HN Field Trip: Transfixed by the Winter Sky at Island Lake

On the early evening of 2023 January 14, we had ten of us out watching while Orion “came up sideways, throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains” last night. (Robert Frost, “The Star Splitters”)

Orion coming “up sideways, throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains” (Robert Frost; with photo by MW)

Thanks for coming out to Island Lake and sharing my enthusiasms about the night sky! Let’s do this again with a different part of the sky. (See below about the coming ‘green’ comet, Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF. If we get good viewing conditions, I’ll set up another field trip on short notice.)

It was cool on January 14th, but the skies were remarkably clear. It seemed like none of us had seen the clear night sky for months!

Sirius was an absolute glory to watch as it cleared the ridge across the lake, twinkling ecstatically and flashing brilliantly in the full glory across almost the whole rainbow of colours. It truly seemed to dance as it rose through the tree tops!

We spent over an hour and a bit looking at many aspects of the low eastern winter skies last night, including:

  • Egyptian history and the astronomical foundation of their calendar system. The ancient Egyptian calendar was based on the eastern rising of Sirius as the Sun set on the western side of the sky at this time of the year, as well as on helical setting of Sirius just as the Sun set in the west six months later, marking the start of the important restorative flooding of the wet fields along the Nile.
  • Arabic contributions to our present-day naming of the visible stars and constellations — because they saved and expanded upon the Greek and Roman knowledge of the night sky when that was deliberately abandoned by the ‘western world’ as it retreated into religious and social conservatism.
  • Modern cosmological interpretations of the Orion Nebula, visible to the naked eye as a fuzzy patch, but much more impressive even through binoculars;
  • Modern cosmological understandings of some of the brightest stars in this winter sky, the brightest section of the whole year of star-gazing.
  • The Japanese name for what we call the Pleiades — think Japanese car — and why what is often described as the use of this Seven Sisters group of stars as a test of eyesight was possibly more likely a test of carefulness of observation and of honesty.

The younger eyes amongst us could actually see the crescent shape of Venus. (Question: what is the other “inferior planet” and how does this relate to both of them being visible as crescents? Why is Mars never seen as a crescent?

In that same poem quoted from above, Robert Frost gives a clear a description of my love of studying the natural world: “To satisfy a lifelong curiosity about our place among the infinities.”

After folks left for home, I walked solo in the darkness around Island Lake. I didn’t give a hoot that I didn’t hear any owls. I was revelling in my place within these infinities.

I’m attaching another photo from my handheld phone.

Looking northwards along Bob’s Bridges at Island Lake (MW photo)

I set a challenge for figuring out the various constellations or parts of constellations visible in the two photos. The second darker one looking northwards along the southern of the two Bob’s Bridges, the photo that has a real sense of depth and distance, is quite a complex challenge!

You’d be correct in seeing in the southern-facing image at the top of this posting: Orion, Sirius and Canis Major, and then two stars of Canis Minor.

The darker north-facing image has the head of Draco on the right, curling up and then down to the right. The fine mass of stars on the centre bottom left is the wings and tail of Cygnus (with its head buried below the trees). Above that, along the top, is the southern portion of Cepheus. To the left of it is the (silly) invented constellation of Lacerta (which is so faint that I’ve never bothered to actually sort it out). To the left side of the image is a couple of obscure legs of Pegasus. And above that may actually be part of the overlap of Cepheus with Andromeda (though not the Andromeda Galaxy). Cassiopeia isn’t in the image — it’s her hubby, the dim Cepheus, that shows along the top edge. I don’t think there’s any part of the Little Dipper, and certainly not Polaris, nor the Andromeda Galaxy.

      • My nearly 4-year-old smartphone has a ’night mode’ automatically within its regular camera. (Newer smartphones are even more impressive for dark exposures.) Those photos are handheld. That particular north-facing photo was presented as a three-second exposure. What the smartphone camera does is take a number of photos, each about 1/30th or 1/15th of a second, and then ‘stacks’ them in near real-time. I took one photo, and then ‘chimped’ it, looking at it and adjusting exposure and focus, before taking a total of five different photos. This one was much the best. The software figures out what is bright in each image and then looks for those objects in the others, discarding much of the information in the other photos. That’s ‘clearest’, most obvious, in this dark photo. I’m amazed with that one. It shows stars I could not see even with my fully-dark-adapted eyes. What’s more, for this particular exposure, those stars are remarkably clear. The stacking was marvellous, as was the decision of this computational photography software to leave the foreground more than a little hazy. I then used Lightroom Mobile on my iPhone to denoise and desaturate the image to get what I’ve sent you.


Your Once in a 50,000 Year Chance! Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF

by Mel Martin, adapted from F-Stoppers, January 18, 2023

Astrophotographers and even regular photographers have a chance at a comet that is now appearing in our early morning, pre-dawn skies. This is Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF, rapidly approaching its closest encounter with our sun. It hasn’t been to our part of the solar system for about 50,000 years. It’s a striking green in color, and not all comets are, so it’s created a stir among astrophotographers.
Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF was discovered in March of last year by the f/2.4 Schmidt telescope at Mt. Palomar. It was very dim then, but as it approaches the sun it is steadily brightening.

Where Is C/2022 E3 ZTF?

For the next couple of weeks, observers in the Northern Hemisphere can spot it in the Northeastern sky. Various media websites have some good info on finding the comet.

Look for the comet above the northeastern horizon after midnight between the constellations of Hercules and Bootes.

By the third week of January, the comet will become circumpolar for mid-northern latitude viewers. Then, the comet will be visible after sunset and all night long for viewers in the Northern Hemisphere. On January 29, it will pass close to Polaris, the North Star. If it brightens up to say, the 5th magnitude, it should be visible to naked eye observers away from city lights.

By February, the Moon will be growing brighter, making observations difficult.

By some reports, Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF is approaching Magnitude 7, not a naked eye object, but visible with a longer exposure.

Comets are somewhat unpredictable, so it may get a lot brighter or fade. Still, naked eye comets are rare, and this one won’t be back for another 50,000 years, so the next couple of weeks are your only chance.

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