Despite the short nights, and often poor weather, the summer night skies offer some spectacular celestial sights. My favourite areas to observe at this time of year are the rich swathes of the Milky Way in Cygnus, Sagittarius and Scutum. These regions are packed with dense starfields, glowing emission nebulae and some of the night sky’s finest star clusters.
On Saturday I spent the evening on Dartmoor imaging these wonderful parts of the sky. I wanted to capture a large portion of them in each frame, so I used a 50mm prime lens on my unmodified Canon 550D DSLR, which itself was mounted on an HEQ5 Pro mount.
The first image below shows part of the Sagittarius, Scutum & Serpens region. Several Messier objects are visible in the frame, including: M8 (the Lagoon Nebula), M20 (the Trifid Nebula), M22, M17, M16 (The Eagle Nebula) and M24. The second shot shows a region of the Milky Way in the constellation of Cygnus. The red glow of the North America Nebula (NGC 7000) and the nebulosity around the star Sadr (right of centre) are apparent. You can also, just, make out the two main fragments of the Veil Nebula right on the very bottom edge of the frame. The shot with the silhouetted tree is a single 15-second exposure, at ISO 1600, with the lens wide open at f/1.8.
Dust lanes weave through the Sagittarius, Scutum & Serpens region. Credit: Will Gater
The Milky Way near the bright star Deneb (top) in Cygnus. Credit: Will Gater
A lone Dartmoor tree stands silhouetted against the summer Milky Way. Credit: Will Gater
Jupiter with the Hyades & Pleiades (also shows NGC 1647 & NGC 1746). Credit: Will Gater
Last Saturday I headed up onto Dartmoor in the hope of seeing a few meteors from the Leonid meteor shower. Even though I had clear, dark skies on my side, the Leonids put on a rather feeble display this year; in a 3-hour observing session I only saw four, though I did see around twenty respectable sporadic meteors. After a good few hours of trying (and failing) to catch one of the blighters on camera I gave up and decided to have a go at imaging some other targets.
I couldn’t resist photographing the superb sight of Jupiter with the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters. The image above is a stack of six three-minute exposures taken at ISO 400. I used an unmodified Canon 550D DSLR and 90mm lens with an HEQ5 Pro mount (which was autoguided by a Sky-Watcher SynGuider attached to an 80mm refractor). The picture of the North America Nebula below was taken with the same setup, but it’s composed of about 30 minutes of exposures at IS0 400.
The North America Nebula (NGC 7000) & Pelican Nebula. Credit: Will Gater
Autumn is easily my favourite season for astronomy, partly because of the return of the dark skies but also because of the wealth of objects visible in the sky around this time. On the one hand some of the stunning summer sights are still visible low in the west, while at the same time the grand winter constellations are beginning to appear over the eastern horizon.
This autumn I’ve managed to get to my favourite dark sky site, on Dartmoor, a few times – though, admittedly, the imaging conditions haven’t always been great. Below are a few of the astro-images I’ve got to show for those trips.
All were taken with an unmodified Canon 550D DSLR camera. The wide field images were captured with the DSLR on a tracking mount. The close-ups were taken with the DSLR mounted on a William Optics ZenithStar 66mm refractor on an HEQ5 Pro mount. The whole setup was autoguided by an 80mm refractor and a Sky-Watcher SynGuider.
The Milky Way in Cygnus, Cepheus & Lacerta. Credit: Will Gater
The Double Cluster (NGC 869 & NGC 884). Credit: Will Gater
The Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, M33 & the Double Cluster. Credit: Will Gater
Comet Garradd, M71 and the star fields of the Milky Way. Taken with a Canon 550D on a William Optics 66mm refractor, autoguided by a Sky-Watcher SynGuider & an 80mm refractor. Credit: Will Gater
Comet Garradd is currently putting on a great show as it tracks across the night sky. In the past few weeks it has passed by several deep sky objects including the globular clusters M15 and M71. I captured the above image last weekend as the comet (top right) was moving away from M71 (bottom left).
It’s certainly worth looking out for this comet if you have a small telescope. I could see it with ease through a 66mm refractor; admittedly from an observing site, on Dartmoor, with nice dark skies. The image above shows much more detail than the eye sees though, as it is composed of five minutes worth of exposures.
By the time I’d finished enjoying Garradd & M71 — in the same field of view — the Andromeda Galaxy had risen higher in the sky and I couldn’t resist capturing this image of it below. If you want to track down Comet Garradd yourself you’ll find a finder chart here. Happy comet hunting!
The Andromeda Galaxy. Taken with a Canon 550D on a William Optics 66mm refractor, autoguided by a Sky-Watcher SynGuider & an 80mm refractor. Credit: Will Gater
Capturing the night skies from the UK can often be a frustrating experience. You can spend ages setting up your scopes and cameras, carefully perfecting the mount’s tracking and getting everything in focus, but just as you’re ready to image the clouds have appeared.
Sometimes though it all comes together and you get a magical evening under the stars. For me, Friday night — on Dartmoor — was one of those precious nights.
I started taking images just before midnight. By the time I had finished, the sky towards the east was brightening and some very eager skylarks were beginning the dawn chorus. Below are a few shots I captured that night.
Seeing the Lagoon and Trifid Nebulae again reminded me that we have lots to look forward to over the coming summer months.
UPDATE 09.06.2011 — Here’s a short, admittedly poor quality, recording I made of the skylarks.
The Lagoon (bottom) & Trifid Nebulae. Taken with a Canon 550D on a William Optics 66mm refractor, autoguided by a Sky-Watcher SynGuider & an 80mm refractor. Credit: Will Gater
The crescent Moon over Haytor Rocks. Credit: Will Gater
Venus sparkles in the eastern sky as dawn breaks. Credit: Will Gater