Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Winter Milky Way

A Saguaro cactus in Organ Pipe Cactus Nat'l Monument rakes this December Milky Way sky. Note the Pleiades constellation at the top, the Sirius star near the horizon and the Orion constellation in the middle. Topaz Star Effects was used to give a "Christmas" twinkle to one of the stars. Camera is pointing to the southeast at about 11:00 pm. © Greg Ness
The Winter Milky Way. Most astro-landscape photographers will tell you to put your camera away when winter comes, as the Milky Way sky is too dark and uninteresting. That's partly true, if you're only interested in photographing the Milky Way's bright, Central Bulge. But, as you can see in Greg Ness' above photo, there's still plenty of excitement in the winter sky!

I recently took a small group of photographers on a winter workshop into the southern Arizona desert to prove this point — planning around the unique winter cycles of the Milky Way, and light painting the foreground features where needed.

This animated GIF shows the northeastern end of the Milky Way starting on the first day of Autumn (Sept. 21) and ending on the first day of Winter (Dec. 21). Each of the 92 frames in this animation were captured at the same time each night (11:00 pm). You'll note that Sirius doesn't appear above the horizon until the winter months. The Orion constellation, with its 3-star belt and stunning nebula, becomes beautifully centered in the southeastern sky. [Animation credit: Royce Bair, using screen captures from the planetarium program, Stellarium.]
Although the bright Central Bulge of the Milky Way is no longer above the horizon, early evening views (about 8:30 pm) of the northwestern night sky shows off the full length of the Milky Way's "Great Rift" — that Dark River that runs through one-third of the Milky Way's span. Milky Way and Organ Pipe Cactus photo by © Michael Braunstein
In this Sept 21st through December 21st animated GIF, the bright core of the Milky Way moves from the SSW to SWS before the Central Bulge disappears below the horizon. By the first day of Winter, only the Great Rift is still showing above the horizon in the western sky —but isolated, it make a very dramatic statement! These 92 frame sequences were all taken from 10:00 pm Stellarium screen captures. Your best views of the Great Rift will be during the beginning of the Astronomical Dusk (about 2-3 hours after the winter sunset). [Animation credit: Royce Bair]
Note: All examples are based on Northern Hemisphere positions between the 45th and 35th parallel.


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