I present a new 4-minute music video (in 4K resolution) featuring time-lapses of the Milky Way.
One of the most amazing sights is the Milky Way slowly moving across the sky. From Canada we see the brightest part of the Milky Way, its core region in Sagittarius and Scorpius moving across the souther horizon in summer.
But from the southern hemisphere, the galactic core rises dramatically and climbs directly overhead, providing a jaw-dropping view of our edge-on Galaxy stretching across the sky. It is a sight all stargazers should see.
I shot the time-lapses from Alberta, Canada and from Australia, mostly in 2016 and 2017.
I include a still-image mosaic of the Milky Way from Aquila to Crux shot in Chile in 2011.
Do watch in 4K if you can! And in Full-Screen mode.
Locations include Writing-on-Stone and Police Outpost Provincial Parks, and Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta.
In Australia I shot from the Victoria coast and from inland in New South Wales near Coonabarabran, with some scenes from the annual OzSky Star Safari held each April.
“No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets; no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie.” – William Butler, 1873
In the 1870s, just before the coming of the railway and European settlement, English adventurer William Butler trekked the Canadian prairies, knowing what he called “The Great Lone Land” was soon to disappear as a remote and unsettled territory.
The quote from his book is on a plaque at the site where I took the lead image, Sunset Point at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.
The night was near perfect, with the Milky Way standing out down to the southern horizon and the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana. Below, the Milk River winds through the sandstone rock formations sacred to the Blackfoot First Nations.
The next night (last night, July 26, as I write this) I was at another unique site in southern Alberta, Red Rock Coulee Natural Area. The sky presented one of Butler’s unmatched prairie sunsets.
This is “big sky” country, and this week is putting on a great show with a succession of clear and mild nights under a heat wave.
The waxing crescent Moon adds to the western sky and the sunsets. But it sets early enough to leave the sky dark for the Milky Way to shine to the south.
This was the Milky Way on Wednesday night, July 27, over Red Rock Coulee. Sagittarius and the centre of the Galaxy lie above the horizon. At right, Saturn shines amid the dark lanes of the Dark Horse in the Milky Way.
I’m just halfway through my week-long photo tour of several favourite sites in this Great Lone Land. Next, is Cypress Hills and the Reesor Ranch.
From southern latitudes the most amazing region of the sky shines overhead late on austral autumn nights.
There is no more spectacular part of the Milky Way than the regions around its galactic centre. Or at least in the direction of the galaxy’s core.
We can’t see the actual centre of the Galaxy, at least not with the cameras and telescopes at the disposal of amateur photographers such as myself.
It takes large observatory telescopes equipped with infrared cameras to see the stars orbiting the actual centre of the Milky Way. Doing so over many years reveals stars whipping around an invisible object with an estimated 4 million solar masses packed into the volume no larger than the solar system. It’s a black hole.
By comparison, looking in that direction with our eyes and everyday cameras, we see a mass of stars in glowing clouds intersected by lanes of dark interstellar dust.
The top image shows a wide view of the Milky Way toward the galactic centre, taking in most of Sagittarius and Scorpius and their incredible array of nebulas, star clusters and rivers of dark dust, all located in the dense spiral arms between us and the galactic core.
Zooming into that scene reveals a panoramic close-up of the Milky Way around the galactic centre, from the Eagle Nebula in Serpens, at left, to the Cat’s Paw Nebula in Scorpius, at right.
This is the richest hunting ground for stargazers looking for deep-sky wonders. It’s all here, with field after field of telescopic and binocular sights in an area of sky just a few binocular fields wide.
The actual galactic core area is just right of the centre of the frame, above the bright Sagittarius StarCloud.
Zooming in again shows just that region of sky in an even closer view. The contrast between the bright star fields at left and the dark intervening dust at right is striking even in binoculars – perhaps especially in binoculars.
The visual impression is of looking into dark canyons of space plunging off bright plateaus of stars.
In fact, it is just the opposite. The dark areas are created by dust much closer to us, hiding more distant stars. It is where the stars are most abundant, in the dust-free starclouds, that we see farthest into the galaxy.
In the image above the galactic centre is at right, just above the small diffuse red nebula. In that direction, some 28,000 light years away, lurks the Milky Way’s monster black hole.
To conclude my tour of the galactic centre, I back out all the way to see the entire sky and the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, with the galactic centre nearly overhead in this view from 3 a.m. earlier this week.
Only from a latitude of about 30° South can you get this impressive view, what I consider one of the top “bucket-list” sights the sky has to offer.
The nova star in Sagittarius has re-brightened. I captured it in a telephoto closeup.
Here is Nova Sagittarii – likely an exploding white dwarf star – as it appeared before dawn on the morning of March 28. This is the brightest nova visible from the northern hemisphere for many years, though even now it is barely naked eye at fifth magnitude.
After dimming for a few days the nova has re-brightened somewhat. What titanic forces are going on at this white dwarf star causing it to fade then brighten remain to be determined.
It will certainly be worth keeping an eye on. With luck it might really get bright!
This telephoto image frames the “Teapot” configuration of stars that forms the main part of Sagittarius the Archer. The nova has appeared from out of nowhere in the middle of the Teapot just below the lid!
The image is a stack of 4 x 90-second exposures, plus an exposure taken through a Kenko Softon A filter to add the star glows, to accentuate the brighter stars. I shot this from the backyard in New Mexico.
It’s a nova needle in a Milky Way haystack – an exploding star appears in Sagittarius.
On March 15 a very observant amateur astronomer in Australia spotted a star in Sagittarius that wasn’t there the night before. It was a nova, Latin for “new.”
But this was not a new star forming, but an old star in the process of dying.
This star is likely an ancient white dwarf drawing material off a close companion. When the in-falling material builds up on the surface of the white dwarf it ignites in a nuclear explosion, causing the star to brighten, in this case by hundreds of times.
At its peak last week, Nova Sagittarii was just bright enough to see naked eye. It is now below 5th magnitude and barely naked eye. In my long exposure photo it appears lost amid the blaze of stars in the Sagittarius Milky Way.
Still, this was the brightest nova visible from the northern hemisphere in many years. Indeed, we haven’t had a really bright naked-eye nova since the 1970s.
Considering all those stars, you’d think some would blow up for us to enjoy!
Mars shines near the globular star cluster Messier 22 in Sagittarius.
This week Mars has been passing near one of the brightest globular star clusters, M22. I caught the pair tonight, November 8, as they sank into the southwestern sky.
The two form a contrasting pair, with red Mars now 260 million kilometres away, far enough that its light takes 13 minutes to reach Earth. However, blue M22 lies so far away, toward the galactic core, that its light take 10,000 years to reach Earth.
Mars appeared closer to M22 earlier this week but tonight was the first night with a narrow window of dark sky between twilight and moonrise, allowing me to shoot the pair.
I shot the image through a telescope with a short focal length of 400mm, taking in a field of about 5 by 3 degrees, the field of high-power binoculars. The image is a stack of eight 2-minute exposures at f/4.5 with the TMB 92mm refractor and Canon 6D at ISO 800.
Sagittarius, with Mars, set behind the granite pillars of City of Rocks State Park.
From home in Canada the summer constellation of Sagittarius is long gone by November. But here, from a latitude of 32° north, Sagittarius, now with Mars shining amid its “teapot” shape of stars, still shines in the southwest.
This was the scene last night in the early evening, as the Full Moon lit the rock formations at New Mexico’s City of Rocks State Park. Sagittarius is above the rocks at left. Some bright bits of the Milky Way just manage to appear in the clear, bright sky lit blue by moonlight.
This view looks northwest, with the stars of the Big Dipper just clearing the rocks at right.
In two weeks, with the Moon gone from the sky, the local astronomy club hosts one of its monthly star parties at the Park, making use of the public observatory in the Park, near the “Orion” group campground area – all the campsites are named for constellations and stars.
The Milky Way spans the sky and reflects in the calm waters of Cameron Lake, in Waterton Lakes National Park.
This week I’m spending a few nights, at dark-of-the-Moon, back at Waterton Lakes, at a stunning time of year. The aspens are golden, the sky is blue, and the nights are even warm.
Though it is officially autumn, the weather is better now than we had it some weeks in summer. Plus, the Park is now quiet as businesses wind down, preparing to close up for the winter.
I’m shooting night sky panoramas in Waterton, with Cameron Lake one of the wonderful sites I visited last night in a whirlwind tour around the Park to take advantage of a stunningly clear night.
In summer, Cameron Lake is home to docks for canoes and paddle boats. But all are gone now. By winter this lake is home to huge snowfalls, as its location in extreme southwestern Alberta catches the full onslaught of moist Pacific air.
But now, with the early onset of darkness and fine weather, the lake and the Park are superb places for nightscape photography.
I shot this Sunday night, September 21. This is a stitch of 8 segments, each shot with a 15mm lens at f/2.8 for 1 minute at ISO 4000 with the Canon 6D. I used PTGui to stitch the panorama.
The centre of the Milky Way Galaxy sets behind the Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefields.
This was one of the clearest nights I have ever seen at the Icefields. Unlike most nights, last night not a whiff of high cirrus was wafting off the great sheets of ice in Jasper National Park, leaving the sky pristine for the Milky Way to shine over the glaciers.
I shot this image Sunday night, September 14, from the approach road down to the tongue of the Athabasca Glacier. At this time of year, the Milky Way sets directly behind the glacier in the early evening. The angles were perfect.
At left is the glacier-clad peak of Mt. Andromeda, indeed named for the constellation and mythological princess. It is lit just by starlight. The waning Moon didn’t rise until 11:30 p.m., leaving me a couple of hours of dark sky to shoot these and other images.
To record the scene I shot and composited two versions of the image:
– one from a stack of four tracked images where the camera followed the stars on a small mount (the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer) in order to build up the image and, admittedly, record far more detail and colour than your eye could ever see in the Milky Way.
– the sharp landscape comes from another stack of four images where I turned the tracking drive off so the ground wouldn’t blur. Stacking them helps reduce noise.
I composited the two sets of images, masking the sky from the untracked images and the ground from the tracked images. Perhaps that’s all a bit of trickery but the scene is real – the Milky Way really was there behind Athabasca Glacier.
Each sky exposure was 3 minutes, each ground exposure 4 minutes, all with the 24mm lens at f/2.5 and the Canon 6D at ISO 1250.
A tradition since 2009 and the Year of Astronomy, these dark-of-the-moon nights at the Observatory have proven hugely popular each summer despite the 10 p.m. start and 2 a.m. finish!
The main image at top shows a 360° panorama as people were gathering at the portable telescopes and lining up – in a blur – for a look inside the observatory domes.
Roland from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada provided laser-guided star tours. How did we point out the stars and constellations before green lasers? In the hands of responsible astronomers they are a great tool for public education.
Here he’s pointing out Vega and the stars of the Summer Triangle. Look way up!
About 400 people attended on Saturday night, the last in a trio of nights this past week. As you can see, the event attracts people of all ages. It’s even a popular date night attraction.
At these summer stargazing sessions many people bring blankets to just lie back and look up, at a site away from the ugly glow of the city, here lighting up the clouds to the north.
The Milky Way shines behind the rustic corral of the 76 Ranch in Grasslands National Park.
It’s not a gunfight at the OK Corral, but starlight at the 76 Ranch Corral. I shot this Tuesday night in the Frenchman River valley in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park.
The scene captures the summer Milky Way, some green bands of airglow, and the old corral lit by starlight and some aurora beginning to brighten to the north.
Some occasional flashes of distant spotlights from down the valley also provide foreground illumination. The lights came from ferret spotters out at night checking on the nocturnal black-footed ferret.
The corral once belonged to the 76 Ranch, one of the largest in Canada in its day and owned by Sir John Lister-Kaye, one of many upper class Brits who came to Canada in the 1880s to make their fortune in the newly opened range lands — until drought and hard winters of the southern Prairies forced them to sell out and break up their once huge land holdings.
This image is a composite, but of five frames all shot at the same place in quick succession. I did not fake the sky into a foreground shot at some other time and place.
Four shots are tracked, to follow the sky for pinpoint stars. I used the new Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracker.
For one shot at the end of the sequence I turned the tracker’s drive off to take a single sharp image of the foreground.
Using masking in Photoshop I removed the blurry foreground from the sky images and the blurry trailed sky from the ground image.
Each was a 3-minute exposure at ISO 1600 with the 24mm lens at f/2.5.
Grasslands National Park is one of the finest places in Canada to revel in the dark night sky.
This was the scene last night, in far south Saskatchewan, under clear and super dark night skies, at long last after a week of rain, wind and wintery cold.
I’m at Grasslands National Park south of Val Marie, Saskatchewan, to shoot night sky panoramas in what must rank as Canada’s darkest Dark Sky Preserve.
The park itself is new, created only a decade and half ago. It preserves original prairie grasses and is home to unique and rare species. Bison roam here, allowing you to travel back to pre-European times as you gaze out onto a landscape much as it was for thousands of years.
But look up at night and you can gaze at a sky as it was seen for thousands of years, mostly unblemished by the artificial glows of light pollution. Grasslands National Park is a “dark sky preserve,” allowing visitors to see the stars and Milky Way as they should be seen.
I shot this 360° panorama from the Eagle Butte Loop Trail just inside the boundary of the Park. The main hill is 70 Mile Butte, a landmark to the early NorthWest Mounted Police as it lay 70 miles from their posts at Wood Mountain to the east and Eastend to the west.
This view looks out across the farmland to the west and a handful of yard lights. But little else spoils the view around the rest of the horizon. The last vestiges of evening twilight provide a backdrop for the lone silhouette.
The Milky Way arches overhead, and some bands of green airglow, a natural night sky phenomenon, stretch from east to west. The centre of the Milky Way Galaxy lies to the far right, with its glowing clouds of stars.
There’s no more spectacular region of the sky than the Milky Way toward the centre of the Galaxy.
What a perfect night it was last night. After moonset between 2 and 3:30 a.m. I shot a series of images around the centre of the Galaxy area and stitched them into a big mosaic of the Milky Way.
The scene takes in the Milky Way from the Eagle and Swan nebulas at top left, down to the Messier 6 and 7 open clusters in Scorpius at bottom. Standing out is the large pink Lagoon Nebula left of centre and the huge region of dark dusty nebulosity popularly called the Dark Horse at right of centre. It’s made of smaller dark nebulas such as the Pipe Nebula and tiny Snake Nebula.
At upper left is the bright Small Sagittarius Starcloud, aka Messier 24, flanked by the open clusters M23 and M25. There are a dozen or more Messier objects in this region of sky.
The actual centre of the Milky Way is obscured by dark dust but lies in the direction just below the centre of the frame, amid one of the bright star clouds that mark this amazing region of sky.
I shot the images for this mosaic from a site near Portal, Arizona, using a 135mm telephoto lens and filter-modified Canon 5D Mark II riding on an iOptron SkyTracker to follow the stars. The mosaic is made of 6 panels, each a stack of five 3-minute exposures. They were all stacked and stitched in Photoshop CC. The full version is 8000 by 9000 pixels and is packed with detail.
I think the result is one of the best astrophotos I’ve taken! It sure helps to have Arizona skies!
The southern Milky Way arches across the sky, with the centre of the Galaxy overhead at dawn.
This was the sky at 4:30 this morning, as Venus rose in the east (to the right) amid the zodiacal light, and with the Milky Way soaring overhead. This image is a 360° panorama of the scene, with the zenith, the overhead point, at the top centre of the frame.
The location is the Two Styx Cabins, on the border of New England National Park in New South Wales, Australia. The cabin with the light on (I left it on on purpose for the photo) is where I stayed for two nights in splendid isolation.
The panorama is a stitch of 6 frames shot with an 8mm fish-eye lens, each 1-minute exposures on an untracked tripod. I used the PTGui software program to assemble the pan.
Below is an alternative rendering, in spherical format, to create the more classic “fish-eye” view, but one extending well below the horizon. So this is not one image but a stitch of six.
In this version you can more readily see the spectacle of the Milky Way at dawn in the southern hemisphere autumn months, with the bulge of the galactic core directly overhead as seen from this latitude of 30° south. It is a wonderful sight.
This is my last view of it for this trip. Till next year!
A series of closer images zooms us into the Milky Way looking toward the centre of our Galaxy
Here are some images I took this past week at the OzSky Star Safari near Coonabarabran, Australia. The lead image above is a wide-angle lens image of all of Scorpius (above and to the right) and Sagittarius (below and to the left) straddling the Milky Way and its bright glowing core. The direction of the galactic centre is just left of centre of the image. We can’t see the actual centre of the Milky Way with our eyes and normal cameras because there are just too many stars and obscuring dust lanes in between us and the core.
The dust forms marvellous patterns across the glowing Milky Way — see the Dark Horse prancing at left? Long tendrils of dust reach from the feet of the Horse to the bright yellow star at top, Antares, the heart of Scorpius.
This image with a longer lens zooms in closer to the bright Sagittarius Starcloud around the heart of the Galaxy. All along it you can see red and pink nebulas, from the Cat’s Paw at upper right to the Eagle Nebula at lower left. The larger pink object at centre is the Lagoon Nebula.
The next image zooms into the area at the centre of the above shot, just right of the Lagoon.
This is the star-packed Sagittarius Starcloud. Everything you see is stars. Millions of stars.
I took this shot with a 300mm telephoto — a small telescope actually, the gear shown below. It’s what I was using most of this past week to shoot the Australian southern sky.
This is some of my Oz gear, the equipment (except for the camera and autoguider on top) that stays in Australia for use every year or two. The mount is an Astro-Physics 400 and the scope is the Borg 77mm f/4 astrograph. I used it for the close-up photo.
The gear all worked great this time. I’ll have more photos to post shortly as my connection allows. Tonight, I am at the Parkes Radio Observatory where the internet connection is as good as it gets!
The centre of our Galaxy rises above the gum trees of Australia.
This was the scene at 3 a.m. this week at our OzSky star party, as the stars of Scorpius and Sagittarius rise into the eastern sky, a magnificent view of the bright core of the Milky Way rising into view.
The image shows the intricate lacework of dark dust that lines the Milky Way – the stardust of which we are made. The bright star at upper left is Antares, the heart of the Scorpion.
This is one of the views you travel to the southern hemisphere to see. It is an unforgettable sight, one of the best the sky has to offer.
The Milky Way arches over our observing field at the OzSky star party in Australia.
What an amazing few nights it has been. We’ve enjoyed several clear nights under the fabulous southern Milky Way. About 40 people from around the world have had access to telescopes from 14-inch to 30-inch aperture to explore the wonders of the southern sky from a dark site near Coonabarabran, New South Wales.
I’ve seen lifetime-best views of the Tarantula Nebula, the Carina Nebula, the Horsehead Nebula, the Omega Centauri cluster, and on and on! But the views of Mars have been incredible, the best I’ve seen the planet in a decade as it is now close to Earth and high in our southern sky.
The panorama above is a stitch of 6 untracked segments taken with a Canon 60Da and 8mm fish-eye lens. Each segment is a 60-second exposure at ISO 3200.
The 360° panorama takes in the Milky Way from Canis Major setting at right, over to Scorpius and Sagittarius and the centre of the Galaxy rising at left. At top centre is the wonderful Carina and Crux area. The two Magellanic Clouds are just above the trees at centre.
At upper left is Mars, and just to the left of it is a diffuse glow – the Gegenschein, sunlight reflected of comet dust in the direction opposite the Sun. Mars is near that point now. You can just see a faint band running from the Gegenschein to the Milky Way — the Zodiacal Band of comet dust.
Here, one of our observers takes in a view through a 24-inch reflector telescope under the stars of the Southern Cross, the pattern in the Milky Way behind him.
The nights have been warm and wonderful, though a little damp and dewy after midnight. However, rain is in the forecast again, a welcome relief for most local residents who want the rain. They can have it now. We’re happy!
The Milky Way arches across the pre-dawn sky on a morning in Australia.
This was the view this morning, Saturday, March 29, at about 4:00 a.m. from my observing site near Coonabarabran, Australia. What a sight! The Milky Way extends from Aquila, in our northern sky at left, all the way across the heavens to Crux and Carina, in the southern sky at right. Just left of centre high in the south lies the bright centre of the Galaxy, in Sagittarius and Scorpius.
My ultrawide-angle image frames the “Dark Emu,” made of dark lanes and dust clouds in the Milky Way and prominent in aboriginal sky lore in Australia. His head is the Coal Sack at upper right, his neck the curving dust lane from Alpha Centauri to Scorpius right of centre, and his tail and feet are in the dust lanes left of the galactic centre on the left side of the image. He extends all the way across the sky.
Venus is just coming over the gum trees at lower left. The glow of zodiacal light – sunlight reflected off comet dust in the inner solar system – extends up from Venus to the Milky Way.
After three days of rain – cheered by the residents here! – the skies have cleared and the big telescopes have all arrived for our star party this week. It should be a superb week of stargazing, off to a great start with this view in the Australian dawn.
The trio of Summer Triangle stars flank the Milky Way in the dying days of summer.
I shot the featured image above two nights ago on a perfect late summer night from home. Skies were dark and transparent, with no aurora and little airglow to taint the sky.
The image takes in the Summer Triangle stars of Vega (top), Deneb (left) and Altair (bottom). Vega and Altair straddle the summer Milky Way, but Deneb lies right in the thick of it, way down the Local Arm that we live in. Vega and Altair are nearby normal stars, only 25 and 16 light years away. But Deneb is a blue supergiant, shining from 1400 light years away, and one of the most luminous stars in the catalog.
The Milky Way through this area of sky is riven by twisting lanes of interstellar dust. A particularly dark patch sits above Deneb at top left. Then below Deneb the Milky Way gets split by the Great Rift that continues down into Aquila and Ophiuchus at lower right.
All along this part of the Milky Way, particularly around Deneb, the camera picks up a string of glowing red nebulas where stars are forming. The red comes from hydrogen atoms emitting deep red light, as hydrogen is wont to do.
This image is from a couple of nights earlier. I used a wider angle lens to take in the full sweep of the summer Milky Way, from Sagittarius skimming the horizon, to Cassiopeia past the zenith at the top. You can see the Summer Triangle in the top half of the image, the part of the sky now overhead on early September nights from the northern hemisphere.
I took both shots with a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII placed on a little iOptron SkyTracker for tracked long exposures (4 to 5 minutes). The main image was with a 24mm Canon lens, the bottom image with a 14mm Rokinon lens.
The summer Milky Way sets behind the peaks of Waterton Lakes National Park, signalling an end to summer.
This was the scene last Saturday night, on a perfect summer night in the Rockies. The glorious starfields of the summer Milky Way are setting behind the mountains.
The Small Sagittarius Starcloud is just above the mountain ridge while above it are the red patches of the Swan and Eagle Nebulas.
Farther up the Milky Way, stars brighten into another starcloud, the Scutum cloud, flanked by two dark lanes of dust. Above it shine the stars of Aquila, Ophiuchus, Lyra, and southern Cygnus. The two bright stars are Altair (below) and Vega (top right).
This is an alternative view of the same scene, with the camera in “landscape” orientation.
I took both from a pull-off on the Red Rock Canyon road in Waterton. Each image is a stack of four 3-minute exposures, each tracking the stars with the camera on an iOptron SkyTracker.
The Milky Way from Canada just doesn’t get any clearer or the skies any darker.
The centre of the Galaxy culminates over a starlit landscape on a night near the summer solstice.
This was last weekend, on the same night I took the images of the aurora and noctilucent clouds featured in the previous two blog posts. But toward the end of the shoot, I turned south to capture this scene, of the Milky Way over a grassy prairie field.
The landscape is lit only by starlight and by the glow of twilight and aurora to the north.
In the sky, the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius are peaking as high as they get for me in southern Alberta. The red giant star Antares is to the right while the bright star clouds toward the centre of our Galaxy are just left of centre. The sky is not dark because of the glow of perpetual twilight at this time of year near solstice.
Deep sky fans will note that the star cluster M7, the southernmost Messier object, is just clearing the horizon.
Remarkably, this is a mere 15 second exposure, at ISO 1600 but with the 24mm lens wide open at f/1.4. Normally I wouldn’t shoot at that wide an aperture as the images look too distorted at the corners of the frame. But for this shot I used the Canon 60Da camera – its cropped-frame sensor records only the central area of what the lens projects so it crops out the nasty stuff at the corners of the frame that would certainly have been detracting had I used the full-frame camera.
But shooting at f/1.4 allowed even this quickie 15-second shot to grab lots of detail in the Milky Way.
Scorpius and the star clouds of the Milky Way skim along the southern horizon on the western Canadian prairie.
Scorpius crawls along the horizon at right, with dark lanes of dust converging onto yellowish Antares. Just left of centre a dark horse prances above the treetops. At lower left shines the pink Lagoon Nebula.
With its intricate mix of dark dust lanes and bright star clouds this is the richest region of the Milky Way. It marks the direction toward the centre of our Galaxy. Pity it lies so low in our sky from here in western Canada, at a latitude of 50° North. Compare this view to what I saw two months ago from New Mexico and you can see the advantage of a southerly latitude for any lovers of the Milky Way.
However, I was lucky to get this shot, taken last weekend during the only decent time of the year when I can see Scorpius in a dark sky from my prairie home. The night was very clear, allowing a clean shot to the southern horizon.
What an amazing area of sky – the centre of the Galaxy hovering over the Earth below.
This was the scene two mornings ago, on our last clear night in New Mexico. This is what’s in the morning sky now and in the evening sky later in July and August. This is the area around Scorpius and Sagittarius and their rich star clouds toward the centre of the Milky Way.
It looks like a scene from an alien planet. But it’s here on Earth, gazing thousands of lights years toward the galactic core.
This is the view from early this morning as the centre of the Milky Way rises above the desert landscape of New Mexico.
Sagittarius (at centre) and Scorpius (at right) contain the rich starfields of the galactic core. To the eye this scene looks as if bright clouds are moving in to hide the stars, but in fact the glows are stars – clouds of stars forming the glowing bulge of the galactic core. Superimposed on the glowing core are lanes of dark interstellar dust, such as the silhouette of the Dark Horse prancing at centre, with lanes of dust flowing across the sky and converging onto yellow Antares, the heart of Scorpius right of centre.
I shot this before dawn this morning, March 12, from our site in southwest New Mexico. Skies were perfect.
This is a stack of five 5-minute exposures with the 24mm lens at f/2.8. A sixth exposure taken through a diffusion filter added the star glows to accentuate the bright stars and their colours. The foreground is from one exposure and has been processed to bring out the details, here lit only by starlight.
In this image I’ve tried to render the Milky Way in a view that simulates what you see with your unaided eyes.
The result is a celestial portrait in subtle shades of black and white.
This is a photo mosaic, but processed contrary to the usual methods – eliminating colour rather than enhancing it, and reducing contrast rather than boosting it. The result is a view that I think quite nicely matches what your eyes see, though certainly from a dark site. And in this case, you would need to be in the southern hemisphere to see this sweep of the Milky Way, from Aquila at left, to the Southern Cross at right, with the bright star clouds around the centre of the Galaxy in Sagittarius and Scorpius in the middle.
I’ve removed colours except for the muted colours of stars. And I’ve tried to render the stars with an intensity and dynamic range that the eye sees but that is often lost in long exposures.
The dark lanes of dust seen here really do look like this under dark skies. The nearby Coal Sack next to the Southern Cross does look a little darker than the rest of the sky. This view also captures another effect you can see in the real sky – the brighter sky below the Milky Way plane beneath Sagittarius and Aquila – there are more stars there, which make the background sky brighter than above the Milky Way plane (along the top of the photo) where the sky is permeated by dark obscuring dust.
This scene also frames the “dark Emu” – the shape drawn in the dark lanes that looks like a flightless emu in the sky. It’s an important “constellation” in Aboriginal mythology in Australia. The emu’s head is the Coal Sack at far right, her neck the long dark lane curving up through Centaurus and Lupus, and her tail the dark lanes at left in Ophiuchus, Scutum and Aquila.
This is what half a million stars look like when packed into one big ball.
This is the globular star cluster called Messier 22, in Sagittarius. It’s the biggest and best such object visible from Canadian latitudes, though it always sits low in our summer sky. M22 is one of 150 or so such spherical clusters of stars that orbit our Milky Way. This one sits 10,000 light years away from us, toward the centre of the Galaxy. Those half million stars are packed into a sphere 100 light years across. In our sky it appears as big as the Full Moon, though not as bright of course. But just imagine the sky if you can view it from the centre of M22. The heavens would be ablaze with stars.
I shot this with the 130mm refractor at f/6. It’s a stack of just three 4-minute exposures with the Canon 7D. Though M22 was low above the southern horizon from the Cypress Hills where I shot this, the final image turned out pretty well.
It’s taken me a few months to get around to the task, but at last! — my mosaic of the Milky Way I shot in Chile back in May.
The panorama is made up of 6 frames, stitched and blended together, extending from Crux, the Southern Cross (at right) to Aquila the eagle (at left) — a sweep of the Milky Way from Acrux to Altair! The mosaic is centred on the core of the Galaxy in Sagittarius and Scorpius.
Panoramas like this allow you to step back a distance and take in the big picture:
— You can see the large-scale structure of the dust clouds and the odd diagonal sweep of many of the clouds cutting across the plane of the Galaxy. I’ve never heard an explanation of why the dust lanes seem to have that structure and direction. I also see a 3D effect, with the nearby dust clouds hanging in front of and obscuring the bright starclouds of the distant inner spirals arms of our Galaxy.
— Also apparent are the extensive dust clouds at left extending from Ophiuchus (at top) down into Aquila, well below the plane of the Galaxy. Most wide-angle shots of the Milky Way I see tend to process out the subtle brown clouds that extend far off the Galactic plane. And they are brown, not black.
— And what really stands out is the band of bright blue stars from Scorpius (at top centre) to the right above the Milky Way through Lupus, Centaurus then down into Crux. This is a section of Gould’s Belt, a ring of hot blue stars around the sky that runs at an angle of about 20° to the Milky Way. This ring of hot, nearby stars surrounds us in our spiral arm and is thought to be only about 65 million years old, likely caused by some disturbance in our spiral arm which set off a wave of star formation close to us.
— And … as my Australian friends will point out, you can see the entire Dark Emu, made of the dust lanes from the Coal Sack in Crux at right (his head and beak), through the curving lanes in Centaurus (his neck), then sweeping up and over the centre of the Galaxy (his body) then down into Scutum and Aquila (his two feet and his tail).
I took this panorama from the Atacama Lodge in north central Chile, using the Canon 5D MkII and Canon 35mm lens. Each of the 6 segments that went into this pan was itself a stack of 4 x 6 minute exposures, plus a fifth exposure through a soft-focus filter, all at f/4 and ISO 800. The camera was on a Kenko SkyMemo tracking platform. I assembled the pan with Photoshop CS5’s Photomerge command. This is actually only half of the full panorama mosaic, which extends for another 5 segments to the right along the Milky Way to Orion, taking in the entire southern portion of the Milky Way. But this is the best bit!
In this part of the sky the Milky Way takes on a surprising palette of hues. And it’s all due to dust.
The centrepiece of this shot is a bright star cloud in Sagittarius called, well, the Sagittarius Star Cloud! But not the Large one. This is the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud, a.k.a. Messier 24, a mass of stars with a single black eye. The dark spot, called Barnard 92, is a dense and opaque cloud of dust. Stardust — clouds of carbon soot blown out by aging stars — weaves all through this scene, creating the dark canyons winding through the stars. Obscuring dust also dims much of the background stars and discolours most of this part of the Milky Way a yellowish brown. It’s the same effect that dims the setting Sun a deep orange or red, as its light shines through haze and dust in the sky.
But here, the Star Cloud looks bluish and “cleaner.” That part of the Milky Way has less dust in front of it. And yet it is much farther away than the yellow dusty starfields around it. When we look toward the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud we are looking through a dust-free window, allowing us to see unencumbered right past our Galaxy’s nearby Sagittarius-Carina spiral arm to glimpse a dense part of the more distant Norma Arm, an inner spiral arm of our Milky Way Galaxy about 12,000 to 16,000 light years away.
To the lower right of M24 is M23, a rich cluster of stars 2,000 light years away, nearby by galactic standards, and so sits suspended in front of the fainter star background. The pinkish nebula at top is Messier 17, the Swan Nebula.
I took this shot May 2 from Chile, using the Canon 7D and 135 lens, for a stack of six 2-minute exposures.
We’re on our last full day in Chile, packing up and sorting out. I’ll finish off my Chile blog series with this parting shot — the entire southern Milky Way from horizon to horizon.
In this view, we’re looking straight up, with the horizon at the edges of the frame of the 15mm fish-eye lens. The glowing starclouds of Sagittarius and Scorpius, seen in close up in the previous blog post, are in the centre of the frame. The Southern Cross is at far right, the Northern Cross at far left.
This scene is a superb way to end a night of southern sky stargazing – just lying back and looking up at the entire panorama of the Galaxy. You really do get the sense that we are indeed living at the edge of the Galaxy, looking off into its bright core, and with its spiral arms wrapping around us.
I can’t get enough of this region of sky. I can and do shoot this with every lens I have and with all kinds of framing (horizontally, vertically, or at a rakish angle, like here) and it always looks great.
These are the rich and stunning starfields toward the centre of the Milky Way in Sagittarius (bottom) and Scorpius (at top). Look for the pinkish nebulas dotted along the Milky Way, the bright starclouds, and the dark lanes of interstellar dust. It’s all part of the galactic recycling program that our Milky Way participates in, as stars explode, cast off dust and gas, which then clump into glowing nebulas and form new generations of stars.
I took this shot about 5 a.m. a couple of mornings ago, with this area directly overhead. It’s a stack of six 3-minute exposures with the 35mm lens and Canon 5D MkII camera. I took some shots through a soft focus filter to add the star glows.
This is without a doubt the most spectacular area of sky. Here we’re looking toward the centre of our Galaxy, toward the starfields of Scorpius (at right) and Sagittarius (bottom centre). The field is a riot of stars, dark lanes of dust, and patches of glowing red nebulas.
It is wonderful experience – wonder-filled! – just to lie back and scan these constellations with binoculars or a wide-field telescope. One outstanding feature are the parallel bands of dark dust that seem to form the shape of a dark prancing horse in the Milky Way.
The brightest area of the Milky Way here is the Sagittarius Starcloud, and marks the direction of the centre of our Galaxy. From here in Chile where I took this shot, this region of sky passes directly overhead, making it more prominent than at northern latitudes where the galactic core is often lost in horizon haze.
This image is a stack of four 6-minute exposures at f/4 with the 35mm lens and Canon 5D MkII camera. For one of the exposures I shot through a special soft-focus filter to add the fuzzy star glows that make it easier to see the outline of the constellations. The filter also emphasizes the colours of the stars.
The image is a segment of a 12-section panorama I shot all along the Milky Way from dusk to dawn.