The planets Mars and Uranus will at their closest in the evening sky on 20 January 2021. Unfortunately, the Moon will also be very close to these two planets which could make it difficult to see Uranus. Mars, however, is bright enough to be easily viewed even with the Moon. Currently, Mars has a magnitude of 0.16 while Uranus is considerably dimmer at magnitude 5.76 — making Mars ~175 times brighter than Uranus.
I chose to shoot the two planets a few days early to avoid any issues with the Moon and clouds from an approaching winter storm. Besides, the appearance a few days either side of the date of conjunction would not look too much different.
For several weeks the planets Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn have been visible in the same portion of the morning sky. These are all bright and easily visible even during twilight hours. Nestled in between these bright planets lies the minor planet Pluto.
So I thought it would be interesting to photograph Pluto. Pluto is much too faint (currently Mag. 14.3) for me to find with my camera/lens setup. However, Pluto and Mars passed very close to each other (~10 arc minutes, or less than the diameter of the Moon) on 23 March 2020 making it easier to find one based on the location of the other. Clouds forced me to shoot this image a day later on 24 March 2020, when they were farther apart.
I used Stellarium as a guide to hopping from one star to another—comparing the photographs with Stellarium star charts—until I finally located Pluto. As a magnitude 14.3 object, this was near the limit of what could be resolved with my Nikon 180mm AI-s f/2.8 lens shot wide open.
Images were shot at f/2.8, ISO 1600, and 30s. The best images were stacked to reduce noise. Post processing included large values of Unsharpen Mask to help sharpen the dimmest stars and Pluto—with the undesired side effect of creating halos around the brighter stars.
Check the video to see how much Mars moves in just 15 minutes.
I was able to capture four planets in the morning sky. In the previous post, I was able to capture four planets in the evening sky. It was a challenging project that I wanted to do and have now completed.
Maybe I should get a telescope.
Oh, one final point. Once again I was photo-bombed by a cluster of Starlink satellites. Sadly, the day is coming soon when night photography will be very difficult because of these satellites.
The past few weeks have offered numerous opportunities for photographing objects in the twilight and night sky.
Above is a photograph showing the planets Venus (visible near the top of the image) and Mercury (located just below the center of the image). The glow of evening twilight on the horizon is reflected in the shallow waters of Mormon Lake.
Taken later on the same evening is a photograph showing four planets and an asteroid in a single frame. This was taken with a 24mm focal length lens to capture these solar system objects (SSO). I did this as a fun test to see if a wide-angle lens was able to capture these dim and distant SSOs. From top to bottom are the asteroid Vesta, Uranus, Venus, Neptune, and Mercury.
Zoomed-in crops (below) show the dimmer objects that are in the image above.
Before leaving that night I did a final wide-angle shot of the southeastern sky which included the constellation Orion as well as a portion of the winter Milky Way.
The following night I was out again to test my recently purchased Nikon 180mm ƒ/2.8 ED AIS manual focus lens. A few previous tests have shown that star images are pretty good at an aperture of ƒ/2.8 but much better at ƒ/4. At ƒ/2.8 there is just a hint of star spikes; at ƒ/4 they are quite prominent. This is a stacked sequence of images of the Pleiades star cluster. Image stacking was done with Starry Sky Stacker; histogram stretching was done with rnc-color-stretch.
On 18 February there was a Lunar occultation of the planet Mars. I had planned to get up early and drive to a dark location but an alarm failure meant I barely had time to get up and set up the gear on the rear deck of the house to start the sequence. Luckily, Flagstaff is a Dark Sky City and it was dark enough to get the shots. This is a sequence from just a few minutes before the Moon moved in front of Mars followed by a longer sequence after it reappeared.
Finally, Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) is in the northern sky making it an easy target—except that it is still very dim with a magnitude of about +12 at the time of this image. The still image is a stack of 49 images each 120 seconds duration at ISO 1600, 180mm, and ƒ/2.8. As noted above this lens is pretty good at ƒ/2.8 but better at ƒ/4. Because the comet is so dim I wanted the maximum light gathering ability so settled for an aperture of ƒ/2.8. Also in the image is M97 (“Owl Nebula”) and M108 (“Surfboard Galaxy”). The star Merak is part of the “Big Dipper.”
Also, there is an animation—made from the same images—showing the movement of the comet over a period of just under 2 hours.
The weather has been fairly typical for late June and early July: warm temperatures, breezy afternoon winds, and mostly clear and sometimes absolutely clear skies.
That will change dramatically over the next few days as the North American Monsoon ramps up across Arizona and the desert southwest. As subtropical moisture begins to move northward we will see a significant increase in cloudiness and thunderstorms. Clear night skies will quickly become a distant memory.
With that in mind, I took advantage of clear skies and did some Milky Way photographs. I decided to try Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument so that I could get some of the volcanic hills and ridges in the image.
Near the horizon is Mars which is becoming very bright in the evening sky—and will reach its peak brightness later in July. The planet Saturn is also visible within the starry mass of the Milky Way.
NASA successfully launched its Mars InSight Lander earlier today. The goal of InSight is to study the crust, mantle, and core of Mars. Unlike previous Mars expeditions, this is not a rover but will stay in one place. The lander will use instruments to delve deep beneath the surface and seek information on the processes that formed the terrestrial planets.
Because the launch was scheduled for the pre-dawn hours, it was possible to see it even in northern Arizona. At least, I hoped so. So I was out and ready for the 4:05 A.M. launch from Vandenburg Air Force Base launch site. The selection of this launch site was unusual as most missions to the planets use the Kennedy Space Center launch facilities in Florida. This was the first interplanetary launch from Vandenburg.
I scanned the western and southwestern horizon after the launch but was never able to see anything. Hmmm…not a good sign. But a quick review of the camera images showed that I had captured the launch. From this distance, however, it wasn’t very bright.
Each exposure was 15 seconds in duration and were combined into a single image. The path of the rocket can be dimly seen against the sky.
There had been some speculation that the deposition of ice crystals into the high reaches of the atmosphere might produce noctilucent clouds. Didn’t happen. The rocket exhaust had time to completely disperse before the morning sunlight hit the upper atmosphere about an hour later.