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The Night Sky

by Martin J Powell

Except where stated otherwise, the following astronomical photographs were taken using a standard 35mm format SLR camera, on ISO 200 film. All of the photographs have been contrast-enhanced using computer software.

Click on a picture to see a larger version


The constellation of Orion and its surrounding constellations

Orion & its Neighbouring Constellations

Taken from West Wales, UK (latitude 52 North) in November 1999, this two and a half minute exposure includes the easily identifiable constellation of Orion, and its neighbours Monoceros, Canis Minor, Lepus and Hydra. Arcing to the North and North-east of Orion are the zodiacal constellations of Taurus, Gemini and Cancer. The haze extending downwards to the left of Orion is a faint section of the Milky Way. The brightest star in the night sky - Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris) - is at the bottom of the picture. The ruddy hues of the red giant stars Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis) and Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri) show well in this picture. A few star clusters and a couple of gaseous nebulae can also be seen. The photo contains six of the brightest stars in the night sky.


The approximate field of view of the picture is 76 degrees wide by 50 degrees high (using a 24mm wide-angle lens). The faintest stars visible are around 6th magnitude (the approximate naked eye limit).


For an annotated version of the photograph click here.


From the Southern hemisphere, looking Northwards, these constellations appear inverted.


Jupiter and star trails in a long-exposure photograph taken in May 1990

Jupiter & Star Trails

Taken from Honiton, Devon in May 1990. The camera shutter was left open for over an hour, causing the stars to leave curved trails on the film as the Earth slowly rotated. Jupiter formed the brightest trail (bottom of picture) as it set in the North-west. Jupiter was situated in the constellation Gemini. Its two brightest stars - Castor (Alpha Geminorum) and Pollux (Beta Gem)- are the two bright trails just to the upper left of Jupiter. The bright star Capella (Alpha Aurigae) in the constellation Auriga is seen disappearing from view at the right of the picture. Note how atmospheric extinction causes the stars and planets to dim as they sink lower in the sky.


Approximately two-thirds up the picture, a series of faint dots can be seen horizontally across the picture. These were strobe lights from an aircraft which crossed the field of view during the exposure time.


Ursa Major and its Northerly neighbours

Ursa Major & its Northerly Neighbours

The picture was taken looking Northwards from a rural location in West Wales in November 1999, at around 2130 GMT. Ursa Major (commonly known as 'The Great Bear', 'The Plough' or 'The Big Dipper') is seen low down in the sky along with its much less prominent neighbours Draco, Lynx, Camelopardalis and Ursa Minor.


Draco and Camelopardalis are circumpolar from latitudes north of ca. 40 North and are visible all year round from these latitudes. Similarly, Ursa Minor (the 'Little Bear') is visible all year round from latitudes north of ca. 25 North.


In Ursa Major, Mizar (Zeta Ursae Majoris) and Alcor (80 UMa) form a multiple star system. The two appear as a double star, separated by 11.8 mins of arc (0.2), although this is a line-of sight effect and they are not a true binary system. Mizar, however, does have a genuine companion close by, but it can only be resolved in telescopes.


For an annotated version of the photograph click here.


Comet Hale-Bopp photographed during the Spring of 1997

Comet Hale-Bopp from the Country

One of the rare truly bright comets of the 20th century, Hale-Bopp graced our skies during the Spring of 1997. This photograph was taken from the Vale of Glamorgan (South Wales) on 30th March 1997 at 2130 GMT. The comet was about 20 degrees high in the North-west, in the constellation of Andromeda.


The photo was a 40 second exposure using a 70mm lens at f /3.5. The film used was ISO 400.


[Click here for a detailed account of Comet Hale-Bopp's apparition.]


Comet Hale-Bopp seen from urban skies in 1997

Comet Hale-Bopp from the City

Another view of Comet Hale-Bopp, taken from the city of Cardiff, UK on 31st March 1997. The extent of sky glow from the street lights of the nearby housing estate can clearly be seen. Despite the light pollution, it is possible to detect the two tails of the comet in this picture. The dust tail is the most obvious, curving slightly towards the upper right, and there is a much fainter, bluish-coloured gas tail, facing upwards at a much steeper angle. The picture was taken just 7 hours ahead of the comet's closest approach to the Sun (known as the perihelion).


The photo was a 30 second exposure using a 50mm lens at f /3.5. The film used was ISO 400.


 Nightshot video-camera image of a conjunction between Venus and Saturn in July 2001

Venus & Saturn Conjunction

This picture is a still taken from a video-camera on 15th July 2001 at 0300 GMT, as the planets rose in the North-eastern sky. Venus is by far the brightest of the two planets (magnitude - 4.1). Saturn (magnitude + 0.2) is to the upper left of it and the star Aldebaran (Alpha Tau) is the fainter star to the lower right. The planets were 0.7 degrees apart.


In astronomy, when planets appear to pass each other in the sky - as they regularly do - it is known as a conjunction. The effect is entirely a line-of-sight one, of course. At the time of this particular conjunction, Saturn was 10 times further away from the Earth than Venus. The image appears green because it was taken using the video-camera's NightShot (infrared) mode.


For images and descriptions of the planets as they appear in the night sky, see the NakedEyePlanets website.


Orion rising in the East with Taurus above it

Orion Rising

Orion rises in the East with the V-shaped Hyades cluster (in Taurus) above it. To its West are the constellations of Cetus and Eridanus.


For an annotated version of the photograph click here.


The picture was taken from West Wales in November 1999, at around 2130 GMT. Orion can also be seen rising on the following dates and approximate local times:


Late Dec/Early Jan

6 pm

Late Jan/Early Feb

4 pm

Mid Feb to Mid Aug

Orion rises in daylight

Late Aug/Early Sep

3 am (BST/DST)

Late Sep/Early Oct

1 am (BST/DST)

Late Oct/Early Nov

10 pm

Late Nov/Early Dec

8 pm


Orion reaches its highest point in the sky some six hours after it rises, when it crosses the observer's meridian (due South for Northerly latitudes; due North for Southerly latitudes). It sets in the West a further six hours later.


 A lunar eclipse in progress on 21st January 2000

Lunar Eclipse

If, when at full phase, the Moon passes through the Earth's shadow in space, an eclipse of the Moon takes place. Lunar eclipses always precede or follow a solar eclipse, with two weeks in between. Like solar eclipses, they can be either total or partial.


As the eclipse progresses, the shadow is seen to move across the Moon (in the photo shown, from upper left to lower right) until the Moon is completely immersed in the shadow. The curvature of the Earth can be seen along the line of the shadow. During totality, the Moon often turns a coppery colour due to red light being refracted from the Earth's atmosphere on to the lunar surface (ie. the combined light of all the sunrises and sunsets which are taking place on the Earth at that particular instant). Lunar eclipses can sometimes appear very dark if major volcanic activity has recently taken place on Earth.


This particular eclipse took place on 21st January 2000. It is shown about 40 minutes before totality, when the Moon was about 40% in shadow.


Dates of future total lunar eclipses: January 31st 2018 (visible from Asia, Australia, Pacific Ocean, Western North America), July 27th 2018 (visible from South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia), January 21st 2019 (visible from central Pacific Ocean, the Americas, Europe and Africa).


[Video frame capture]


Copyright  Martin J Powell 2001 - 2015




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