Conjunctions, Satellites & Auroras, Oh My!

Friday the 13th Aurora Title

October has brought clear skies and some fine celestial sights. Here’s a potpourri of what was up from home. 

We’ve enjoyed some lovely early autumn weather here in southern Alberta, providing great opportunities to see and shoot a series of astronomical events.


Venus & Mars in Close Conjunction #2 (Oct 5, 2017)
Venus and Mars in close conjunction in the dawn sky on October 5, 2017. Venus is the brightest object; Mars is below it; while the star above Venus is 4th magnitude Sigma Leonis. The foreground is illuminated by light from the setting Full Moon in the west. This is a single 1-second exposure with the 135mm lens at f/2 and Canon 60Da at ISO 800. 

On October 5, Venus and Mars appeared a fraction of a degree apart in the dawn twilight. Venus is the brightest object, just above dimmer but red Mars. This was one of the closest planet conjunctions of 2017. Mars will appear much brighter in July and August 2018 when it makes its closest approach to Earth since 2003.

Satellites: The Space Station

Overhead Pass of the Space Station in Moonlight
An overhead pass of the ISS on October 5, 2017, with the Full Moon rising in the east at left. The ISS is moving from west (at right) to east (at left), passing nearly overhead at the zenith at centre. North is at the top, south at bottom in this fish-eye lens image with an 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens on the Canon 6D MkII camera. This is a stack of 56 exposures, each 4 seconds long at an interval of 1 second. 

The Space Station made a series of ideal evening passes in early October, flying right overhead from my site at latitude 51° N. I captured it in a series of stacked still images, so it appears as a dashed line across the sky. In reality it looks like a very bright star, outshining any other natural star. Here, it appears to fly toward the rising Moon.

Satellites: Iridiums

Twin Iridium Satellite Flares (October 9, 2017)
A pair of nearly simultaneous and parallel Iridium satellite flares, on October 9, 2017, as they descended into the north. The left or westerly flare was much brighter and with a sharp rise and fall in brightness. While it was predicted to be mag. -4.4 I think it got much brighter, perhaps mag -7, but very briefly. These are Iridium 90 (left) and Iridium 50 (right). This is a stack of 40+ exposures each, 2 seconds at 1-second intervals, with the Sigma 24mm lens at f/1.4 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

Often appearing brighter than even the ISS, Iridium satellite flares can blaze brighter than even Venus at its best. One did so here, above, in another time-lapse of a pair of Iridium satellites that traveled in parallel and flared at almost the same time. But the orientation of the reflective antennas that create these flares must have been better on the left Iridium as it really shot up in brilliance for a few seconds.


Aurora and Circumpolar Star Trails (Oct, 13, 2017)
A circumpolar star trail composite with Northern Lights, on October 13, 2017, shot from home in southern Alberta. The Big Dipper is at bottom centre; Polaris is at top centre at the axis of the rotation. The bottom edge of the curtains are rimmed with a pink fringe from nitrogen. This is a stack of 200 frames taken mostly when the aurora was a quiescent arc across the north before the substorm hit. An additional single exposure is layered in taken about 1 minute after the main star trail set to add the final end point stars after a gap in the trails. Stacking was with the Advanced Stacker Plus actions using the Ultrastreaks mode to add the direction of motion from the tapering trails. Each frame is 3 seconds at f/2 and ISO 6400 wth the Sigma 14mm lens and Nikon D750.

Little in the sky beats a fine aurora display and we’ve had several of late, despite the Sun being spotless and nearing a low ebb in its activity. The above shot is a composite stack of 200 images, showing the stars circling the celestial pole above the main auroral arc, and taken on Friday the 13th.

Aurora from October 13, 2013
A decent aurora across the north from home in southern Alberta, on Friday the 13th, October, 2017, though these frames were taken after midnight MDT. 3 seconds at f/2 and ISO 6400 wth the Sigma 14mm lens and Nikon D750.

This frame, from some 1300 I shot this night, October 13, captures the main auroral arc and a diffuse patch of green above that pulsed on and off.

You can see the time-lapse here in my short music video on Vimeo.

Friday the 13th Aurora from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

It’s in 4K if your monitor and computer are capable. It nicely shows the development of the aurora this night, from a quiescent arc, through a brief sub-storm outburst, then into pulsing and flickering patches. Enjoy!

What all these scenes have in common is that they were all shot from home, in my backyard. It is wonderful to live in a rural area and to be able to step outside and see these sites easily by just looking up!

— Alan, October 16, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / 


Dawn Sky Delights

Aldebaran About to be Occulted by the Moon

It was one of those mornings when the sky was full of wonder.

After days and nights of smoke from unfortunate fires burning not far away, including in my favourite national park of Waterton Lakes, the sky cleared enough this morning, September 12, to reveal some fine sights.

At 6 a.m. the waning gibbous Moon passed in front of the star Aldebaran in Taurus. It is performing many such occultations of Aldebaran this year, but most aren’t well seen from any one location. This one was ideal, right from my backyard.

The lead image is a “high dynamic range” stack of several exposures showing the waning Moon and star set in some high haze adding the sky colours.

The star winked out behind the Moon’s bright limb as the Moon advanced from right to left (west to east) against the background sky.

Occultation of Aldebaran
Aldebaran nearing the limb of the Moon.
This shows a composite sequence, with images of the star taken every four minutes blended with a single image of the Moon. While it looks like the star is moving, it is really the Moon that is edging closer to Aldebaran.

The star reappeared from behind the dark limb of the Moon, but five minutes after sunrise, with the Moon in a bright blue sky. Still, the star stood out nicely in binoculars and in the telescope for this view.

Aldebaran Near the Moon in Day Sky
Aldebaran off the dark limb of the Moon.
Aldebaran is the point of light at right, just off the invisible edge of the Moon.

I shot stills and video, and compiled them into this short video.

Enlarge it to full screen to view it properly.

Meanwhile, over to the east the twilight sky was awash in planets.

Rocky Planets at Dawn with Labels (Sept. 12, 2017)
The line of dawn planets, with labels.
All the three inner terrestrial worlds were there: Venus, at top, Mercury below Regulus, and Mars lowest of the trio. Of course, a fourth terrestrial world is in the photo, too – Earth!

Mercury was at its greatest western elongation this morning, placing it as far from the Sun and as high in the sky as it gets, with this autumn appearance the best of 2017 for a morning showing for Mercury. Even so, you can see how Mercury is always low and easy to miss. However, this morning it was obvious to the naked eye.

Mars and Mercury will be in close conjunction at dawn on the morning of September 16.

Rocky Planets at Dawn (Sept. 12, 2017)

It was a fine morning to be up early and enjoy the solar system show.

— Alan, September 12, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer /


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 /



End of Year Skies

New Moon for a New Year

The crescent Moon rises into the western evening sky as 2016 ends, while Venus shines bright, and Orion rises into the east.

Getting clear skies is a rare treat of late, but these are images from two such nights this week. On December 30, the thin waxing Moon appeared in the colourful twilight of a winter night. Despite the clouds and the Moon’s low altitude, the dark side of the Moon is plainly visible illuminated by Earthshine.

Venus in Twilight over Pioneer Grain Elevators

Venus is now brilliant as an evening star in the southwest. Here is it over the old wood grain elevators at Mossleigh, Alberta, some of the few of these landmarks left standing on the prairies.

Fainter Mars shines above Venus and over the month of January, Venus will climb up to meet Mars by month’s end for a fine conjunction with the crescent Moon as well. Watch through January as Venus and Mars converge.

Orion and Pioneer Grain Elevators

As the planets set into the southwest, Orion the Hunter rises into the east. Here it is over the Mossleigh elevators, illuminated by local lights.

Enjoy the winter skies as clouds permit!

Clear skies and Happy New Year!

— Alan, December 31, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer /


Planets in the January Dawn

Waning Moon with Venus & Saturn in Twilight (Jan 6, 2016)

The waning Moon joined Venus and Saturn on a cold winter dawn.

This was the scene this morning, January 6, as the waning crescent Moon met with Venus (bright, at centre) and Saturn (below and left of Venus) in the cold morning twilight.

The grouping appeared above the stars of Scorpius. Antares is just above the treetops.

The top image is with the Canon 60Da and 50mm lens.

The view below, with the 135mm telephoto and Canon 6D camera, is from a half hour earlier before the sky began to brighten with morning twilight.

Waning Moon with Venus & Saturn (Jan 6, 2016)
The waning crescent Moon above Venus and Saturn (dimmer and below Venus) in the pre-dawn sky on January 6, 2016, taken from home on a cold winter morning at -20° C. This is a composite of a long exposure (8s) for the ground, a slightly shorter exposure (6s) for the sky, and shorter exposures for the Moon to avoid it being totally overexposed and to preserve the Earthshine. All with the 135mm lens and Canon 6D.

Venus passes very close to Saturn this weekend, with the two worlds appearing within a telescope field on the mornings of January 8 and 9. Get up early before sunrise and look southeast. Binoculars will provide a superb view.

Venus is hard to miss, but is now dropping lower each morning and will soon be gone from view as it ends its wonderful appearance as a morning star.

— Alan, January 6, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer /


Venus and the Comet

Comet Catalina near Venus (Dec 9, 2015)

Comet Catalina sports two tails as it moves past Venus in the dawn sky.

This was the view this morning, December 9, from my site in Arizona, of Comet Catalina near Venus in the dawn sky. This is a telephoto lens shot that provides a view similar in size to what binoculars show.

However, the blue ion tail visible here stretching back several degrees is mostly a photographic target. Visually, just Catalina’s short, stubby dust tail at lower right is obvious.

The ion tail points away from the Sun, while the dust tail extends along the comet’s orbit, showing where the comet has been.

The view, both visually and photographically, of the comet will improve as it climbs higher into the eastern morning sky and as it moves away from the glare of Venus. The Moon is also now gone from the dawn, at least for the next couple of weeks.

The comet is dimmer than expected but should at least maintain this brightness for the next month or so.


This is a stack of 5 x 90-second exposures, taken with the 135mm telephoto and 1.4x extender for a focal length of 190mm, at f/2.8 and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600, tracked on the iOptron Sky-Tracker. Two other exposures, of 15s and 1s, were blended in with luminosity masks to reduce the glare of Venus to a smaller size.

— Alan, December 9, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer /

Comets, Conjunctions, and Occultations, Oh My!

The Moon, Venus and Comet Catalina

What a morning of sky sights, both before dawn and after sunrise.

December 7 – This was the prime day I came to Arizona to enjoy, to be better assured of clear skies. As it turned out this will likely be the cloudiest day of the week here, but skies were clear enough for a fine view of a conjunction and an occultation. The comet was a bonus.

Waning Moon and Venus Rising in Conjunction
This is a stack of 5 exposures: 30, 8, 2, 0.5 and 1/8s, blended with luminosity masks as HDR would not blend images with such a large range of brightness and content, with the shortest exposures having almost no content execept for two bright objects! The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker to follow the sky and keep the sky targets stationary and aligned, thus the blurred foreground. All with the 135mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 400.

At 4 a.m. the waning crescent Moon rose accompanied by Venus, as the two worlds appeared in close conjunction in the pre-dawn sky. The view above captures the scene as the Moon and Venus rose over the Peloncillo Mountains of New Mexico. Comet Catalina is in this scene but barely visible.

The Moon, Venus and Comet Catalina
This is a stack of 6 exposures: 30, 8, 2, 0.5, 1/8s and 1/30s, blended with luminosity masks as HDR would not blend images with such a large range of brightness and content, with the shortest exposures having almost no content execept for two bright objects! The camera was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker to follow the sky and keep the sky targets stationary and aligned. All with the 135mm lens at f/2.8 and Canon 6D at ISO 800.

An hour or so later, with the Moon and Venus higher and with skies a little less cloudy, I was able to capture this scene, above, that included Comet Catalina, as a tiny blue dot next to Venus and the Moon. But if I hadn’t labeled it, you wouldn’t know it was there! The comet is proving to be less wonderful than anticipated, and any cloud dims the view even more.

I had hoped for a superb scene of a bright comet next to the two brightest objects in the night sky. But comets do what comets do — surprise people with unexpected brightness (as Comet Lovejoy did last January) or with disappointing dimness … or by disappearing altogether, as Comet ISON did two years ago. I came here in December 2013, to this same location on the Arizona-New Mexico border, to catch ISON but no luck there at all!

Moon & Venus Conjunction at Sunrise (Dec 7, 2015)
This is a stack of 7 exposures from 10 seconds to 0.3 seconds at 1 stop intervals and blended with luminosity masks, to compress the huge range in brightness from the bright Moon and Venus, plus horizon sky, and the darker sky and sunrise clouds. All with the 35mm lens and Canon 6D.

Regardless of the comet, the conjunction of the Moon and Venus was stunning, about as good as such events get. Here’s the view, above, an hour later again, with the eastern sky brightening in the dawn twilight. The only thing that would have made this event even more spectacular is if the Moon had actually covered up Venus in this twilight sky. Not quite.

Daytime Occultation of Venus (Dec 7, 2015)
The occultation of Venus by the waning crescent Moon in the daytime on Monday, December 7 at 9:30 am local time. This is just about 3 minutes before the actual occultation as the advancing Moon is about to cover Venus on the bright limb of the Moon. This is a frame from a 100-frame time lapse. Unfortunately, as I shot this on my trip to Arizona, I did not have more focal length than the 135mm and 1.4x extender used here.

For the occultation itself, we had to wait until well after sunrise for an event in the blue daytime sky, at 9:30 a.m. local time.

All of North America got to see this fairly rare occultation of Venus by the Moon, albeit in the daytime. Nevertheless, the two objects are so bright, this was visible to the unaided eye, even with some cloud about. In binoculars it was wonderful.

To shoot it, all I had was a telephoto lens, so the image scale doesn’t do the event justice. But the image above provides a good impression of the binocular view, with Venus as a brilliant jewel on the “ring” of the Moon.

— Alan, December 7, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer /