Night of the Space Station


A pass of the International Space Station in the bright moonlight, on the evening of May 31, 2015, with the gibbous Moon to the south at centre. The view is looking south, with the ISS travelling from right (west) to left (east) over several minutes. This was the first pass of a 4-pass night, May 31/June 1, starting at 11:06 pm MDT this evening. Numerous other fainter satellite trails are also visible. This is a composite stack of 95 exposures, each 2 seconds at f/2.8 with the 14mm lens and ISO 6400 with the Canon 6D. The gaps are from the 1-second interval between exposures. The length of the trails and gaps reflects the changing apparent speed of the ISS as it approaches, passes closest, then flies away.  I stacked the exposures with the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCIrcleAcademy.com, using the Lighten mode. The ground comes from a Mean blend of just 8 of the exposures to prevent shadows from blurring but to smooth noise.

The Space Station is now continuously lit by sunlight, allowing me to capture dusk-to-dawn passages of the ISS.

On the night of May 31/June 1 I was able to shoot four passages of the International Space Station on successive orbits, at 90-minute intervals, from dusk to dawn.

The first passage, at 11:06 p.m., was low across the south. It’s the image at top.

An overhead pass of the International Space Station in a bright moonlit sky on the night of May 31/ June 1, 2015, with the gibbous Moon in to the south, below. The view is looking south, with the ISS travelling from right (west) to left (east) over several minutes. This was the second pass of a 4-pass night, May 31/June 1, starting at 12:44 am MDT this morning.  This is a composite stack of 91 exposures, each 4 seconds at f/3.5 with the 8mm fish-eye lens and ISO 6400 with the Canon 6D. The gaps are from the 1-second interval between exposures. The length of the trails and gaps reflects the changing apparent speed of the ISS as it approaches, passes closest, then flies away. The stars are trailing around Polaris at top. An aircraft supplies the other dashed trail across the top and intersecting with the ISS trail. I stacked the exposures with the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCIrcleAcademy.com, using the Lighten mode. The ground comes from a Mean blend of just 8 of the exposures to prevent shadows from blurring but to smooth noise.

Then at 12:45 a.m. the Space Station came over again, now directly overhead. It’s the image above. The Moon is the bright glow at bottom.

An overhead pass of the International Space Station in a bright moonlit sky on the night of May 31/ June 1, 2015, with the gibbous Moon in the southwest, below. The view is looking south, with the ISS travelling from right (west) to left (east) over several minutes. This was the third pass of a 4-pass night, May 31/June 1, starting at 2:21 am MDT this morning.  This is a composite stack of 66 exposures, each 4 seconds at f/3.5 with the 8mm fish-eye lens and ISO 6400 with the Canon 6D. The gaps are from the 1-second interval between exposures. The length of the trails and gaps reflects the changing apparent speed of the ISS as it approaches, passes closest, then flies away. The stars are trailing around Polaris at top. Unfortunately, I missed catching the start of this pass. I stacked the exposures with the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCIrcleAcademy.com, using the Lighten mode. The ground comes from a Mean blend of just 8 of the exposures to prevent shadows from blurring but to smooth noise.

One orbit later, at 2:21 a.m., the Station came over in another overhead pass in the bright moonlight.

A pass of the International Space Station in the brightening twilight of dawn, on the morning of June 1, 2015, with the gibbous Moon setting to the southwest at right. The view is looking south, with the ISS travelling from right (west) to left (southeast) over several minutes. This was the last pass of a 4-pass night, May 31/June 1, starting at 3:55 am MDT this morning.  This is a composite stack of 144 exposures, each 2 seconds at f/2.8 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye and ISO 3200 with the Canon 6D. The gaps are from the 1-second interval between exposures. The length of the trails and gaps reflects the changing apparent speed of the ISS as it approaches, passes closest, then flies away.  I stacked the exposures with the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCIrcleAcademy.com, using the Lighten mode. The ground comes from a Mean blend of just 8 of the exposures to prevent shadows from blurring but to smooth noise.

The final passage of the night came at 3:55 a.m. as the sky was brightening with dawn twilight and the Moon was setting. This was another passage across the south, and made for the most photogenic pass of the night.

Here’s an edited movie of the four passes, with a little music just for fun.

Seeing the Space Station on not one but two, three, or even four orbits in one night is possible at my latitude of 50 degrees north around summer solstice because the Station is now continuously lit by sunlight — the Sun never sets from the altitude of the ISS.

When the ISS should be entering night, sunlight streaming over the north pole still lights the Station at its altitude of 400 km.

To shoot the time-lapse clips and stills I used 8mm and 15mm fish-eye lenses, and a 14mm ultra-wide lens.

The bright moonlight made it possible to use short 2- to 4-second exposures, allowing me to record enough frames at each passage to make the little movies of the ISS flying across the sky. Keep in mind, to the eye, the ISS looks like a bright star. Some image processing trickery adds the tapering trails.

I used the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com to create the trail effects, and to stack the time-lapse frames into single composite still images. The gaps in the trails are from the one second interval between frames.

– Alan, June 2, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Under an Endless Open Sky


Circumpolar star trails at dawn over the historic Butala homestead at the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan, taken May 2015. This is a stack of 70 frames from a larger time-lapse sequence, from the end of the sequence in the dawn twilight. Each exposure is 40 seconds with the 14mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 60Da at ISO 1600. Stacked with Advanced Stacker Actions. The foreground comes from a stack of 8 of the final exposures, mean combined, to smooth noise.

The skies were spectacular at a pioneer homestead on the Saskatchewan prairie.

Canada’a province of Saskatchewan bills itself as the “Land of Living Skies,” and that was certainly true last week when I spent three perfect nights under some of the darkest skies in the country.

The location was the Old Man on His Back Prairie & Heritage Conservation Area, deep in dry southwest Saskatchewan, between Grasslands National Park and Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, two favourite places of mine for nightscape photography and astronomy.

The Conservation Area reclaims and preserves original short grass prairie habitat. It is named for the formation to the west that is said to resemble the profile of Napi, the creator being of Siksika legends, who after creating the world, lay back here to rest.

The land was once a working ranch first settled by the Butala family. The white pioneer house in my photos dates from that time. It was built in Montana and moved here in the 1920s.

The waxing crescent Moon and Venus (above) over the old farm house at the Visitor Centre at the Old Man on His Back Natural and Historical Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan, May 20, 2015, on a very clear night. The old house was the original house lived in by the Butala family who settled the area in the 1920s. This is a single exposure taken as part of an 850-frame time-lapse sequence with the 14mm Rokinon lens and Canon 60Da camera.

In the mid-1990s Peter and Sharon Butala transferred their land to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, to create an island of original prairie amid the heavily grazed land around it.

A 360° panorama of the night sky and prairie landscape from the Visitor Centre and farmyard at the Old Man on His Back Prairie & Heritage Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan. The Milky Way arches across the eastern sky from north to south, while an aurora display (faint to the naked eye) glows in an arch of green and magenta across the northern horizon. The pioneer house was built in the 1920s and this was a working ranch until the 1990s when the land was turned over to the Nature Conservancy of Canada to turn into a natural area to preserve the short grass prairie habitat.  This a stitch of 8 segments, each a 1 minute untracked exposure at f/3.5 with the 15mm lens and ISO 4000 with the Canon 6D. Stitched with PTGui software. I shot these May 18, 2015.

For astronomers, the Area serves also as an island of darkness amid intruding light pollution. The region is very dark, with few lights and manmade sky-glows on the horizon.

My 360° panorama above shows that the greatest glows come from the arc of the aurora to the north and the arch of the Milky Way stretching across the sky. This is a stargazer’s paradise.

My 2-minute compilation of time-lapse videos and still images taken over three crystal clear nights attempts to capture the wonder of the night sky from such a dark site. Be sure to enlarge the video to full screen to view it.

It was in the little white house that Sharon Butala wrote some of her best-selling books retelling stories of her life on the prairie, notably The Perfection of the Morning, and Wild Stone Heart.

In the latter book, Sharon writes:

“At night the Milky Way glittered and gleamed above us, fathomlessly deep and numberless, the constellations wheeled slowly across the sky with the seasons, and the moon came and went, sometimes white as a maiden’s face, sometimes a looming orange sphere … under such an endless, open sky.”

– Sharon Butala, Wild Stone Heart (Harper Collins, 2000)

– Alan, May 25, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Scenes at the Texas Star Party


The galactic centre region of the Milky Way in Sagittarius and Scorpius, over the upper field of the Texas Star Party, near Fort Davis, Texas, May 13, 2015. About 600 people gather here each spring for a star party under very dark skies near the MacDonald Observatory. Sagittarius is left of centre and Scorpius is right of centre with the planet Saturn the bright object at the top edge right of centre. The dark lanes of the Dark Horse and Pipe Nebula areas lead from the Milky Way to the stars of Scorpius, including Antares. The semi-circular Corona Australis is just clearing the hilltop at left of centre. This is a composite of 5 x 3 minute exposures with the camera tracking the sky for more detail in the Milky Way without trailing. Each tracked exposure was at ISO 1600. The ground comes from 3 x 1.5-minute exposures at ISO 3200 taken immediately after the tracked exposures but with the drive turned off on the tracker. All are with the 24mm lens at f/2.8 and filter-modified Canon 5D MkII camera. The ground and sky layers were stacked and layered in Photoshop. The tracker was the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer. High haze added the natural glows around the stars — no filter was employed here.

The stars at night shine big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas.

Last week several hundred stargazers gathered under the dark skies of West Texas to revel in the wonders of the night sky. I was able to attend the annual Texas Star Party, a legendary event and a mecca for amateur astronomers held at the Prude Ranch near Fort Davis, Texas.

Some nights were plagued by clouds and thunderstorms. but here are some scenes from a clear night, with several hundred avid observers under the stars and Milky Way. Many stargazers used giant Dobsonian reflector telescopes to explore the faintest of deep-sky objects in and beyond the Milky Way.

A 360° panorama of the upper field of the Texas Star Party at the Prde Ranch near Fort Davis, TX, May 13, 2015, taken once the sky got astronomically dark. The panorama shows the field of telescopes and observers enjoying a night of deep-sky viewing and imaging. Venus is the bright object at right of centre and Jupiter is above it. The Zodiacal Light stretches up from the horizon and continues left across the sky in the Zodiacal Band to brighten in the east (left of centre) as the Gegeneschein. I shot this with a 14mm lens, oriented vertically, with each segment 60 seconds at f/2.8 and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200. The panorama is made of 8 segements at 45° spacings. The segments were stitched with PTGui software.
A 360° panorama of the upper field of the Texas Star Party at the Prde Ranch near Fort Davis, TX, May 13, 2015, taken once the sky got astronomically dark. The panorama shows the field of telescopes and observers enjoying a night of deep-sky viewing and imaging. Venus is the bright object at right of centre and Jupiter is above it. The Zodiacal Light stretches up from the horizon and continues left across the sky in the Zodiacal Band to brighten in the east (left of centre) as the Gegeneschein.
I shot this with a 14mm lens, oriented vertically, with each segment 60 seconds at f/2.8 and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200. The panorama is made of 8 segements at 45° spacings. The segments were stitched with PTGui software.
Observers at the Texas Star Party explore the wonders of the deep sky under the rising Milky Way, in May 2015. Sagittarius and Scorpius are in the background, with the centre of the Galaxy rising in the southeast. This is a single 30-second exposure at f/2 with the 24mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 4000.
Observers at the Texas Star Party explore the wonders of the deep sky under the rising Milky Way, in May 2015. Sagittarius and Scorpius are in the background, with the centre of the Galaxy rising in the southeast. This is a single 30-second exposure at f/2 with the 24mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 4000.
Expert deep-sky observers Larry Mitchell and Barbara Wilson gaze skyward with Larry’s giant 36-inch Dobsonian telescope at the Texas Star Party, May 2015. This is a single 60-second exposure with the 14mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200.
Expert deep-sky observers Larry Mitchell and Barbara Wilson gaze skyward with Larry’s giant 36-inch Dobsonian telescope at the Texas Star Party, May 2015. This is a single 60-second exposure with the 14mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200.
A deep-sky observer at the top of a tall ladder looking through a tall and large Dobsonian telescope, at the Texas Star Party, May 2015. Scorpius is rising in the background; Saturn is in the head of Scorpius as the bright star above centre. Anatares is just below Saturn. This is a single 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the 24mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 6400.
A deep-sky observer at the top of a tall ladder looking through a tall and large Dobsonian telescope, at the Texas Star Party, May 2015. Scorpius is rising in the background; Saturn is in the head of Scorpius as the bright star above centre. Anatares is just below Saturn. This is a single 30-second exposure at f/2.5 with the 24mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 6400.
Circumpolar star trails over the upper field of the Texas Star Party, May 13, 2015. The star party attracts hundreds of avid stargazers to the Prude Ranch near Fort Davis, Texas each year to enjoy the dark skies. The three observing fields are filled with telescopes from the basic to sophisticated rigs for astrophotography. I aimed the camera to look north over the field to capture the stars circling around Polaris in circumpolar trails over about 1 hour. Some cloud and haze obscured parts of the sky. Lights from cities to the north add the sky glow at right. The streaks at top are from the stars of the Big Dipper. This is a stack of 55 exposures, each 1 minute long, at f/2.8 with the 14mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200. The foreground comes from a single image in the series, masked and layered in Photoshop. The images were stacked using the Long Trails tapering effect with the Advanced Stacker Actions from Star Circle Academy.
Circumpolar star trails over the upper field of the Texas Star Party, May 13, 2015. I aimed the camera to look north over the field to capture the stars circling around Polaris in circumpolar trails over about 1 hour. Some cloud and haze obscured parts of the sky. Lights from cities to the north add the sky glow at right. The streaks at top are from the stars of the Big Dipper.
This is a stack of 55 exposures, each 1 minute long, at f/2.8 with the 14mm lens and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200. The foreground comes from a single image in the series, masked and layered in Photoshop. The images were stacked using the Long Trails tapering effect with the Advanced Stacker Actions from Star Circle Academy.

I extend my thanks to the organizers for the great event, and for the opportunity to speak to the group as one of the featured evening speakers. It was great fun!

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

The Red Aurora of May 10


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Large-scale pulses also brighten the whole sky momentarily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nightscapes at Double Arch


Star Trails Behind Double Arch

The iconic Double Arch looks great under dark skies, moonlight, or painted with artificial light.

Last night, I returned to the Double Arch at Arches National Park, to capture a star trail series, starting from the onset of darkness at 9:30 p.m., and continuing for 2.5 hours until midnight, an hour after moonrise at 11:00 p.m. The lead image is the result.

I think it turned out rather well.

The Big Dipper is just streaking into frame at top right, as I knew it would from shooting here the night before. The bright streak at upper left is Jupiter turning into frame at the end of the sequence. Note how the shadow of the moonlit foreground arch matches the shape of the background arch.

On the technical end, the star trail composite is a stack of 160 frames, each 45 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 3200, with the Canon 6D and 14mm lens. The foreground, however, comes from a stack of 8 frames taken toward the end of the shoot, as the moonlight was beginning to light the arches. An additional 45-second exposure taken a couple of minutes after the last star trail frame adds the star-like points at the “head” of the star trail streaks.

I used the excellent Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy to do the stacking in Photoshop.

Dark Sky Behind Double Arch

Before starting the star trail set, I took some initial short-exposure nightscapes while the sky was still dark. The result is the above image, of Double Arch in a dark sky. Passing car headlights provided some rather nice accent illumination.

On such a fine night I thought others might be there as well. Arches is a very popular place for nightscape imaging.

Sure enough, 6 others came and went through the early evening before moonrise. We had a nice time chatting about gear and techniques.

As expected, a few photographers came armed with bright lights for artificially lighting the arches. I kept my camera running, knowing any illumination they shone on the foreground wouldn’t affect my star trails, and that I’d mask in the foreground from frames taken after moonrise.

Photographer Lighting Double Arch

Here’s one frame from my star trail sequence where one photographer headed under the arch to light it for his photos. It did make for a nice scene – a human figure adds scale and dimension.

However, I always find the light from the LED lamps too artificial and harsh, and comes from the wrong direction to look natural. I also question the ethics of blasting a dark sky site with artificial light.

On a night like this I’d rather wait until moonrise and let nature provide the more uniform, warmer illumination with natural shadows.

Big Dipper over Double Arch

As an example, I took this image the night before using short exposures in the moonlight to capture the Big Dipper over Double Arch. When I shot this at 11 p.m. I had the site to myself. Getting nature to provide the right light requires the photographer’s rule of “waiting for the light.”

– Alan, April 7, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Orion Over and Through Turret Arch


Orion Star Trails Through Turret Arch

What a fabulous night for some nightscapes at Arches National Park, Utah.

I’m at Arches National Park for two nights, to shoot the stars over its amazing eroded sandstone landscape.

I started the night last night, April 6, shooting Orion over Turret Arch while the sky was still lit by deep twilight. That image is below. It shows Orion and the winter sky, with bright Venus at right, setting over the aptly-named Turret Arch.

I scouted the location earlier in the day and measured in person, as expected from maps, that the angles would be perfect for capturing Orion over the Arch.

But better still would be getting Orion setting through the Arch. That’s the lead photo at top.

I shot the star trail image later in the evening, over half an hour. It uses a stack of 5 exposures: a single, short 30-second one for the initial point-like stars, followed by a series of four 8-minute exposures to create the long star trails. The short exposure was at ISO 4000; the long exposures at ISO 250. All are with the Rokinon 14mm lens.

Orion Over Turret Arch

Arches is a popular and iconic place for nightscape photography.

I thought I’d likely not be alone, and sure enough another pair of photographers showed up, though they were armed with lights to illuminate the Arches, as many photographers like to do.

I shot this from afar, as they lit up the inside of Turret Arch where I had been earlier in the night.

Photographer Lighting Turret Arch

I prefer not to artificially illuminate natural landscapes, or do so only mildly, not with bright spotlights. We traded arches! – while I shot Turret, the other photography couple shot next door at the North and South Window Arches, and vice versa. It all worked out fine.

Later in the night, after moonrise, I shot next door at the famous Double Arch. Those moonlit photos will be in tomorrow’s blog.

It was a very productive night, and a remarkable experience shooting at such a location on a warm and quiet night, with only a fellow photographer or two for company.

– Alan, April 7, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Stars on Ice – The Columbia Icefields by Moonlight


Star Trails over Columbia Icefields

The stars trail over the glaciers of the Columbia Icefields.

What an amazing night this was! You rarely get pristine cloudless skies over the Icefields. Some cloud is almost always blowing off the ice. But last Saturday in Jasper National Park was as clear as it gets.

The Moon was bright, as a waxing gibbous just off frame at left. It lit the landscape like it was day.

I shot with two cameras, one doing a time-lapse motion control sequence panning across the scene. The other was a fixed camera shooting 20-second exposures at 1-second intervals. The resulting frames from the fixed camera, 270 in this case, are multi-purpose:

– I stacked about 100 of them to make the star trail composite above. Two frames supplied the stars at the beginning and end of the trails. Another single frame supplied the ground, to avoid the shadows being blurred by the Moon’s motion if you used the ground composited from all 100 frames.

– I can also take the full set of 270 frames and sequence them into a time-lapse movie of the stars moving over the landscape.

Stars over the Columbia Icefields Panorama

Before beginning the time-lapse sequences I shot this 180° panorama, made of 5 segments stitched in PTGui software. It extends from the southwest at left, where the Milky Way is barely visible, to the north at right, with the Big Dipper over the Icefields Parkway.

Click on it for a bigger view.

Shooting at the Icefields

This is the camera setup, with the camera on the right taking the star trail image I feature at top.

The Athabasca Glacier is at left, the Stutfield Glacier at right.

Icefields Parking Lot at Night

Midnight under moonlight is when to see the Icefields! This is the lower parking lot, at the start of the trail up to Athabasca Glacier. This is packed with cars, RVs and buses by day, but at night I was the only one there.

– Alan, Sept, 8, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer