Live from Pluto under the Planetarium Dome


Live From Pluto Talk04

It was a full house for my Live from Pluto talk at TELUS Spark!

Something a little different from me this time. Not images or time-lapses of scenic places, but of me presenting a lecture and planetarium show!

This past two weeks I was immersed back into the world of planetarium programming.

Last night, July 16, was the culmination, as I presented a talk and planetarium show devoted to viewing the amazing new images from Pluto and the New Horizons probe … and to taking the audience through the solar system courtesy of the planetarium theatre’s Digistar 5 projection system.

The lecture was in the Digital Dome at TELUS Spark, the science centre in Calgary, Alberta. As you can see, it played to a packed “standing room only” house in the dome. The short time-lapse compresses my one-hour lecture into one minute!

In it, you can get a fast-paced taste of the visuals and immersive scenes I was able to program and project onto the dome with the Digistar.

That’s me down front on stage, running the show off the Digistar’s iPad.

What a way to present a lecture! I spent 40 years producing and presenting planetarium shows, but these new tools for visualizing the universe in the dome are jaw-dropping. It was fun to get back using them again, to bring this historic flyby event to the public in a unique way.

The movie begins with the audience entering, and ends with the Q&A and audience exiting. It includes scenes where we fly alongside New Horizons out to Pluto, then orbit Ceres with Dawn, plus land on a comet with Rosetta and Philae.

I shot the time-lapse with a Canon 6D and 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens shooting under Auto Exposure for a total of 1177 frames, taken at an interval of 8 seconds, played back here at 15 frames per second. The camera was behind the dome in the cove, where it would not be disturbed. Music is by Adi Goldstein.

Many thanks to the staff at TELUS Spark (sparkscience.ca) for making the event possible.

– Alan, July 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Riding Along with New Horizons at Pluto


FlyByScene1

During the week of July 13 to 17 we are witness to a momentous event in space exploration. Here’s how to follow along!

During the last week, and next, I’m out of photography for awhile and back into planetarium programming and production mode, my old day-job for decades. What has brought me back to the programming console is the once-in-history exploration of a new world – Pluto by the New Horizons probe.

I’m presenting a live public talk at the TELUS Spark science centre in Calgary on July 16 to present the new images. In the talk I use the amazing Evans and Sutherland Digistar digital planetarium system to fly people along with New Horizons as it makes its historic encounter.

Here, I present images of some of the full-dome immersive scenes I’ve programmed for the lecture. The top image is from the animation that places the audience alongside New Horizons as it flies from Earth and then through the Pluto system.

FirstImages

This image is the template scene into which I’ll drop what we hope will be even better images next week.

KuiperBelt

Here we fly out of the solar system to see the orbit of Pluto and its dwarf planet companions, as well as other objects of the Kuiper Belt, in perspective.

ScenefromPluto

In this scene we land on Pluto to see the sky as it will appear next week during the encounter, complete with moons in the Plutonian sky.

LowellObservatory

To put the mission into historic perspective I also take people inside the observatory where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930.

PhilaeCometLander

And we’ll also visit dwarf planet Ceres, and fly to the Rosetta comet (above) to watch Philae land, and bounce!

For those in the Calgary area able to attend, you can find more details about my July 16 talk at the TELUS Spark website. The talk is in the Digital Dome at 4 pm and is free.


But to follow along with the mission from anywhere on Earth I recommend bookmarking these sites:

Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab mission control, the main mission website

NASA TV for live press conferences and special programming

The Planetary Society and Emily Lakdawalla’s blog. This entry provides a detailed schedule of events and image download times.

– Alan, July 11, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer

The Great Solstice Aurora of 2015


The all-sky aurora of June 22, 2015, during a level 7 to 9 geomagnetic storm, as the display began already active in the darkening twilight of a solstice night. This is one frame from a 568-frame time-lapse, taken with the 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens at f/3.5 and with the Canon 6D, composed for projection in tilt-dome digital planetariums. I was on the south shore of Crawling Valley Lake and Reservoir in southern Alberta.

Aurora watchers were on alert! Look up after sunset on June 22 and the sky should be alive with dancing lights.

And the predictions were right.

I headed out to a nearby lake in preparation for seeing and shooting the show. And as soon as the sky got dark enough the Lights were there, despite the bright solstice twilight.

The all-sky aurora of June 22, 2015, during a level 7 to 9 geomagnetic storm, as the display began already active in the darkening twilight of a solstice night. This is one frame from a 960-frame time-lapse, taken with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/2.8 and with the Canon 60Da, looking north to the perpetual twilight of solstice. I was on the south shore of Crawling Valley Lake and Reservoir in southern Alberta.

The display reached up to the zenith, as seen in my fish-eye images, like the one below. I shot with three cameras, all shooting time-lapses, with the fish-eye camera recording the scene suitable for projection in a digital planetarium.

The all-sky aurora of June 22, 2015, during a level 7 to 9 geomagnetic storm, as the display peaked in a substorm with rays converging at the zenith in the darkening twilight of a solstice night. This is one frame from a 568-frame time-lapse, taken with the 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens at f/3.5 and with the Canon 6D, composed for projection in tilt-dome digital planetariums. I was on the south shore of Crawling Valley Lake and Reservoir in southern Alberta.

However, it was apparent we here in western Canada were seeing the end of the display that had been going on for hours during an intense geomagnetic storm. The aurora was most intense early in the evening, with a minor outburst about 11:30 to 11:45 pm MDT.

The all-sky aurora of June 22, 2015, during a level 7 to 9 geomagnetic storm, as the display began already active in the twilight of a solstice night. This is one frame from a 960-frame time-lapse, taken with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/2.8 and with the Canon 60Da, looking north to the perpetual twilight of solstice. I was on the south shore of Crawling Valley Lake and Reservoir in southern Alberta.

The aurora then subsided in structure and turned into a more chaotic pulsating display, typical of the end of a sub-storm.

A sky-covering display of Northern Lights, here in the western sky over a distant thunderstorm on the Alberta prairies. I shot this June 22, 2015 on a night with a grand display over most of the sky, with the sky bright with solstice twilight. The site was on the south shore of Crawling Valley Lake in southern Alberta. This is one frame from a 350-frame time-lapse, taken with the Nikon D750 and 24mm lens,

However, an attraction of this display was its juxtaposition over another storm, an earthly one, flashing lightning to the northwest of me.

The all-sky aurora of June 22, 2015, during a level 7 to 9 geomagnetic storm, as the display brightened again in the middle of the night at about 1 am, with rays converging at the zenith in the perpetual twilight of a solstice night. This is one frame from a 568-frame time-lapse, taken with the 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens at f/3.5 and with the Canon 6D, composed for projection in tilt-dome digital planetariums. I was on the south shore of Crawling Valley Lake and Reservoir in southern Alberta.

By 1 a.m. MDT the display, while still widespread over a large area of the northern sky, had turned into a diffuse glow.

But 60 gigabytes of images later, I headed home. The time-lapse compilation will come later!

– Alan, June 23, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Red Aurora of May 10


A strange red/magenta auroral arc overhead across the sky, with a more normal green diffuse glow to the north, as seen on May 10, 2015, in a stack of 80 frames taken over 45 minutes. The Big Dipper is overhead in the centre of the frame, Jupiter is at left in the west and Arcturus is at top to the south. I shot this from home, using an 8mm fish-eye lens to take in most of the sky, with the camera looking north. The 80 exposures were stacked and blended with Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com using the Long Trails effect. Each exposure was 32 seconds at f/3.6 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 6D. An individual exposure adds the more point-like stars at the start of the tapered star trails, and add the blue from the last twilight glow still illuminating the sky at the start of the sequence.

A strange red arc of aurora moved slowly across the sky on May 10.

All indicators looked favourable early in the evening on May 10 for a good auroral display later that night, and sure enough we got one. But it was an unusual display.

From my site in southern Alberta, the northern sky did have a diffuse glow of “normal” green aurora that never did take much form or structure.

But overhead the aurora took the form of an arc across the sky, starting as an isolated ray in the southeast initially, then reaching up to arch across the sky with what looked to the eye like a colourless band.

But the camera showed it as a red arc, with just a fringe of green curtains appearing for a few minutes.

Be sure to click HD and enlarge the video to fill your screen.

The time-lapse movie shows the sequence, over about 90 minutes, with 170 frames playing back at 12 frames per second. You can see the red arc develop, then become more narrow, then exhibit a few green curtains. Then it fades away.

Large-scale pulses also brighten the whole sky momentarily.

A strange red/magenta auroral arc overhead across the sky, with a more normal green diffuse glow to the north, as seen on May 10, 2015. The Big Dipper is overhead in the centre of the frame, Jupiter is at left in the west and Arcturus is at top to the south. I shot this from home, using an 8mm fish-eye lens to take in most of the sky, with the camera looking north. It is part of a 170-frame time-lapse sequence. Exposure was 32 seconds at f/3.6 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 6D.

The other images are individual frames taken during the evening, showing snapshots of the red arc development, as it became more narrow in structure and gained green curtain-like fringes.

Presumably the red structure was very high in the atmosphere while the green curtains attached to it that did appear hung down from the high-altitude red arc.

A strange red/magenta auroral arc overhead across the sky, with a more normal green diffuse glow to the north, as seen on May 10, 2015. The Big Dipper is overhead in the centre of the frame, Jupiter is at left in the west and Arcturus is at top to the south. I shot this from home, using an 8mm fish-eye lens to take in most of the sky, with the camera looking north. It is part of a 170-frame time-lapse sequence. Exposure was 32 seconds at f/3.6 and ISO 3200 with the Canon 6D.

I shot all images with an 8mm fish-eye lens to capture most of the sky. The camera is looking north toward Polaris, with the Big Dipper almost directly overhead near the centre of the frames.

The main image at top is a star-trail stack of 80 frames showing the sky’s circumpolar motion around Polaris and the aurora blurred and blended over 45 minutes of motion. I stacked the frames with the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com

– Alan, May 11, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Colourful Curtains of the Northern Lights


All-Sky Aurora #1 (Feb 17, 2015)

The Northern Lights have performed beautifully the last few nights, presenting curtains of light dancing across the sky.

Two nights ago in Churchill, Manitoba we were treated to a “storm level” show of aurora, with the Lights all across the sky in green curtains waving and curling before our eyes.

The curtains tower several hundred kilometres up into the atmosphere, from the lower edge at about 80 km up (still high above the stratosphere) to the curtain tops at about 400 km altitude at the edge of space.

The camera picks up the colours far better than the eye can, recording not only the predominant green hues but also shades of pink, magenta and red.

All-Sky Aurora #5 (Feb 17, 2015)

The magentas and reds come from the sections of the curtains at the highest altitudes, from the top of the auroral curtains. Here, where the atmosphere is a near vacuum, sparse oxygen atoms can glow with a red emission line.

However, there must be a blue component as well, leading to the magenta or pink tones, as in my photos here. Nitrogen can glow in blues and purples and might be contributing to the colours.

The top two photos are from Tuesday night, Feb 17, when storm levels of 5 were in effect worldwide.

All-Sky Auroral Curtains #2 (Feb 18, 2015)

Lower down, at about 100 km altitude, the air is denser and oxygen glows with a brighter green hue, which the eye can detect more easily.

The photo above from last night, with an activity level of just 2, also shows most of the sky covered with a faint emission, with a patchy appearance, with dark “holes” also moving and flowing in the time-lapse movies I shot.

Closer to the horizon, and far to the north, the aurora brightens into the more characteristic green snaking curtains.

Red Auroral Curtains

This image from three nights ago shows an usually coloured aurora at the start of the night, glowing mostly a deeper red and orange.

The green was still off in the distance far to the east. It arrived a few minutes later as green curtains swept in over us.

But the initial red was from low-energy electrons lighting up just high-altitude oxygen. Only when the higher energy particles arrived did the sky light up green.

All-Sky Aurora #7 (Feb 17, 2015)

I shot all these images with an 8mm fish-eye lens as frames in time-lapse sequences intended for use projected in digital planetarium domes, where the 360° “all-sky” scene would be recreated on the dome as it was in real life.

If you are with a planetarium, contact me if you’d like to get aurora clips.

Our second group of aurora tourists has arrived today at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and the weather is warming to a high of -20° C. Balmy!

We’re hoping for more fine displays, though the space weather forecast calls for a quiet magnetic field in the next few days.

– Alan, February 19, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Calgary Lights Up


I’m getting the hang of shooting demanding day-to-night time-lapse movies!

For this clip I shot over 2.5 hours, using a fish-eye lens, to create a sequence suitable for projection in a digital planetarium dome.

But the trick with these day-to-night sequences is getting a smooth transition in exposures, which can range over 12 to 16 f-stops, from short snapshot exposures with the lens stopped all the way down at the start before sunset, to long 8-second exposures with the lens wide open at night, plus the camera’s ISO speed increasing from a slow ISO 100 to a faster ISO 400 or more at select points through the sequence as well.

The secret to doing this is a control box called the Little Bramper, an intervalometer that fires the shutter automatically at set intervals but also gradually ramps the exposure time a tad longer with each successive exposure. This was my third time out with the Bramper, and I more or less got it right this time!

While the Bramper does a great job running the camera, it still takes a lot of manual oversight to control its ramping rate so the exposures don’t get too long and overexpose the scene, or fail to get long enough to track the darkening sky.

At several points in the sequence it is also necessary to quickly (in one exposure cycle) half the exposure time, while at the same time opening up the lens a stop, or doubling the ISO, so that the ever-lengthening exposure doesn’t get too long and collide with the interval between exposures. In this case, shots were taken about 12 seconds apart, so the maximum exposure for each frame couldn’t be much more than 8 to 10 seconds.

The end result of the work is a time-lapse movie that shows the setting Sun, then the lights of Calgary coming on as the sky darkens. Clouds lit by the yellow glow of streetlights move in, then blow away again to reveal a few stars in the urban sky.

— Alan, October 16, 2011 / Movie © 2011 Alan Dyer

Sunset in the City — This is Only a Test!


This is one for the time-lapse geeks!

One of the trickiest subjects for a time-lapse sequence is a smooth and seamless day-to-night transition. Exposure times vary from fractions of a second before sunset to several seconds at night fall.

How to do it? Manually shifting exposures is too much work and prone to error. Putting the camera on Automatic can work but inevitably results in an effect known in the time-lapse world as “flickering.” The camera’s automatically-judged exposures aren’t consistent from frame to frame so the final movie shows minor bright/dark flickering, making it look jerky.

For this test sequence of sunset over the Calgary skyline, I tried a new toy for the first time, as a solution.

The device is called the Little Bramper (for Bulb Ramping). It is a custom-made intervalometer that fires the camera shutter every few seconds (at whatever interval you desire). Nothing new there. But what’s unique is that it can be set to slowly increment the exposure time by as little as 1/1000th of a second from frame to frame, gradually increasing the exposure (“ramping” it) to accommodate the darkening scene. The result is a smooth transition from day to night with no flickering.

This was my first use of the Bramper and it wasn’t without its glitches. The shortest exposure the Bramper can provide (it always controls the camera thru its Bulb setting) is about 1/10th of a second (I had no idea camera shutters can fire as quickly as that even on Bulb).

But at the beginning of a sequence like this, with a bright sky, achieving that exposure (still quite long) means using a small f-stop, a slow ISO speed, or a neutral density filter, or all of the above. But as the sky darkens and exposures lengthen, exposures would become too long to fit within the desired interval between frames (typically no more than 5 to 10 seconds for a smooth sequence). So, to shorten the exposures you then have to open up the lens, switch to a faster ISO, or remove the ND filter, while also commanding the Bramper to quickly reduce its exposure time, all in one exposure cycle (i.e. 5 to 10 seconds) so as not to lose or ruin frames. Takes some coordination and practice (hit the Bramper’s button, adjust the camera, all within 5 seconds), and I didn’t get it right the first couple of times.

But overall, for a first test, the sequence turned out very well. The $80 Little Bramper does the job, though it does take careful monitoring through the sequence, not just to perform the exposure swaps, but to also watch that the ramping rate (adjustable on the fly) matches what the scene is doing and you aren’t under- or over-exposing. It’ll take a little more practice, but the results certainly are worth it.

It’s another neat tool in the time-lapse arsenal.

— Alan, August 10, 2011 / Movie © 2011 Alan Dyer