Touring the Wonders of the Winter Sky

The Wonders of the Winter Sky

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.

Artist's impression of the Milky Way (updated - annotated)
Courtesy European Southern Observatory

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

The Belt and Sword of Orion with Barnard's Loop
This is a stack of 16 x 2- to 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 to 1250 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker as part of testing. Taken from home on January 8, 2019 during a clear couple of hours between passing haze and cloud.

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

Rosette and Christmas Tree Cluster with 200mm
The area of the Rosette Nebula (bottom) and Christmas Tree Cluster (top) in Monoceros with the Fornax Lightrack tracker and 200mm lens and filter modified Canon 5D MkII. This is a stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800.

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

The Clusters and Nebulas of Gemini
This is a stack of 10 x 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. Some light haze passing through in some exposures added the natural star glows. I left those in as part of the stack to add the glows. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker as part of testing. Taken from home on a rare fine and mild winter night, January 4, 2019.

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

The Clusters and Nebulas of Auriga
This is a stack of 5 x 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker as part of testing. Diffraction spikes added with Astronomy Tools actions. Taken from home on January 4, 2019.

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

The California Nebula in Perseus
This is a stack of 5 x 3-minute exposures with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. An additional exposure taken through the Kenko Softon A filter is layered in to add the star glows to bring out their colours. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker. Taken from home on a rare fine and mild winter night, January 4, 2019.

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

Pleiades M45 with 200mm Lens
The Pleiades with the Fornax Lightrack tracker and 200mm lens + Canon 5D MkII in a stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800.

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.

The Hyades

The Hyades Star Cluster with NGC 1647 in Taurus
This is a stack of 5 x 2-minute exposures with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and 200mm Canon L-Series lens at f/2.8. An additional exposure taken through the Kenko Softon A filter is layered in to add the star glows to bring out their colours. Taken with the Fornax Lightrack tracker. Diffraction spikes added with Astronomy Tools actions for artistic effect.

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.

Seagull Nebula

Seagull Nebula and Sirius with 200mm
This is a stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800 (with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII and Canon 200mm lens at f/2.8). The rings of colour around Sirius are an artifact of the sensor filter, I think!

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

Lambda Orionis Nebula with 200mm
With the Fornax Lightrack tracker and 200mm lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII. A stack of 10 x 3 minute exposures at ISO 800 with the filter-modified Canon 5D MkII and Canon 200mm lens at f/2.8.

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.

See my previous blog post for details.  Thanks and clear skies!

— Alan, February 17, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / 


Mosaic of the Autumn Constellations

Mosaic of the Northern Autumn Constellations

I present a horizon-to-zenith panorama of the pantheon of autumn constellations.

Yes, I know it’s winter, but as it gets dark each night now in early January the autumn stars are still front and centre. I took the opportunity during a run of very clear nights at home to shoot a panorama of the autumn sky.

It is a mosaic that sweeps up the sky and frames many related Greek mythological constellations:

• from the watery constellations of Aquarius, Pisces, and Cetus at the bottom near the horizon…

• to Pegasus and Aries in mid-frame…

• on up to Andromeda and Perseus at upper left…

• and finally Cassiopeia and Cepheus at the top of frame embedded in the Milky Way overhead. The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is just above centre.

Mosaic of the Northern Autumn Constellations (with Labels)

Here, I’ve labeled the participating constellations, though only a few, such as the “square” of Pegasus and the “W” of Cassiopeia, have readily identifiable patterns.

Most of these constellations are related in Greek mythology, with Princess Andromeda being the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus, who was rescued from the jaws of Cetus the Sea Monster by Perseus the Hero, who rode on Pegasus the Winged Horse in some accounts.

Zodiacal Light brightens the sky at bottom right in Aquarius, and angles across the frame to the left.



I shot this from home on a very clear night January 2, 2016 with the Zodiacal Light plainly visible to the naked eye.

This is a mosaic of 5 panels, each a stack of 5 x 2 minute exposures, plus each panel having another stack of 2 x 2 minute exposures blended in, and taken through the Kenko Softon filter to add the fuzzy star glows to make the constellations stand out.

All were shot with the 24mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 5DMkII at ISO 1600. All tracked on the AP Mach One mount.

All stacking and stitching in Photoshop CC 2015. Final image size is 8500 x 5500 pixels and 3.6 gigabytes for the layered master.

– Alan, January 3, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer /


A Plethora of Perseids

A composite depicting the Perseid meteor shower on the night of Wednesday, August 12, 2015 as shot from southern Alberta, Canada.  The image takes in a wide swath of the north and eastern sky, including the radiant of the shower in Perseus at left of centre, near the Double Cluster visible as a clump of stars. All the Perseids can be traced back to this point. Also in the image: the summer Milky Way and, at left, a dim aurora in green and magenta that was barely visible to the eye but was picked up by the camera. The Andromeda Galaxy is at centre. The Pleiades is just on the horizon. Apart from some haze from forest fire smoke, it was a near perfect night: warm, dry, just a little wind to keep the bugs at bay, and no Moon. A perfect night for a meteor watch.  This is a layered stack of 35 images recording three dozen meteors (most Perseids but also a couple of sporadics not aimed back to the radiant in Perseus, such as the bright one at far left).  The 35 images were selected from 200 shot from 11 pm to 2:30 am that night, with most frames not picking up any meteors. This composite is from the 35 taken over the 3.5 hours that did record a meteor. Each exposure is 1 minute at f/2.8 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye, on the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200 (a couple of the early shots in the sequence were at ISO 1600 for 2 minutes).  The camera was tracking the sky on the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracker, so all images of the stars are aligned and registered out of the camera, with the meteors in their proper position relative to the stars and radiant. I masked out a couple of satellite and aircraft trails that were distracting, and took away from the point of illustrating the radiant of the meteor shower.  The horizon, however, is from one image, taken early in the sequence. Some of the blue in the sky comes from one of the early shots taken in deep twilight but that contained a nice meteor. And I liked the blue it added.  All stacking and processing with Adobe Ca

It was a good year for Perseid meteors, as they shot across the sky in abundance on dark-of-the-Moon nights.

Last week, August 11 and 12 proved to be superb for weather in southern Alberta, with clear skies and warm temperatures perfect for a night of watching and shooting meteors.

On both nights I had identical camera rigs running, all from my rural backyard. These images are from the peak night, Wednesday, August 12.

The main image at top is with a 15mm ultra wide lens, on a camera that was tracking the sky as it turned. Like many meteor photos these days it is a layered stack of many images, in this case 35, to put as many meteors as possible onto one frame.

While the result does illustrate the effect of meteors streaking away from the radiant point, here in Perseus, it does lend a false impression of what the shower was like. It took me 3.5 hours of shooting to capture all of those meteors.

Note the aurora as well.

The Perseid meteor shower on peak night of Wednesday, August 12, 2015, showing meteors radiating from the “radiant point” in northern Perseus, then rising in the northeast sky. One bright sporadic, non-Perseid meteor is at left, and a small sporadic is near the horizon at right. The meteor at far left, top, may be a satellite streak.  The Andromeda Galaxy is at upper right. A dim aurora is at left in the northeast. The setting is a ripening canola field at home.  This is a stack of 16 images, one for the “base layer” ground and sky, containing a bright meteor, and 15 other images taken as part of the same sequence, each containing a meteor, layered with Photoshop using Lighten blend mode. I rotated each of the additional “meteor layers” around Polaris at upper left, so the sky aligned closely, putting the meteors in close to their correct position relative to the stars, to accurately illustrate the radiant effect. This was necessary as this sequence was shot with a fixed, non-tracking camera (the Canon 6D) using a 14mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8. Each exposure was 1 minute at ISO 3200. The 16 meteor frames came from a set of 212 frames taken over 3.5 hours. I layered in only the frames with meteors.  Frames were taken from 11 pm to 2:30 am MDT.

With this camera I used a wide 14mm lens, but with the camera on a fixed tripod. I again blended frames, 16 of them, to show the meteors radiating from Perseus.

Because the camera was not tracking the sky, later in Photoshop I rotated each frame relative to a lower “base-level” image, rotating them around Polaris at top as the sky does, in order to line up the stars and have the meteors appear in their correct position relative to the background stars and radiant point.

Note the errant bright “sporadic” meteor not part of the shower.

The Perseid meteors shooting through Cygnus and the Summer Triangle area of the summer Milky Way, on the night of Wednesday, August 12, 2015. Deneb is the star at top left, Vega at top right, and Altair at bottom. The Perseids shoot across the frame from top left to bottom right. Other streaks are sporadic meteors or short satellite trails. I masked out other long satellite trails that were distracting to the image’s focus on depicting Perseids. This is a stack of 24 images, each with a meteor or two, taken over a 3.5-hour period that night, with each exposure being 1 minute at f/2, with the 24mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 1600. The 24 image with meteors were selected from a total of 214 shot for this sequence, with most frames not recording any meteor, and perhaps only satellites or aircraft.

Camera number 3 was aimed straight up for 3.5 hours, toward Cygnus and the Summer Triangle, in hopes of nabbing that brilliant fireball streaking down the Milky Way. I got a nice “rain of meteors” effect but the bright bolide meteor eluded me.

This was certainly the best year for the Perseids in some time, with it coinciding with New Moon.

Later this year, the Geminids will also put on a good show at nearly New Moon, on the nights of December 13 and 14. So if you liked, or missed, the Perseids, take note of the dates in December.

However, for many of us, a Geminid watch is a very, cold and snowy affair!

— Alan, August 18, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / 

Autumn Stars Rising over Dinosaur Park

Autumn Sky Rising over Badlands

The autumn constellations rise into a colourful sky at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta.

Last night the sky started out beautifully clear but as it got darker it was apparent even to the eye that the sky wasn’t really dark, despite the lack of any Moon.

The camera captured the culprit – extensive green airglow, to the east at right. A faint aurora also kicked up to the north, at left, adding a red glow. Light pollution from gas plants nearby and from Brooks 50 km away added yellow to the sky scattered off haze and incoming cloud.

The sky colours added to the scene of the autumn constellations of Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Perseus and Pegasus rising in the east. The Andromeda Galaxy is at centre. The Pleiades is (are?) just rising over the hill.

This is a composite of five stacked and tracked exposures for the sky (with the camera on the Star Adventurer tracking mount) and four stacked but untracked exposures I took at the end of the sequence for the sharp ground (I just turned the tracker motor off for these).

– Alan, September 26, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer


Thunderstorm in the Moonlight

Thunderstorm in Moonlight (June 25, 2013)

A thunderstorm rolls across the northern horizon with the stars of Cassiopeia and Andromeda rising.

This was a perfect night for storm shooting. The storm was far enough away to not engulf me in rain and wind, but close enough to show detail and reveal its bolts of lightning. A waning gibbous Moon shone in the south lighting up the storm clouds to the north and turning the sky blue.

Meanwhile the stars of Cassiopeia, Perseus and Andromeda were rising behind the storm clouds, a nice contrast of Earth and sky.

I’ve been after a confluence of circumstances like this for a few years. An aurora to the northeast would have been nice as well. But you can’t have everything!

– Alan, June 25, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Driving to Andromeda

Are we there yet? It would take a long time to get to the end of this road.

A road in Banff appears as if it is heading toward the autumn constellations rising over the peaks of the Fairholme range in the Canadian Rockies. The stars of Andromeda (centre), Pegasus (right), Perseus (left), and Cassiopeia (above left) make up the panorama of mythological heroes populating the northern autumn sky. In the sky above the road the small smudge of the Andromeda Galaxy is visible, shining from 2.5 million light years away. A faint aurora at left adds to the moonlit scene.

I shot this Sunday, July 29, moments after taking the image in the previous blog, which was looking the other way, north toward Cascade Mountain, from the meadows north of Banff. This was a very photogenic spot.

— Alan, August 4, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer


Celestial Pinks and Blues


Who says the dark night sky isn’t colourful? Of course, to the naked eye it mostly is, with the darkness punctuated only with a few red, yellow and blues stars. But expose a camera for long enough and all kinds of colour begins to appear.

This region is above us now, in the Northern Hemisphere evening sky for mid-winter. It’s the boundary area between Taurus and Perseus. Below are the vivid blues of the hot young Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. At top, just squeezing into the frame, is the shocking pink of the California Nebula, a glowing cloud of hydrogen gas in Perseus.

But between are the subtle hues of faint nebulosity weaving all through the Perseus-Taurus border zone. Below are faint cyans and blues from dust clouds reflecting the light of the Pleiades stars. In the middle are the yellow-browns of dark dust clouds hardly emitting light at all, but snaking across the frame to end in a complex of pink and blue straddling the border collectively known as IC 348 and IC 1333. At top, the glowing hydrogen gas of the California emits a mix of red and blue wavelengths, creating the hot pink tones, but fading to a deeper red to the left as the nebula thins out to the east. Throughout, hot blue stars pepper the sky and help illuminate the dust and gas clouds which will likely form more hot stars in the eons to come.

I took this shot last Wednesday night, on one of the few clear, haze-free nights of late. This is a “piggybacked shot,” with the Canon 5D MkII camera going along for the ride on one of my tracking mounts. This final shot is a stack of five 6-minute exposures, highly processed to bring out the faint clouds barely brighter than the sky itself. The camera was equipped with a 135mm telephoto lens, giving a field of view a couple of binocular fields wide. Hold out your hand and your outstretched palm would nicely cover  this area of sky. But only the camera reveals what is actually there.

— Alan, January 29, 2012 / Image © 2012 Alan Dyer