Each year a large number of different celestial events occur in the night sky. Meteor showers, lunar phases, the aurora: different celestial events happen for different reasons, and each has it’s own unique beauty. In this blog I’m going to briefly explain some of these events before highlighting a few tips about how to view and photograph them.
On an Autumn night the full harvest moon rises as a giant, wobbly orange ball. Get up before dawn on the approach to new moon to see a slender crescent ascending from the East. Not only are lunar phases regular, they’re magnificent. With a bit of careful planning around the lunar calendar it’s possible to predict where and when the moon will rise and set. Combine this with a planned composition, get lucky with the weather and it’s possible to capture this beautiful phenomenon in all its cosmic glory. www.sunrisesunsetmap.com gives an accurate lunar forecast specific to your location. From March 29th, look West after sunset to see the evening crescent moon sinking into the horizon.
A description of the aurora is not necessary for the readers lucky enough to have witnessed this elegant form of space weather. For the readers who haven’t seen it, any description I can offer will fall utterly short of the ethereal dance of the northern lights. The sun ejects charged particles (solar wind) into the solar system, these are attracted to our magnetosphere and directed to the poles. They react with the atmosphere, making it glow in green, white, red, purple, yellow, blue…
Following www.spaceweather.com will give a reliable solar wind forecast. There are other sites too but this is a good starting point. For reasons not fully understood, around the Spring and Autumn equinoxes a large aurora display can be triggered by the most gentle solar wind. Because of this, the best times to ‘chase’ the lights are the equinoxes. Time your trip with a new moon to maximise the detail in an display you see.
Comets originate from the outer areas of our solar system. When they enter the inner solar system radiation from the sun heats their core, stripping away parts of their bodies to form a tail of ice and dust. Sometimes these fantastic objects pass through Earth’s orbit, leaving their tails behind. Every year, Earth passes through the tails of past comets. As our planet ploughs through such a tail, ice and dust burns in our atmosphere as meteors.
With a little planning it’s possible to witness and photograph these amazing celestial events. The ‘peak’ of the meteor shower is when Earth passes through the thickest part of a comet’s tail. Because Earth is travelling in a specific direction through space, the shooting stars appear out of (or ‘radiate’) from a specific part of the sky. This is called the ‘radiant.’ Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which they radiate. Download the free planetarium software - Stellarium - by following the link below. You can use this to learn about the constellations for meteor shower viewing.
Below is some information about two of the best annual meteor showers. Also, follow this link to find out about other showers. http://www.seasky.org/astronomy/astronomy-calendar-current.html.
Any photographers wanting to capture shooting stars should plan a composition (at an area free from light pollution) to include the radiant. Then, during the peak of the shower, use an external shutter release to capture hundreds of images in succession. This will maximise your chances of a meteor appearing in your frame.
Perseid Meteor Shower
Peak: 12th - 13th August
Origin: Comet Swift Tuttle
Geminid Meteor Shower
Peak: 13th - 14th December
Origin: Comet 3200 Phaethon
The planets orbit the sun. Because of this they constantly change position in the sky; the name ‘Planet’ originates from the ancient Greek word for ‘Wanderer.’ It’s easy to follow the movement of the Planets, use Stellarium (linked above) to track their movements across the heavens. Below are some good dates to see some of the famous planets in our solar system.
April 7th. Jupiter at opposition. On this date, the largest planet in our system will be at it’s closest approach to Earth and therefore at it’s brightest. A pair of binoculars should also reveal its largest moons.
June 15th. Saturn at opposition. This is a good summer opportunity for stargazers and photographers. Saturn remains in the area of the sky close to the heart of the galaxy; a brilliant opportunity for any photographers wanting to capture two of the most beautiful celestial sights in one image.
I have covered just a few of the many exciting things available to view and photograph in the changing 2017 sky. If you have any questions about these events and how to photograph them please feel free to contact me.