“Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.”
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson
These are the famous Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, caught two nights ago in New Mexico skies. This bright star cluster stands out easily to the unaided eye in the winter sky, shining in the shoulder of Taurus.
What the eye does not see is the “silver braid” – the dim dust that surrounds the Pleiades. The stars light the dust, causing it to shine blue near the stars. Farther out, the dust is much dimmer and glows with pale tints of cyan and red.
The dust clouds were once thought to be what was leftover from the formation of the stars, now estimated to have occurred about 100 million years ago. However, current theory suggests that the natal dust of the Pleiads would have long since dispersed.
Instead, the silvery braids of dust that surround the Seven Sisters are just nearby dust clouds in Taurus that the stars are passing through, and illuminating with their hot blue light.
The Pleiades, as familiar as they are – they have been mentioned in ancient texts and myths dating back thousand of years – remain a source of scientific controversy. Astronomers argue over their distance, with different methods providing different results. But the best recent measurement puts them 440 light years away.
Technical notes: This is a stack of 10 x 12 minute exposures at ISO 400 with the Canon 5D MkII camera and 92mm TMB refractor at f/4.4. I shot the images November 16 from near Silver City, New Mexico.
– Alan, November 18, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer
The thin waxing crescent Moon returned to the evening sky tonight, seen here in the deepening blue of a New Mexico evening.
I’m in Silver City, New Mexico (altitude 5900 feet) for a few days and nights, checking out places to spend next winter, under clearer and warmer skies than back home … and with rarely any snow to shovel.
This was the scene tonight, on the ranch road with one of the prime property choices – astronomers check real estate locations by day and night!
The crescent Moon is lit by Earthshine as it sits amid the deep blue twilight. The stars of Taurus show up flanking the Moon, with the Hyades at left and Pleiades at right.
This image is a high-dynamic range stack of 6 exposures from 2 to 20 seconds, to capture the ground detail without blowing out the Moon. Lights from an approaching pickup truck nicely lit the trees during the final longest exposure.
For the technically minded, I stacked the images using Photoshop CC HDR Pro, then “tone-mapped” them using Adobe Camera Raw in 32 bit mode.
The sky was hazy all day and evening, from wind-blown dust common to the area. Fierce southerly winds were whipping up dust all day, which hung in the sky all evening as well.
The sunset was a golden yellow from all the dust in the air. Once it got dark the sky lacked the ideal desert transparency, muting the zodiacal light I saw last night from the Chiricahuas.
Not every night is perfect in the high desert!
– Alan, April 30, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer
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
” ‘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
Jupiter and the stars of the winter sky rise in the east on a December night in New Mexico.
This was the scene last night, December 4, as clouds cleared away enough for great views of Orion and the winter sky rising above distant mountains in New Mexico. (All the clouds, that is, except for one annoying dark blob in Gemini above Jupiter!)
The bright object at lower left is Jupiter, in Gemini this winter, rising with Castor and Pollux to the left of Jupiter. To the right of frame Orion comes up on his side, with his Belt pointed down to where Sirius will come up shortly after I took this image. The red-sensitive camera picks up swirls of nebulosity around Orion.
Above Orion are the stars of Taurus and Auriga.
This image is a framing of the Milky Way from Perseus at top right down to Taurus and the top of Orion at bottom left. At centre is the blue Pleiades star cluster, and the red arc of the California Nebula. Also at centre you can see the long dusty tendrils of the Taurus Dark Clouds, interstellar clouds between us and the Perseus arm of the Milky Way.
I shot both from the Painted Pony Resort in southeast New Mexico using a little iOptron SkyTracker and 2.5- to 3-minute exposures with a filter-modified Canon 5D MkII.
— Alan, December 5, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer
The stars of the Pleiades sit amid a dusty sky in Taurus.
These are the famous Seven Sisters of Greek legend, known as the Pleiades. They are the daughters of Atlas and Pleione, who are also represented by stars in the cluster. Many cultures around the world tell stories about these stars, but in Greek tradition their appearance signalled the summer sailing season in the Mediterranean. The Pleiades first appear at sunset in the eastern evening sky in autumn and put in their last appearance in the western sky in spring.
One story has it they were placed in the sky to recognize their devotion to their father Atlas and his unending labour in holding up the heavens. They are the half-sisters of the Hyades, another nearby cluster of stars in Taurus. Other stories describe the Pleiades as the Seven Doves that carried ambrosia to the infant Zeus.
A seldom-used name now for this cluster is the Atlantides, from the plural form of Atlas, their father. Thus, these sisters gave their name to the Atlantic Ocean, a vast and uncharted sea until the 16th century. The term “atlas,” first used by Mercator for a book of maps, comes not from the Pleiades’ father but from a real-life king in Morocco who supposedly made one of the first celestial globes.
I shot this portrait of the Sisters a few nights ago, stacking a set of five 15-minute exposures with the TMB 92mm refractor and Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800. I processed the image to bring out the faint clouds of dust that pervade the area.
The Pleiades are passing through dust clouds in Taurus and lighting them up. The stars are embedded in dust, lit blue by the light of the hot stars. But even farther out you can see wisps of dust faintly illuminated by the light of the Pleiades.
The stars are thought to be about 100 million years old, quite young as stars go. They formed together in a massive nebula that has long since dissipated, and will travel together for another few hundred million years until the sister stars go their own way around the Galaxy. The stellar family that gave rise to so many legends around the world will be scattered to the stars.
– Alan, October 12, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer
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