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Posts Tagged ‘night’

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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Omega Landscape

Omega Landscape

Omega Centauri is the biggest and brightest globular cluster in the sky. It’s only visible from the South Hemisphere and on a dark location it’s very easy to see with the naked eye and a great view with binoculars.

There are a lot of great astronomical photos of Omega Centauri available but only a few showing the Globular Cluster in the context of a landscape or as we call them at night a “nightscape”. In my research I only found a very nice photo from the great photographer Tunc Tezel at Twan (link).

So I went on the task to photograph the King of all clusters in a landscape contest. The photo taken with a 135mm lens simulates what can be seen from a very dark location. The cluster looks small but compare it with the stars around it and you’ll see how big and bright it is.

Most people think “you took a black photo” or “poor Luis forgot to remove the cap lens again”, you need to see it as large as you can in a dark room, then it’s better, I promise.

I think this is a way to show a beautiful and unique astronomical object in a context that doesn’t need telescopes or special equipment.  If you examine the photo carefully (click to go to my site then click again for a larger view) you will be able to find a small and beautiful galaxy: Centaurus-A (NGC 5128) and more eye-work will show you a galaxy similar to our own Milky Way: NGC 4945. Can you find them?

Now I need to find a way to print it, nightscapes aren’t easy to put on paper.

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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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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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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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Geminid Bolid at Mercedes

Geminid Bolid at Mercedes

A meteor shower is produced when Earth glides across debris from a comet or asteroid, the tiny fragments that are only a few inches long burn in the atmosphere producing meteors. Sometimes a bigger fragment grazes thru the atmosphere producing a bolide: a bigger, brighter meteor but even those are not big enough to reach the surface. In the case of the geminids the debris was originated by an asteroid named 3200 Phaeton, it’s the only meteor shower not originated from a comet. The first photo shows a bright bolide above the setting moon.

The Geminids are usually the best meteor shower of the year. In the southern hemisphere the radiant is not very high in the sky but high enough to produce many meteors and the temperatures are warm as the event takes place on summer time.

The Geminids at Orion

The Geminids at Orion

The photo shows the Orion belt with the flame nebula and horsehead nebula and the big and bright M42 nebula. 10 meteors crossed the field of view in a 20 minutes time span. That’s a high rate and was probably the peak of the meteor shower from my location. The gaps in the meteor trails are produced by a 1 second delay between exposures and in some way help to see the speed of the meteors. The one in the top left corner was specially bright and fast.

Geminid Meteor at the Pleiades

Geminid Meteor at the Pleiades

This meteor crossed the pleiades cluster M45 coming from the Geminids radiant in the Gemini constellation. It has a notorious green tint, geminids are usually yellow/green. Not all the meteors came from the radiant there were many errant meteors. The best way to make sure you don’t miss a meteor is to use a fisheye lens pointed straight up at the zenit to make sure you cover as much of the sky as possible. I’ll try that approach next time to see how many meteors I can get.

Geminid Meteor at Mercedes

Geminid Meteor at Mercedes

This ultra wide view shows a bright bolide near the horizon. The sky features several constellations and objects including Orion, Taurus with the Pleiades and Hyades cluster, Gemini, Hydra and more. This was just before dawn and the horizon was starting to get bright so the meteor must have been really big and bright.

Meteor showers are fun to watch and fun to photograph, it’s a hunting exercise as you have the camera constantly shooting trying to get a meteor, they are so fast that the only way to get them involves a little luck. For unknown reasons the Geminids are getting better and better year after year so we can just start to wait for the 2011 show.

For more photos you can always check my website: http://www.luisargerich.com

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The Geyser Rock

The Geyser Rock

For some reason I don’t see night-time seascapes often from landscape photographers. At night things are different, exposures become difficult and the composition takes always some guess-work. Anyway the effect of cold ocean water on your feet in a winter night is probably the main reason this kind of photography is not so popular.

The rock in this photo has a hole in the front and another hole at the top. When waves hit the rock front the pressure makes the water exit from the top hole creating a geyser-like effect. I used a flashlight to light-paint the water letting a long exposure take care of the foreground. The shot can be improved but it will have to be next year as the conditions for this are not very frequent.

Corona Australis

Corona Australis

Another shot of the same rock from a different angle and trying to use the constellation of Corona Australis as a crown to the water splash. The flashlight I was using was a constant-output LED torch so to find the right amount of brightness I had to move with my feet back and forward using the camera timer and checking back the photo. It took me many, probably dozens of shots to find one I liked.

Oceanic Moon

Oceanic Moon

At night the Moon behaves in a very similar way as the Sun during daytime. It’s too bright for any single-shot exposure and creates beautiful reflections on the ocean surface. With the Moon in the frame avoiding flares and trying to get the exposure right is difficult but sometimes it does work. Who would have thought the lens hood was such a critical piece of equipment for night-time photography?

Look South

Look South

You can even take a panorama shot at night. I created this photo from 5 portrait oriented long-exposures, the waves are very tricky for panoramas because they are never in the same place between shots and that makes the stitching process difficult. But if the exposure is long enough the water can take such an abstract shape that it will be the same in all the frames creating a nice seamless panorama.

Punta Hermengo

Punta Hermengo

Star-Trails are one of the nice resources you can use in your night-time landscapes. With a wide-angle lens exposure of more than 20 minutes may be needed so the place has to be pitch dark. I always take several shorter exposures and then join them together using startrails.exe (from startrails.de). The advantage is that when something goes wrong I can just discard one frame instead of the whole exposure. A boat, a car, somebody with a flashlight can ruin the shot at any time.

The Celestial South Pole

The Celestial South Pole

Knowing  where the celestial north or south pole is can be important if you want your stars to draw circles around the sky. It’s quite easy, just point the camera north in the northern hemisphere or south if you are at the SH using a compass and the pole should be in front of you at the same altitude in degrees as your latitude.

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