This is a very large region of sky, but the beautiful red remnants of this supernova explosion are faint. One of the attractive features of the Rosette is the cluster of stars at its center. One of these may be the star that expoded eons ago leaving this signature shell of expanding and glowing gas.
On most winter nights, the distinctive constellation of Orion the Hunter is plainly visible in the southern sky. Orion sports a “belt” from which hangs a three-star “sword”. The Orion Nebula is the smudge of the middle star in Orion’s sword. A closer look at it reveals that it is not a star at all, but a group of stars shrouded in a cloud of dust and glowing gas. This is a stellar nursery where new stars are being formed. As the gas coalesces, it is energized and emits a characteristic red glow, not bright enough to be seen visually, but captured nicely on film.
In the constellation Cygnus, (the Swan) is a large complex of glowing gas nebulas, and this portion has a shape suggestive of a familiar continent. The strong red color is easily recorded on film, but large telescopes and special filters are needed to make it visible to human night vision. The bright star on the left, “62-Cygni (xi)”, dominates this picture, but if you were to look at the sky, it would not be particularly noticable among the dozen even brighter stars in this constellation!
If we were on the moon during a lunar eclipse, the Earth would be backlit, and everywhere along its edge is at either sunset or at sunrise. The sky there is familiar to us: red and orange, the colors refracted slightly around the Earth’s edge by the air. It is this reddish-orange light source that illuminates the moon when the sun no longer hits it directly.
This picture was taken during the midpoint of the eclipse when the moon was deepest in shadow. The “bottom” of the moon is brighter. This means that the moon didn’t pass through the dead center of the Earth’s shadow, but toward one side. The visual appearance was a dim grayish brown, but a long enough exposure on film shows the red component to its color.
I have seen a total lunar eclipse before, but it was by accident, and I was unable to successfully photograph it. This time I knew it was coming and the skies were clear, but the brutally cold temperatures caused me to find excuses to stay indoors. I was goaded into it however by my son, who pointed out that I had acquired considerable cold weather gear, equipment, and specialized clothing for my peculiar hobby. If not now, when would I ever put them to use?
Of course to maintain any sense of pride, I quietly took his point and proceeded to set up in the neighborhood open area. It is directly under a streetlight which exposed my activities to the neighbors, whose curiosity was not deterred by the temperature. By the time the edge of the moon started to dim, a small group of kids and their hardy parents had assembled to see what would happen.
Our informal eclipse party would last for the next few hours, with people cycling through neighboring houses, returning with hot chocolate, warmed-up feet, and more participants. My own schedule called for taking an exposure every ten minutes, not quite enough time to leave my post.
It was enough time to explain what was happening and to show views though the telescope as the edge of the Earth’s shadow crossed the face of the moon. I like to explain that if we were on the moon, the Earth would be backlit, and that everywhere along its edge is at either sunset or at sunrise. The sky there is familiar to us: red and orange, the colors refracted slightly around the Earth’s edge by the air. It is this reddish-orange light source that illuminates the moon when the sun no longer hits it directly.
It is interesting that the edge of the shadow shows a bit of brownish cast. As the last bit of direct sunlight hits the very edge of the moon, the orange-brown shadow details emerge. It has been there all along, but our eyes can now adapt to this much dimmer light level.
These views are quite similar to the visual experience. At full totality however, the moon seemed to be a grayish brown color. The deep red in the photo is not artificial; the film sees it better than we do.
The Andromeda Galaxy spans a portion of the sky that is larger than the full moon! But a full moon would wash out the sky, making the galaxy hard to see, even with binoculars. When the sky is dark it can be seen as a hazy smudge, making it the most distant object (more than two million light years away) that we can see with the naked eye.
In the eyepiece of a telescope the smudge becomes larger, but to detect the wonderful spiral structure and faint blue outer arms of this galaxy requires the light-accumulating power of a piece of film placed at the telescope’s focal point. The stars in this picture are in the foreground, artifacts from our own galaxy, which we must look through to see into our neighbor’s part of the universe.
The subtle details of the night sky fade away with the dawn, but the brightest remain: the planets Jupiter and Saturn rise above a windbreak on a prairie farm. The sky will brighten and they will eventually be lost (though if you know where to aim a telescope, they can be found again in broad daylight)!
On this occasion, the clear skies held through the night. The distant haze provided the right conditions to spread the long rays from the sun. It’s an unusual transition of colors from orange to blue, a combination not found in many other places in nature. The planets poke holes in the otherwise smooth shading.
I made an expedition to northern Arizona in November of 1998. It was partly to find out what is involved in transporting photo and telescope guiding equipment to other parts of the world. Although cumbersome (I shipped a 90 lb crate ahead to be available when I arrived), it worked.
On the first night I found a remote site in the high desert. The map showed what looked like paved roads to a fishing lake. Evidently the map notations are different in Arizona; at least there were ruts where earlier vehicles had found their way.
The lake was remarkably calm and I marvelled at the darkness of the sky as I watched Orion rise in the east. I could hear wildlife including coyotes, owls, and yes, ducks. But they were far away and the water remained like a mirror. The sky glow here is not from aurora, but instead from distant Flagstaff, a city with an ordinance to use sodium vapor street lighting. The color is strongly yellow, but easily filtered and removed by the astronomical observatories that are hosted by the town. My film however captures all of it.
Although Orion is spread out into an unrecognizable form, he can be identified by the bright orange star, Betelgeuse on the left, and bright blue star Rigel on the right. The triad of belt stars makes a catscratch-like trail, and you may notice a distinctly red star that is even more obviously red in its reflection. This is the famous Orion nebula, a glowing region of gas and dust where new stars are being born.
There is a progression of techniques in taking pictures of the night sky. The simplest is to place your camera on a tripod and open the shutter for a while. The stars form streaks on the film as the Earth rotates under them, creating a startrail image. As I considered what I would need to take more advanced astrophotos, I found that there is plenty to learn and much opportunity for pleasing compositions even with this simple method.
I pondered how to capture that feeling I once shared with a friend seeing the stars from zenith to horizon, then continuing beneath us as we looked out over their reflections in an alpine lake. This became the inspiration for my quest of the ultimate startrail picture: a full semicircle of startrails reflected in the calm waters of a lake. I have not achieved this goal, but the pictures in this series are some of the rewards along the way.
Kinnikinnik is the closest I came to making my target image! The conditions were perfect: a clear dark sky, no aurora, a calm lake with no creatures disturbing it, but my timing is off. This is my first and only time at this site and I arrived late after a day of traveling. I was unprepared to last the night, and after a few one and two hour trial exposures, I succumbed to the cold and returned to my distant hotel room to recharge. I never made it back.
Although not successful that year, I am looking forward to more adventures in future years. In a way, I hope I never quite find full success in this project!
To find truly dark skies, go north. My friend John Walsh, an avid backpacker, headed to the northernmost part of our state for a fall weekend adventure. I convinced him to take my camera and film, explained how to attach chemical handwarmers to the lens to keep it from fogging over, and asked him to open the shutter for six hours when he got there. Among his other nice photos of aurora and bright stars, is this beautiful picture across a gently flowing stream, reflecting the night sky and the northern lights.