Milky Way, Moon, and Mercury

It’s that time of year when the Milky Way is visible through much of the night. It is best observed when there is no Moon in the sky—and from very dark skies away from areas of light pollution. I wanted to capture both the Milky Way in a very dark sky and to capture Moonlight gently lighting up the still partially snow-covered mountains. So I headed out to Kendrick Park for some midnight sky photography.

The Milky Way rises above the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona.
The Milky Way rises above the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona.

The result is this composite of two images. The first was taken of the San Francisco Peaks as the moon was low in the west at around 1118 MST. This was a bit more than an hour before moonset (0030 MST). An exposure of 300 seconds at ISO 800 and an aperture of f/8 was used.

The second image was taken at 0047 MST shortly after the moon had set allowing the fainter stars in the night sky to appear. This image was also 300 seconds at ISO 800 and an aperture of f/5.6. To prevent streaking of the stars an iOptron Sky Tracker was used. The two images were then blended together.

This is similar to images taken in the past of Cathedral Rock and Wukoki Pueblo with the Milky Way rising above. Also present low in the photograph is airglow (or nightglow).


Last week the two-day old crescent Moon (only 3.7% directly illuminated) provided a photo opportunity as it set over Upper Lake Mary. During the months of May, June, and July, the thin crescent Moon lines up with the long axis of Upper Lake Mary. This results in nice reflections of the Moon on the waters of the lake—but only if there is little or no wind. A bonus this month was the small planet Mercury was also setting in the northwest.

A thin crescent Moon throws a large reflection in Lake Mary, Flagstaff, Arizona.
A thin crescent Moon throws a large reflection in Lake Mary, Flagstaff, Arizona.

The image also shows the unlit part of the crescent Moon illuminated with Earthshine, also known as Da Vinci Glow. Yes, that Leonardo Da Vinci. Mercury can be seen just above the treetops on the far right side of the image.

Lunar Eclipse Through the Clouds

I have been looking forward to the recent Lunar eclipse (20 January 2019) since, well, the last one actually. During that eclipse, I shot images every three minutes while using an equatorial mount to track along with the stars. The results were good but there was some room for improvement. And that’s why I was looking forward to this event.

Lunar eclipse of 20 January 2019.
Lunar eclipse of 20 January 2019.

The weather had different plans for me. A stream of high-level tropical moisture was sitting right over Arizona all that day and most of the night. By late afternoon, the clouds were thick enough to partially obscure the sun. How was a darkened Moon going to shine through those clouds?

I could have just given up and stayed home but I was determined to at least try. I drove to Sedona to set up. Not because Sedona is a better place for viewing than Flagstaff but because Sedona is about 15 degrees warmer. And that matters.

I set up the tripod and then roughly aligned the iOptron Skytracker to where I made my best guess of the location of the star Polaris. Just as the umbral phase of the eclipse began, I was able to barely see Polaris through the thin clouds and completed the alignment of the tracker.

One of the things I learned last year was that three minutes was too large a time gap to make a smooth time-lapse video. My plan for this eclipse was to shoot at 1-minute intervals. But with the high clouds I realized that any time-lapse video was going to be challenging. So…3-minute intervals again. The clouds varied between fairly thick and mostly obscuring the moon to occasionally very thin allowing some lunar detail to be seen.

Satellite image showing extensive clouds during the Lunar eclipse.
Satellite image showing extensive clouds during the Lunar eclipse.

Here is a satellite image from GOES-16 showing the incredible stream of clouds moving across Arizona. I’m amazed that I got any photos at all!

Bright Objects in the Morning Sky—December 2018

The other morning promised an interesting alignment of the planets Venus and Mercury, the waning crescent Moon (3.4% illuminated), and the bright star Spica (Alpha Vir, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo) in the morning sky. All that was required was clear skies.

Morning twilight with Mercury, Venus, Spica, and the Moon (0629 MST 05 December 2018).
Morning twilight with Mercury, Venus, Spica, and the Moon (0629 MST 05 December 2018).

Various weather models showed essentially the same forecast. There would be a band of high clouds to our northwest and another band to our southeast. Overhead it would be clear.

And the forecasts turned out correct. Below is a satellite image taken at ~1330 UTC (0630 MST) showing a nice clear gap in the clouds.

IR satellite image at 1332 UTC (0632 MST) showing the gap in the clouds across northern Arizona.
IR satellite image at 1332 UTC (0632 MST) showing the gap in the clouds across northern Arizona.
Model forecast for cloud cover. White/gray is cloud; black is clear.
Model forecast for cloud cover. White/gray is cloud; black is clear.

I drove to the overlook on Mars Hill, home of Lowell Observatory, in Flagstaff. It has very good views towards the east and is a location I have used many times over the years for astrophotography.

Moonrise and Cathedral Rock—June 2018

Another month and another moon rise behind Cathedral Rock. This was an easy setup with the location in Crescent Moon Picnic Area in Sedona. The day before the full moon resulted in this image taken from the meadows near the entrance to Crescent Moon. There were about a half-dozen “moon chasers” there to photograph the moon rise—and there were many others who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to enjoy the event.

Moonrise behind Cathedral Rock.
Moonrise behind Cathedral Rock.

The previous night (i.e., two nights before the full moon) presented another chance to capture the rising moon with  Oak Creek in the foreground. This one was harder because a better position was more to the right (i.e., south) but there was nowhere to go because of trees and heavy brush. Still, I’m happy with the result.

Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock with Oak Creek.
Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock with Oak Creek.

Both nights I was testing a recently purchased lens (Nikon AF-P 70-300mm). So far, the results have been pretty good.

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…