Bright Objects in the Night Sky: Venus, Mercury, and the Moon

A bit over a week ago (18 March 2018), we had a triple conjunction in the sky. Venus and Mercury had been in the evening sky for a few weeks—and now a crescent Moon was going to join them in the evening. Weather permitting, I was interested in capturing images of this event. I headed out towards the Mormon Lake Overlook which would give me a good view of the western sky as well as the possibility of reflections of these sky objects in the shallow waters of the lake.

While waiting for the sky to darken, I was treated to a few minutes of sunset colors on some interesting wave clouds. More on that below.

Conjuction of Mercury, Venus, and the Moon.
Conjuction of Mercury, Venus, and the Moon.

The Moon and Venus are easily visible in this image taken at 7:20 P.M. MST while Mercury is a bit harder to see to the right and above Venus. A second image taken at 7:29 P.M. shows all three bodies quite clearly. And, as I had hoped, there were reflections in the water.

Conjuction of Mercury, Venus, and the Moon.
Conjuction of Mercury, Venus, and the Moon.

This is how Venus and Mercury looked earlier in the month.

Venus and Mercury in the evening sky.
Venus and Mercury in the evening sky.

Now, back to the wave clouds.

Long and thin wave clouds in the evening sky.
Long and thin wave clouds in the evening sky.

Although they look like jet contrails, these were actually long and thin wave clouds. As the sun began to set, the colors were briefly quite amazing.

Sunset colors on wave clouds.
Sunset colors on wave clouds.
Sunset colors on wave clouds.
Sunset colors on wave clouds.

It was an fun evening: Interesting clouds and a triple conjunction.

It was also cold…

Grand Canyon Clouds, Fog, and a Moonrise

I have traveled up to the South Rim of Grand Canyon several times in the past few weeks to get interesting weather and cloud photographs.

Fog begins to spill over the rim of Grand Canyon.
Fog begins to spill over the rim of Grand Canyon.

Two weeks ago, we spent two nights at the South Rim waiting for a winter storm to arrive and drop some snow on the higher elevations of the canyon. The storm went too far south and Grand Canyon got nothing but some clouds and a bit of fog. Flagstaff, on the other hand, got about 8″ on snow—which we had to clear from our driveway when we returned.

A thin layer of fog on the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
A thin layer of fog on the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
A zoomed-in view of the fog on the canyon rim.
A zoomed-in view of the fog on the canyon rim.
As the sun rose higher it illuminated the canyon below Hopi Point.
As the sun rose higher it illuminated the canyon below Hopi Point.

The other goal on that trip was to catch the rising nearly-full moon as it climbed above Cape Royal on the North Rim. That worked out well as the clouds had dissipated by late afternoon. This image was shot as a 12-frame panorama (6 across, 2 rows) resulting in an image of ~200 megapixels. There is a lot of detail in the full-resolution image!

Moonrise above Cape Royal, Grand Canyon National Park.
Moonrise above Cape Royal, Grand Canyon National Park.

As the sun fell lower in the sky, shadows raced across the canyon bottom while some of the higher towers and buttes remained in the sun—resulting in some interesting lighting and abstract patterns.

Late afternoon sun in Grand Canyon.
Late afternoon sun in Grand Canyon.
Light and shadow create abstract forms on Cape Royal.
Light and shadow create abstract forms on Cape Royal.

Our final morning had some wave clouds forming downwind of the Kaibab Plateau and being lit by the rising sun.

Wave clouds illuminated by the rising sun.
Wave clouds illuminated by the rising sun.

A few days ago we had a widespread rain event—even though rainfall amounts were not particularly large. Most importantly, measurable rain fell in Winslow. This meant that there was a possibility of fog forming in the Little Colorado River (LCR) Valley and drifting into the eastern reaches of Grand Canyon. I arrived at Lipan Point on the South Rim before sunrise and could see some low-lying fog in the LCR well east of the canyon. As the sun rose and the land began to warm, the fog began to lift and move towards the canyon. Eventually, it reached the Palisades north and east of Desert View Overlook. And, then, it began to spill over the sides evaporating only a short distance below the rim.

A shallow fog layer lies to the east of Grand Canyon at sunrise.
A shallow fog layer lies to the east of Grand Canyon at sunrise.
Fog spills over the rim into Grand Canyon.
Fog spills over the rim into Grand Canyon.

The fog soon swept across Desert View Overlook. I headed over to Desert View to shoot photos of Desert View Watchtower in the fog—but the fog was so thick I had to get very close to even see it.

Fog swirls around Desert Watchtower.
Fog swirls around Desert Watchtower.
And—for just a moment—there was great color in the sky behind Desert Watchtower.
And—for just a moment—there was great color in the sky behind Desert Watchtower.

I went back to Grand Canyon again the next morning but there were clouds along with some drizzle and light rain. However, there was a 2–3 minute period in which some clouds had a bit of sunlight color. Yes—that’s a pretty long round-trip drive for 2–3 minutes of good photography. Nobody ever said it was easy…

Mormon Lake with Fog, Snow, Rime, and a Glory

A winter storm in late February brought hope again of getting some photographs of the San Francisco Peaks covered in snow. So I departed before sunrise one morning to head out towards Mormon Lake. Because of the warm winter up through mid-February, most of Lower Lake Mary and Upper Lake Mary remained mostly ice free. With very cold early morning temperatures it was no surprise that there was fog over the relatively warm open waters of the lakes. When I left my house, the temperature was about +3°F. When I reached Lower Lake Mary, the temperature had fallen to -10°F—and there was considerable fog.

A shallow layer of fog covers Mormon Lake.
A shallow layer of fog covers Mormon Lake.

It was the same over Upper Lake Mary. I debated whether to change my plans and shoot photographs of the fog over this lake but after viewing the scene I chose to continue to the Mormon Lake Overlook. As I approached the overlook, I could see a layer of fog. Luckily, the overlook was just high enough to be above the fog.

It was a beautiful scene with a shallow layer of fog covering the lake bed and snow on the distant San Francisco Peaks.

San Francisco Peaks as seen from the Mormon Lake Overlook.
San Francisco Peaks as seen from the Mormon Lake Overlook.

After getting a few quick photos I set about to capture a panorama. I shot 12 images: 2 rows of 6 shots. The resulting image is huge and clocks in around 190 megapixels. I can make a print of this that’s 8 feet wide. But I probably won’t because I don’t have a wall large enough for something that big.

It was obvious that sometime during the night the fog layer was much deeper as all the grasses, bushes, and trees were covered with rime ice.

Rime ice coats the grasses and bushes.
Rime ice coats the grasses and bushes.
Rime ice coats the grasses and bushes.
Rime ice coats the grasses and bushes.

The rime created needles that pointed in the direction of the light wind that had been present during formation. As the sun rose above the horizon, the rime caught the light and sparkled brilliantly.

A glory and a small segment of a fog bow are visible on the fog layer.
A glory and a small segment of a fog bow are visible on the fog layer.

So we had fog over the lake bed, snow on the mountain, and rime ice on the grasses. What else? Well, a glory became visible as the sun rose high enough to illuminate the fog layer below me. And a short segment of a fog bow was also visible in the fog layer.

Not a bad day for photography.

Venus and the Crescent Moon in Evening Twilight

A few days ago the Moon and Venus were very close together in the evening twilight sky. At sunset on Friday, the two objects were about 3° apart—about six moon diameters—with the Moon located up and to the left of Venus.

Crescent Moon and Venus in evening twilight.
Crescent Moon and Venus in evening twilight.

To view this I wanted a location with a very low western horizon. I chose to visit Navajo Point on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. From this location, the rim to my southwest was actually slightly lower than my position giving me an unobstructed view.

There was a nice sunset to start off the evening. The clouds were lit up and there was still enough light to fill in the lower canyon.

Sunset at Navajo Point, Grand Canyon.
Sunset at Navajo Point, Grand Canyon.
Twilight at Grand Canyon.
Twilight at Grand Canyon.

The moon was only one day past New Moon and was about 1.4% illuminated although there was a bit of Earthshine helping to illuminate the entire disk.

Setting moon over the South Rim of Grand Canyon.
Setting moon over the South Rim of Grand Canyon.

As the Moon approached the horizon, atmospheric effects resulted in the lower limb of the Moon being distorted. The final image is a composite taken over several minutes prior to moonset. In this composite it is easy to see the distortion of the lower limb.

An Early Morning Lunar Eclipse

It was worth it.

Getting up early in the morning, driving to a location with a good western view, and then standing around for many hours taking photos of the lunar eclipse.

Yes, it was worth it. But I was very cold by the time it was over.

Four stages of the total lunar eclipse of 31 January 2018.
Four stages of the total lunar eclipse of 31 January 2018.

This lunar eclipse has been referred to as the “Super Blue Blood Moon” eclipse. What does that even mean? Okay—here is an informative article written by an astronomer on how these terms came to be part of our jargon for this eclipse.

Anyway…

I had considered many possibilities how to photograph the lunar eclipse including interesting foregrounds, multiple exposures, and even video. Some examples of single and multiple images can be found in this blog for 2014 and 2015 eclipses taken during the recent Lunar Eclipse Tetrad of 2014-2015. A tetrad is a series of four consecutive total eclipses occurring at approximately six month intervals. It’s now been a bit more than two years since the last lunar eclipse visible around here and I was ready for another.

Start of totality.
Start of totality.

Eventually I decided to try something a bit different from previous events. I would mount the camera on the iOptron SkyTracker so that the camera would follow the stars. From these images, I would construct a time-lapse of the eclipse as it went through its different phases. With the SkyTracker, the stars would remain fixed while the moon would slowly move across the sky relative to the stars—and the Earth’s shadow.

Mid-totality of Lunar Eclipse.
Mid-totality of Lunar Eclipse.

It worked pretty well but I did manage to bump the camera a few times as I was changing exposure settings. I had considered using a phone application that could change the settings on the camera so I would not have to touch it—but the power drain when WiFi was active was unacceptable. I would probably need to change the battery during the eclipse—which put me right back in the same situation of jostling the camera. Okay—just keep it simple. No WiFi, adjust by hand, and be careful.

The image at the top of this entry is a composite of four stages of the eclipse. P1 is the first stage when the Moon enters the Penumbral shadow of the Earth. Only a subtle darkening occurs during this stage. U1 occurs when the Moon first enters the umbral shadow and the darkening along one edge is very distinct. U2 is the beginning of totality. Mid-totality is the darkest stage of the eclipse.

The second image shows the start of totality. There is a brief period near the start and end of totality in which the limb of the moon can have a bluish cast to it.  Lunar eclipse researcher Rich Keen says:

“Most of the light illuminating the Moon passes through the stratosphere, and is reddened by scattering. However, light passing through the upper stratosphere penetrates the ozone layer, which absorbs red light and actually makes the passing light ray bluer.”

This can be seen as a turquoise-blue fringe around the red. And here we have an image taken just a few minutes after totality began that shows some blue along the lower limb.

A few minutes after totality ended—and a few minutes before moonset.
A few minutes after totality ended—and a few minutes before moonset.

 

Stages P1, U1, U2, and mid-totality were all visible with a very dark sky. U3 (end of totality) occurred during morning twilight; U4 and P2 both occurred after Moonset.

The time-lapse sequence was shot with 3-minute intervals. This is a good interval if you want to composite images as the moon has moved a full diameter plus a bit more in three minutes so that individual frames do not overlap. Three minutes, however, is too long a time for a smooth time lapse. Lesson learned for the next event!

The animation of the eclipse starts at P1 and ends just as the moon sets. The exposure was changed during totality and stars become visible. Later, twilight brightens the entire sky and, at the end, the distant mountains can be seen as the moon sets in the west.

The next total Lunar Eclipse will occur 27 July 2018 but will not be visible from any part of North America. The next North American total lunar eclipses occur in May and November of 2022.