Solstice nights have been filled with twilights, planets, and noctilucent clouds.
Astronomers tend to curse the short nights and late sunsets of summer solstice. But the bright nights do offer unique sights.
Over the last few nights I’ve set up at what I call “Solstice Pond,” a prairie slough near home ideal for shooting the aurora to the north and, at this time of year, the glow of twilight and noctilucent clouds.
Below is the view on the night before solstice, looking north toward the glow of “perpetual twilight” that lights the northern horizon at solstice time from my latitude of 50° north.
From farther north the twilight would be more prominent, while above the Arctic Circle at 66° N latitude, the twilight turns to full daylight as the Sun never sets.
The view looking south this night, with the Moon just off frame at right, includes the Milky Way at centre, with Saturn embedded, flanked by bright Jupiter at right and reddish Mars at left, both casting shimmering “glitter paths” on the still waters.
A few nights later (below), on June 24, the star of the solstice sky put in an appearance. Bright noctilucent clouds (NLCs) shone to the north, reflected in the pond.
These are water vapour clouds 80 kilometres high at the edge of the atmosphere – in the mesosphere – almost in space. They form over the Arctic in summer, and are high enough to remain sunlit even in the middle of the night as they catch the Sun shining over the pole.
Southern Western Canada – the Prairies where I live – is well-placed to see them, as we are far enough north to see them in our sky, but not so far north that our sky is too bright.
An even better display appeared two nights later, on June 26, brighter and with more structure.
The curving arc of the top of the display defines the most southerly edge where sunlight is able to reach. That edge drops lower through the first part of the night, as the Sun itself drops lower below the horizon. This causes less of the NLC display to be sunlit.
You can see this effect of the changing illumination of the clouds in this time-lapse compilation from June 26 (below).
Also notice the waving motion of the clouds. It is as if the NLC material is flowing over standing waves in the atmosphere – and it is! The waves are called “gravity waves,” and are bumps in the high atmosphere created by disturbances far below in the normal layers of the atmosphere, the stratosphere and troposphere.
The video includes two clips shot simultaneously: from a camera with a 24mm wide-angle lens, and from a camera with an 85mm moderate telephoto. Expand to view full screen in HD.
The motion, here over an hour or more, is hypnotic. The NLCs move right to left (east to west), while the dark normal weather clouds on the horizon are blowing left to right (west to east). The stars are also turning left to right. The water ripples in the wind, while ducks swim by.
On the night before the solstice Full Moon, the sky added a coloured halo around the Moon.
On June 19 I was at Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta to teach a workshop on night photography, as one of the programs of the Park’s annual Wildflower Festival. The night proved hazy, but that added the attraction of an ice crystal halo around the Moon.
The lead image above is from Driftwood Beach, looking south across Middle Waterton Lake. Note Mars shining above the mountains at right.
Earlier in the night, at Red Rock Canyon, we watched the Moon rise in the twilight, then climb up the side of Mt. Blakiston. Here (below) it shines above the summit, surrounded by its hazy halo.
The workshop participants made the best of the night, shooting the moonlit scene down the canyon, toward the north and Cassiopeia.
And as here, shooting from the canyon footbridge, toward the very photogenic Anderson Peak, with Jupiter just above the peak.
In keeping with the wildflower theme, I shot wild roses, Alberta’s provincial flower, in the moonlight, with Anderson Peak and stars in the distance.
While we might like dark skies when going to places like Waterton, there are many magical options for photography when the Moon is shining.
The nights were short and never fully dark, but early June provided a run of clear nights in the Rockies to enjoy Mars and the Milky Way.
Weather prospects looked good for a run of five nights last week so I took advantage of the opportunity to shoot nightscapes from Banff and, as shown here, in Yoho National Park across the Continental Divide in B.C.
The lead image above is a sweeping panorama at Emerald Lake, one of the jewels of the Rockies. Though taken at 1:30 a.m., the sky still isn’t dark, but has a glow to the north that lasts all night near summer solstice. Even so, the sky was dark enough to reveal the Milky Way arching across the sky.
The mountain at centre is Mt. Burgess, home of the famous Burgess Shale Fossils, an incredible collection of fossilized creatures from the Cambrian explosion.
The image is a panoramic stitch of 24 segments but cropped in quite a bit from the original, and all shot with an iPano motorized panning unit. Each exposure was 30 seconds at f/2.2 with the Sigma 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 4000. One short exposure of the lodge was blended in to reduce its light glare. The original, stitched with PTGui software, is 15,000 x 9,000 pixels.
The view above, a single frame image, shows the view to the south as the Milky Way and galactic centre descend toward the horizon over the south end of the lake. Lights from the Lodge illuminate the trees.
The next night (above) I was at the same spot to shoot Mars in the deepening twilight, and reflected in the calm waters of Emerald Lake, with Cathedral Peak at left.
Another multi-frame panorama, this time sweeping up from the horizon, captures Cassiopeia (the “W”) and the rising autumn constellations reflected in the lake waters.
Vega is at top, Deneb below it, while the stars of Perseus and Pegasus are just rising.
It was a magical two nights in Yoho, a name that means “wonderful!” Both by day and by night.
Aurora watchers were on alert! Look up after sunset on June 22 and the sky should be alive with dancing lights.
And the predictions were right.
I headed out to a nearby lake in preparation for seeing and shooting the show. And as soon as the sky got dark enough the Lights were there, despite the bright solstice twilight.
The display reached up to the zenith, as seen in my fish-eye images, like the one below. I shot with three cameras, all shooting time-lapses, with the fish-eye camera recording the scene suitable for projection in a digital planetarium.
However, it was apparent we here in western Canada were seeing the end of the display that had been going on for hours during an intense geomagnetic storm. The aurora was most intense early in the evening, with a minor outburst about 11:30 to 11:45 pm MDT.
The aurora then subsided in structure and turned into a more chaotic pulsating display, typical of the end of a sub-storm.
However, an attraction of this display was its juxtaposition over another storm, an earthly one, flashing lightning to the northwest of me.
By 1 a.m. MDT the display, while still widespread over a large area of the northern sky, had turned into a diffuse glow.
But 60 gigabytes of images later, I headed home. The time-lapse compilation will come later!
The stars circle the bright northern sky at solstice time over the Alberta Badlands.
I spent the evening and well into the night on Monday shooting at a favourite spot, Dinosaur Provincial Park in southern Alberta. The result of about an hour of shooting around midnight is the circumpolar star trail composite at top.
It shows the stars spinning about Polaris, while the northern horizon is rimmed with the bright glow of all-night twilight.
Particularly bright in the northwest are noctilucent clouds low on the horizon. These are high-altitude clouds near the edge of space catching the sunlight streaming over the pole at this time of year.
They are a phenomenon unique to the weeks around solstice, and for our latitudes on the Canadian Prairies.
The close-up shot above shows their intricate wave-like formation and pearly colour. They faded though the night as the Sun set for the clouds. But they returned in the pre-dawn light.
If you live at mid-northern latitudes, keep an eye out for these clouds of solstice over the next month. It’s now their peak season.
The northern lights returned to our prairie sky in a colourful display near solstice.
Last night, Sunday, June 7, I headed out to a nearby abandoned farmyard to shoot the planets setting into the western twilight. But as the sky darkened the faint arc of an aurora appeared to the northeast, promising a fine show after midnight.
Sure enough, as the sky got dark, which doesn’t happen until very late now at 50° north in mid-June, the aurora began to dance.
The top image is a frame from the display at its best. It is one of 400 frames I shot for a time-lapse sequence.
This image is from the start of the sequence, just as the aurora was beginning to get good, with curtains of green laced with tints of magenta and purple. At this time of year the tops of the curtains often look blue, as they scatter direct sunlight streaming over the pole.
However, the colours were not visible to the unaided eye — only the camera brought out the colours, as this display never got intensely bright to the eye.
Toward the end of the sequence the display began to spread out, becoming patchy and less colourful, a typical behaviour after a substorm outburst.
More activity may be in store this week. So keep looking up! And check Spaceweather.com for alerts.
It was a marvellous night for Space Station watching.
Right now those of us at northern latitudes in North America are enjoying the opportunity to see the International Space Station come over not once but often 2 or 3 times a night, as it is now lit by the Sun all night long (on our nights down here on Earth, that is).
Here are two shots from the night of June 4-5, 2013 taken from my home in Alberta at a latitude of 51° North.
My featured image above is from the ISS pass that began at 1:55 am, and is a stack of 4 tracked 2.5-minute exposures, so the stars are not trailed, but the ground is! On this pass, the ISS came overhead. This view is looking north, toward the all-night perpetual twilight we see on the Canadian Prairies around summer solstice. There’s also a low band of green aurora on the northern horizon.
I shot the image below on the ISS’s pass one orbit earlier at 12:18 am. This image is looking south to the ISS’s high pass across the south. It’s a composite of 4 untracked 2-minute exposures – thus the stars are now trailing in circles around Polaris at the top of the frame.
Both shots are horizon-to-horizon all-sky views with an 8mm fish-eye lens.
The sky isn’t dark, even in the shot taken at 2 am. At this time of year around summer solstice at northern latitudes, the sky never gets astronomically dark but is lit a deep blue by sunlight still streaming over the pole and bathing the night in a glow of perpetual twilight.
Clouds aren’t usually the astronomer’s friend, but at this time of year they become the objects of our attention. For the past few nights, my Alberta prairie skies have been beautifully clear and filled with the clouds of solstice.
Last night, July 6, began at twilight with the best display of noctilucent clouds so far this season — and we’re now at peak season for this northern sky phenomenon. This was the scene at about 11:30 pm local time, with the wispy high-altitude clouds at their most extensive and fully lit by sunlight. Over the next hour or so, as the Sun set further below the horizon, the display disappeared as darkness came to the high atmosphere and the Sun no longer illuminated these clouds suspended over the Arctic. Here’s a diagram of the geometry of how they get lit up. If you are curious to learn more, check this NASA page.
I took a time-lapse movie of the fall of darkness on the clouds, which you can view here at my SmugMug gallery at AmazingSky.ca. The video shows how the clouds begin the night fully illuminated by the Sun but over the hour duration of the video they disappear from top to bottom. You can see a curtain of darkness moving down the clouds, caused by the Sun dropping farther below the horizon. As it does so its illumination seems to drop toward the horizon as night falls, leaving only clouds closest to the horizon (and farthest north) still illuminated. The video also shows that the edge of the illumination appears reddish — that’s because clouds on the edge of the descending dark shadow are being lit only by a low red Sun setting below the limb of the Earth. Pretty neat, and something I’ve not seen before in any image or movie. (The movie is HD quality and will take a while to load, sorry!)
However, tonight normal, everyday weather clouds moves in, curtailing any late night NLC watch. Tomorrow, I head to the Rockies to do some time-lapse nightscape shooting in the mountains. Yes, I know I’ll miss seeing Duke and Duchess Will and Kate start off the Calgary Stampede Parade. Royalty will just have to get on without me.
We were treated to a good display of noctilucent clouds last night. Or should I say early this morning! At this time of year, many a night is spent keeping a watchful vigil for noctilucent clouds. They often appear at their best before dawn.
That was the case July 5/6. The night started with a decent display of these northern sky clouds in the northwest after sunset and just before midnight. But then as the Sun dropped lower below the horizon, the lighting angles changed and the clouds disappeared. A low aurora display took their place through most of the night.
Then, at 3 am or so, as the lighting from the rising Sun hit the right angle coming over the Pole, the Arctic ice clouds reappeared, now in the northeast. Sequences of shots showed a rapid east to west motion of the clouds, driven by winds at the edge of space, at the clouds’ extreme altitude of 80 km or so.
This shot is with a 16-35mm zoom, set to 24mm and takes in the bright star Capella at upper right, a useful “survey marker” for measuring angles and cloud altitudes. I took this at about 3:30 am. MDT.
The glowing clouds of solstice have appeared. This was my first sighting of “noctilucent clouds” for the season.
Every northern summer in late June and early July we are often treated to bright pearly clouds glowing along the northern horizon long after sunset. Their origin remains somewhat of a mystery. These clouds form almost at the edge of space, so high there shouldn’t be much for clouds to form around. But their height is what makes them visible, as they catch sunlight streaming over the pole even in the middle of the night.
I took this shot Tuesday, June 28 just before midnight. The noctilucent clouds are the blue-white wavy bands just above the orange twilight. In front of them lie dark normal clouds low in our troposphere. But the NLCs shine from an altitude of some 80 km, well into the mesosphere. They are located over the Northwest Territories but, like aurora, their height allows us to see them even from more southerly latitudes.
The bright star Capella, circumpolar from my latitude of 51° North, shines through the clouds at right.
Here’s a capture of the Space Station, coming over in a darker, clearer sky than last night’s shot (in the previous blog). This was June 22, 2011, a fine solstice night on the Canadian Prairies.
The time was just before midnight, with no Moon. Yet the sky is blue and the northern horizon tinged with the orange glow of twilight. It never gets truly dark now, as summer begins. To the right, on the northeast horizon, a low green aurora kicks up.
The Space Station, the dashed arc at top, tonight passed from west to southeast, across the southern sky at the top of this fisheye 360° frame.
This is a stack of 28 18-second exposures at f/4 and ISO 1600 with the Canon 5D MkII and Sigma 8mm lens.
We’re currently enjoying a series of nightly (and often twice or thrice nightly) passes of the International Space Station, coinciding with the bright nights of summer solstice.
I took this shot on the night of solstice, June 21, 2011, as the Space Station came directly overhead, flying out of the west then heading off into the east. So we’re looking a little west of north here, toward the bright northern horizon. Pity some light cloud hazed up the sky. The pass began at 11:12 pm so the sky was still quite bright, though even an hour or two later at this time of year the northern horizon is tinged with perpetual twilight glow, at least at my latitude of 51° N.
To create the image I took a series of 100 3-second exposures (as long as the bright sky would allow) taken 1 second apart in rapid-fire fashion with the camera firing automatically with a remote timer. The 1 second gap between exposures creates the gaps in the Space Station trail.
I processed the images in Adobe Camera Raw, and exported them all as TIFFs to their own folder. I then used Chris Schur’s excellent “Star Trails” Photoshop Action to stack all those images into one composite image showing the complete flight of the Space Station across the sky. A little application of Shadows and Highlights helped bring out the foreground and bright sky detail.
I used the Sigma 8mm fisheye lens and Canon 5D Mk II to capture the whole sky, for a still and time-lapse sequence suitable for projection in a full-dome video planetarium … because the neat thing about this method is that the same set of images can be strung together sequentially (using Photoshop Extended’s Movie function) into a time-lapse movie of the pass, showing cloud and star motion as well as the ISS passage. The same techniques work for star trails, as indeed you can see here with the stars of the northern sky (Big Dipper at left and Cassiopeia at right) trailing around the North Star.