.
The Perseid meteor shower over the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party, on August 10, 2018, with an aurora as a bonus. The view is looking north with Polaris at top centre, and the Big Dipper at lower left. The radiant point in Perseus is at upper right. The sky also has bands of green airglow, which was more prominent in images taken earlier before the short-lived aurora kicked up. The aurora was not obvious to the naked eye. However, the northern sky was bright all night with the airglow and faint aurora. This is a composite of 10 images, one for the base sky with the aurora and two faint Perseids, and 9 other images, each with Perseids taken over a 3.3 hour period, being the best 9 frames with meteors out of 360. Each exposure was 30 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laoawa lens and Sony a7III at ISO 4000. I rotated all the additional meteor image frames around Polaris to align the frames to the base sky image, so that the added meteors appear in the sky in the correct place with respect to the background stars, retaining the proper perspective of the radiant point.
A Perseid meteor streaks down the Milky Way over the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party in the Cypress Hills of southwest Saskatchewan, at Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, a Dark Sky Preserve. The Milky Way shines to the south. About 350 stargazers attend the SSSP every year. Observers enjoy their views of the sky at left while an astrophotographer attends to his camera control computer at right. This is a single exposure, 25 seconds, with the Laowa 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III camera at ISO 3200.
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.
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!
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.
If you are looking for a stellar experience under their “living skies,” I recommend Saskatchewan.
It’s Perseid meteor shower time. Here are tips for seeing and shooting the meteors.
What are the Perseids?
They are an annual meteor shower, perhaps the most widely observed of the year, that peak every year about August 12. They are caused by Earth passing through a dust stream left by Comet Swift-Tuttle, last seen near Earth in 1992.
Each “shooting star” is really a bit of comet dust burning up in our atmosphere as it ploughs into us at 200,000 kilometres an hour. They don’t stand a chance of surviving – and none do.
All Perseid particles burn up. None reach Earth.
When are the Perseids?
The peak night of the Perseids this year is the night of Wednesday, August 12 into the early morning hours of August 13, with the peak hour occurring about midnight Mountain Daylight Time or 2 a.m. on the 13th for Eastern Daylight Time.
For North America, this is ideal timing for a good show this year. However, a good number of meteors will be visible the night before and night after peak night.
Even better, the Moon is near New and so won’t interfere with the viewing by lighting up the sky.
In all, except for the mid-week timing, conditions this year in 2015 couldn’t be better!
What do they look like?
Any meteor looks like a brief streak of light shooting across the sky. The brightest will outshine the brightest stars and are sure to evoke a “wow!” reaction.
However, the spectacular Perseids are the least frequent. From a dark site, expect to see about 40 to 80 meteors in an hour of patient and observant watching, but of those, only a handful – perhaps only 1 or 2 – will be “wow!” meteors.
Where do I look?
All the meteors will appear to radiate from a point in the constellation of Perseus in the northeastern sky in the early hours of the night, climbing to high overhead by dawn.
So you can face that direction if you wish, but Perseids can appear anywhere in the sky, with the longest meteor trails often opposite the radiant point, over in the southwest.
How do I look?
Simple – just lie back on a comfy lawn chair or patch of grass and look up!
But … you need to be at a dark location away from city lights to see the most meteors. You’ll see very little in a city or light-polluted suburbs.
Head to a site as far from city lights as you can, to wherever you’ll be safe and comfortable.
How do I take pictures?
To stand any chance of capturing these brief meteors you’ll need a good low-noise camera (a DSLR or Compact System Camera) with a fast (f/2.8 or faster) wide-angle lens (10mm to 24mm).
Sorry, keep your point-and-shoot camera and phone camera tucked away in your pocket – they won’t work.
Set up you camera on a tripod, open the lens to f/2.8 (wide open perhaps) and the ISO to 800 to 3200) and take a test exposure of 20 to 40 seconds. You want a well-exposed image but not over-exposed so the sky is washed out.
Set your exposure time accordingly – most cameras allow a maximum exposure of 30 seconds. Exposures longer than 30 seconds require a separate intervalometer to set the exposure, with the camera set on Bulb (B).
Take lots of pictures!
To up your chances of catching a meteor, you need to set the camera to shoot lots of frames in rapid succession.
Use an intervalometer to take shots one after the other with as little time between as possible – because that’s when a meteor will appear!
Barring an intervalometer, if you have standard switch remote control, set the camera on High Speed Continuous, and the shutter speed to 30 seconds, then lock the remote’s switch to ON to keep the camera firing. As soon as one exposure ends it’ll fire another.
What else do I need to know?
• Focus the lens carefully so the stars are sharp – the Live Focus mode helps for this. Focus on a bright star or distant light.
• Aim the camera to take in a wide swath of the sky but include a well-composed foreground for the most attractive shot.
• Aim northeast to capture meteors streaking away from the radiant. But you can aim the camera to any direction that lends itself to a good composition and still capture a meteor.
• To increase your chances, shoot with two or more cameras aimed to different areas of the sky. Meteors always appear where your camera isn’t aimed!
• Be patient! Despite shooting hundreds of frames only a handful will record a meteor, as only the brightest will show up.
Can I track the sky?
If you have a motorized equatorial mount or a dedicated sky tracking device (the iOptron Sky Tracker and Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, each about $400, are popular), you can follow the stars while taking lots of shots. This avoids the stars trailing and allows you to use longer exposures.
The video above shows a Star Adventurer tracking the sky as it turns about its polar axis which is aimed up to a point near Polaris. Click the Enlarge and HD buttons to view the video properly.
Polar align the tracker, but then perhaps aim the camera to frame the summer Milky Way overhead. Take lots of 1- to 3-minute exposures, again at f/2.8 and ISO 800 to 1600. Some exposures will pick up meteors – with luck!
Tracking then stacking
Later, in processing, because the sky has remained fixed on the frame, it’s then possible to stack the images (using a “Lighten” blend mode on each image layer) so that the final composite frame contains more meteors, for an image with lots of meteors captured over an hour or more of shooting.
While it is possible to stack shots taken on a static tripod to produce such a meteor composite, doing so requires a lot of manual cutting, pasting and aligning of meteor images by hand. The result is a bit of a fake, though I’ve done it myself – the image at top is an example, though with only a trio of meteors.
A couple of Perseid meteors streak across the moonlit sky above Mt. Cephren in Banff National Park.
The night before the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower was very clear for the first couple of hours. On Monday, August 11, I positioned myself at the shore of Lower Waterfowl Lake, at a roadside viewpoint on the Icefields Parkway in Banff National Park, Alberta.
I had two cameras going, one on a fixed tripod aimed west in hope of catching some meteors in a few frames. Two did, and the main image is a composite of those two frames, as the Perseids shoot over the pyramid peak of Mt. Cephren.
Later, the Space Station also flew over, accompanied by the European ATV cargo ship, captured here in a stack of 18 frames from the 555-frame time-lapse, showing their pass from west to east (bottom to top) of the composite image. The gaps are from when the shutter was closed for 1 second between the 15-second-long exposures with the 14mm ultra-wide lens.
In all, it was a warm and beautiful night, with the normally busy viewpoint all to myself all night, under the light of the nearly Full Moon.