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Comet Lovejoy

Comet Lovejoy

On the night of November 27th 2011 amateur astronomer and comet hunter Terry Lovejoy from Australia discovered something that he marked as “probable reflection” with his telescope. He checked back and it wasn’t a reflection at all, it was a comet. This comet named after his discoverer C/2011 W3 Lovejoy  belongs to what is known as the “Kreutz Sungrazers” family, comets with orbits bringing them really close to the sun, the theory is that these comets are fragments of a larger comet that was fragmented thousands of years ago.

Comet Lovejoy started then a journey of amazing highlights for the astronomical community. It’s the first comet of the Kreutz group to be discovered from the ground in 30 years, usually they are discovered using NASA’s solar telescopes such as SOHO or STEREO. After initial calculations the comet body was estimated to be as big as a football field, not enough to survive a close approach to the Sun. Comet Lovejoy was doomed.

Lovejoy Approaching the Sun

Lovejoy Approaching the Sun

While approaching the Sun Lovejoy brightened to magnitude -4, that’s as bright as planet Venus making it the third brightest object in the sky after the Sun and the Moon. It wasn’t visible to the naked eye because the comet was too close to the Sun, lost in the glare. This was supposed to be all, after perihelion the little comet would be destroyed into tiny fragments never to be seen again.

But comets are like a box of chocolate, you never know what you are gonna get. The astronomy world was amazed when the comet emerged from behind the Sun.

It's Alive!

It's Alive!

The comet emerged from behind the Sun and looked smaller and had lost its tail. It was a miracle for the little comet to have survived perihelion but that was only a small thing compared to what was coming. The comet re-formed it’s tail and brightened and now astronomers started to discuss the possibility of the comet being visible to the naked eye.

Due to its orbit Lovejoy is only visible to observers in the south hemisphere it started very close to the sun so astronomers and photographers had to hunt for it a few minutes before dawn, as soon as it cleared some degrees away from the Sun the show started.

Lovejoy at the Milky Way

Lovejoy at the Milky Way

The comet became visible to the naked eye before dawn, it was easy to see on December 23rd, I went to a rural location and at around 3am the tail of the comet rose from behind the trees at the horizon, it was a fantastic sight. It quickly brightened and its two tails were easy to spot with the naked eye and magnificent in photos.

The Two Tails of Comet Lovejoy

The Two Tails of Comet Lovejoy

The main tail curves above the horizon and is made of dust, the secondary tail is made of ionized gas and rises straight from the horizon. As said before both tails were easy to see with the naked eye.

As photos started to come from Australia, South Africa and Argentina the comet became bigger and brighter, people compared it with comet McNaught from 2007 and with Ikeya-Seki from 1965, the brightest comet in the history of mankind and also a member of the Kreutz family. Lovejoy wasn’t that bright, you had to go to rural areas to see it but it was really big with its tail extending for more than 20 degrees.

The Great Comet of 2011

The Great Comet of 2011

There is no formal definition of “great comet” but in some places they say that a comet needs to be bigger than 15 degrees and visible to the naked eye. If we take that definition then Lovejoy is without a doubt the great comet of 2011. It’s huge and bright enough to be an easy naked eye object from rural areas. In my estimations it was brighter than the Milky Way and as bright as the Magellan Clouds but the clouds were very high in the sky and the comet close to the horizon so it’s probably brighter.

Dawn of the Comet

Dawn of the Comet

Lovejoy will now begin to travel fast away from the Sun towards the south celestial pole. It will be fainter each day and it will be higher in the skies of the south hemisphere. By January 8th the comet will be circumpolar at latitude 35 degrees south, that means it will be visible the whole night. It will not be visible by the naked eye but with binoculars or telescopes it promises to keep being a fantastic target.

This comet, discovered by an amateur astronomer, was supposed to be destroyed at perihelion it survived and displayed a fantastic show. It was a great christmas gift for all the people that like the beauties and surprises of the night sky.

You can find my photos of Comet Lovejoy at the special gallery I created on my website: http://www.luisargerich.com/lovejoy

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There are a lot of interesting astronomical events for photographers at the end of 2011, on October 21st we had the Orionids meteor shower, then Jupiter will be at opposition on the 28th. Venus starts to climb higher and produces some interesting conjunctions with the moon and mercury. Finally Mars also starts to climb higher in the sky and becomes brighter. The 2011 show ends on December with the 2011 Geminids meteor shower, always a reliable event even if the moon is bad for this year’s show.

I went out two nights, the 20th and 21st of October for the Orionids. The first night I tried from the coast of light-polluted Buenos Aires, I battled against winds of 40km/h and struggled all night long. The result: Zero meteors, I had hopes for a bright fireball to survive light pollution but it didn’t happen.

This is how the sky looked from my light-polluted spot:

Orion from a Light Polluted City

Orion from a Light Polluted City

Can you see Orion near the horizon? It’s difficult in the photo, easier with the naked eye.

Just before sunrise there was a nice conjunction between the Moon, Mars and Regulus. I took a shot from the same location before packing and going home:

Moon, Mars and Regulus

Moon, Mars and Regulus

For the night of the 21st I escaped to a rural area trying to win the battle against light pollution. It’s not easy when you live in a 10+ million people city like Buenos Aires, you need to drive more than 200km and even then you’ll find yourself near yet another city.

I drove to the County Observatory of Mercedes, 100km away from Buenos Aires. The observatory has nice rural skies, light pollution is only a problem in the direction of Buenos Aires to the East. Unfortunately Orion rises at the East so the battle was on again. The skies were much, much better and I managed to shoot two nice Orionid fireballs just before midnight.

Orionids from Argentina

Orionids from Argentina

The photo was selected as Amateur Astronomy Picture of the Day, thank you!

At 3am the moon emerged from the horizon and clouds rolled in, so it was time to go home. I took a shot of the cloudy nightscape with a fisheye lens to show how bright Jupiter was near opposition.

Jupiter at Opposition

Jupiter at Opposition

Jupiter shines at -2.7 magnitude you can compare it against the brightest star in the sky: Sirius at the top right of Orion. The Pleiades cluster is also visible in the photo. Even with the clouds you can see many more stars from this rural location than from a light polluted place. I will try to be in an even darker place for the Geminids, it just needs some weather help.

Finally a Stellarium capture of the Conjunction between Venus, Mercury and an ultra-thin moon just after sunset for October the 28th. If weather is good don’t miss it!

Moon-Venus-Mercury on October 28th

Moon-Venus-Mercury on October 28th

As usual I’ll be posting the photos as I process them in my Nightscapes Gallery at my website.

I have also added a new option for Matted and Mounted Metal Prints at a good price in the strange event of a visitor liking one of my photos 😉

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The Emu in the Sky

The Emu in the Sky

What happens when you find yourself standing in the middle of the night at 800 meters high, with little or no humidity and more than 200km away from the nearest artificial light-source? Welcome to one of the best nigh skies in the world, at the Somuncura plateau in the Argentinian Patagonia.

There is a scale to measure the quality of the night sky called “the Bortle  Dark Sky Scale” in that scale Somuncura is a class 1 zone, there’s not a single lightbulb in hundreds of kilometers around you!

From Scorpius to Orion

From Scorpius to Orion

If you are used to the horrible pink glow of urban or suburban skies you will notice several differences in a class 1 sky. The first one is that you can’t see! And I really mean it, on a moonless night you can put your hand in front of your face and you won’t see it. Interesting!. Several deep sky objects are easily seen with the naked eye. The Magellan clouds are very bright and the Milky Way is stunning. The Orion Nebula is fuzzy and easy and of course you see thousands of stars. Something that really caught my attention was how the dark coalsack  nebula next to the southern cross contrasted against the Milky Way. It was deep black against an ocean of stars.

The Light of the Milky Way

The Light of the Milky Way

The Milky Way is so bright that it casts shadows and can be used as a light-source. This panorama is Milky-Way lit, no moon, no artificial lights no other light source in hundreds of kilometers. I blogged about this before in a post called “The Light of the Milky Way“.

The Celestial Equator

The Celestial Equator

One inmediate effect of darkness is that you can take a really long exposure photo without blowing the sky, at the place where I live I can expose the sky for about 30 seconds, at Somuncura I could expose for 2 hours and the photo had still room for more photons! This is very nice but caught me totally off guard and I run into several technical problems with my remotes, batteries and supporting gear because I wasn’t trained for such long exposures.

Meteor at Somuncura

Meteor at Somuncura

My final paragraph is for meteors or shooting stars. I visited the plateau in March far away from any significant or even small meteor shower. Even then it was very easy to catch a few sporadic meteors jut by grazing at the sky for some time. I even got a nice bolide in one photo jus by pure luck. I can’t imagine how a meteor shower would look under these skies but I would love to be there for one.

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Laguna Blanca and Cerro Corona

Laguna Blanca and Cerro Corona

The Somuncura Plateau is a large and almost unexplored part of the Argentinian Patagonia. It’s between the coast on the East popular for the beaches and the whales and the mountains on the west popular for the ski, snow, lakes and glaciers. In the middle we have this gigantic piece of basalt formed millions of years ago by volcanos that are now extinct.

Somuncura

Somuncura

In this remote location at about 800 meters above sea level the weather is very extreme and random, you can have more tan 40C in the Summer and -20C in the winter, it can snow at almost any time of the year and winds above 60km/h are constant. Rain is very rare making water a very precious resource.

Difficult Roads

Difficult Roads

Only a few brave people live in this place where distance is measured in horse-hours, sometimes in days. The roads are made by hand removing the rocks one by one until a path is cleared, they are difficult and only accessible with 4×4 vehicles and horses. Most people live from their animals struggling to survive day after day without electricity, gas or any form of service. At some points of the plateau you will be more than 200km away from the nearest inhabited place.I’m not a “people” photographer but their stories really deserve attention and respect, a lot of respect.

The Centinel

The Centinel

Only a few species make the Somuncura Plateau their home, there are a lot of Guanacos, very shy from people as they are hunted for their fur and sometimes meat. The majestic Condor can be seen at some specific locations of the Plateau. All the other forms of life are small rodents, mammals and the typical plants you can find at the desert.

The Pointed One

The Pointed One

The terrain is mostly flat with a few volcanic cones here and there. The highest elevations are from “Cerro Puntudo” at around 1600 meters, “Cerro Corona Grande” and “Cerro Corona Chico” are also prominent. All these are extinct volcanos with the classical conic shape of a stratovolcano, that’s why basaltic lava is so common in the soil. You can also find very large rocks in the middle of the plateau that could have been ejected from a volcanic eruption many millions of years ago.

The Pearl

The Pearl

There are only a few permanent bodies of water at the plateau, “Laguna Azul” is one of the biggest ones connected perhaps to an underground reservoir but even the it’s becoming smaller and smaller year after year. The lagoon is in the middle of an almost perfectly circular volcanic crater. Basalt, pumice and obsidian rocks are commonly found and used by the people that live here to make tools and construct their homes.

The Somuncura Plateau has one of the best night skies in the world but I’ll leave that for the next post.

You can find more photos about this magical place at my website. I’ve made a slideshow here: http://www.luisargerich.com/somuncura-2011

If you want to visit this or any other place in Patagonia I recomend this company: http://www.rupestrepatagonia.com.ar/ I think they are the only company with a real permit to visit the Somuncura Plateau as the area is protected.

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Jupiter & Venus

Jupiter & Venus

During May 2011 four planets gathered in the sky, that’s known in astronomy as a “conjunction”. There were infinite conjunctions during may as the planets moved along the ecliptic showing many different configurations. The event favored observers in the southern hemisphere as the planets were higher in the sky and the nights are longer during May. The first photo shows Jupiter (top) and Venus just before sunrise, daylight made the other planets fade but Jupiter & Venus were still very bright.

Venus vs the Sunrise

Venus vs the Sunrise

In this super-wide view bright Venus is still shining in the sky even if only a few minutes before sunrise. The waves are from a river: Rio de La Plata, the widest river on Earth. In a windy day the river can be quite similar to the ocean choppy and wavy.

Conjunction at Night May 5

Conjunction at Night May 5

At the beginning of the Month we had Venus high in the sky with Mercury on the side. Jupiter and fainter Mars are below. It’s quite a sight to see Mercury that high in the sky and during the night and that is only possible in the south hemisphere where Mercury is further away from the Sun and the sky is dark at 6am.

Dawn of the Planets

Dawn of the Planets

The same configuration from May 5th at Dawn. Venus and Mercury at the top with Jupiter and Mars below them. Jupiter is going to rise fast later in May.

May 15th at Night

May 15th at Night

By the middle of May (15th) Jupiter was high in the Sky, Venus, Mars and Mercury gathered below, starts from Pisces and Cetus are also visible in the photo.

Conjunction at Dawn May 22nd

Conjunction at Dawn May 22nd

One week later Jupiter was escaping fast from the conjunction while Venus, Mercury and Mars were shining even a few minutes before sunrise. In this photo some thin clouds were covering the sky and the first light of the morning lit them in several colors. Venus is so bright that it can shine thru the cloud layer.

4 in Line

4 in Line

On May the 28th the thin Moon joined the Conjunction. Jupiter, Venus and Mars follow the moon in a straight line. Mercury was still below the horizon. Several stars from Pisces, Aries, Cetus and Triangulum are visible in the photo. There is a small satellite trail just in the middle of an asterism known as “the circlet” in Pisces. If you look close you will see the stars make a circle with the satellite trail just in the middle of it.

The Great Alignment

The Great Alignment

At the end of the month, May 31st the moon was very thin and on the side of the 4-way conjunction. The four planets are in a straight line here, Jupiter is at the top left and then Mars, Venus and Mercury.

Venus by the Moon

Venus by the Moon

A few minutes earlier only Jupiter had risen from the Eastern horizon and the moon was a lot brighter, they formed a beautiful conjunction in the sky.

The Show Ends

The Show Ends

The last photo is from May 31st just seconds before sunrise. The thin Moon and Venus are still visible and the first rays of sunlight coming from below the horizon create a shadow in the sky. The last display of a nice set of planetary conjunctions.

I have more images from the Conjunctions on a special set in my website:

http://www.luisargerich.com/may2011

And a Slide show:

http://www.luisargerich.com/conjunctions-2011

One of the photos was published as NASA’s Astronomy Photo of the Day:

http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap110507.html

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Sunrise at La Azul (60 mpx)

Sunrise at La Azul (60 mpx)

When doing panoramas I usually try to avoid really thin images as they are hard to visualize, hard to print and usually look like a color ribbon more than a photograph. That’s why I usually shoot panos between 2:1 and 3:1 ratios. Nevertheless in this article I will present some 6:1 panos and some ideas I’ve had for them.

Volcanic Sunrise at La Azul

Volcanic Sunrise at La Azul

The first obvious advantage is that I can choose from many sub-compositions from the big pano, for example from the first image I chose this composition to make a standard 3:1 panorama. With a high megapixel camera and a pano there are really plenty of megapixeles to choose from, sometimes details that are not easy to see on the field appear when you review the images and you can think about the best composition for the format and use you want for the image.

La Azul Lagoon (420 mpx)

La Azul Lagoon (420 mpx)

Another advantage of a gigapixel panorama is that you can use a Zooming tool to look for very detailed things while at the same time keeping the very wide view that you have in the panorama. A zoomable version of the photo where the viewer can look at very fine details is a great way to preview the level of detail you can get with a big print. Try zooming at the lagoon pano by following this link.

Plateau's Profile (150 mpx)

Plateau's Profile (150 mpx)

Finally you also have some creative ideas for printing. Like dividing the big panos in several smaller prints. From two 3:1 prints for opposite walls to many vertical shaped prints that can be put one after the other to create the visual flow needed to see the whole panorama.

With modern cameras a huge panoramic image is not difficult to make you just need to take the photos and then use a good software to assemble all the images, there are many nice advantages in a super-resolution image.

The Images in this article were stitched with PtGUI pro.

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The Light of the Milky Way

The Light of the Milky Way

In my trip to the Somuncurá Plateau in Patagonia, Argentina I found that a very dark sky can be a very good and very bad thing at the same time. The Plateau is one of the most isolated places on earth, the nearest town is more than 200km away and there are no light sources of any kind. On a moonless night you can’t see a hand in front of your face. It was also for me the first time without battling against some kind of glare in the horizon, even if you are at the countryside a city 100km away can create a nasty glow in the horizon making starry landscapes difficult to expose.

So this is probably one of the best skies in the world, dark, dry, at 1000 meters of altitude and without any light source,  that’s the good part. The bad thing is that the total absence of light makes exposures much more difficult, even in dark locations there is always “some” light to make the landscape show up in a long enough exposure, here I could expose for minutes and minutes and all I could get was darkness.

The photo is titled “The Light of the Milky Way” because that is the main light source for the landscape, averaging magnitude -5 the Milky Way can be used as a light source and can even cast small shadows if you are in a really dark location. I used the brightest part of the Milky Way at Scorpius-Sagitarius as the light source for the lagoon here, that’s the brownish reflection you see on the water.

The photo is a panorama made from 5 portrait oriented shots at 14mm 30” F2.8, Orion and the Milky Way are at the center, the Magellan Clouds on the left. You can even see the Tarantula Nebula as a bright spot next to the Large Magellan Cloud and the cumulus 47 Tucanae as a diffuse star next to the Small Magellan Cloud. The Magellan Clouds are satellite galaxies of our own Milky Way and even if they are bright they are also very diffuse and impossible to observe from a light polluted place.

Image at my website

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