Dinosaur Park in the Dark


Winter Sky Setting in Twilight at Dinosaur Park

There’s a slogan used in the U.S. National Parks that “half the Park is after dark.” It is certainly true at Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. 

Last Friday night, March 29, I spent the evening at one of my favourite nightscape sites, Dinosaur Provincial Park, about an hour’s drive east of my home. It was one of those magical nights – clear, mild, dry, and no mosquitoes! Yet!

I wanted to shoot Orion and the photogenic winter sky setting into the evening twilight over the Badlands landscape. This was the last moonless weekend to do so.

I shot some individual images (such as above) and also multi-panel panoramas, created by shooting a series of overlapping images at equal spacings, then stitching them later at the computer.

Winter Sky Setting at Dinosaur Park Panorama
This is a 240° panorama stitched from 17 segments, all with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation, each segment 20 seconds at f/1.4 and ISO 3200. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

There’s a narrow window of time between twilight and full darkness when the Milky Way shows up well but the western sky still has a lingering blue glow. This window occurs after the normal “blue hour” favoured by photographers.

The panorama above shows the arch of the winter Milky Way but also the towering band of the Zodiacal Light rising out of the twilight and distant yellow glow of Calgary. Zodiacal Light is sunlight scattering off meteoric and cometary dust orbiting in the inner solar system, so this is a phenomenon in space not in our atmosphere. However, the narrow streak is an aircraft contrail.

Spring Sky Panorama at Dinosaur Park
A 360° panorama of the spring sky over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta. This is a panorama of 12 segments taken with the 14mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait orientation, all for 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 4000. Taken at 30° spacings. Stitched with PTGui.

Later that night, when the sky was fully dark I shot this complete panorama showing not only the Milky Way and Zodiacal Light to the west, but also the faint arc of the Zodiacal Band continuing on from the pyramid-shaped Zodiacal Light over into the east, where it brightens into the subtle glow of Gegenschein. This is caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles in the direction opposite the Sun.

Both the Band and Gegenschein were visible to the naked eye, but only if you knew what to look for, and have a very dark sky.

The Winter Stars and Zodiacal Light at Dinosaur Park
This is a panorama stitched from 3 segments, all with the 24mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750, for 20 seconds at f/2.2 and ISO 4000. Stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.

A closeup shows the Zodiacal Light in the west as the subtle blue glow tapering toward the top as it meets the Milky Way.

It takes a dark site to see these subtle glows. Dinosaur Park is not an official Dark Sky Preserve but certainly deserves to be. Now if we could only get Calgary, Brooks and Bassano to turn down and shield their lights!

Spring Sky RIsing at Dinosaur Park Panorama
A 180° panorama of the spring sky and constellations rising in the east over the Badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta on March 29, 2019. This is a stitch of 6 segments, each with the 14mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 in portrait mode, each 30 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 4000. Stitched with PTGui.

A closeup facing the other way, to the east, shows the area of sky opposite the Milky Way, in the spring sky. The familiar Big Dipper, now high our spring sky, is at top with its handle pointing down to Arcturus and Spica (just rising above the horizon) – remember to “arc to Arcturus, and speed on to Spica.”

Leo is at right of centre, flanked by the Beehive and Coma Berenices star clusters.

Polaris is at left — however, the distortion introduced by the panorama stitching at high altitudes stretches out the sky at the top of the frame, so the Dipper’s Pointer stars do not point in a straight line to Polaris.

The faint Zodiacal Band is visible at right, brightening toward the horizon in the Gegenschein.

I shoot images like these for use as illustrations in future eBook projects about stargazing and the wonders of the night sky. Several are in the works!

Clear skies!

— Alan, April 1, 2019 / © 2019 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Chasing Meteors


Geminid Meteor Radiant in Gemini

Meteors were raining down the sky on the peak night of the Geminid meteor shower.

Back in August, when I wrote my column for the November-December issue of our Canadian magazine SkyNews, I noticed how good the circumstances were this year for the annual Geminid meteor shower. Normally one of the best showers of the year, if not the best, the Geminids were really going to perform in 2017.

The Moon was near new so its light would not interfere. For western North America, the peak of the shower was also timed for midnight on the night of December 13/14, just when the radiant of the shower was high in the sky.

Raining Geminid Meteors
The Geminids rain down the sky from the radiant in Gemini high overhead on peak night.

So in August when I saw the favourable combination of circumstances, I decided a meteor chase was in order. While the shower would be visible from home, Geminid peak night in December is often bitterly cold or cloudy at home in Alberta.

So I planned a trek to Arizona, for the shower and the winter sky.

While skies at home proved decent after all, it was still a chase worth making, with the shower visible under the perfectly clear and dry skies of southeast Arizona.

My chosen site was the Quailway Cottage near the Arizona Sky Village, the chosen dark sky site for many amateur astronomers, and at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains. Skies are dark!

Sky Dust - Interplanetary and Interstellar
The Zodiacal Light (left) and Milky Way over the Chiricahuas.

The Zodiacal Light was brilliant in the southwest sky for several hours after sunset. A tough sighting at this time of year from most sites, this glow was obvious in the Arizona sky. It is sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system.

Geminid Meteor Shower in the Winter Milky Way
Geminids streaking from Gemini as the winter sky rises.

On the peak night, the visual impression was of meteors appearing at a rate of at least one a minute, if not more frequently.

Geminid Meteor Radiant in Gemini
A tracked composite looking up toward Orion and Gemini.

The images here are all composites of dozens of exposures taken over 2 to 5 hours, stacking many meteors on one frame. So they do provide an exaggerated record of the shower. Meteors weren’t filling the sky! But you certainly did not have to wait long for one to appear, making this one of the best meteor showers in many years.

Geminid Meteors over the Chiricahuas
Geminids falling over the Chiricahuas as Orion sets at the end of the peak night.

Most of the Geminids were of average brightness. I didn’t see, nor did the camera catch many very bright “bolides,” the really brilliant meteors that light up the ground.

Bright Geminid Meteor Descending
A bright Geminid pierces Ursa Major.

Nevertheless, this was a night to remember, and a fine way to end what has been a superlative year of stargazing, with a total solar eclipse, great auroras, and for me, a wonderful stay under southern skies on an April trip to Australia.

All the best of the season to you and your family and friends. Clear skies!

Here’s to 2018, which begins with a total eclipse of the Moon on January 31.

— Alan, December 23, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

The Ghostly Glow of Gegenschein


Northern Spring Sky Panorama

It takes a dark spring night to see it well, but now lurking near Jupiter is a ghostly sky glow called Gegenschein. 

This diffuse glow lies directly opposite the Sun. It is caused by sunlight reflecting off interplanetary dust particles in the outer solar system. They reflect light more effectively at the anti-Sun point where each dust particle is fully lit by the Sun.

Like the Sun, the Gegenschein moves around the sky along the ecliptic, moving about a degree from west to east from night to night. March and April provide good nights for seeing the Gegenschein as it then lies in an area of sky far from the Milky Way.

Even so, it is very subtle to the unaided eye. Look south at about 1 a.m. local daylight time.

However, this year, in early April the Gegenschein will be more difficult as it will then lie right on top of Jupiter, as that planet reaches its point opposite the Sun on April 7. Jupiter will then be superimposed on the Gegenschein.

The main image at top is a 7-image vertical panorama of the spring sky, from Corvus and Virgo above the horizon, up past Leo, into Ursa Major and the Big Dipper overhead. Spica lies below bright Jupiter, Arcturus in Böotes is at left, while Regulus in Leo is at right. The grouping of stars near centre is the Coma Berenices star cluster.

Orion over the Old Barn

Earlier in the night, I shot the sky’s other main glow – the Milky Way, as the winter portion of the Milky Way around Orion set into the southwest.

But over in the west, at the right edge of the frame, is the Zodiacal Light, caused by the same dust particles that create the Gegenschein, but that are located in the inner solar system between us and the Sun.

The Zodiacal Light is better depicted in images in my previous post from Dinosaur Park

We bid adieu to the winter Milky Way now. As it departs we are left with an evening sky without the Milky Way visible at all. As seen from northern latitudes it lies along the horizon.

But later in spring, late at night, we’ll see the summer Milky Way rising, beginning its seasons of prominence until late autumn.

— Alan, March 19, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

A Starry Night in the Badlands


Winter Milky Way Arch and Zodiacal Light

In a winter of cloud, the skies cleared for a magical night in the Alberta Badlands.

Two weeks ago, on February 28, I took advantage of a rare and pristine night to head to one of my favourite spots in Dinosaur Provincial Park, to shoot nightscapes of the winter sky over the Badlands.

A spate of warm weather had melted most of the snow, so the landscape doesn’t look too wintery. But the stars definitely belong to winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

The main image above shows the winter Milky Way arching across the sky from southeast (at left) to northwest (at right). The tower of light in the west is the Zodiacal Light, caused by sunlight reflecting off dust particles in the inner solar system. It is an interplanetary, not atmospheric, effect.

Winter Sky Panorama at Dinosaur Park (Fish-Eye View)
This is a stitch of 6 segments with the 12mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8 for 30 seconds each, with the Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, mounted portrait. Stitched with PTGui.

Above, this 360° version of the scene records the entire sky, with the winter Milky Way from horizon to horizon. With a little averted imagination you can also trace the Zodiacal Light from west (right) over to the eastern sky (left), where it brightens in the diffuse glow of the Gegenschein, where dust opposite the Sun in the outer solar system reflects light back to us.

Winter Sky Panorama at Dinosaur Park (with Labels)
This is a stitch of 6 segments taken with the 12mm full-fame fish-eye Rokinon lens at f/2.8, all 30-second exposures with the Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. The camera was aimed portrait with the segments at 60° spacings. Stitched with PTGui using equirectangular projection with the zeith pulled down slightly.

A rectangular version of the panorama wraps the sky around from east (left), with Leo rising, to northeast (right), with the Big Dipper standing on its handle. I’ve added the labels in Photoshop of course.

Winter Stars over Dinosaur Park
This is a stack of 8 x 30-second exposures for the ground, mean combined to smooth noise, plus one 30-second exposure for the sky. All at f/2.2 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

Here, in a single-frame shot, Orion is at centre, Canis Major (with Sirius) is below left, and Taurus (with Aldebaran) is at upper right. The Milky Way runs down to the south. The clusters M35, M41, M46 and M47 are visible as diffuse spots, as is the Orion Nebula, M42, below Orion’s Belt.

Evening Zodiacal Light at Dinosaur Park
The late winter evening Zodiacal Light, from at Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, February 28, 2017. This is a stack of 7 x 30-second exposures for the ground, mean combined for lower noise, plus one 30-second exposure for the sky, all at f/2 with the 20mm Sigma Art lens, and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.

This is certainly my best shot of the evening Zodiacal Light from my area in Alberta. It is obvious at this time of year on moonless nights, but requires a site with little urban skyglow to the west.

It is best visible in the evening from northern latitudes in late winter and spring.

Here, Venus is just setting above the badlands landscape. The Andromeda Galaxy is at right, the Pleiades at left. The Milky Way runs across the frame at top.

There is a common belief among nightscape photographers that the Milky Way can be seen only in summer. Not so.

What they mean is that the brightest part of the Milky Way, the galactic centre, is best seen in summer. But the Milky Way can be seen in all seasons, with the exception of spring when it is largely absent from the early evening sky, but rises late at night.

— Alan, March 14, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Mosaic of the Autumn Constellations


Mosaic of the Northern Autumn Constellations

I present a horizon-to-zenith panorama of the pantheon of autumn constellations.

Yes, I know it’s winter, but as it gets dark each night now in early January the autumn stars are still front and centre. I took the opportunity during a run of very clear nights at home to shoot a panorama of the autumn sky.

It is a mosaic that sweeps up the sky and frames many related Greek mythological constellations:

• from the watery constellations of Aquarius, Pisces, and Cetus at the bottom near the horizon…

• to Pegasus and Aries in mid-frame…

• on up to Andromeda and Perseus at upper left…

• and finally Cassiopeia and Cepheus at the top of frame embedded in the Milky Way overhead. The Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is just above centre.

Mosaic of the Northern Autumn Constellations (with Labels)

Here, I’ve labeled the participating constellations, though only a few, such as the “square” of Pegasus and the “W” of Cassiopeia, have readily identifiable patterns.

Most of these constellations are related in Greek mythology, with Princess Andromeda being the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus, who was rescued from the jaws of Cetus the Sea Monster by Perseus the Hero, who rode on Pegasus the Winged Horse in some accounts.

Zodiacal Light brightens the sky at bottom right in Aquarius, and angles across the frame to the left.


 

TECHNICAL:

I shot this from home on a very clear night January 2, 2016 with the Zodiacal Light plainly visible to the naked eye.

This is a mosaic of 5 panels, each a stack of 5 x 2 minute exposures, plus each panel having another stack of 2 x 2 minute exposures blended in, and taken through the Kenko Softon filter to add the fuzzy star glows to make the constellations stand out.

All were shot with the 24mm Canon lens at f/2.8 and Canon 5DMkII at ISO 1600. All tracked on the AP Mach One mount.

All stacking and stitching in Photoshop CC 2015. Final image size is 8500 x 5500 pixels and 3.6 gigabytes for the layered master.

– Alan, January 3, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

Morning Star, the Milky Way, and the Zodiacal Light


Venus shines brightly, and nearly at its brightest at magnitude -4.7, in the dawn sky on a very frosty morning at 5 am, on September 17, 2015, from home in southern Alberta. Venus appears amid the faint glow of the Zodiacal Light, sometimes called the “False Dawn,” stretching vertically from the dawn horizon in the east, up and to the right, and reaching the Milky Way that runs down the frame from top centre to bottom right. Orion and the winter stars shine in the Milky Way, with Sirius above the trees at lower right. The Beehive Cluster, M44, appears as the small group of stars above Venus. The Pleiades, M45, is at top right. Mars is the brightest object left of Venus, with the bright star Regulus just below it and rising in the east. The stars of the Big Dipper are at far left at the edge of the frame. The sky is beginning to brighten with the real glow of morning.  This is a stack of 4 x 2-minute exposures, tracked and mean combine stacked, for the sky and 2 x 2-minute exposures, untracked and stacked, for the ground to minimize blurring in the starlit ground. The Canon 6D was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker, shooting at ISO 1250 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/3.5. The stacking with a mean combine stack mode smooths noise in both sky and ground.

Venus, now at its brightest as a morning star, shines amid the subtle glow of the Zodiacal Light. 

This was the scene this morning, September 17, on a very frosty dawn at 5 a.m. from my backyard in southern Alberta.

Here, Venus shines nearly as bright as it can be, at magnitude -4.7, in the dawn sky as a brilliant “morning star.”

Venus appears amid the faint glow of the Zodiacal Light, sometimes called the “False Dawn,” stretching diagonally from the dawn horizon in the east, up and to the right, and reaching the Milky Way that runs vertically down the frame from top centre to bottom right.

Orion and the winter stars shine in the Milky Way, with Sirius above the trees at lower right.

The Beehive Cluster, M44, appears as the small group of stars above Venus. The Pleiades, M45, is at top right.

Mars is the brightest object left of Venus, with the bright star Regulus just below it and rising in the east. The stars of the Big Dipper are at far left at the edge of the frame.

The sky is beginning to brighten with the real glow of morning. It was a marvellous dawn sky delight.

Technical notes:

This is a stack of 4 x 2-minute exposures, tracked and mean-combine stacked, for the sky and 2 x 2-minute exposures, untracked and stacked, for the ground to minimize blurring in the starlit ground. The Canon 6D was on the iOptron Sky-Tracker, shooting at ISO 1250 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/3.5. The stacking with a mean combine stack mode smooths noise in both sky and ground.

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

The Ghostly Glows of a Truly Dark Sky


Ghostly Glows of a Truly Dark Sky

A truly dark sky isn’t dark. It is filled with glows both subtle and spectacular.

Last night, March 10, I drove up into the heart of the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico, to a viewpoint at 7,900 feet in altitude. I was in search of the darkest skies in the area. I found them! There was not a light in sight.

The featured image is a 180° panorama showing:

– the Zodiacal Light (at right in the west)
– the Milky Way (up from the centre, in the south, to the upper right)
– the Zodiacal Band (faintly visible running from right to left across the frame at top)
– the Gegenschein (a brightening of the Zodiacal Band at left of frame, in the east in Leo)

The Zodiacal Light, Zodiacal Band, and the Gegenschein are all part of the same phenomenon, glows along the ecliptic path – the plane of the solar system – caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary and meteoric dust in the inner solar system.

The Gegenschein, or “counterglow,” can be seen with the naked eye as a large and diffuse brightening of the sky at the spot exactly opposite the Sun. It is caused by sunlight reflecting directly back from comet dust, the scattering effect greatest at the point opposite the Sun.

The Zodiacal Light requires reasonably dark skies to see, but the fainter Zodiacal Band and Gegenschein require very dark skies.

Now is prime season for all of them, with the Moon out of the way, and the Zodiacal Light angled up high in the western as twilight ends. In March, the Gegenschein is now located in a relatively blank area of sky in southern Leo.

The Milky Way is much more obvious. Along the northern winter Milky Way here you can see dark lanes of interstellar dust, particularly in Taurus above and to the right of Orion. Red nebulas of glowing gas also lie along the Milky Way, such as Barnard’s Loop around Orion.

– Orion is at centre, in the south, with Canis Major and the bright star Sirius below and to the left of Orion. Canopus is just setting on the southern horizon at centre. It barely clears the horizon from 32° North latitude.

– To the right of Orion is Taurus and the Pleiades star cluster at the top of the Zodiacal Light pyramid.

– Venus is the bright object in the Zodiacal Light at right, in the west, while fainter Mars is below Venus.

– At far right, in the northwest, is the Andromeda Galaxy, M31.

– Jupiter is the bright object at upper left, in the east, in the Zodiacal Band, and near the Beehive star cluster.

– The Zodiacal Light, Band and Gegenschein all lie along the ecliptic, as do Mars, Venus and Jupiter.

Glows on the horizon are from distant SIlver City, Las Cruces and El Paso. The brighter sky at right is from the last vestiges of evening twilight. Some green and red airglow bands also permeate the sky.

Standing Under the Milky Way
I shot this March 10, 2015 from the summit of Highway 15, The Trail of the Mountain Spirits, that twists and winds through the Gila Wilderness.

It was a stunning night, clear, calm, and silent. Just me under the ghostly glows of a truly dark sky.

NOTE: I first published this March 11 but had to republish this blog March 15 after WordPress deleted the original post in a software bug. Thanks WordPress! 

– Alan, March 11, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / http://www.amazingsky.newt

 

Comet Lovejoy in Andromeda


Comet Lovejoy in Andromeda

Comet Lovejoy appears in Andromeda as the comet fades into the distance. 

This was the view Monday night, February 9, with Comet Lovejoy now moving slowly north through Andromeda. From a dark site it is now still visible to the unaided. In binoculars a short tail was just barely visible. But even in photos the comet has lost most of its long blue tail it sported last month.

The view above takes in the W of Cassiopeia at top, and some of the stars of Andromeda at bottom. The Andromeda Galaxy is at right. I’ve arrowed the comet, a fuzzy star green star.

Zodiacal Light & Milky Way

Shortly after I shot Lovejoy’s portrait I shot this image of the evening Zodiacal Light, the tower of light at left. At right is the setting autumn Milky Way. At the base of the Zodiacal Light is bright Venus just setting, with fainter Mars above it.

The next two weeks are ideal for sighting the Zodiacal Light. For more on what’s up in the sky now, see my previous blog.

Clear skies!

– Alan, February 9, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Heads Up! – Comets, Planets, and Zodiacal Light, Oh My!


Feb Evening Sky

As the Moon departs the evening sky, we are left with a dark sky for viewing Comet Lovejoy, converging planets, and the elusive Zodiacal Light.

The western sky contains wonders this month.

Look into the evening twilight and you’ll see brilliant Venus appearing a little higher each night. As it climbs up, fainter Mars above is descending closer to the horizon. The two planets are converging toward a spectacular close conjunction with each other, and with the waxing crescent Moon, on February 20.

Meanwhile, Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) continues to perform well. It is now in the northwestern sky in the early evening, as it travels up through Andromeda into Cassiopeia.

While technically visible to the unaided eye, you really need binoculars or any telescope to see Comet Lovejoy well. Through optical aid it does show a faint tail. But it takes a long exposure photo to show it well.

Lovejoy in February

Here’s where to find Comet Lovejoy over the next couple of weeks, during the current dark-of-the-Moon period.

Look for a fuzzy star in Andromeda. It’s not passing very near any notable deep-sky objects, but its position will still make for a nice wide-angle photo with the comet embedded in this photogenic region of the northern autumn sky.

Comet Lovejoy & Zodiacal Light (Jan 16, 2015)

The other sight to look for each evening for the next two weeks is the Zodiacal Light. My photo shows it from last month, when Comet Lovejoy was crossing the ecliptic.

Look for a pyramid of light stretching up from the sunset point to high in the west. It follows the ecliptic, the green line in the top star chart. It takes a dark sky to see it, and it helps to be at a southerly latitude. But I’ve seen and shot the Zodiacal Light nicely in February from home in Alberta at 51° latitude.

The Zodiacal Light is caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust in the inner solar system. To see it, wait for most of the evening twilight to fade away. The glow that’s left brightening the western sky is the Zodiacal Light.

There’s lots to see just in the western evening sky during the next two weeks. Clear skies!

– Alan, February 9, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

Night of the Comet


Comet Lovejoy's Long Ion Tail in Taurus

What a beautifully photogenic comet Lovejoy is proving to be! 

On Friday, January 16, I caught Comet Lovejoy crossing the ecliptic as it travels through Taurus. The long exposure above shows it amid the star clusters, nebulas, and dark clouds of Taurus and Perseus.

The blue Pleiades is at centre, and the red California Nebula is at top. Throughout are the dark tendrils of the dusty Taurus Dark Clouds.

The long blue ion tail of Lovejoy now extends back 15° to 20° on photos and is easy to trace for half that distance in binoculars in a dark sky.

I turned the top photo 90° to orient the comet so it points “down.”

Comet Lovejoy Nightscape (Jan 16, 2015)

However, this wide-angle nightscape shows the real orientation of the comet, high in the sky above Orion, here rising over the rock formations of City of Rocks State Park, my favourite dark sky site in this area of New Mexico.

Comet Lovejoy Crossing the Ecliptic (Jan 16, 2015)

Taken earlier in the evening, this ultra-wide image shows the comet at top, with its blue tail oriented along the ecliptic and aligned with the Zodiacal Light, from the glow of sunlight reflecting off comet dust in the inner solar system.

The Zodiacal Light follows the ecliptic, the plane of the solar system and where we find the planets, such as Mars and Venus at bottom here. The comet seems to point toward the Sun, now below the horizon here at the base of the Zodiacal Light. That’s just as it should be! Comet gas tails always point away from the Sun, as they are blown away from the comet’s head by the solar wind.

This night Comet Lovejoy was crossing the ecliptic, as its orbit continues to take it north in a path almost perpendicular to the ecliptic. While planets orbit in the ecliptic plane, most comets do not. They can have orbits oriented at all kinds of angles off the ecliptic plane.

But on January 16 Comet Lovejoy crossed the ecliptic, placing it at the apex of the Zodiacal Light.

Comet Lovejoy & Zodiacal Light (Jan 16, 2015)

This wider view takes in the Zodiacal Light, the comet and Orion rising at left.

This was a marvellous “night of the comet.”

— Alan, January 17, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

A Stunning Sky of Subtle Glows


Zodiacal Light Panorama (Circular)

What a fabulous night! The desert sky was full of subtle glows and myriad stars.

Friday, January 16 was a stunning evening for stargazing. I took the opportunity to shoot a 360° panorama of the evening sky, recording a host of subtle glows.

The Zodiacal Light reaches up from the western horizon and the last vestiges of evening twilight. This is the glow of sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system. From the clear desert skies it is brilliant.

The dark of the Moon periods in January, February and March are the best times of the year to see the evening Zodiacal Light from the northern hemisphere.

The Milky Way arches across the eastern sky from Cygnus to Canis Major. That’s light from billions of stars in our Galaxy.

At centre, in the circular fish-eye image above, is the small wisp of green Comet Lovejoy, near the zenith overhead and appearing at the apex of the Zodiacal Light’s tapering pyramid of light.

Zodiacal Light Panorama (Rectilinear)

This view is from the same images used to create the circular all-sky scene at top, but projected in a rectangular 360° format.

Technical notes:

I shot 8 segments for the panorama, each a 1-minute exposure at f/2.8 with a 15mm lens oriented in portrait mode, and using a Canon 6D at ISO 3200. There was no tracking – the camera was just on a tripod. Each segment is 45° apart.

I used PTGui software to stitch the segments into one seamless scene.

— Alan, January 16, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Christmas Eve Sky


Christmas Eve at City of Rocks Panorama

This was the sky on the night before Christmas, with the Moon setting and Orion rising.

It was a crisp and calm night on Christmas Eve, with the waxing Moon shining beside Mars in the west at right. The western sky was marked by the faint tower of light called the Zodiacal Lights. To the east at left, Orion was rising beside the Milky Way.

The main image is a 180° panorama taken at the City of Rocks State Park, south of Silver City, New Mexico, and a particularly photogenic site for nightscape images.

Christmas Eve Moon in Twilight

This was the scene earlier in the evening with the Moon beside Mars, and the pair well above Venus down in the twilight, all framed by one of the park’s windmills.

Orion Rising at City of Rocks (Xmas Eve 2014)

Here is a close-up of Orion climbing over the rock formations in the state park. This is a single exposure with the foreground lit by the waxing crescent Moon.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

– Alan, December 24, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

Stargazing under the Milky Way


Stargazing at City of Rocks State Park

What a wonderful night for stargazing under the Milky Way and amid the rock formations of southern New Mexico.

This was the scene last night, November 22, at a monthly stargazing session hosted by the City of Rocks State Park and the local Silver City Astronomy Club. You couldn’t ask for a better night … and site.

The Milky Way swept overhead, from Sagittarius setting in the west at left, to Taurus rising in the east at right. The faint glow of Zodiacal Light sweeps up from the last glow of western twilight to the left. Some faint green bands of airglow that only the camera can capture are also visible near the horizon.

Matt is doing a laser tour, following which the group convened to the beautiful roll-off roof observatory that houses a Meade 14-inch telescope. It was a fine evening indeed.

Technical notes:

The panorama, which spans about 300° (I cropped the edges a little from the full 360°) consists of 8 segments, shot at 45° spacings, with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens at f/2.8, for 1 minute untracked exposures for each frame at ISO 800 with the Canon 6D. I stitched the segments in PTGui software, but processed them in Adobe Camera Raw and Photoshop.

– Alan, November 23, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Goodbye Winter Sky – 2014 Edition


Orion Setting & Zodiacal Light (24mm 6D)

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

 

 

 

The Galactic Archway of the Southern Sky


Two Styx Night Sky Panorama (Rectilinear)

The southern Milky Way arches across the sky, with the centre of the Galaxy overhead at dawn.

This was the sky at 4:30 this morning, as Venus rose in the east (to the right) amid the zodiacal light, and with the Milky Way soaring overhead. This image is a 360° panorama of the scene, with the zenith, the overhead point, at the top centre of the frame.

The location is the Two Styx Cabins, on the border of New England National Park in New South Wales, Australia. The cabin with the light on (I left it on on purpose for the photo) is where I stayed for two nights in splendid isolation.

The panorama is a stitch of 6 frames shot with an 8mm fish-eye lens, each 1-minute exposures on an untracked tripod. I used the PTGui software program to assemble the pan.

Below is an alternative rendering, in spherical format, to create the more classic “fish-eye” view, but one extending well below the horizon. So this is not one image but a stitch of six.

Two Styx Night Sky Panorama (Fish-Eye)

In this version you can more readily see the spectacle of the Milky Way at dawn in the southern hemisphere autumn months, with the bulge of the galactic core directly overhead as seen from this latitude of 30° south. It is a wonderful sight.

This is my last view of it for this trip. Till next year!

— Alan, April 11, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Venus in the Zodiacal Light


Venus in Zodiacal Light (14mm 5DII)

Venus shines brightly amid the glow of Zodiacal Light below the Milky Way.

At dawn from Australia this was the last view I saw each night on my run of southern sky observing nights. This is Venus, high in the morning sky, amid the faint pillar of light called the Zodiacal Light. The glow is sunlight reflected off cometary dust in the inner solar system.

Above is the centre of the Galaxy area of Sagittarius. This scene was a wonderful way to end a night of perfect astronomy under the southern stars.

— Alan, April 7, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

The Milky Way on an Australian Morning


Southern Milky Way in the Morning (March 29, 2014)The Milky Way arches across the pre-dawn sky on a morning in Australia.

This was the view this morning, Saturday, March 29, at about 4:00 a.m. from my observing site near Coonabarabran, Australia. What a sight! The Milky Way extends from Aquila, in our northern sky at left, all the way across the heavens to Crux and Carina, in the southern sky at right. Just left of centre high in the south lies the bright centre of the Galaxy, in Sagittarius and Scorpius.

My ultrawide-angle image frames the “Dark Emu,” made of dark lanes and dust clouds in the Milky Way and prominent in aboriginal sky lore in Australia. His head is the Coal Sack at upper right, his neck the curving dust lane from Alpha Centauri to Scorpius right of centre, and his tail and feet are in the dust lanes left of the galactic centre on the left side of the image. He extends all the way across the sky.

Venus is just coming over the gum trees at lower left. The glow of zodiacal light – sunlight reflected off comet dust in the inner solar system – extends up from Venus to the Milky Way.

After three days of rain – cheered by the residents here! – the skies have cleared and the big telescopes have all arrived for our star party this week. It should be a superb week of stargazing, off to a great start with this view in the Australian dawn.

— Alan, March 29, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

Music Video – Sky Events of 2013


 

My 2-minute music video looks back at some of the celestial highlights of 2013, in images and videos I captured. 

Some of the events and scenes I show were accessible to everyone who looked up. But some required a special effort to see.

• In 2013 we had a couple of nice comets though not the spectacle hoped for from Comet ISON.

• Chris Hadfield became a media star beaming videos and tweets from the Space Station. We on Earth could look up and see his home sailing through the stars.

• The sky hosted a few nice conjunctions of planets, notably Mars, Venus and Jupiter in late May.

• The Sun reached its peak in solar activity (we think!) unleashing solar storms and some wonderful displays of northern lights.

• Locally, record rain storms in Alberta unleashed floods of devastating consequences in June, with a much publicized super moon in the sky.

• For me, the summer proved a productive one for shooting the “star” of the summer sky, the Milky Way.

• But the year-end finale was most certainly the total eclipse of the Sun on November 3. Few people saw it. I did, from a ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The video ends with that sight and experience, the finest the sky has to offer.

I hope you enjoy this music video mix of time-lapse, real-time video and still images, shot from Alberta, New Mexico and from the Atlantic.

You can watch a better quality version of this video at my Vimeo channel.

Clear skies for 2014!

– Alan, January 1, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

Skyglows Galore in the New Mexico Dawn


New Mexico Pre-Dawn Skyglow Panorama (Dec 2013)

A mix of sky glows fills the pre-dawn sky in New Mexico.

To the eye the sky looked dark, marred only by some high haze drifting through. But the camera reveals a sky filled with an amazing wealth of colourful glows.

I took this 360° panorama in the pre-dawn hours (4:45 a.m.) this morning (December 8) from the Painted Pony Resort in southwest New Mexico. It reveals a swath of green airglow to the north, the zodiacal light, and the Milky Way. At northern latitudes there was bright aurora visible last night. We might have seen some sign of it here in New Mexico in the form of increased airglow activity.

The panorama takes in, from left to right:
• Arcturus, shining like an ornament on the treetop
• the zodiacal light rising up from the east
• red Mars embedded in the zodiacal light below Leo
• the Milky Way from Puppis and Canis Major at left arching up and across the sky down into Perseus at right
• Sirius the brightest star
• Orion setting over the main house
• Jupiter, the bright object at top centre in Gemini
• Aldebaran and the Pleiades setting right of the main house in Taurus
• Polaris over the smaller house at right
• the Big Dipper at upper right pointing down to Polaris
• a green glow along the northern horizon above the smaller house that is likely intense airglow.
• green and red bands throughout the sky are airglow, caused by atmospheric molecules flourescing at night
• bands of high cloud also permeate the sky adding natural glows around the stars.

I stitched this panorama using PTGui software, from 6 segments, all tracked, taken with the 14mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8 for 2.5 minutes each and with the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 1600.

As a postscript — this is blog post #401 from me.

– Alan, December 8, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Zodiacal Light and the Phantom Comet


Zodiacal Light at Dawn from New Mexico (Dec 2013)

The Zodiacal Light shines bright in the New Mexico dawn, near where the ill-fated Comet ISON would have been.

This was the dawn sky on the morning of December 6, 2013 looking east from our observing site at the Painted Pony Resort in New Mexico.

The zodiacal light was bright pre-dawn extending up from the horizon to high overhead. This glow is from sunlight reflected off comet dust in the inner solar system.

Adding to that cloud of dust is presumably the remains of Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) – this image includes the position where ISON would have appeared had it survived, with its head left of centre, just left of the zodiacal light, and just above the mountain ridge. Its tail would have arched up and to the left, had it grown an extensive dust tail as was hoped.

As it is, there is a comet in the field – Comet Lovejoy (C/2013 R1) is a tiny blue blip at far left, a minor consolation prize for missing ISON. Pity ISON didn’t work out, as we would have had two photogenic and naked eye comets in the dawn sky together.

The field also contains two planets: Mars in Leo above and right of centre, and Saturn in Libra just coming up over the mountains in the middle of the zodiacal light. Both lie in the zodiacal light because the light follows the ecliptic – i.e. the plane of the solar system and the orbits of the planets.

– Alan, December 6, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Zodiacal Light & Light Pollution


Zodiacal Light & Light Pollution (New Mexico)

The subtle glow of zodiacal light competes with the artificial glow of light pollution.

This was the scene earlier this evening, December 4, from our dark sky retreat at the Painted Pony Resort in southeast New Mexico. In the distance the yellow glow of light pollution reflecting off the clouds comes from Douglas, Arizona.

Above, in the sky, you can see a subtle band of light reaching up and tipped slightly to the left. That’s the zodiacal light, caused by sunlight reflecting off cometary dust in the inner solar system.

At right is part of the summer Milky Way, setting into the west.

The clouds are orographic clouds hovering over the Chiricahua Mountains, where I was last evening shooting the sunset.

Our first night here has proven to be much better than we had expected, with scattered cloud but mostly clear skies. We’re here for another 4 nights. More is coming!

— Alan, December 4, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Zodiacal Light – Dawn’s Early Light


Zodiacal Light in Dawn Sky (Oct 2013)

The ghostly glow of comet dust brightens an October dawn.

This is the zodiacal light, as it appeared two mornings ago in the pre-dawn sky from my backyard in southern Alberta. This tapering glow angled up from the horizon is best spotted in the eastern sky on clear and moonless autumn mornings, like this one.

What you are seeing is sunlight reflected off dust left by passing comets in the inner solar system. So while this glow looks like it might originate in our atmosphere it really comes from dust out in interplanetary space.

This subtle glow, often called the “false dawn,” appears in the hour or so before the true dawn begins to brighten the sky too much (its purple light is just starting to light the horizon here).

Also visible here: Sirius at far right, Jupiter above centre, the Beehive star cluster below Jupiter, and Leo rising embedded in the zodiacal light, with Mars just above Regulus, Leo’s brightest star. The planets lie along the zodiacal light because the dust that causes it also lies in the same plane as the orbits of the planets, the ecliptic plane.

I shot this with a 14mm lens for a stack of four 2-minute tracked exposures, but with the horizon coming from just one of the exposures to minimize blurring from the moving camera slowly following the sky.

– Alan, October 10, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

The Ghostly Glow of Gegenschein


Gegenschein from New Mexico (14mm 5DII)

The band of light at right is the familiar Milky Way. But what’s that faint stream of light to the left? It’s called the Gegenschein.

My last blog showed an image of the Zodiacal Light in the west. In fact, that glow extends up and continues all the way across the sky as a very faint stream of light at the threshold of vision called the Zodiacal Band. But at the place in the sky 180° opposite the Sun the Band intensifies to become a diffuse patch of light. It’s easy to see with the naked eye from a dark site if you know to look for it, and where it is likely to be. Last week, it was sitting below the constellation of Leo, in an area of sky that is pretty blank. So any faint glow stands out.

As with Zodiacal Light, what you are seeing is sunlight reflected off comet and asteroidal dust, but for the Gegenschein (German for “counterglow”) the light is coming from dust opposite the Sun that is scattering light back toward us and the Sun, mirror-like. The back-scattering effect makes the dust appear a little brighter at the point opposite the Sun.

Spring is a good time to spot the Gegenschein (true for the northern or southern hemisphere) as it then lies in a sparse area of sky away from the Milky Way. But you need a moonless sky and a dark site free of manmade light pollution. It and the fainter Zodiacal Band are among the sky’s most subtle sights. Again, Atmospheric Optics has more details.

A bonus with this shot are some short streaks of light below and to the right of the Gegenschein. I think those are from geostationary satellites flaring at the anti-solar point as they, too, acted as mirrors briefly catching the sunlight. Being geostationary – likely communications satellites you aimed fixed dishes at – they stayed still while the stars and tracking camera moved, and so created streaks.

– Alan, March 20, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

The Zodiacal Light from the Desert


Zodiacal Light in Evening Sky (New Mexico)

From a dark site the glow of Zodiacal Light rivals the Milky Way in brightness. 

This was the scene every night last week in the evening sky from our New Mexico observing site. The vertical glow of Zodiacal Light was a source of natural light pollution brightening the western sky. I’ve never see it more obvious in the west and this was the perfect season to see it. In March from the northern hemisphere the ecliptic – the plane of the solar system – is angled high into the western sky, almost vertical from the latitude of southern New Mexico.

The Zodiacal Light lies not in our atmosphere but comes from interplanetary space, and follows the ecliptic. What we were seeing was a glow of sunlight being reflected off fine dust particles orbiting the Sun in the inner solar system, likely spread by passing comets like PANSTARRS. I blogged about the Zodiacal Light last month, in photo taken from home in southern Alberta. You can also read about it at the excellent Atmospheric Optics website.

You don’t need to be in the desert to see it, but you do need dark skies. And no Moon in the sky.

At last week’s dark of the Moon period, Jupiter sat at the apex of the Zodiacal Light, just above the Pleiades star cluster. Near the top, right of centre, you can also see a short satellite trail, likely from a flaring Iridium satellite.

– Alan, March 19, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

 

The Subtle Glow of Comet Dust


Zodiacal Light rfrom Home (Feb 8, 2013)

Out of the skyglow from lights and the remains of twilight rises a tapering pyramid of light. It’s one of the night sky’s most subtle sights for the naked eye.

This is the Zodiacal Light, and I’ve been trying to capture it in the evening sky from home for a number of years. Last night was a good night for it. The sky was very transparent, for the first couple of hours at least. An ultra-wide angle lens allowed me to capture the Light in context with the wider sky, towering out of the southwest at right, reaching up to the Pleiades and Jupiter high in the centre of the frame. The Milky Way is at left. Everyone knows the Milky Way but the Zodiacal Light is less famous.

It’s visible only in the hour or two after sunset or before sunrise. Late winter and spring are the best times to see it in the evening sky. That’s when the ecliptic – the plane of the solar system where the planets lie – is tipped up at its highest angle above the horizon putting it above obscuring haze. The Zodiacal Light lies along the ecliptic because it is part of our solar system, not in our atmosphere. It is sunlight reflected off dust orbiting in the inner solar system that’s been cast off over thousands of years by comets passing through. It is brightest closest to the Sun and fades out at greater angles away from the Sun. Thus its tapering appearance in my sky as the photo shows, very much as my eye saw it.

It takes a good night at a dark site to see the Zodiacal Light. But take a look at the next dark of the Moon. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to see once you know what to look for.

– Alan, February 9, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

 

A Crisp Winter’s Night Under the Stars


Fish-Eye Winter Sky (8mm 5DII) (Feb 7, 2013)

It was crisp and frosty night filled with the bright stars of winter, and the Milky Way.

This was the sky from my backyard on Thursday, February 7, with Orion and his friends shining due south. It is a “fish-eye” shot taking in all of the sky from horizon to horizon. South is at bottom, north to the top. West is at right, east to the left.

The Milky Way runs from northwest, at top right, to southeast, at bottom left. When we look at this section of the Milky Way we are looking in the direction opposite the galactic core, toward the outer arms of our Galaxy.

Jupiter is the brightest “star” in the image, shining in Taurus. Rising out of the sky glow from towns to the west of me is the pillar of light called the Zodiacal Light. I think you can follow it stretching all the way across the sky from right to left (west to east) where it then becomes a subtle bright patch in the sky well east of the Milky Way. That’s the Gegenschein, a glow of light exactly opposite the Sun. It and the Zodiacal Light are caused by sunlight reflecting off comet dust in the inner solar system.

A night when you can see the Zodiacal Light and Gegenschein – they were visible to the unaided eye – is a good night indeed. Too bad this one was spoiled by some cloud and haze, reflecting the toxic yellow glow of ever-intruding sodium vapour lights.

Silhouetted in the sky glow at right is one of my telescopes, with camera #2 dutifully taking a closeup image of Orion’s Belt. That picture will be the subject of tomorrow’s blog!

– Alan, February 8, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer

Australian Sky Panorama


Timor Cottage Panorama #1

This is the southern hemisphere sky in a 360° panorama.

From left to right in the sky, you can see:

– in the South: the two Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of the Milky Way

– in the West: the diagonal glow of Zodiacal Light

– in the North: Orion, Jupiter and the Pleiades above the outline of Timor Rock

– in the East: the southern Milky Way just rising

I shot this last night in the early evening, Sunday, December 9, from my observing site in Australia, Timor Cottage at Coonabarabran, NSW. It’s a panorama of 8 images, each a 1 minute untracked exposure with the 10-22mm lens at 10mm. I’m amazed at how well the sections join together, considering the stars are moving from one frame to the next and about 16 minutes separates the beginning and end frames.

– Alan, December 10, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Catching the Zodiacal Light


Zodiacal Light (Southern Spring Evening)

From a truly dark sky site, subtle sky glows become obvious. This is the Zodiacal Light of evening.

The Sun has long set and the very last glow of twilight is colouring the sky just above the hills. But reaching up from the sunset point in the northwest is a long triangular glow extending far to the south. This is called the Zodiacal Light – it does not originate in our atmosphere but is from sunlight reflecting off comet dust orbiting the inner solar system in the same plane as Earth’s orbit. Or at least that’s where we see it appearing the brightest, as a glow brightest near the Sun and extending along the ecliptic plane, where we find the constellations of the Zodiac. Here it appears in Capricornus and Aquarius.

I shot this two nights ago, from Coonabarabran, Australia, so the orientation of the Zodiacal Light is different from what we see from the Northern Hemisphere. Here it extends up from left to right. From home in Canada – and you can see the Light from northern latitudes on a dark night – it would be angled up from right to left, a mirror image of what we see here.

The subtle glow of Zodiacal Light is best seen in the evening sky in spring, no matter your hemisphere. I took this on December 6, 2012, still officially spring in the southern hemisphere if you assume southern summer starts on the solstice, December 21. However, Australians say summer begins December 1, so this is a portrait of the Zodiacal Light on a warm summer evening down under.

– Alan, December 8, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Southern Milky Way Setting & Zodiacal Light


On the eve of the November 14 total eclipse of the Sun, I was able to shoot the Milky Way setting amid the vertical glow of the evening Zodiacal Light.

This scene looks west toward the sunset point, but was taken well after sunset. The Milky Way and the area of Sagittarius where the centre of the Galaxy lies is just setting. The same area of sky contains a vertical pillar of light, very subtle, called the Zodiacal Light. This is sunlight reflected off dust particles orbiting the inner solar system and deposited by passing comets. The Zodiacal Light is best seen in the evening sky on dark moonless nights in spring, no matter what your hemisphere. But in this case it is November, spring in the southern hemisphere.

At left are the two Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of the Milky Way, and visible at their best only from south of the equator. In this case we are at 16° South latitude.

The site is a lookout on the Mulligan Highway inland from Port Douglas where we made for the day before the eclipse and camped out overnight, along with a parking lot full of fellow eclipse chasers. But the morning still brought worrying clouds in the direction of the Sun, so we moved farther north to the site you see in my earlier Great Australian Eclipse blogs.

– Alan, November 20, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer

 

Dawn’s Early Light


This shot took getting up early (rather than staying up all night) to shoot the sky at 5 a.m. The main subject here is a subtle tower of light rising up vertically from the eastern horizon. That’s the Zodiacal Light, best seen from low latitudes.

The glow is from sunlight reflected off dust particles deposited in the inner solar system by passing comets. While it looks like dawn twilight coming on, the light actually comes from out in space and heralds the brightening of the sky by true twilight.

After a week of gazing in the evening sky, a number of us observers took the opportunity this morning to snooze through part of the night and get up prior to dawn to see a new set of objects. At that time of night, and at this time of year, the centre of the Milky Way sits straight overhead, and shows up here in an ultrawide shot from horizon to zenith.

I shot this with the 15mm lens at f/2.8 and the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 800. It’s a stack of two 3-minute exposures.

– Alan, May 6, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer