Four Planets in the Morning Sky

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.

Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto.
Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto.
Stellarium star chart showing positions of the planets in the morning sky.
Stellarium star chart showing positions of the planets in the morning sky.

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.

Pluto and Mars.
Pluto and Mars.
Pluto.
Pluto.
Stellarium chart showing Pluto and neighboring stars.
Stellarium chart showing Pluto and neighboring stars.

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.

Starlink cluster.
Starlink cluster.

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.

Moon and Planets in the Evening Sky

On Monday and Tuesday (28-29 October 2019) the thin crescent Moon passed near the planets Venus and Mercury in the evening twilight sky. A check of The Photographers Ephemeris indicated that I could set up at Little Horse trailhead near Sedona and capture the thin crescent as it slipped between the spires of Cathedral Rock. Venus and Mercury would also be visible.

Ah, if only is was as easy as that. I never was able to see the crescent Moon.

A very thin crescent Moon sets behind Cathedral Rock.
A very thin crescent Moon sets behind Cathedral Rock.

But, wait! A closer inspection of the images shows that I did capture the crescent Moon. It was only 1% illuminated in a bright twilight sky. If you look carefully at the image and above the two people, you can just barely see a very thin crescent in the gap.

Venus and Mercury set behind Cathedral Rock.
Venus and Mercury set behind Cathedral Rock.

The next evening the Moon was 4% illuminated and higher in the sky making it an easy target. Venus and Mercury were below and the star Antares was to the left. Fitting all four objects in the image was the goal and I was successful. The only issue was the strong winds which resulted in some camera movement during the image capture.

Moon, Venus, Mercury, and Antares in evening twilight.
Moon, Venus, Mercury, and Antares in evening twilight.

I used Stellarium to determine how the Moon, planets, and stars would look at that time of the evening. I also used the Ocular plugin to show the field of view (FOV) of various lenses and focal lengths so that I could know, in advance, which lens would capture the whole scene. Very helpful!