Another planetary conjunction occurred yesterday (31 Aug 2014) with the close placement of Mars, Saturn, and the Moon in the evening sky. It’s only been a few weeks since the planetary conjunction of Venus and Jupiter in the morning sky so we’ve had an interesting few weeks for sky watching.

Mars and Saturn were joined by the crescent Moon to form a triangle in the evening sky. Using “The Photographers Ephemeris” I was able to determine that I could get a photograph of the triplet as they hung in the sky above Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona. But if only it were that easy. After arriving at my predetermined spot I still had to move around to get a good setup. A bit of travel southward along the Templeton Trail…followed by some climbing up…then down…then back to the north…and finally I get a few minutes where they lined up with the spires of Cathedral Rock. Whew!

Conjunction of Mars, Saturn, and the crescent Moon.

Conjunction of Mars, Saturn, and the crescent Moon.

With that done, I retreated back down to the parking lot before it got too dark and spent another few hours photographing the Milky Way as it lined up with Cathedral Rock.

Milky Way and Cathedral Rock.

Milky Way and Cathedral Rock.

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Earlier in the morning I was shooting images of the conjunction of the planets Venus and Jupiter. I had noticed that there were early morning clouds draped across Mount Elden. I wasn’t ready to put the camera away yet so I headed over to Buffalo Park so that I could get a better view of the clouds, mountain, and the quickly changing light as the sun began to rise. I was rewarded with this image of the clouds obscuring the peak of the mountain while rays of light were intersecting the clouds at different points with amazing colors.

 

Early morning clouds on Mount Elden.

Early morning clouds on Mount Elden.

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On 18 August 2014 there was a planetary conjunction in the morning sky when the planets Venus and Jupiter appeared next to each other with the distance separating them considerably less than the size of the full moon. Jupiter was rising a bit higher each morning while Venus was dropping closer to the horizon. For several days before and after the conjunction the two planets so close together made a spectacular image in the morning sky.

Venus and Jupiter in the morning sky.

Venus and Jupiter in the morning sky.

For three days I shot photos of Venus and Jupiter. I then took the images from each day and created a layered image. Next, I shifted each image up/down, left/right until the planet Jupiter lined up. The result was that the composite contains a single image of Jupiter along with three images of Venus. This makes it easy to see how the two planets were shifting relative to each other over the course of three days.

The previous conjunction of Jupiter and Venus was 26 May 2013 and was, in fact, a triple conjunction and included Mercury. The next conjunction of Jupiter and Venus will occur on 01 July 2015.

The photos were taken from Mars Hill where Lowell Observatory is located and look over the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, the worlds first International Dark Sky City.

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Several days of cool and rainy weather across northern Arizona meant that there would be a chance of low clouds and fog in the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon under almost any condition is photogenic and rightfully named as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Natural World.” But it acquires a degree of surreal beauty when draped with clouds and fog infused with early morning light.

After browsing several weather sites to check on the latest radar, satellite, temperature and humidity data we decided that we would head out for the South Rim of the Canyon early the next morning. After awakening around 3 a.m., we were on the road by 4 a.m. and arrived at Desert View overlook around 5:30 a.m. Sunrise was 5:45 a.m. so this gave us some time to find a location and start taking pre-sunrise photos.

Fog in the Grand Canyon.

Fog in the Grand Canyon.

The fog was confined to a small side canyon located next to the Desert View overlook. This was remarkable as one side of the point of land was filled with fog while just a short distance away it was clear allowing a view deep into the canyon and the Colorado River below.

Sunrise light on the cliffs of the North Rim.

Sunrise light on the cliffs of the North Rim.

As the sun slowly climbed higher in the sky it began to produced dappled light on the cliffs on the North Rim. The higher elevation of the North Rim resulted in the clouds obscuring the cliff tops.

Sunrise and low clouds over the Grand Canyon.

Sunrise and low clouds over the Grand Canyon.

After an hour of shooting it was time to pack it up and move on to our next activity. We arrived at Grandview Point and started down the steep Grandview Trail to Horseshoe Mesa. This is an amazing trail and the engineering is wondrous. We returned to the top by noon to avoid the heat of the day and any potential for thunderstorms.

Rainbow in the Grand Canyon.

Rainbow in the Grand Canyon.

But now that we were back on top it was thunderstorms that I wanted so that I could photograph lightning. Although a few thunderstorms developed the lightning was unimpressive and distant and I was not able to capture any images. On the other hand, I was able to get a nice image of a rainbow below the rim. Because it was early afternoon and the sun was still high in the sky, the anti-solar point was well below the rim and so was the rainbow. It lasted only a few minutes and then it was gone.

Clouds, fog, beautiful sunrise, a great hike, and a rainbow. Not bad for one day.

Although it is still a few days until the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, the combination of exceptionally clear skies and a waxing moon illuminating the interior of the Grand Canyon was too good to ignore. So we headed up to the South Rim arriving shortly after dark. Most folks had already left so we had the spot mostly to ourselves for the evening.

The wind was blowing a gentle breeze which kept bugs away. The evening temperature was comfortable—if not exactly warm. So we lay back on the rocks at the very edge of the canyon staring up at the stars and watched as a few meteors arced across the sky. This many days before the peak of the shower results in only a few Perseids per hour (compared to the maximum rate of up to a hundred per hour) but there were also “sporadics” (i.e., a meteor which is not associated with one of the regularly recurring meteor showers) to light up the sky.

Meteors above the Grand Canyon.

Meteors above the Grand Canyon.

This is a composite of two images taken a few minutes apart. There are two meteors visible: a Perseid in the constellation Cassiopeia and a very bright sporadic closer to the horizon.

The hourly rate should increase over the next few nights but the nearly full moon will make it difficult to see any but the brightest.

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I had another opportunity to head on down the hill to Sedona the other day and try to capture lightning flashes as storms moved across the area. A friend, Derek von Briesen, had told me about a nice spot to photograph lightning near and behind Cathedral Rock. The location works well because the view of Cathedral Rock shows all the gaps between the various spires.

The following is a sequence of three shots fired off in rapid succession covering a time of between 1 and 2 seconds. The exposure settings were 1/4 second, ISO 200, 24-120mm@75mm, and f/8. The Lightning Trigger was used to trigger the camera. The EXIF data for the three images show times of 19:35:01, 19:35:02, and 19:35:02.

•The first flash arced down from the cloud and to the right but did not strike ground.

•The second flash followed the same channel as the first flash while a second channel to its right went from cloud to ground.

•The third flash only contained the channel on the right.

The final image is a composite off all three images. Truly, it does not do full justice to how long-lasting and multi-stroked this lightning flash was.

 

Lightning flash #1 beyond Cathedral Rock.

Lightning flash #1 beyond Cathedral Rock.

 

Lightning flash #2 beyond Cathedral Rock.

Lightning flash #2 beyond Cathedral Rock.

 

Lightning flash #3 beyond Cathedral Rock.

Lightning flash #3 beyond Cathedral Rock.

Lightning flash (composite) beyond Cathedral Rock.

Lightning flash (composite) beyond Cathedral Rock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the middle of July and the North American Monsoon is in full swing now with near-daily thunderstorms across northern Arizona. It was time for another photo shoot in Sedona in hopes of getting great lightning shots with Sedona’s famous redrocks as a background. A few nice sunset photos wouldn’t be too bad, either.

After a quiet afternoon in Flagstaff with little in the way of thunderstorm activity, clouds finally began to develop in the late afternoon. A quick check of the radar data using RadarScope showed that thunderstorms were developing over the higher terrain of the Mogollon Rim and were moving slowly to the south-southwest. This would put some of these storms near or over Sedona in an hour or two. Time to jump in the car and head south.

Lightning over the Mogollon Rim.

Lightning over the Mogollon Rim.

Lightning near Courthouse Butte.

Lightning near Courthouse Butte.

It began to rain as I drove down the switchbacks into Oak Creek Canyon. This was the site of the Slide Fire in May and the threat of flash flooding exists whenever moderate-to-heavy rain falls in the area. Luckily, rainfall remained light and there was no threat.

Setting sun in Sedona, Arizona.

Setting sun in Sedona, Arizona.

A blaze of color as the sun sets in Sedona, Arizona.

A blaze of color as the sun sets in Sedona, Arizona.

My first location was on Upper Red Rock Loop Road with a view to the east so that I could capture lightning along with some of Sedona’s famous rocks — Courthouse Butte and Cathedral Rock. No luck today — but I did get some good images the previous day from this same location. Still, I was able to get several lightning strokes over the cliffs and create a composite image.

Lightning ("anvil crawlers")  after sunset.

Lightning (“anvil crawlers”) after sunset.

As the sun began to set, the activity shifted and it was time for another location and I headed to the Sedona Cultural Park. The sunset colors just got better…and better…and…well, you get the idea. And there was also plenty of lightning to shoot as twilight unfolded.

All-in-all, a very successful photo shoot.

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It’s been a dry spring—and before that, a dry winter—but the rains have finally arrived. The North American Monsoon has started across Arizona and it’s right on time. The rains usually arrive during the first two weeks of July. Rain started falling on the 2nd of July and hasn’t stopped yet. The average rainfall for July at the Flagstaff airport is 2.61″. We have already had 2.64″ and it’s only the first week. At least one location around town has had even more as shown by the rainfall map below.

Rainfall for 01-07 July 2014.

Rainfall for 01-07 July 2014.

Some of these storms have produced copious amounts of small hail. As the vast quantities of hail on the ground chill the near-surface air fog forms and is known appropriately as hail fog.

Hail fog.

Hail fog.

Most of this hail was pea sized or smaller—nothing large or severe. Even hours after the hail fell there were still piles of it along the side of the road.

Lots of small hail.

Lots of small hail.

It’s only the first week of the rainy season and I’m ready for a day with sunshine.

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Here are another set of images of the moon rise behind Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona. I had two locations preselected for the shots on this day. The first was located about one and one-half miles west of the rocks so that the moon’s disk would appear larger than the gaps between the rocks. We were on the eastern slopes of Pyramid Peak (the eastern summit of Scheurman Mountain). This setup worked as planned but since it was still early in the evening the sky was too bright and the moon appeared washed out. I did get the result I was seeking, however, which was the moon larger than the opening between the different rock columns.

Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock—1st location.

Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock—1st location.

 

Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock—2nd location.

Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock—2nd location.

We moved to our second location—closer to Cathedral Rock which was now only one mile away—at the Red Rock Crossing/Crescent Moon picnic area. Many other photographers were assembled here but were scattered over a large area so that it wasn’t hard to secure a good spot for the next series of images. This time, the sky was darker and the moon was perfectly framed between the rock columns. I admit that I did not know, in advance, that it would work out this well. The Photographers Ephemeris can tell you the times and geometry of the setup but it can’t reveal how the size of the moon will compare with the rocks.

Lots of planning—and a little bit of good luck.

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Star trails track across the northern sky as the first quarter moon lights up the interior of the Grand Canyon as viewed from Yavapai Point. The sunset-viewing crowds had already departed leaving the point to ourselves to enjoy in the warm—and breezy—evening.

Star trails above the moonlit interior of the Grand Canyon.

Star trails above the moonlit interior of the Grand Canyon.

The glow on the northwestern horizon is from the “Galahad” wildfire burning on the Kaibab Plateau. The spot of light farther east on the rim is from the North Rim facilities of the park. The streak of light just left of bottom center is from the headlights of night time hikers. Given the very high temperatures encountered in the canyon at this time of the year, hiking at night can be a safe alternative to daytime travel. Finally, the spots of light towards the lower right are from Phantom Ranch where lodging and camping are available.

 

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