Following the Evening Star


Selfie with Binoculars Looking at Moon (Feb 27, 2020)It’s been a marvelous few months following Venus rise and fall across the evening sky, in its best show in eight years.

Venus is now gone from our western sky, but since late 2019 until late May 2020 it had dominated the sky as a brilliant evening star.

Here’s a gallery of Venus portraits I shot during its wonderful show these last few months.


The show began in November 2019 when rising Venus met declining Jupiter on November 23 for a fine conjunction of the two brightest planets in the evening twilight.

Venus and Jupiter over the Rockies
The conjunction of Venus and Jupiter of November 23, 2019, as seen over the foothills and front ranges of the Rocky Mountains in southwest Alberta. I shot this from the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, prior to their monthly Open House event that night with about 400 in attendance. But at this time it was just me and one other ardent photographer present to shoot this scene. This is an HDR blend (stacked using Adobe Camera Raw) of 5 exposures at 2/3-stop intervals, with the Rokinon 85mm lens at f/4 on the red-sensitive Canon EOS Ra camera at ISO 100.

A week later I captured the line of the then three evening planets and the Moon across the southwest, defining the path of the ecliptic across the evening sky.

Moon and Three Planets Line-Up
The waxing crescent Moon and three planets in a line across the southwestern evening sky on Nov. 30, 2019, a chilly and frosty night. Saturn is below and to the right of the Moon, Venus is brightest at centre, while Jupiter is to the lower right of Venus just above the horizon. Those two planets were in conjunction a week earlier. The line of Moon and planets visibly defines the ecliptic low across the late autumn evening sky. This is from latitide 51° N. I shot this from the viewpoint at Blackfoot Crossing overlooking the Bow River in Alberta.

A week after that I took the opportunity to shoot some selfies of me with binoculars looking at Venus, as it met Saturn in a wide conjunction, with Venus then still low in the southwest. It was just beginning its climb up into the western sky.

Observing Venus and Saturn (Dec 8, 2019)
A selfie of me observing the grouping of Venus and Saturn in the evening twilight on Dec 8, 2019, using binoculars. They were closest to each other two nights later.

A month later in mid-winter, Venus was still rather low but brilliant even in a hazy moonlit sky, as I posed for another selfie, this time with a small telescope. These images are always useful for illustrations in books and magazines. And blogs!

Observing Venus in Clouds
A selfie of me observing Venus in clouds and in the moonlight. I am using the Explore Scientific 80mm refractor on the Twilight Nano alt-az mount. This was January 9, 2020.

By the end of February Venus had climbed high into the west, and was appearing monthly near the waxing crescent Moon. This is another binocular selfie from February 27.

Selfie with Binoculars Looking at Moon (Feb 27, 2020)
A selfie looking at the waxing crescent Moon near Venus on Feb 27, 2020, using the Celestron SkyMaster 15×70 Pro binoculars on the Sky-Watcher AZ5 mount for a steady view. This is a single shot with the Nikon D750 and Sigma 24mm lens, using the flash on the camera.

In March I visited Churchill, Manitoba just as the lockdown and travel restrictions were coming into effect. But our lone and last tour group at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre saw some fine auroras, as here on this evening with the Northern Lights appearing even in the twilight. And what’s that bright star? Venus, of course!

Aurora in Twilight at Churchill Northern Studies Centre
The Northern Lights in the evening twilight on March 18, 2020, as the aurora appeared in the early evening sky. Orion is at far left in this panorama, with Cassiopeia at top centre. Part of the Big Dipper is at far right. The bright object over the Centre is Venus, with the Pleiades above. This is a panorama of 8 segments with the Venus Optics 15mm lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 800 for 1.6 seconds each. Stitched with Photoshop.

Upon my return home to Alberta, I was able to shoot more panoramas on the prairies of the wonderful early spring sky with Orion setting into the twilight and Venus in Taurus shining below the iconic Pleiades star cluster.

Panorama of  Venus and the Winter Stars (March 25, 2020)
This is a panorama of the evening sky on March 25, 2020, with brilliant Venus high in the west at centre just after the date (March 24) of its greatest elongation in the evening sky for 2020. It appears here about as high as it can get with the ecliptic tipped up to a high angle in spring. To the left is Orion and the winter stars in the twilight, including Sirius at far left. Just above the horizon right of centre in the bright twilight is the day-old thin crescent Moon about to set. Above Venus are the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters. This is a panorama of 5 segments with the Nikon D750 and 24mm Sigma lens, stitched with PTGui. Each segment was 8 seconds at ISO 400 and f/2.8.

March 26 was a superb night for catching Venus now at its highest and almost at its brightest at this appearance, as the waxing Moon appeared below it.


The highlight of the spring Venus season was its close approach to the Pleiades, which it passes only every 8 years. Here I am viewing the conjunction two days before the closest approach, with Orion over my shoulder.

Viewing Venus & Pleiades with Big Binoculars
A selfie of me viewing the close approach of Venus to the Pleiades star cluster on April 1, 2020, using big 15×70 Celestron SkyMaster Pro binoculars mounted on a Canadian-built Starlight Innovations binocular mount, a parallelogram-style mount. Orion is over my left shoulder; the Hyades is at centre above the mount. The waxing gibbous Moon provided the illumination. This is a stack of 4 images for the ground to smooth noise and 1 image for the sky to minimize trailing, all 13 seconds at f/5.6 with the Sigma 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 1600. Topaz Sharpen AI and DeNoise AI applied.

The night of closest approach, April 3, was cloudy, but here is a consolation closeup taken the next night with brilliant Venus departing the Seven Sisters.

Venus and the Pleiades - Close-Up (April 4, 2020)
Venus above the Pleiades star cluster, M45, on April 4, 2020, in the twilight and moonlight. Light from the gibbous Moon illuminated the sky, so no long exposure would reveal much detail in and around the Pleiades. Venus passes close to the Pleiades only every 8 years. Some light cloud this night added the glow. This is a stack of multiple exposures of varying lengths: 2 minutes, 30 seconds, 10 seconds and 2 seconds, blended with masks to prevent Venus from being too blown out while still recording the stars. All were with the SharpStar 140mm PH apo refractor with the 0.73x flattener/reducer for f/4.8 and at ISO 400 with the Canon EOS Ra.

Later in April Venus reached its greatest brilliancy, at magnitude -4.7, the date when the size of is disk, phase, and proximity to Earth converge to make Venus as bright as possible. On this night I shot the Moon, then 30° away from Venus and the planet with the same gear to show their relative sizes and similar crescent phase this night. The caption provides more details.

Moon and Venus Crescents Compared
A collage of two images of the Moon and Venus taken minutes apart on April 28, 2020, to show the similarity in their phases this night, April 28, 2020. Both images were shot with the same focal length and camera and so are identical in image scale, to compare their apparent sizes. I have not enlarged Venus, but I have put a frame around it to emphasize that its image has been layered in as a composite. The Moon was a 5.6-day-old waxing crescent this night, 32% illuminated. Venus was at its greatest brilliancy, or Greatest Illuminated Extent, with a disk 38 arc seconds across and 27% illuminated, so slightly less. Taken with the 130mm Astro-Physics refractor with a 2X Barlow lens for an effective focal length of 1600mm and with the Canon 60Da APS-sensor camera. The Moon image is the full frame of the sensor, uncropped. Both images are single short exposures at ISO 100.

A week later, with Venus just past its point of greatest brilliancy, I shot the planet by daylight in the early evening sky, using a telescope to zoom into the planet to show its waning crescent phase. By this time the phase was obvious in binoculars.

Venus in the Day Sky
Venus in the daytime sky and through some thin clouds, on May 5, 2020, with Venus at a very high apparition. This was at about 7 pm with the Sun still well up in the early evening, to show how well Venus can be seen in the daytime sky when it is at a wider angle from the Sun; and indeed is often the best time to view it as the planet’s brilliance is muted. This is a single 1/400-second exposure at ISO 100 with the Canon 60Da through the Astro-Physics 130mm refractor and 2X Barlow for f/12 and 1600mm focal length.

But Venus was now dropping rapidly from sight. By May 23, it was low in the twilight and below Mercury, then at its best for 2020 for an evening appearance from my latitude. Note the thin Moon below the planets. This was a superb sight for binoculars.

Thin Moon below Venus and Mercury
On May 23, 2020, the very thin crescent Moon (then 34 hours old) shines below bright Venus (10 days before its inferior conjunction with the Sun) and above it dimmer Mercury , then 10 days before its greatest elongation from the Sun in the evening sky. All were beautifully visible to the naked eye and a great sight in binoculars, looking very much like this scene captured with a 135mm telephoto lens. Venus was magnitude -4.4, Mercury was -0.7. This is a single shot at f/2.8 and 1/ 5 second at ISO 100 with the Canon EOS Ra which does bring out the sunset reds well.

By May 29, Venus was now tough to pick out of the evening sky, and a challenge to shoot even by day, as it then stood only 8° away from the Sun. What was once obvious to the naked eye now took a computerized telescope to pick out of the noon-day blue sky. A telescope showed the now razor-thin crescent as Venus approached its June 3 “inferior conjunction” — its passage between Earth and the Sun.

Venus Near Inferior Conjunction (May 29, 2020)
Venus as a razor-thin crescent and only 8° east of the Sun on May 29, 2020, five days before its June 3 inferior conjunction. The crescent is extending a little beyond 180° here due to scattering in the Venusian clouds. The disk was 57 arc seconds across and 0.9% illuminated. The magnitude was -3.9. This was at midday, shot with the 130mm Astro-Physics f/6 refractor with a 2X Barlow and the Canon 60Da camera, but the frame cropped further in processing. This is a single 1/1250th second exposure at ISO 100, the sharpest of 70 still frames taken.

I shot and narrated video footage of the thin crescent Venus, my parting shots of Venus for its evening appearance in 2020.

But in June, post inferior conjunction, it will rise very quickly into our morning sky, providing a mirror-image repeat performance as a morning star for the rest of 2020.

Venus Near Inferior Conjunction from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.


I wish you all the best and a safe and healthy time in 2020. Take some solace in what the sky can show us and in the beauty of the night.

Clear skies!

— Alan, May 31, 2020 / AmazingSky.com 

 

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 

 

Mars and Jupiter in the Morning


Jupiter and Mars at Dawn

Mars and Jupiter are meeting up in the morning sky. Soon they’ll be joined by the Moon.

Here’s a heads up for one of the best planet conjunctions of the year. Mars and Jupiter are now close together in the dawn sky to the south, and getting closer!

Above is the actual view on the morning of January 4, with Jupiter the brightest of a trio of objects. Mars is reddish and in the middle. The object at right is the star Alpha Librae, also known as Zubenelgenubi in Libra.

Jan 6 Morning Sky
Looking south-southeast on January 6

As shown in the simulation above, on the morning of January 6 Mars and Jupiter will be only 1/3rd of a degree apart (20 arc minutes), so close that dimmer Mars might not be obvious to the naked eye next to bright Jupiter. But use binoculars to show the planet pair.

The next morning, on January 7, they will appear almost as close, as Jupiter climbs higher past Mars.

Jan 11 Morning Sky
Looking south-southeast on January 11

As shown here, on the morning of January 11 the waning crescent Moon will sit only 4 degrees from the planet pair, with all three worlds gathered close enough for binoculars to frame the scene.

With sunrise coming late on winter mornings, it doesn’t take an early rise to take in the dawn scene. Make a note to take a look about 6:30 to 7:00 a.m. over the next week.


POSTSCRIPT added January 6:

Here’s the real scene from the morning of January 6, with Mars and Jupiter just 16 arc minutes apart, very close but still easy to distinguish  with the naked eye. Jupiter did not overwhelm Mars.

Jupiter and Mars in Conjunction at Dawn

Thanks and Clear skies!

— Alan, January 4, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

The Cadence of the Moving Sky


Saturn, Mars and the Milky Way over the Bow River

Saturn, Mars and the Milky Way appeared in the twilight over the Bow River.

I shot this scene on August 24 from the viewpoint at Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, overlooking the Bow River. Mars appears between Saturn above and Antares below, in a line of objects west of the Milky Way.

The valley below is the traditional meeting place of the Blackfoot Nation, and the site of the signing of Treaty Seven between Chief Crowfoot and Colonel MacLeod of the North West Mounted Police in 1877.

The image is a panorama of two images, each 20-second exposures at f/2 and ISO 1600 with the 24mm lens. I shot them just prior to shooting time-lapses of the moving sky, using two cameras to create a comparison pair of videos, to illustrate the choices in setting the cadence when shooting time-lapses.

The movies, embedded here, will be in the next edition of my Nightscapes and Time-Lapse ebook, with the current version linked to below. The text explains what the videos are showing.

 

Choose Your Style

When shooting frames destined for a time-lapse movie we have a choice:

  • Shoot fewer but longer exposures at slower ISOs and/or smaller apertures.

OR …

  • Shoot lots of short exposures at high ISOs and/or wide apertures.

 

The former yields greater depth of field; the latter produces more noise. But with time-lapses, the variations also affect the mood of a movie in playback.

This comparison shows a pair of movies, both rendered at 30 frames per second:

Clip #1 was taken over 2 hours using 20-second exposures, all at ISO 2000 and f/2 with 1-second intervals. The result was 300 frames.

Clip #2 was taken over 1 hour using 5-second exposures also at f/2 and 1-second intervals, but at ISO 8000. The result was 600 frames: twice as many frames in half the time.

Clip #1 shows fast sky motion. Clip #2 shows slow motion.

Clip #2 exhibits enough noise that I couldn’t bring out the dark foreground as well as in Clip #1. Clip 2 exhibits a slower, more graceful motion. And it better “time-resolves” fast-moving content such as cars and aircraft.

Which is better? It depends …

Long = Fast

The movie taken at a longer, slower cadence (using longer exposures) and requiring 2 hours to capture 300 frames resulted in fast, dramatic sky motion when played back. Two hours of sky motion are being compressed into 10 seconds of playback at 30 frames per second. You might like that if you want a dramatic, high-energy feel.

Short = Slow

By comparison, the movie that packed 600 frames into just an hour of shooting (by using short exposures taken at fast apertures or fast ISOs) produced a movie where the sky moves very slowly during its 10 seconds of playback, also at 30 frames per second. You might like that if you want a slow, peaceful mood to your movies.

So, if you want your movie to have a slow, quiet feel, shoot lots of short exposures. But, if you want your movie to have a fast, high-energy feel, shoot long exposures.

As an aside – all purchasers of the current edition of my ebook will get the updated version free of charge via the iBooks Store once it is published later this year. 

— Alan, August 26, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Red Rivals in Scorpius


Red Rivals in Scorpius

Mars outshines his rival red star Antares in the heart of the Scorpion.

This was the view last night from my observing site in Australia, of red Mars shining near the red star Antares, whose very name means “rival of Mars.” But as Mars nears its closest approach to Earth next month it is already far brighter than Antares, easily winning the rivalry now.

The view takes in the head of Scorpius, one of the most colourful areas of the night sky when photographed in long exposures. Uniquely, Antares illuminates a nearby dust cloud with its light which is more yellow than red.

Other dust clouds reflect the blue light of hot young stars in this section of the Milky Way. Red nebulas are emitting their own light from glowing hydrogen.

The area around Antares is also streaked with lanes of dark dust that absorb light and at best appear a dull brown.

Mars reaches its closest point to Earth since 2005 on May 30. All through May and June Mars will shine as a brilliant red star near Antares. A telescope will provide the best view of the red planet we’ve had in a decade.

Saturn and Mars in Scorpius
This is a stack of 4 x 3 minute exposures with the 135mm telephoto lens at f/2.8 and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, shot April 14, 2016 from Tibuc Cottage, Australia.

While you are in the area aim your telescope a little to the east to catch Saturn, also in the area, though technically over the border in the constellation of Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer.

In the view above, Saturn is the bright “star” to the left of Mars. Saturn reaches its closest to Earth in early June. Its rings are now wide open and a spectacular picture postcard sight in any telescope.

Scorpius Rising in Moonlight
This is a stack of 2 x 30-second exposures for the sky and ground, both tracked, plus a 30-second exposure through the Kenko Softon A filter to add the star glows to make the constellation pattern stand out. All with the 35mm lens at f/2 and Canon 6D at ISO 1600. Taken from Tibuc Cottage, Australia.

This final view shows Mars and Saturn rising with Scorpius in the moonlight from two nights ago. From my current latitude of 32° south, Scorpius comes up on his side.

— Alan, April 15, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer  / www.amazingsky.com

The Visible Ecliptic at Dawn


Venus (brightest), with dim Mars above it, then bright Jupiter, in a diagonal line across the dawn sky on November 14, 2015. Regulus and Leo are at top right, Arcturus in Bootes is at left, and Spica in Virgo is just rising at centre. Spica, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Regulus more or less define the line of the ecliptic in the autumn morning sky here. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the ground, to smooth noise, and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1000 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens at f/2.8 and at 14mm

The morning planets are now strung out along the ecliptic, visualizing this line in the sky.

This was the view this morning, November 14, of the three dawn planets lined up along the ecliptic, with the stars Spica and Regulus also defining this imaginary line.

The ecliptic is the Earth’s orbital path around the Sun projected into the sky. So it is along this line that we see the Sun appear to move around the sky over a year. But it is also the path along which we find the seven other major planets – in this case, three of them: Venus, Mars and Jupiter.

These three worlds were clustered together in October, but are now spreading out along the ecliptic, as Venus drops lower but Mars and Jupiter climb higher.

The stars Spica and Regulus also lie along the ecliptic, where the Moon can occasionally pass in front of, or occult, these stars.

So the two stars and three planets are now nicely drawing the ecliptic line for us in the dawn sky. At this time of year, the ecliptic is also steeply angled above the eastern horizon.

The main image above is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the ground, to smooth noise, and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1000 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens at f/2.8 and at 14mm.

Venus (brightest), with dim Mars above it, then bright Jupiter, in a diagonal line across the dawn sky on November 14, 2015, with the Zodiacal Light barely visible in the brightening twilight sky. Arcturus is a left and Spica is just rising at centre. Corvus is just above the treetops at right. Spica, Venus, Mars and Jupiter more or less define the line of the ecliptic in the autumn morning sky here. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the ground, to smooth noise, and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1000 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens at f/2.8 and at 24mm
Venus (brightest), with dim Mars above it, then bright Jupiter, in a diagonal line across the dawn sky on November 14, 2015, with the Zodiacal Light barely visible in the brightening twilight sky. Arcturus is a left and Spica is just rising at centre. Corvus is just above the treetops at right. Spica, Venus, Mars and Jupiter more or less define the line of the ecliptic in the autumn morning sky here. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposures for the ground, to smooth noise, and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1000 and Nikkor 14-24mm lens at f/2.8 and at 24mm

This image just above is with the same gear but with the lens at the 24mm setting to more tightly frame the planets.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the sky at dawn, Orion and his winter sky friends were setting into the west (image below).

Orion and the winter constellations setting over the old Farmhouse at home, in the dawn twilight on the morning of November 14, 2015. Canis Major and Sirius are at left; Taurus and Aldebaran and the Pleiades are at right. Procyon is at upper left.  This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposoures for the ground to smooth noise and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1600 and 14-24mm Nikkor zoom lens at f/2.8.
Orion and the winter constellations setting over the old Farmhouse at home, in the dawn twilight on the morning of November 14, 2015. Canis Major and Sirius are at left; Taurus and Aldebaran and the Pleiades are at right. Procyon is at upper left. This is a stack of 4 x 20 second exposoures for the ground to smooth noise and one 20-second exposure for the sky, all with the Nikon D810a at ISO 1600 and 14-24mm Nikkor zoom lens at f/2.8.

All the images here are shot with the Nikon D810a camera and the amazing Nikkor 14-24mm lens, two items in hand this month for testing and review. A thorough test will appear in future blogs.

Of course, as wonderful as the gear is, it cannot extract the ecliptic line and labels from the sky – those are added in Photoshop!

– Alan, November 14, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com 

Three Planets and the Moon in the Morning


The waning crescent Moon below Jupiter, with that pair of worlds above the pairing of Venus (bright) and red Mars (just above Venus), all in the dawn sky, November 6, 2015.  This is a composite of 4 exposures: 30 seconds for the ground (to bring out detail there), 8 seconds for the sky (short enough to prevent star trailing), and 2 and 1/4 seconds for the Moon itself to prevent it from being totally blown out as a bright blob. All with the Nikon D750 at ISO 1600 and Sigma 24mm Art lens at f/4. Taken from home.

The waning crescent Moon joined the planet trio this morning for a fine sight in the dawn.

This was the scene on November 6 with the waning crescent Moon just below Jupiter, and those two worlds just above the pairing of bright Venus with dim red Mars.

On Saturday, November 7, the waning Moon will sit beside Venus for an even more striking conjunction.

The waning crescent Moon below Jupiter, with that pair of worlds above the pairing of Venus (bright) and red Mars (just above Venus), all in the dawn sky in Leo, November 6, 2015. The stars of Leo are above, including Regulus. This is a composite of 4 exposures: 15 seconds for the ground (to bring out detail there), 4 seconds for the sky (short enough to prevent star trailing), and 1 and 1/4 seconds for the Moon itself to prevent it from being totally blown out as a bright blob. All with the Nikon D750 at ISO 2000 and Sigma 24mm Art lens at f/4.5. Taken from home.
The waning crescent Moon below Jupiter, with that pair of worlds above the pairing of Venus (bright) and red Mars (just above Venus), all in the dawn sky in Leo, November 6, 2015. The stars of Leo are above, including Regulus.
This is a composite of 4 exposures: 15 seconds for the ground (to bring out detail there), 4 seconds for the sky (short enough to prevent star trailing), and 1 and 1/4 seconds for the Moon itself to prevent it from being totally blown out as a bright blob. All with the Nikon D750 at ISO 2000 and Sigma 24mm Art lens at f/4.5. Taken from home.

This meeting of the Moon with the planet trio more or less concludes the superb series of dawn sky conjunctions we’ve been enjoying over the last month.

The planets remain in the morning sky but now go their own ways as Mars and Jupiter climb higher, while Venus drops lower.

— Alan, November 6, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Dawn Dance of Planets Concludes


The planet trio of Venus (brightest), Jupiter (above Venus) and Mars (dim and red to the left of Venus), all in Leo in the morning sky on November 1, 2015, with the waning gibbous Moon illuminating the landscape and sky. Even in the moonlight, the Zodiacal Light seems to be faintly visible along the ecliptic defined by the line of planets.  This is a stack of 6 x 30-second exposures at f/5.6 and ISO 2500 for more depth of the field for the ground, plus a 13-second exposure at f/2.5 and ISO 800 to minimize star trailing. The ground exposures were mean combined in a stack to smooth noise. Diffraction spikes added with Astronomy Tools Actions for Photoshop.

The gathering of planets at dawn is coming to an end as Venus meets Mars.

This was the view this morning from home in southern Alberta of the trio of planets in the moonlit morning sky.

Venus is the brightest, while dim red Mars shines just to the left of Venus. Jupiter is above the Venus & Mars pairing, with all the planets shining in Leo.

The planet trio of Venus (brightest), Jupiter (above Venus) and Mars (dim and red to the left of Venus), all in Leo in the morning sky on November 1, 2015, with the waning gibbous Moon illuminating the landscape and sky. The stars of Leo, including Regulus, shine above the planets. This is a stack of 4 x 30-second exposures at f/5.6 and ISO 2000 for more depth of the field for the ground, plus a 10-second exposure at f/2.8 and ISO 2000 to minimize star trailing. The ground exposures were mean combined in a stack to smooth noise. Diffraction spikes added with Astronomy Tools Actions for Photoshop.

Mars and Venus will appear closest to each other on November 2 and 3. Then the group breaks apart as Venus descends but Mars and Jupiter climb higher.

But as they do so they are joined by the waning Moon, by then a thin crescent, on November 6, when the Moon shines near Jupiter, and November 7, when it joins Venus for a stunning dawn sky scene.

After that the morning planet dance comes to an end. But in two months, in early January, Venus will meet up with Saturn for a very close conjunction in the winter dawn sky on January 9.

— Alan, November 1, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Triangle of Planets in the Twilight


Mars, Venus and Jupiter (in that order from top to bottom) in a triangle, in conjunction, at an old farmstead near Vulcan, Alberta, in the morning twilight, October 28, 2015. Illumination is from the nearly Full Hunter’s Moon in the west. The trio of planets were in Leo in a fine conjunction not to be repeated until November 21, 2111. Almost all of Leo is visible here, with Regulus, the constellation’s brightest star, just to the right of the windmill blades at top. This is a stack of 6 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky, all  10 seconds at f/4 and ISO 800 with the Canon 6D and Canon 24mm lens.

This was the trio of planets at their best in the morning sky. 

On the morning of October 28, Mars, Venus and Jupiter formed a neat isosceles triangle in the twilight. Venus, the brightest, was in the middle, with Mars below and Jupiter above. The grouping shone amid the stars of Leo, with its brightest star, Regulus, above the windmill in the lead image above. The rest of Leo lies above the planets.

To capture the scene I drove west at 5 am to a farmstead I had shot at before, in June, to capture Venus and Jupiter, also then in Leo near Regulus, but in the evening sky looking west. Click here for that blog post from mid-June.

This morning, the Moon, just past full as the annual Hunter’s Moon, shone in the west off camera lighting the landscape.

Mars, Venus and Jupiter (in that order from top to bottom) in a triangle, in conjunction, over an old red barn near Vulcan, Alberta, in the morning twilight, October 28, 2015. Illumination is from the nearly Full Hunter’s Moon in the west. The trio of planets were in Leo in a fine conjunction not to be repeated until November 21, 2111.  This is a stack of 6 exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, and one exposure for the sky, all  10 seconds at f/4 and ISO 800 with the Canon 6D and Canon 24mm lens.

The dawn sky colours and the moonlit red barn made for a fine colour contrast.

After today, the planet configuration breaks up, as Venus descends to meet Mars on November 2 and 3, while Jupiter climbs higher. But another great morning sight awaits on November 7 when the waning crescent Moon will shine near the Venus-Mars pairing, with Jupiter above.

The conjunction of Mars, Venus and Jupiter (from bottom to top) in the dawn sky over the misty waters of Lake Macgregor in southern Alberta, on October 28, 2015. This is a single 1/4-second exposure at f/4 and ISO 400 with the Canon 6D and 24mm Canon lens.

On the way home I stopped at fog-bound Lake MacGregor to capture the planets in a brightening dawn sky over the misty waters.

This morning the three planets lay just 4.5 degrees apart, close enough to frame in high-power binoculars.

We won’t see these three planets this close to each other in a darkened sky — as opposed to being so close to the Sun we really can’t see them — until November 21, 2111.

Be sure to catch the dawn show while it lasts!

— Alan, October 28, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Four Planets Along the Morning Ecliptic


Four planets in the morning sky, on October 20, 2015, along the ecliptic from bottom to top:  - Mercury (close to the horizon at lower left) - Mars (dim, below Jupiter) - Jupiter (fairly bright at upper right) - Venus (brightest of the four) I shot this from home in southern Alberta. This is a composite stack of 5 exposures from 15 seconds to 1 second to contain the range of brightness from the bright horizon to the dimmer sky up higher. All with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

Four planets appear in the dawn sky outlining the morning ecliptic.

This morning, October 20, I was able to capture four planets in the morning sky, arrayed along the ecliptic.

From bottom to top they are: Mercury (just past its point of greatest elongation from the Sun), dim Mars, bright Jupiter, and very bright Venus (just 6 days away from its point of greatest elongation from the Sun). Above Venus is Regulus, in Leo.

I’ve added in the labels and the line of the ecliptic, rising steeply out of the east in the autumn dawn sky.

Of course, there is a fifth unlabelled planet in the scene, quite close in the foreground.

The image below is an unlabeled version.

Four planets in the morning sky, on October 20, 2015, along the ecliptic from bottom to top:  - Mercury (close to the horizon at lower left) - Mars (dim, below Jupiter) - Jupiter (fairly bright at upper right) - Venus (brightest of the four) I shot this from home in southern Alberta. This is a composite stack of 5 exposures from 15 seconds to 1 second to contain the range of brightness from the bright horizon to the dimmer sky up higher. All with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

Mercury will be disappearing from view very quickly now as it drops back down toward the Sun.

But over the next week the three higher planets will converge into a tight triangle just 4.5 degrees apart. We won’t see these three planets this close together in a darkened sky until November 2111.

For more information on this week’s dawn sky planet dance see my previous blog entry.

TECHNICAL:
I shot the scene from home in southern Alberta. The image is a composite stack, with manually created masks (not an HDR stack), of 5 exposures, from 15 seconds to 1 second, to contain the range of brightness from the bright horizon to the dimmer star-filled sky higher up. All are with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

— Alan, October 20, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! — Planet Dance in the Dawn


Oct 17 Dawn Sky

Watch a trio of planets converge in the dawn sky. 

You might have already seen Venus shining brightly in the morning sky. And perhaps you’ve seen a slightly less bright object below it. That’s Jupiter.

But there’s a third, even dimmer planet accompanying Venus and Jupiter — reddish Mars. On the morning of Saturday, October 17 (chart above ⬆️) Mars and Jupiter pass just 1/2 degree apart, for a mismatched double “star” at dawn.

The planets put on an even better show in the following 10 days as all three converge to form a tight triangle of worlds in the morning sky.

Oct 23 Dawn Sky

On October 23 ⬆️, Venus, Mars and Jupiter appear in a close grouping just 4.5 degrees apart, close enough to each other to be easily contained in the field of typical binoculars, the circle shown in these charts.

Oct 25 Dawn Sky

Two mornings later, on October 25 ⬆️, Venus and Jupiter are at their closest apparent separation, just 1 degree apart, for a brilliant double “star” in the morning twilight. If you miss this morning, on the next morning, October 24, the two planets appear about the same distance apart as well.

Oct 28 Dawn Sky

By October 28 ⬆️, the three planets have switched positions, as Venus drops lower but Jupiter climbs higher. But they again appear in a triangle, 4.5 degrees wide.

The motion you’re seeing from day to day is due to a combination of the planets’ own orbital motions around the Sun, as well as our planet’s motion.

Keep in mind, the planets aren’t really close together in space. They lie tens, if not hundreds, of millions of kilometres apart. They appear close to each other in our sky because they lie along the same line of sight.

Do try to get up early enough — between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. should do it — to look east to see the changing configuration of planets as they dance at dawn. Binoculars will provide the best view.

This is a rare sight! We won’t see these three planets this close to each other in a darkened sky until November 20, 2111!

— Alan, October 16, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – Dawn Sky Delight


Oct 8 Dawn Planets

Look east this week to see a wonderful conjunction of the waning Moon with three planets in the morning sky.

A great dance of the planets is about to begin in the dawn sky.

Venus, Mars and Jupiter are now all prominent in the eastern sky before sunrise, with Venus by far the brightest. Below it shines slightly dimmer Jupiter. But between those two brightest of planets shines dim red Mars.

The three planets are converging for a mutual close meeting in the third week of October, when from October 23 to 28 the trio of planets will appear within a binocular field of each other.

But this week, with the three planets still spread out along a line, the Moon joins the scene to start the planet dance. It shines near Venus on the morning of October 8 (as shown here). and then near Mars and Jupiter on October 9.

Look east between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. local time. All the planets are easy to see with unaided eye even in the city, but binoculars will frame the Moon-Venus pairing on October 8 and the Moon-Mars-Jupiter trio on October 9.

– Alan, October 8, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Dawn Worlds


The waning crescent Moon near Venus (at right) and much dimmer reddish Mars (at left) in the pre-dawn sky of September 10, 2015. This is a high-dynamic range stack of 5 exposures to accommodate the large range in brightness between the sky and Moon, and to preserve the earthshine on the dark side of the Moon.  I shot this with the Canon 6D and 135mm lens at f/2 and at ISO 800 in a set of 8, 4, 2, 1 and 0.5-second exposures, blended with HDR Pro in Photoshop using 32 bit mode of Camera Raw.

The waning crescent Moon joined Venus and Mars in the dawn sky.

I blogged about this conjunction a few days ago, and here is the real thing.

On the morning of September 10 the waning crescent Moon gathered near bright Venus and much dimmer but redder Mars (at left) in the dawn sky.

Venus and Mars have both moved into the morning sky, where they will begin a series of conjunctions with the Moon and with Jupiter, now just emerging from behind the Sun, over the next two months. This gathering is just the start of the dawn planet dance.

For the technically minded, this is a high-dynamic range stack of 5 exposures to accommodate the large range in brightness between the sky and Moon, and to preserve the earthshine on the “dark side of the Moon.”

I shot this with the Canon 6D and 135mm lens at f/2 and at ISO 800 in a set of 8, 4, 2, 1 and 0.5-second exposures, blended with HDR Pro in Photoshop using 32-bit mode of Adobe Camera Raw.

— Alan, September 10 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

Reflections of Solstice Planets and Northern Lights


The evening planets of Venus (right) and Jupiter (left), to the right of the waxing crescent Moon on the evening of summer sosltice, June 21, 2015. The star Regulus is to the upper right of the Moon, between Jupiter and the Moon. The view is overlooking Crawling Lake in southern Alberta. This is an HDR stack of 5 exposures to retain detail in the bright twilight sky and the dark foreground.

The summer solstice sky was filled with twilight glows, planets, and dancing Northern Lights. 

What a magical night this was. The evening started with the beautiful sight of the waxing crescent Moon lined up to the left of the star Regulus, and the planets Jupiter and Venus (the brightest of the trio), all set in the late evening twilight.

They are all reflected in the calm waters of a prairie lake.

I shot the above photo about 11 p.m., as late a twilight as we’ll get. From here on, after solstice, the Sun sets sooner and the sky darkens earlier.

An aurora display on the evening of summer solstice, June 21, 2015, overlooking Crawling Valley Reservoir in southern Alberta. This is one frame of 360 shot as part of a time-lapse, each frame being 15 seconds at f/2.5 with the 24mm lens, and with the Canon 6D at ISO 3200.

Later, about 12:30 a.m., as predicted by aurora apps and alert services, a display of Northern Lights appeared on cue to the north. It was never very bright to the eye, but the camera nicely picks up the wonderful colours of a solstice aurora.

At this time of year the tall curtains reaching up into space catch the sunlight, with blue tints adding to the usual reds fringing the curtain tops, creating subtle shades of magenta and purple.

The display made for a photogenic subject reflected in the lake waters.

– Alan, June 22, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Venus and Jupiter Converging


Venus (right) and Jupiter (centre), on June 12, 2015, as they are converging toward a close conjunction on June 30, 2015. The star Regulus is at left, left of the windmill. Photographed from an old farm yard north of Vulcan, Alberta. This is an HDR-stack of 3 exposures to record detail in the ground and sky. Shot with the Canon 60Da and 16-35mm lens.

Each night, Venus and Jupiter are converging closer, heading toward conjunction on June 30.

This was Venus (right) and Jupiter (centre) with Regulus at left, in a cloudy twilight sky on Friday, June 12, as Venus and Jupiter converge toward their close conjunction in the evening sky on June 30.

Be sure to watch each night as the two brightest planets in the sky creep closer and closer together. Mark June 19 and 20 on your calendar, as that’s when the waxing crescent Moon will join the duo.

I shot this from near Vulcan, Alberta, after delivering an evening program at the Trek Centre in Vulcan as a guest speaker. Clouds prevented us from seeing anything in the sky at the public event, but on my way home skies cleared enough to reveal the two bright planets in the twilight.

I stopped at an abandoned farmyard I had scouted out earlier in the evening, to serve as a photogenic backdrop.

This is a high dynamic range stack of three bracketed exposures, one stop apart, to record detail in both the dark foreground as well as in the bright sky.

— Alan, June 13, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Dawn Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter


Venus & Jupiter Conjunction, with Moon (August 18, 2014)

It was a fine celestial sight to begin the week, as Venus met Jupiter in the dawn sky.

This morning, August 18, Venus and Jupiter appeared just 1/2 degree apart, as close as they’ve appeared to each other since 1999.

The top image shows the wide-angle setting, with Venus and Jupiter tightly paired near the horizon, and the waning Moon above, itself in conjunction with Aldebaran in the Hyades star cluster.

Venus & Jupiter Conjunction Closeup

This zooms into the main event, the Venus-Jupiter pairing, as they were emerging from the horizon haze.

I shot this from home, off the back deck, having little ambition at 5 a.m. to venture any further afield. I had planned to shoot this from Dinosaur Park but had second thoughts on the hour drive there and back!

Waning Moon in the Hyades near Aldebaran

This zooms into the secondary show this morning, the meeting of the waning crescent Moon with the brightest star in Taurus, Aldebaran, and its companion stars in the Hyades star cluster. This is a telephoto lens shot with a fixed camera, no tracking.

Thus begins a fine two weeks of stargazing, weather permitting, as the Moon exits the sky to leave us the summer Milky Way at its best, and dual pairs of planets in the dusk and dawn sky – Mars and Saturn converging in the evening and Venus and Jupiter, now parting ways, in the morning.

– Alan, August 18, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

A Convergence of Worlds in the Sky


The evening planet show we’ve been enjoying all year comes to a close for a while, but in grand style with a convergence of four worlds in the dusk.

This was the scene from my front driveway, Tuesday, August 21, as the waxing crescent Moon shone near Mars (just above the Moon) and Saturn (at top right just above the clouds), and near the star Spica (to the right of the Moon). The four objects formed a somewhat lopsided square in the evening twilight. But from my latitude of 51° North, they were very low and never visible in a dark sky. Enjoying them with the eyes required binoculars to pick them out.

Saturn will disappear behind the Sun shortly, but Mars hangs around in the evening sky for a few more months, but always low and easy to miss.

— Alan, August 21, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Mercury Rising Over Calgary


Mercury is elusive but here it is, showing up as a speck over the skyline of Calgary, as it begins its best evening appearance of the year, rising a little higher into the twilight sky each night for the next few evenings.

To find it, follow the line down from the Moon and then bright Jupiter and Venus at upper left and continue that line to the lower right. Just to the right of the tallest building (the new Bow tower) and just above the rooftops there’s a tiny dot of light. That’s the inner planet Mercury. It’ll get higher in the first week of March but not by much. Mercury is bright. It’s just not very high and is easy to miss.

But with Mercury coming into view, and with Venus and Jupiter so prominent now in the evening, and Mars now bright in the east after sunset – look for a red star – we have a nice array of 4 naked eye planets across the sky at once. Saturn comes up later after midnight now. So you can see 5 naked eye planets in one night.

It’s a great evening sky show now in early March.

– Alan, March 1, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer