Moon and Star Conjunction


Moon and Aldebaran (July 29, 2016)

The waning Moon shone near the bright star Aldebaran in the dawn sky.

This was a beautiful sight this morning, before dawn on July 29. The crescent Moon, its night side illuminated by Earthshine, shone just below the brightest star in Taurus.

We are currently in 3-year period when the Moon’s path is taking it near or in front of Aldebaran every month. However, most of these occultations or conjunctions are not well-timed for any particular location. And many involve the too-brilliant gibbous or full Moon.

But this morning the timing and Moon phase were perfect. From my longitude on Earth in Alberta, the Moon passed closest to the star just before the sky was getting too bright with dawn. Having them set against the deep blue twilight was perfect.

From farther east the Moon would not have appeared as close to Aldebaran as this before sunrise. From farther west the Moon and star would have appeared much lower in the sky at closest approach.

Moon & Aldebaran Screen

TECHNICAL:

For this image I shot 6 exposures, from 2 seconds for the Earthshine, twilight sky colour and stars, to 1/125th second for the bright crescent. I then stacked, aligned, and blended them together using luminosity masks – masks that hide or reveal parts of the image based on the brightness of the scene. You can see them in the Photoshop screen shot – Click on the image to enlarge it.

How do you create these masks?

• Turn off all the layers except the one you want to create a mask for.

• Go to Channels and Command/Control Click on the RGB Channel.

• That automatically selects all the highlights.

• Go back to the image layer and then hit the Add Mask button down at the bottom of the Layers panel (the rectangle with the black dot in it).

• Done. Repeat that for each image layer.

More traditional high dynamic range or “HDR” stacking left odd colour fringing artifacts and double images on the slowly moving Moon, despite applying what is called “de-ghosting” and despite using a mount tracking at the lunar rate. I tried merging the images with HDR, but it didn’t work.

A nifty Photoshop action from the Astronomy Tools set by Noel Carboni added the diffraction spikes.

I shot all images with the 130mm Astro-Physics refractor at f/6 and the Canon 60Da camera at ISO 400.

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

Tis the Season for Night Shining Clouds


Noctilucent Clouds and Big Dipper

A bright display of noctilucent clouds last night prompts me to remind northerners to look north at this prime season for night shining clouds.

Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) can be seen only in summer and are best in the few weeks before and after (mostly after) summer solstice. I shot all these images in the middle of the night. Indeed, the two images above and just below are from 3 am on the morning of June 27.

NLCs are high altitude clouds at the edge of space some 80 kilometres above the Earth, far above any normal weather clouds. Their height allows sunlight streaming over the pole to illuminate them all night long.

Noctilucent Clouds over Pond
Noctilucent clouds at 3 am on June 27 over a prairie pond in southern Alberta. The NLCs were visible as an arc across the north for at least 2 hours and were still there as dawn twilight brightened at 3:30 am. This is looking due north with the bowl of the Big Dipper at upper left. Capella is at lower right. Shot with the 24mm lens.

Their cause is a mystery. They may form by water vapour condensing on meteoric dust particles.

They look luminescent, as if glowing on their own. But these are not auroras. They shine only by reflected sunlight.

And they have complex structures, with intricate waves and ripples.

Noctilucent Clouds (June 17, 2016)
A display of noctilucent clouds, the first good display of the season from my area of southern Alberta, on June 17/18. 2016. This is with a 105mm telephoto and the Nikon D750, and is the first frame of a 1000-frame time-lapse sequence. However, as the Sun dropped farther below the horizon the clouds did lose illumination and faded, from the top down.

And they move very slowly, as this time-lapse from June 17 shows.

Readers living at a latitude between 45° and 55° are best situated to see “NLCs.” From farther south the clouds will be below the horizon. From farther north the sky may be too bright with twilight and the angle of illumination wrong for optimum viewing.

For more information, check the Wikipedia article

Unlike auroras, there is no predicting when they might appear. Some nights when it is clear where you are, no NLCs appear. Perhaps that’s because of cloud much farther north blocking the path of light from the Sun on the other side of the planet to the clouds on our side of the Earth.

But by the end of July NLC season is coming to an end as the Sun drops farther below the northern horizon at night, and the nights get darker.

So over the next four weeks, look low in the north for night shining clouds.

— Alan, June 27, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

 

Mars and the Milky Way at Emerald Lake


The Milky Way over Emerald Lake, Yoho

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 Milky Way at Emerald Lake, Yoho
The Milky Way over the side pond at Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park, BC., from the bridge to the Lodge. This is a stack of 8 x 25-second exposures for the foreground (mean combined to smooth noise), and one untracked exposure for the sky (to minimize trailing), all at f/2.8 with the Rokinon 14mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.

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.

Reflections of Mars at Emerald Lake
Mars, at right, reflected in Emerald Lake at twilight in Yoho National Park, BC, June 7, 2016. This is a single 6-second exposure at f/3.2 with the Sigma 20mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 100.

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.

Reflections of Cassiopeia at Emerald Lake
This is a vertical panorama of 4 segments, taken with the iPano unit, and with each segment a 30-second exposure at f/2.2 with the Sigma 24mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 4000. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

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.

— Alan, June 9, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Glows and Streaks in the Spring Sky


The Spring Sky over the Pioneer Farmstead

How many sources of skyglow can you pick out here?

There are at least five:

• the Milky Way (at left),

• green airglow (below the Milky Way),

• all too prevalent light pollution (especially reflected off the clouds coming in from the west at right),

• lingering blue twilight across the north (at left and right), common in May and June from my northern latitude,

• and even a touch of aurora right at the northern horizon at far left.

In this scene from May 28, the Milky Way arches over an abandoned pioneer farmstead from the 1930s and 40s near my home in southern Alberta.

Mars (very bright and in some clouds) and Saturn shine at lower centre, while Jupiter is the bright object in clouds at right just above the old house.

Arcturus is the brightest star here at upper right of centre, made more obvious here by shining through the clouds. The Big Dipper, distorted by the map projection used in the this panorama, is at upper right.

Technical: This is a 360° horizon to zenith panorama taken with the iPano motorized panning unit, using the 24mm lens at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, for a stitch of 28 panels, in 4 tiers of 7 segments each. Stitched with PTGui. South is at centre, north to either end. The original is 25,700 x 7,700 pixels.

Just after I shot the panorama I captured the International Space Station passing directly overhead in one of several passes this night.

ISS Pass #2 (May 28/29, 2016)
The second Space Station pass of May 28/29, 2016, at 1:40 a.m., with cloud moving in adding the glows to all the stars. Taken with the 8mm fish-eye lens from home. The Big Dipper is high in the west at right. Mars is bright at bottom, to the south. Several other satellites are in the sky as well. This is a stack of 3 exposures, each 2.5-minutes with the camera on the Star Adventurer tracker.

At this time of year the ISS is lit all night by the Sun that never sets for the astronauts. We see the ISS cross the sky not once but several times in a night at 90-minute intervals.

While the sky near solstice is never dark at my latitude, it does have its compensations and attractions.

— Alan, May 29, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Mars Bright in the Spring Sky


Spring Sky over the Badlands Panorama

Mars is now shining brightly in the evening sky, as close and as bright as it has been since 2005.

Look southeast to south after dark and you’ll see a brilliant reddish “star.” That’s Mars, now at opposition, and retrograding slowly westward each night through Scorpius into Libra.

My image above captures Mars set in the entirety of the northern spring sky, complete with the arch of the Milky Way, twilight glows to the north (at left), some satellite trails …

… and Mars itself as the brightest object just right of centre shining above the landscape of Dinosaur Provincial Park.

Just to the left of Mars is Saturn, while below both is the star Antares in Scorpius, for a neat triangle of objects. Jupiter is the bright object in Leo at far right.

Technical: I shot the lead image on the evening of May 25. It is a 360° and horizon-to-zenith panorama stitched from 44 images, taken in 4 tiers of 11 panels each, shot with a motorized iOptron iPano mount. I used a 35mm Canon lens at f/2.8 for 30-second exposures with the Canon 6D at ISO 6400. I stitched the images with PTGui. The original image is a monster 32,500 pixels wide by 8,300 pixels high.

Mars at Opposition Rising over the Badlands
This is a stitch in Adobe Camera Raw of 9 segments, each with the Canon 35mm lens at f/5.6 and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

I shot the panorama above earlier in the evening, when Mars and Saturn were just rising in the southeast at left, and the sky to the northwest at right was still bright with twilight.

This shows the geometry of Mars at opposition. It lies opposite the Sun and is so rising at sunset and directly opposite the sunset point. The Sun, Earth and Mars are in a straight line across the solar system with Earth in the middle and as close to Mars as we get.

Actual date of opposition was May 22 but Earth is closest to Mars on May 30. That’s when it will look largest in a telescope. But to the unaided eye it appears as a bright red star.

Whether with eye or telescope, have a look!

— Alan, May 27 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Spectacular Skies at a Lighthouse


Lighthouse Beams by the Southern Cross

The sky and sea present an ever-changing panorama of light and colour from the view point of an Australian lighthouse.

Last week I spent a wonderful four nights at the Smoky Cape Lighthouse, in Hat Head National Park, on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales. I was after panoramas of seascapes and cloudscapes, and the skies didn’t disappoint.

At sunset, as below, the sky to the east glowed with twilight colours, with the bright clouds providing a beautiful contrast against the darkening sky. The kangaroo at far right was an added bonus as he hopped into frame just at the right time.

Smoky Cape Lighthouse at Twilight Panorama
A 270° or so panorama of the Smoky Cape Lighthouse near South West Rocks on Trial Bay, NSW, Australia, and in Hat Head National Park. This is a stitch of 12 segments, each a single 1.6-second exposure at f/8 with the 35mm lens in landscape orientation. Stitching with Adobe Camera Raw.

At sunrise, the Sun came up over the ocean to the east, providing a stunning scene to begin the day.

Smoky Cape Lighthouse Sunrise Panorama
I shot this at dawn on April 28, 2016. This is a 7-section panorama with each section being a 5-exposure HDR stack, all stacked and stitched in Adobe Camera Raw.

The Smoky Cape Lighthouse was lit up for the first time in 1891. It was staffed for decades by three keepers and their families who lived in the cottages visible in the panoramas above. They tended to the kerosene lamps, to cleaning the lenses, and to winding the weight-driven clockwork mechanism that needed resetting every two hours to keep the reflector and lens assembly turning. By day, they would draw the curtains across to keep the Sun from heating up the optics.

Lighthouse Lenses

The huge optical assembly uses a set of nine lenses, each a massive fresnel lens, to shot focused beams out to sea. The optics produce a trio of beams, in three sets.

Each night you could see the nine beams sweeping across the sky and out to sea, producing a series of three quick flashes followed by a pause, then another three flashes, the characteristic pattern of the Smoky Bay Light. Each lighthouse has its own flashing pattern.

Lighthouse Beams by the Southern Cross
Beams from the Smoky Cape Lighthouse in the twilight sky, beaming out beside the stars of the Southern Cross and the Pointers (Alpha and Beta Centauri) below, rising into the southeast sky in the deepening blue twilight. This is a single 0.6-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.

The lead photo, repeated above, shows the beams in the twilight, with the stars of the Southern Cross as a backdrop. Three beams are aimed toward the camera while the other two sets of beam trios are shooting away out to sea.

The image below shows the beam trio shining out over the water toward one of the dangerous rocks off shore.

Lighthouse Beams over the Starry Sea
The trio of beams from the Smoky Cape Lighthouse scanning across the sea and sky in an exposure shot as short as possible to freeze the beams. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/1.4 and ISO 12800, wide and fasrt to keep the beams from blurring too much.

The Lighthouse was converted to electricity in 1962, when staff was reduced. Then in the 1980s all lighthouses were automated and staff were no longer needed.

While we might romanticize the life of a lighthouse keeper, it was a lonely and hard life. Keepers were usually married, perhaps with children. While that may have lessened the isolation, it was still a difficult life for all.

Today, some of the cottages have been converted into rentable rooms. I stayed in the former house of the main light keeper, filled with memorabilia from the glory days of staffed lighthouses.

Southern Cross and Pointers from Smoky Cape
The Southern Cross, Crux, and the Pointer Stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri, above in the moonlight of the waning gibbous Moon before dawn, from the Smoky Cape Lighthouse looking southwest, on the coast of New South Wales, Australia. The Cape was named by James Cook in 1770 for the fires he saw on shore here. This is a single 5-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 1000.

The image above takes in the Southern Cross over the moonlit beach in the dawn twilight.

The last image below is my final astrophoto taken on my current trip to Australia, a 360° panorama of the Milky Way and Zodiacal Light from the back garden of the Lighthouse overlooking the beach at Hat Head National Park.

Milky Way over Smoky Cape Panorama
A 360° panorama and from horizon to zenith of the southern sky and Milky Way from Smoky Cape and the grounds of the Lighthouse and Cottages. The panorama is a stitch of 9 segments, each shot with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens in portrait orientation, and at f/2.8 with the Canon 6D at ISO 3200. All exposures 1 minute, untracked on a tripod. Stitched in PTGui using equirectangular projection.

It’s been a superb trip, with over half a terabyte of images shots and processed! The last few blogs have featured some of the best, but many more are on the drives for future posts.

Now, back to Canada and spring!

— Alan, May 4, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

 

Moon of the Austral Sky


Sunset and Waxing Moon over AAT Dome

When visiting southern latitudes nothing disorients a northern hemisphere astronomer more than seeing our familiar Moon turned “the wrong way!”

With the Moon now dominating the night sky, my photo attention in Australia turns to it as my celestial subject.

It’s wonderful to see the Moon as a crescent phase in the evening sky, but now flipped around so it looks like the Moon we see from home up north when it is a waning crescent in the morning.

However, the lead image above actually shows the waxing crescent in the evening. It shines above the volcanic hills near Warrumbungles National Park, with the added silhouette of the dome of the Australian Astronomical Telescope, the largest optical telescope in Australia.

After a lifetime of seeing the Moon in its northerly orientation, seeing the austral Moon throws off your sense of time and direction. Are we looking west in the evening? Or east in the morning? The Moon just doesn’t make sense!

Full Moon with Glitter Path
This is a two-exposure composite: a long exposure for the sky and ocean, and a short exposure for the disk of the Moon itself, to preserve some detail in the disk, specifically the mare areas to show the face of the Moon and not an overexposed white disk. Both with the 135mm telephoto and Canon 6D, from Woolgoolga, NSW.

Then there’s the Full Moon. It rises in the east, as does the Sun. But like the Sun, the “down under Moon” moves from right to left across the northern, not southern sky. And the familiar “Man in the Moon” figure is upside down, as seen above.

The photo above is from Friday night, and shows the Full Moon rising in the northeast over the Pacific Ocean.

Golden Glitter Path of the Moon
The apogee Full Moon of April 22, 2016 rising over the Pacific Ocean and lighting the waters with a golden glitter path of reflected moonlight. I shot this from the Woolgoolga Headlands viewpoint, with the 135mm telephoto and Canon 6D. This is a high dynamic range stack of 5 exposures to compress the range in brightness. Even so, the Moon itself is still overexposed.

This “HDR” image above from earlier in the evening captures the golden glitter path of moonlight on the ocean waves. I photographed these Full Moon scenes from the Headlands viewpoint at Woolgoolga, a great spot for panoramic seascapes.

The Full Moon this night was the apogee Full Moon of 2016 – the smallest and most distant Full Moon of the year, the opposite of a “supermoon.”

Gibbous Moon Over Upper Ebor Falls
This is a high dynamic range stack of 7 exposures to preserve the range in brightness between the bright sky and Moon, and the dark ground in the dim twilight.

Earlier in the week I was inland, high on the New England Tablelands in New South Wales. This image shows the waxing gibbous Moon in the evening twilight over Ebor Falls on the Guy Fawkes River, one of the few waterfalls on the famed Waterfall Way in New Soith Wales that has water flowing year round.

— Alan, April 24, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com