Touring the Wonders of the Winter Sky


The Wonders of the Winter Sky

I present a tour of the deep-sky wonders of the winter sky.

While some might think the Milky Way is only a summer sight, the winter Milky Way is well worth a look!

In January and February we are looking outward from our location in the Milky Way, toward the Orion Spur, the minor spiral arm we live in. In it, and in the major Perseus Arm that lies beyond, lie hotbeds of star formation.

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

These star forming areas create a panorama of star clusters and glowing nebulas along the winter Milky Way and surrounding the constellation of Orion. The montage above shows the best of the deep-sky sights at this time or year.

(And yes, for southern hemisphere viewers I know this is your summer sky! But for us northerners, Orion is forever associated with frosty winter nights.)

The closeups below are all with a 200mm telephoto lens providing a field of view similar to that of binoculars. However, most of these nebulas are photographic targets only.


The Belt and Sword of Orion

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

This is the heart of the star formation activity, in the centre of Orion.

The bright Orion Nebula (or Messier 42 and 43) at bottom in Orion’s Sword is obvious in binoculars and glorious in a small telescope.

The Horsehead Nebula above centre and just below Orion’s Belt is famous but is a tough target to see through even a large telescope.

Barnard’s Loop at left is a wave of nebulosity being blown out of the Orion area by strong stellar winds. Any sighting of this object by eye is considered a feat of observing skill!


The Rosette Nebula and Area

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

The small cluster of hot young stars inside the Rosette Nebula is blowing a hole in the nebula giving it its Rosette name. Above is a loose star cluster called the Christmas Tree, surrounded by more faint nebulosity that includes the tiny Cone Nebula.


Gemini Clusters and Nebulas

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

This field of clusters and nebulosity is above Orion in Gemini, with Messier 35 the main open star cluster here at top. Below M35 is the tiny star cluster NGC 2158. The nebulosity at left between Mu and Eta Geminorum is IC 443, a remnant of a supernova explosion, and is aka the Jellyfish Nebula. The nebula at bottom is IC 2174, just over the border in Orion and aka the Monkeyhead Nebula.


Auriga Clusters and Nebulas

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

Above Gemini and Orion lies Auriga, with its rich field of clusters and nebulosity, with — from left to right — Messier 37, Messier 36, and Messier 38, as the main open star clusters here. Below M38 is NGC 1907. The nebulosity at right is IC 410 and IC 405, the Flaming Star Nebula.

In between them is the colourful asterism known as the Little Fish. Messier 38 is also known as the Starfish Cluster while Messier 36 is called the Pinwheel Cluster. The bright red nebula at top is Sharpless 2-235. The little nebulas at centre are NGC 1931 and IC 417.


The California Nebula

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

Now we enter Perseus, more an autumn constellation but well up through most of the winter months. It contains the aptly named California Nebula, NGC 1499, at top left, with the bright star Zeta Persei. at bottom A small region of reflection nebulosity, IC 348, surrounds the star Atik, or Omicron Persei, at bottom right. The star just below NGC 1499 is Menkib, or Xi Persei, and is likely energizing the nebula.


The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters

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

Obvious to the eye and central to the sky lore of many cultures is the Pleiades, aka the Seven Sisters, in Taurus the bull. It is also called Messier 45.

This is a newly formed cluster of hundreds of stars, passing through a dusty region of the Milky Way, which adds the fuzzy glows around the stars — an example of a reflection nebula, glowing blue as it reflects the blue light of the young stars.


The Hyades

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

Below the Pleiades in Taurus lies the larger Hyades star cluster. The V-shaped cluster stars are all moving together and lie about 150 light years away. Bright yellow Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus, is an intruder and lies at only half that distance, so is not a member of Hyades but is a more nearby star. The smaller, more distant star cluster NGC 1647 appears at left.


Seagull Nebula

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

Low in my northern winter sky is the brightest star in the sky of any season, Sirius. Just above and to the east of Sirius lies the Seagull Nebula (at top left), also called IC 2177, on the Canis Major-Monoceros border. Like many of these nebulas. the Seagull is too faint to easily see even with a telescope, but shows up well in photographs.


Lambda Orionis Nebula

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

This is the head of Orion, with the red supergiant star Betelgeuse at bottom left and the blue giant star Bellatrix right at bottom right. The brightest star at top is Meissa or Lambda Orionis, and is surrounded by a large and very faint area of hydrogen nebulosity. The open cluster around Meissa is catalogued as Collinder 69.

While the winter Milky Way might not look as bright and spectacular as the summer Milky Way of Sagittarius and Scorpius, it does contains a wealth of wonders that are treats for the eye and telescope … and for the camera.

PS.: The techniques for taking and processing images like these form the content of our new Deep Sky with Your DSLR video course now being promoted on KickStarter until the end of February, and available for purchase once it is published later this spring.

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

— Alan, February 17, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Farewell Winter Sky


Panorama of the Winter Sky in March

As we celebrate the official arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, we bid adieu to the stars of winter.

This was the scene last night from my backyard, of Orion and the surrounding constellations of the winter sky setting into the southwest in the early evening. Each night they will set sooner and sooner, even as the nights continue to grow shorter and the Sun sets later.

By late April Orion will be gone from our Northern Hemisphere sky — he hangs around until well into May for sites south of the equator.

Panorama of the Winter Sky in March (with Labels)
A horizon-to-zenith panorama of the winter consellations on a March evening as they set into the southwest. Taken from home March 19, 2017. This is a panorama of 5 panels, each with the 20mm Sigma Art lens at f/2, and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200, for 25 seconds each. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

In this version I’ve labeled the main characters in this winter hunting scene – including some of the deep-sky “Messier”  objects like M45, the Pleiades; M44, the Beehive star cluster; and M42, the Orion Nebula.

At the same time this year, we also say goodbye to Venus which has shone so brightly these last few months as an evening star. By this weekend, it will be lost from sight as it passes between Earth and the Sun.

Mercury Rising and Venus Descending (with Labels)
Mercury (left) and Venus (right and bright) shinng low in the evening twilight, on March 19, 2017. Mercury was then 2 weeks before greatest elongation while Venus was a week before inferior conjunction. So Mercury was rising into the evening sky while Venus was rapidly descending. This is a 7-image HDR stack of exposures from 2.5 seconds to 1.6-second at ISO 200 with the Canon 6D and with the Sigma 50mm lens at f/4.

Meanwhile, Mercury is rising into view in the evening twilight, in its best evening showing of the year from northern latitudes. The view below is also from March 19, with Mercury to the left of brighter Venus.

Over the next two weeks, look low in the west for a bright star amid the twilight. Mercury appears farthest from the Sun on April 1, the date of its “greatest elongation.”

Having Mercury in our evening sky is a sure sign of spring.

Leo and the Spring Stars Rising
Leo rising in the east along with the northern hemisphere spring stars. Numerous satellite trails are visible. I didn’t clone them out. This is a vertical panorama of 4 frames, with the 20mm Sigma Art lens at f/2 and 25 seconds at ISO 3200 with the Nikon D750. Stitched with PTGui using Transverse Equirectangular projection.

Another sign of spring is Leo the lion.

While Orion sets in the west, the stars of spring are rising in the east. The panorama above depicts the scene in the eastern sky these nights, as Leo rises below the Big Dipper.

The Big Dipper is at upper left, with its handle pointing down to Arcturus at bottom left. The Bowl of the Dipper points down to the right to Regulus and the stars of Leo.

Above Leo is the star cluster M44, the Beehive, in Cancer. Below Leo at centre is the star cluster Mel 111, the Coma Berenices star cluster near the North Galactic Pole.

Happy Equinox! 

— Alan, March 20, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / amazingsky.com

 

 

A Panorama of the Spring and Winter Sky


Winter and Spring Sky Panorama

I present a sweeping panorama of the winter and spring stars on a February night. 

The lead image is a panorama I shot last Saturday, February 27 that takes in about 200° of sky from northeast to west, and nearly to the zenith. It encompasses most of the northern spring and winter stars and constellations.

I’ve added the labels to help you pick out the celestial highlights. The winter sky, containing Orion as the central constellation, is at right setting into the west. This area of sky contains a rich collection of bright stars and identifiable constellations.

The left side of the sky contains the spring constellations, now coming into view in the east. Note how that area of sky is sparsely populated by bright stars. You can see the Big Dipper, Regulus in Leo, and Arcturus rising at lower left.

The reason for the difference is the Milky Way – you can see it at right arcing up from the southern horizon passing by Orion and through Gemini, Taurus and Auriga. In that direction we are looking into the outlying spirals arms of our galaxy, toward rich areas of star formation.

To the east, at left, we are looking at right angles out of the plane of our spiral galaxy, toward the galactic North Pole, here just left of Leo. In that direction there are very few bright stars between us and the starless depths of intergalactic space. The spring sky is rather blank compared to the rich winter sky.

But you can see Jupiter, the brightest object in view here, and now prominent in the evening sky.

Note one other subtle glow just above Jupiter. That diffuse glow is the Gegenschein, caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust opposite the Sun in our solar system and in the plane of the ecliptic.

Jupiter is just east (left) of the Gegenschein here, as Jupiter was then just over a week before its date of opposition, March 8. By then the Gegenschein will have moved to superimpose right over Jupiter, as both then lie opposite the Sun.

Winter and Spring Sky Panorama

I shot this scene from home on February 27, 2016, using the new iOptron iPano motorized “gigapan” unit, which I programmed to move and shoot 36 exposures with the Canon 5D MkII and 35mm lens, arranged in 4 rows high with 9 panels wide in each row from east to west. The result is a huge mosaic, 24,000 by 10,000 pixels.

Each exposure was 25 seconds at f/2 and at ISO 3200. The camera was not tracking the sky. I stitched the 36 segments with PTGui using its Spherical Fisheye projection. The image has black margins but I think the circular format is more suggestive of the spherical dome of the sky above and around you. But that’s me, a longtime planetarium show producer.

Next time I will shoot the zenith cap images as well!

— Alan, February 29, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Orion over Snowscapes


Orion Over the Snowy Hoodoos

Orion appears in his winter element, over snowscapes on crisp January nights.

A couple of clear-ish winter nights this past weekend allowed me to capture that most iconic of constellations, Orion, over snowy landscapes close to home here in Alberta.

At top, he rises over the famous Hoodoos near East Coulee, Alberta in the Red Deer River valley. Clouds moving in on Sunday night, January 10, added the photogenic glows around the stars, emphasizing their colour and brilliance.

Orion Down the Snowy Road

Here, from a shot on Saturday, January 9, Orion appears down the end of my rural country Range Road, with Sirius, his companion Dog Star, following at his heels above the treetops and in some haze.

If this looks cold, it was – at minus 25° C. Though two hours later it was only -15° C and by morning it was 0° C. Winter in Alberta!

Both images are short exposures, 10 to 15 seconds, at f/2 or f/2.8 with the wonderful Sigma 24mm Art lens and my new favourite camera, the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. In both cases the ground is from a stack of several exposures to smooth noise but the sky is from a single exposure to minimize star trailing. 

— Alan, January 10, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

 

New Year’s Eve Sky: Aurora, Orion, and a Comet


New Year's Eve Winter Sky

The New Year’s sky was filled with Northern Lights, a panorama of stars, and a comet at dawn.

It was a busy night for stargazing as 2015 turned to 2016. A fine display of Northern Lights kicked off the celebrations, as curtains danced in the east as Orion rose (below).

New Year's Eve Aurora, Dec. 31, 2015

Toward midnight the Lights kicked up again, now with Jupiter (on the horizon) and Leo rising in the east (below).

New Year's Eve Aurora #2 (Dec 31, 2015)

I shot hundreds of frames for time-lapse sequences, and assembled them into a short music video. Click on the buttons to enlarge it to HD.


 


 

Just before midnight, while the second time-lapse was going and the aurora was still active, but before the Last Quarter Moon rose to light the sky, I shot a set of tracked images taking in the entire winter sky from horizon to well past the zenith.

That image is at top. It takes in the winter sky and northern winter Milky Way,  from Canis Major just above the horizon, up past Orion, then on up to Perseus and Cassiopeia at top right.

It shows how Orion and Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, stand nearly due south at midnight on New Year’s Eve.


 

Comet Catalina near Arcturus on New Year's Day
Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) near Arcturus in the constellation of Bootes, at pre-dawn on the morning of January 1, 2016, with the Last Quarter Moon nearby illluminating the sky. A long, faint ion tail is visible extending 2 to 3 degrees to the right while a brighter but stubby dust tail extends down to the south. Shot from home using the 200mm Canon telephoto and 1.4x extender at f/4.5 for a stack of 8 x 2-minute exposures at ISO 800 with the Canon 6D. Median combined stacked to eliminate satellite trails. The comet is slightly blurred due to its own motion in that time.
The final show of the night, now before dawn on New Year’s Day 2016, was Comet Catalina sitting right next to the bright spring star Arcturus. The comet was visible in the moonlight as a fuzzy object next to brilliant Arcturus, but the photo begins to show its faint tails, just standing out in the moonlit sky.

The comet will become more visible later this month once the waning Moon exits the dawn sky, as Catalina is expected to remain a nice binocular comet for most of the month as it heads high into northern sky.

Happy New Year to all! Have a celestial 2016!

 

Don’t forget, you can download my free 2016 Sky Calendar as a PDF. See my previous blog for details and the link. 

— Alan, January 1, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / amazing sky.com

Dawn Sky Delight – the Real Scene


A gathering of planets in the dawn sky on October 8, 2015, with - from bottom to top: Jupiter, Mars, Venus and the Moon, with the star Regulus in Leo left of Venus.  This is a 15-second exposure with shorter exposure blended in for the area around Venus and the Moon to avoid them overexposing too much. So not a true HDR, but using masking to blend the short exposure elements.

The Moon, planets and Northern lights provided a wonderful show in the dawn sky.

What a superb scene this was. On October 8 the waning crescent Moon shone near Venus (brightest) and Regulus, with red Mars and bright Jupiter paired below.

If that wasn’t enough, as the wide-angle panorama below shows, the Northern Lights were also ending a night of performance, with an arc along the horizon and pulsing waves rising up the sky to the northeast near the planet grouping.

A panorama of the pre-dawn sky on October 8, 2015, with a sky full of wonders: • the Northern Lights, or aurora • The Big Dipper above the aurora, somewhat distorted by the panorama projection • at centre, a conjunction and line-up of planets, with from bottom to top: Jupiter, Mars and Venus, with the bright waning crescent Moon beside Venus at top, and also beside the star Regulus in Leo • The Beehive star cluster well above the planet grouping • Orion and Canis Major in the winter sky at right with the Milky Way. I shot this from home, using the Canon 6D and 24mm lens on a fixed tripoid (no tracking), for 7 segments, each a 30-second exposure at f/2.2 and at ISO 1250. Stitched in Photoshop.

The panorama also sweeps right, to the south, to take in the winter Milky Way and constellations of Orion and Canis Major.  Click on the image to bring it up full screen.

The Moon will appear near Mars and Jupiter on the morning of October 9, and then the three planets will begin to converge for a tight gathering for a few mornings around October 25.

Be sure to wake early for the dawn sky show that continues all this month!

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

Morning Star, the Milky Way, and the Zodiacal Light


Venus shines brightly, and nearly at its brightest at magnitude -4.7, in the dawn sky on a very frosty morning at 5 am, on September 17, 2015, from home in southern Alberta. Venus appears amid the faint glow of the Zodiacal Light, sometimes called the “False Dawn,” stretching vertically from the dawn horizon in the east, up and to the right, and reaching the Milky Way that runs down the frame from top centre to bottom right. Orion and the winter stars shine in the Milky Way, with Sirius above the trees at lower right. The Beehive Cluster, M44, appears as the small group of stars above Venus. The Pleiades, M45, is at top right. Mars is the brightest object left of Venus, with the bright star Regulus just below it and rising in the east. The stars of the Big Dipper are at far left at the edge of the frame. The sky is beginning to brighten with the real glow of morning.  This is a stack of 4 x 2-minute exposures, tracked and mean combine stacked, for the sky and 2 x 2-minute exposures, untracked and stacked, for the ground to minimize blurring in the starlit ground. The Canon 6D was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker, shooting at ISO 1250 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/3.5. The stacking with a mean combine stack mode smooths noise in both sky and ground.

Venus, now at its brightest as a morning star, shines amid the subtle glow of the Zodiacal Light. 

This was the scene this morning, September 17, on a very frosty dawn at 5 a.m. from my backyard in southern Alberta.

Here, Venus shines nearly as bright as it can be, at magnitude -4.7, in the dawn sky as a brilliant “morning star.”

Venus appears amid the faint glow of the Zodiacal Light, sometimes called the “False Dawn,” stretching diagonally from the dawn horizon in the east, up and to the right, and reaching the Milky Way that runs vertically down the frame from top centre to bottom right.

Orion and the winter stars shine in the Milky Way, with Sirius above the trees at lower right.

The Beehive Cluster, M44, appears as the small group of stars above Venus. The Pleiades, M45, is at top right.

Mars is the brightest object left of Venus, with the bright star Regulus just below it and rising in the east. The stars of the Big Dipper are at far left at the edge of the frame.

The sky is beginning to brighten with the real glow of morning. It was a marvellous dawn sky delight.

Technical notes:

This is a stack of 4 x 2-minute exposures, tracked and mean-combine stacked, for the sky and 2 x 2-minute exposures, untracked and stacked, for the ground to minimize blurring in the starlit ground. The Canon 6D was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker, shooting at ISO 1250 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/3.5. The stacking with a mean combine stack mode smooths noise in both sky and ground.

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

Twilight over the City of Rocks


Evening Twilight over the City of Rocks

The waxing crescent Moon sets in deep twilight over the City of Rocks State Park, New Mexico.

This was the scene tonight, May 2, under fabulous skies on a warm spring evening in New Mexico. I drove 45 minutes south from Silver City to the City of Rocks State Park, and area of oddly-eroded rocks and a fabulous place for stargazing. It actually has an observatory.

For this twilight scene I shot a series of seven exposures from dark to bright with an ultra-wide 14mm lens, and stacked them in a high dynamic range composition to capture both the bright Moon and sky above and dark landscape below. You can see the stars of the winter sky disappearing into the evening twilight as well, plus Jupiter at top.

For the next three nights I’ll be back near the Arizona Sky Village just across the state line from Rodeo, New Mexico, under very dark skies, to shoot the summer Milky Way in the wee hours of the morning after moonset. The weather promises to be perfect.

— Alan, May 2, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

Goodbye Winter Sky – 2014 Edition


Orion Setting & Zodiacal Light (24mm 6D)

After a brutal winter for most of us in the northern hemisphere, we’re glad to see the last of the winter sky.

This was the scene on Tuesday night, April 29 as the last of the winter sky descended into the evening twilight.

Here, Orion (left of centre) sets into the western sky, next to the gossamer glow of the zodiacal light (right of centre). The stars of Taurus sit amid the zodiacal light, with the Pleiades just about to set behind the ridge. Sirius, the sky’s brightest star, shines at far left.

The zodiacal light is the glow of sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system. It is a glow from interplanetary space, not from our atmosphere. Spring is the best time to see it in the evening sky, no matter your hemisphere. It also helps to be in the desert of the U.S. Southwest!

I took this parting shot of the winter sky from a favourite observing haunt from years’ past, Massai Point, at 6800 feet altitude in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. The sky was perfectly clear and the night warm and windless. I’m back in Arizona and New Mexico for a few days, checking out accommodations for a long-term stay next winter, so I won’t have to endure the snow and cold that plagued us last winter. Good bye winter sky! Good bye winter!

– Alan, April 29, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

The Night Sky’s Two Brightest Stars


Sirius, Canopus & Gum Nebula (35mm 5DII)

The two brightest stars in the night sky shine in the southern sky.

Here are Sirius (at right) and Canopus (at bottom left), the brightest and second brightest stars in the night sky, together near the southern Milky Way.

My image also captures the huge loops of the Gum Nebula, thought to be the remains of a supernova that blew up a million years ago. It’s utterly invisible to the naked eye, but Sirius and Canopus stand out as brilliant stars even from light polluted sites.

Sirius can be seen from northern latitudes but Canopus is below the horizon for any location north of 37° North or so. I shot this image from Australia where these stars pass overhead.

Sirius is a hot blue-white star 8.6 light years away. Canopus appears slightly dimmer but only because it lies much farther away, at some 310 light years. In reality it is a supergiant yellow-white star that shines with a luminosity 15,000 times that of our Sun.

Canopus to Carina with LMC (35mm 5DII)

This image takes in Canopus at bottom right, next to the Large Magellanic Cloud, and with the southern Milky Way sweeping across the top, with the Carina Nebula and its attendant star clusters at top left and parts of the Gum Nebula at right.

Here are a few cocktail party facts about Canopus:

• In 480,000 years its motion around the Galaxy will bring Canopus close enough to Earth that it will become the brightest star in our night sky, outranking Sirius.

• The origin of its name is a mystery. One idea is that the star is named for the pilot of the ship that took Menelaus to Troy on the quest to re-capture Helen.

• Canopus, the star, was used in ancient times as a key navigation star for those sailing to southern seas, as it would have risen above the southern horizon from latitudes below 35° North back around 2000 BCE.

• Today, Canopus is charted as the brightest star in the constellation of Carina the Keel, part of the ancient constellation of Argo Navis, named for the ship sailed by Jason and the Argonauts.

— Alan, April 27, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

The Milky Way from Down Under


15mm Ultrawide Southern Milky Way (March 2014)

The Milky Way of the southern hemisphere arches across the sky from the Southern Cross to Orion.

I’ve arrived at my dark sky site near Coonabarabran, Australia, with a very clear night to start my two-week session under the southern stars. Tonight I had just a 2-hour window between end of twilight and moonrise. But I made good use of it by taking some ultra-wide-angle views of the Milky Way we never see from up north.

This horizon-to-horizon scene looks straight up and stretches from the Southern Cross at far left (in the east) through Vela and Puppis to Orion at right (in the west). This sweep includes much of the Milky Way forever below our horizon from northern latitudes. At centre is the wide loop of the Gum Nebula. At lower left is the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.

At upper right is Jupiter in Gemini. The two bright stars near the centre are Canopus (left of centre) and Sirius (right of centre).

This is a stack of five 5-minute exposures at f/4 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens on the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1000. The camera was on the iOptron Skytracker, its first time in the southern hemisphere and my first time aligning it on the South Celestial Pole. It took a few minutes but I got it! The tracker worked great.

The forecast is for clouds and rain the next few days. But I’m here for over two weeks, and the weather can’t be any worse than it was in 2010 when the area was flooding. So with luck there will be more images to come from down under.

– Alan, March 21, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

The Christmas Sky of 2013


Orion & Winter Sky (Christmas 2013)

_____________________________________________

” ‘Twas the night of Christmas, and all across the sky,

All the stars were twinkling, and Orion shone on high.”

_____________________________________________

Here’s my Christmas postcard, presenting the winter stars and constellations as they appeared over my Alberta backyard on Christmas night. The night was clear and calm, and not too cold.

Orion stood “on high” in the south, above bright Sirius, and below even brighter Jupiter at left, now blazing away in Gemini.

The winter Milky Way runs down the sky from Perseus at top to Canis Major on the horizon.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

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

Orion and Canis Major Rising


Sirius & Canis Major Rising from New Mexico (35mm)

Canis Major and Orion rise into the desert sky from southwest New Mexico.

We had an excellent week of observing at the Painted Pony Resort. We had cloud on parts of most nights, and frost on the calm nights and wind on the frostless nights. So viewing conditions weren’t ideal but they were way better than back home where temperatures plunged to -35° C at night and snow piled waist high.

The shot above is of Sirius and Canis Major, the hunting dog, rising into the early evening sky after the Moon had set.

Orion Rising over Adobe House v2 (New Mexico)

I took this image later in the week. It shows Orion rising above the main adobe house at the resort. His Belt points down to Sirius just coming up over the Peloncillo Mountains to the east. Moonlight provides the illumination and bands of airglow colour the sky.

All-Star Telescope is conducting another New Mexico Star Party next March, but most spaces are already filled. A couple of rooms may still be available in a newly renovated cottage off the main resort site. Check with Ken and Bev for details. I highly recommend the experience.

— Alan, December 10, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Orion and His Hunting Dogs in the Milky Way


Orion and Canis Major Panorama

Orion parades across the northern winter sky followed by his two odedient hunting dogs, Canis Major and Minor.

I shot the images for this panorama of the winter sky last night, December 6/7, on a frosty and cool night at our retreat in New Mexico.

The scene takes in Orion at upper right, with his signature stars, red Betelgeuse and blue Rigel, plus the dog stars Procyon at upper left (the brightest star in Canis Minor), and Sirius at lower centre (the brightest star in Canis Major). Canis Major itself appears in full at the bottom of the frame. Canis Major and Minor are depicted in mythology as Orion’s two Hunting Dogs .

The northern winter Milky Way runs from top to bottom of the frame, punctuated by patches of red nebulosity such as the circular Rosette Nebula above centre. Orion is wreathed in the sweeping arc of Barnard’s Loop, while his Belt and Sword contain the Horsehead Nebula and Orion Nebula.

While we are looking to the outer edge of our Galaxy in this view, this region of the Milky Way is one of the richest areas of star formation in the sky. It’s a wonderful field and lovely to shoot under civilized conditions in southern New Mexico, at the idyllic Painted Pony Resort.

For this mosaic, I shot 4 to 5 frames for each of the two mosaic segments, plus two images for each segment shot through a diffusion filter to add in the accentuated star glows. I stacked and stitched all of them using Photoshop CC.

So a total of 13 exposures went into the mosaic, each 4 minutes long, shot with the 35mm lens and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII, which helps bring out the red nebulosity.

As a footnote — this is Blog post #400 from me.

— Alan, December 7, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Stars Over the Pillars of Hercules


Sirius over the Pillars of Hercules

In ancient times these twin mountains marked the end of the known world – beyond lay a great unknown sea.

Two mornings ago, before dawn, we sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar, known in ancient times as the Pillars of Hercules. The two massive peaks guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean Ocean were supposedly created by the legendary figure of Greek mythology to separate the two continents, Europe and Africa. Beyond them was a vast and forbidding ocean that few dared to sail.

The feature image above shows Sirius and Canis Major shining above the African side of the Pillars, the mountain known as Jebel Musa. Illumination is by moonlight, twilight and streetlight.

Rock of Gibraltor

The image above shows the more famous Rock of Gibraltar, on the European side of the Straits. This is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Pillars of Hercules

This image, with the nearly Full Moon in the sky, shows our ship, the Star Flyer, approaching Jebel Musa. We departed the Mediterranean to visit Morocco, then Cadiz in Spain. We’re now heading out into the once great unknown sea, the Atlantic, for a November 3 meeting with the shadow of the Moon.

Orion in the Rigging of Star Flyer

The final image shows Orion, Sirius and Jupiter shining amid the rigging of our four-masted clipper ship, again by moonlight. We hope it’s clear skies and smooth sailing as we cross the Atlantic.

– Alan, October 22, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

Goodbye Winter Sky!


Orion & Winter Sky Setting (24mm 5DMkII)

Say goodbye to the winter sky, now sinking fast into the sunset. The departure of Orion and company is an annual sign of spring.

Look west on a clear night in the next couple of weeks and you’ll see this scene, as Orion sinks into the sunset, surrounded by Taurus to the right of him, and Canis Major to the left of him. Taurus is his foe, Canis Major his friend.

Having so many bright stars in the April evening twilight makes for a beautiful scene in the deepening blue. But I suspect most of us are happy to see all signs of winter gone for a long time!

I shot this Monday night, April 1, on a very clear night. Orion’s Belt is just left of centre. The trio of Belt stars points left and down to Sirius, the Dog Star, and points right and up to Aldebaran, the Bull’s Eye. Above Aldebaran is brilliant Jupiter. Just at the right edge of the frame are the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades.

Say goodbye to these stars of winter. We won’t see them again until late summer in the pre-dawn sky.

– Alan, April 2, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Orion and the Winter Triangle


Winter Triangle & Orion (35mm 5DII)

The Milky Way runs through the middle of the Winter Triangle, three of the bright stars of the northern winter sky.

At right is the familiar pattern of Orion the Hunter. But if you take his shoulder star, the orange-looking Betelgeuse, you can form an equilateral triangle with Sirius below centre and Procyon at upper left. The trio are sometimes called the Winter Triangle. The pattern seems obvious here but with so many other bright stars in the winter sky, I’ve never found the pattern too obvious. But in this image I’ve chosen to nicely centre and frame the Triangle.

I’ve also increased the contrast and saturation to emphasize the wealth of nebulosity that fills this area of the Milky Way. Streamers seem to reach out from Orion and connect to the reddish Seagull Nebula above Sirius, and also to the round Rosette Nebula above centre. The background sky west of the Milky Way under Orion is filled with a faint red glow, in contrast to the neutral black sky east (left) of the Milky Way.

I shot this last night, from New Mexico, on our last good clear night on a week-long observathon. This is a stack of 5 exposures, each 8 minutes long, plus two other exposures shot through a diffusion filter to add the glows around stars. I used a 35mm lens and a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera, riding on an iOptron Skytracker tracking platform.

– Alan, March 15, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

The Wide-Angle Winter Sky


Wide-Angle Winter Sky (March 1, 2013)

Orion and his friends are beginning their descent into the evening sky, signalling the welcome end of winter and the coming of spring. 

I shot this last night from home, in a scene similar to some earlier posts, such as Winter Stars Rising. But the difference here is that I’m using a new lens, testing it for the first time. I wasn’t really after a “keeper” shot, but I think this one turned out pretty well!

The lens is the Samyang (aka Rokinon) 14mm f/2.8, an ultra-wide angle lens that sells for a bargain price, a fraction of the cost of name brand 14mm lenses. The reason is that this lens dispenses with all the automatic features and electronic communication and is a classic manual lens, just like we used to recommend people buy for astrophotography in the old film days. For shooting stars you don’t need autofocus or having the aperture stay wide-open until you take the photo. So we’re not missing much employing a no-frills manual lens like the Korean-made Samyang series – they make well-respected 24mm and 35mm lenses as well.

Star images are quite sharp across the very wide field, with very good control over coma at the corners. Stopping the lens down to f/4 does sharpen them up but the lens is perfectly usable at f/2.8, as it is here. The big issue is the extreme amount of vignetting — darkening of the corners of the frame. In star shots, we often have to boost the contrast a lot to make the shot presentable, and that increases the visibility of any vignetting, making the photo look like it was taken through a porthole. For this shot I “flattened” the image by applying very generous levels (almost maximum) anti-vignetting both in Adobe Camera Raw (at the start of processing) and again in Photoshop (at the end of processing) with its Lens Correction routine. The final result looks very good and natural I think.

Another drawback to the Samyang manual lenses is that they feed no information to the camera about what lens is attached. The “EXIF” data that the camera records lacks any info on aperture and focal length. So in the photo info at left (which is picked off the image automatically by WordPress), you’ll see the lens listed as a 50mm and with no aperture specified.

So the verdict? The Samyang/Rokinon 14mm is a very nice lens for wide-angle piggyback shooting (like this stack of five 5-minute tracked exposures), and for nightscapes and time-lapse work. A bargain at ~ $360. Recommended!

– Alan, March 2, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

See, That’s the Orion Nebula!


RAO Open House (February 9, 2013)

What a hardy bunch we are in Canada, braving winter weather to see Orion and company. 

A well-bundled group of sky fans partakes in an impromptu tour of Orion and his famous nebula.

I shot this scene last night, February 9, at the first of a series of monthly stargazing nights at the local university research observatory, the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory. About 120 people and volunteers gathered to take in the sights of the winter sky, as best they could as transient clouds permitted. Inside, speakers presented talks themed to the Chinese New Year, which is governed by the timing of the New Moon each year. As this was a New Moon night, people were able to stargaze under reasonably dark skies to see deep-sky sights such as the Orion Nebula.

Want to know where it is? An astronomy club member points it out rather handily with one of the best tools astronomers have for public outreach, a bright green laser pointer. Controversial and dangerous in the wrong hands, when used responsibly these laser pointers are wonderful for conducting sky tours.

As a side note, this is a 3-second exposure with a new Canon 6D camera at ISO 8000, yet the photo shows very little noise. In just 3 seconds, the Milky Way is beginning to show up! I could have gone to previously unthinkable speeds of ISO 12000+ and still had a presentable shot. This will be a superb camera for nightscapes and available light shots.

– Alan, February 10, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

Winter Sky in Moonlight


Orion & Winter Stars over Old House

Earlier this week I shot a similar scene with the Moon in the photo, when it was near Jupiter. This is the same sky but 5 days later, on January 26, with the Moon now out of the picture, but serving to light up the landscape.

This is the old house on my property that serves as an occasional foreground for test nightscapes. In this case, I was testing my veteran Canon 5D MkII camera against a new Canon 6D. This shot with the 5D MkII had the best arrangement of clouds and stars and works as a decent enough shot on its own.

You can see Orion dodging the clouds, with Sirius at left, and Aldebaran, Jupiter and the Pleiades at upper right.

So what of the tests? Initial impressions are that as far as noise is concerned (always the bane of astrophotographers) the new full-frame Canon 6D improves upon the 5-year old Canon 5D MkII by a factor of two. Noise looks to be about one f-stop better in the 6D, no doubt due to its new Digic V on-board processor.

What this means is:

• Images taken with the 6D at ISO 6400 have a similar level of noise as do images taken at ISO 3200 with the 5D MkII. ISO 3200 images with the 6D look like ISO 1600 images with the 5D MkII, and so on.

• So, if you were happy with shooting at ISO 1600 with the 5D MkII before, you could now shoot at ISO 3200 with the new 6D and get similar results, but with the added benefit of being able to cut your exposure times in half, always a nice thing to do.

• Or conversely, you could continue to shoot with the Canon 6D at ISO 1600 for the same exposure times as before but get shots with much less noise in them. Always a good thing, too!

It’s great to see camera state-of-the-art advancing.

– Alan, January 27, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Moon and Jupiter Amid the Winter Stars


The Moon near Jupiter in the Winter Sky, January 21, 2013

The Moon lights up a sparkling snowscape on the night it was close to Jupiter, as Orion and the winter stars rise.

The Moon is the bright and overexposed glow at upper right. Look carefully and you can just make out Jupiter above the Moon, almost lost in its glare. Below shines Orion, with Sirius the Dog Star just coming up above the distant trees. The Pleiades, at top above the Moon, complete this winter sky scene from Monday, January 21, 2013.

I’m glad I didn’t have to go far to shoot it, just 20 feet out the front door. Standing there for just 15 minutes was a chore, with a wicked east wind blowing in -18° C temperatures. This was a night that would normally fall below my threshold of tolerance for winter observing. But with the Moon so close to Jupiter it was worth a little pain for the gain of a neat winter sky portrait.

The image is a composite of a long and short exposure, in order to capture Jupiter so close to the Moon which, in a single long exposure, would have overexposed so much its light would have swamped Jupiter.

– Alan, January 21, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Winter Stars Rising


The Winter Sky, Northern Hemisphere

Yes, it’s cold out there, but a clear evening away from city lights this week – or this winter – will reward you with the sight of a rising star-filled sky.

This is the winter sky of the northern hemisphere, rising above a snowy prairie landscape, in a shot I took Sunday night, January 6, 2013. The sky is populated by a ream of bright stars and constellations, anchored by Orion, just below centre. You can see his three Belt stars pointing down to Sirius, just peering above the horizon in the glow of a distant town. Orion’s Belt points up to Aldebaran, the V-shaped Hyades star cluster, and bright Jupiter (the brightest object in the scene, above centre), all in Taurus. Above Jupiter is the Pleiades star cluster.

The Milky Way runs down the sky from Auriga to Canis Major. This week, January 6 to 13, is a good week to see the winter Milky Way, as it’s New Moon and the sky is dark.

In this scene the camera was looking southeast about 9 p.m. Sirius has just risen. By midnight the Dog Star shines due south. I used a 15mm wide-angle lens to take in the entire sweep of the winter sky from horizon to zenith. This is a stack of four 4-minute exposures, though the landscape is from just one of the frames, to minimize the blurring caused by the camera tracking the sky. Some clouds moving in add the streaks on either side of the frame. It was a wonderful sky, while it lasted!

And I’m pleased to note that this is my 250th blog post since beginning AmazingSky.net two years ago in early 2011. I hope you have enjoyed the sky tours.

– Alan, January 6, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Canis Major and the Dog Star


Canis Major from Australia (50mm 5DII)

Shining in the southern sky these nights are the stars of Canis Major, the big hunting dog of Orion the Hunter. Among them is the famous Dog Star, Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

Can you see a dog outlined in stars? Sirius marks his head – or it is sometimes depicted as a jewel in his collar. His hind legs and tail are at the bottom of the frame.

I shot this earlier this month from Australia, where Sirius and Canis Major stand high overhead. From northern latitudes you can see these stars due south low in the sky about midnight. Sirius is hard to miss, often sparkling through many colours as our atmosphere distorts its light. But as the photo shows, it is really a hot blue-white star. While it is intrinsically a bright star, much of its brilliance in our sky comes from its proximity, only 9 light years away from us.

For this portrait of the celestial canine I used a 50mm “normal” lens. The atmosphere provided some natural haze this night, to add the glows around the stars accentuating their colours.

This area of sky also contains several nebulas, notably the red arc of the Seagull Nebula to the left of Sirius. Below Sirius you can also see the star cluster Messier 41, a good target for binoculars.

Toward the left edge of the frame you can see a pair of star clusters, Messier 46 and Messier 47, two other excellent binocular objects in the Milky Way, which runs down the frame to the left of Canis Major. The dog is just climbing out of the Milky Way after a swim in this river of stars.

– Alan, December 28, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Ultrawide Southern Sky


Ultrawide Angle Southern Milky Way - December 2012

This horizon-to-horizon image takes in a broad sweep of the southern Milky Way from Orion to the Southern Cross.

At upper left shines bright Jupiter in Taurus and the stars of Orion, upside down. To the right of Orion is Sirius in Canis Major, the brightest star in the night sky. To the right of Sirius above the Milky Way is Canopus, the second brightest star in the night sky and one we don’t see from up north. The two satellite galaxy Magellanic Clouds are at upper right. Below them is the bright Milky Way through Carina and Crux, the Southern Cross. Alpha and Beta Centauri are just above the dark trees at right. This is the entire Milky Way you see on an early austral summer night from down under.

What stands out is the huge red bubble of gas called the Gum Nebula in Vela and Carina. It is strictly a photographic object but shows up well on red-sensitive digital cameras.

I shot this with a filter-modified Canon 5D Mark II camera and a 15mm wide-angle lens on a mount tracking the stars. It is a stack of four 6-minute exposures, shot from Australia a few nights ago under nearly perfect sky conditions.

– Alan, December 17, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Sailing Toward Orion


Sailing Toward Orion

Not so long ago sailors used the Moon, Jupiter and the stars to chart their course on Earth. All are in this moonlit seascape.

I took this shot on November 27, as we set sail toward Hook Passage in the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, Australia. The ship is the Solway Lass, a 110-year-old sailing ship that is now the oldest commercial ship plying the waters around Australia. It has been modernized and refitted, and at night runs with engines, not sails. And today, of course, GPS keeps the skipper informed of where the ship is. But before GPS and radio navigation, sailors used the sky to determine where on Earth they were.

Sextant sightings of the Sun and stars could give them their latitude and longitude. One star often used was Canopus, visible at far right in this image. Canopus has long been associated with the sea. It is the brightest star in Carina the Keel, once part of the sprawling constellation Argo Navis, the ship in the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts. Today, Canopus is still sighted by robot spacecraft bound for the planets to help them determine their position in the solar system.

Sirius and the stars of Orion (lying on his side here at a latitude of 20° South) appear through the rigging. At upper left is the bright glow of the nearly Full Moon, near the star Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster.

Before the acceptance in the late 1700s of the chronometer as an accurate time-keeping device, the position of the Moon near bright stars served as an astronomical clock in the sky to provide sailors with local time. Another source of time (more for land-based navigators) was the changing positions of the moons of Jupiter — Jupiter is the bright star-like object at left.

I just finished a superb 6 days of sailing around the Whitsundays and will have 2 or 3 more sea-bound posts from this wonderful area of the world.

– Alan, November 30, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

On the Beach — Stargazing


This is stargazing in the tropics — on the beach, in shorts and sandals.

Here’s some of our eclipse chasing group enjoying a view of the southern hemisphere night sky, albeit though clouds. Jupiter is the bright object at left, Orion is rising on his side in the middle, Sirius is just above our stargazers, while Canopus is at far right. The Pleiades is at far left. We’re looking east, from a latitude of 16° south of the equator, where the sky takes on a completely new appearance that baffles and delights even seasoned northern stargazers.

– Alan, November 11, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

The Marvellous Mid-March Sky


We have a marvellous sky above us these nights, with an array of brilliant beacons in the evening sky.

This wide-angle scene captures the western and southern sky. To the west at right shine Venus and Jupiter. To the south at centre stands Orion. His famous Belt points up to Taurus and the Pleiades star cluster. His Belt points down to the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, the Dog Star in Canis Major. Above, at top left, is the other Dog Star, Procyon, in Canis Major.

The last vestige of twilight tints the sky deep blue. But some of the red nebulas in and around Orion are beginning to show up as the sky darkens on a late winter night.

I shot this Saturday night, March 10, on the last evening of Standard Time. Now, I and all astronomers have to wait up another hour to see and shoot the wonders of the night sky. Astronomers hate Daylight Saving Time.

— Alan, March 11, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

Canis Major Hopping


On one of the few clear nights so far this winter I was able to make Canis Major obey for a while and pose for a shot of the canine constellation hopping along my horizon in the south. From my latitude of 51° N he never appears high in the sky, though the placement on the horizon does make for a photogenic winter scene. Here, you can see the Messier star cluster M41 just below Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the night sky and the bright jewel in the collar of Canis Major (according to some depictions of the constellation). This is a stack of five 4-minute exposures  with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800 and a 50mm Sigma lens at f/2.8, plus a single 4-minute exposure with the Kenko soft filter to add the enhanced hazy star glows.

– Alan, January 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer