Plan the right place and time for astrophotography

Time passes quickly. We are already in February. Have you planned your astrophotography for the year? For astrophotographers, knowing what’s happening in the sky and planning ahead is the key to getting an interesting photo.

While it’s not impossible to do astrophotography by simply sticking your head out to check if the sky is clear, it’s helpful to know in advance what’s going on overhead and not treat it like opportunistic street photography. Most astronomical phenomena are “programmed” well in advance.

Observer’s Manual

If you are a “generalist” in astrophotography, a good way to plan the year is to obtain the “Observer’s Handbook” published annually by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). It is a sort of “farmer’s almanac” for astronomers. Over the years (2022 marks the 114th), this book has grown to over 350 fine print pages.

Why am I suggesting this physical book first? My reason is that it is a very condensed source for a wide variety of information of interest to astronomers. It brings together a large amount of information available on the Internet, but scattered across websites owned by many different organizations. At the very least, it provides an annual overview and a starting point for Internet research.

Since it’s published by the RASC, it’s understandable that it’s focused on North America, but all times are given in UTC (universal time). The heart of the manual is the “The Sky Month by Month” section which provides a compact summary (2 pages per month) of significant celestial phenomena, including:

  • Moon phases
  • Conjunctions – apparent close approaches to planets and the Moon
  • Lunar and Solar Eclipses
  • Peak meteor shower times
  • Positions of planets in the sky
  • Configuration of Jupiter’s moons, including highlighting transits and umbra transits

Additional pages include detailed discussions of the year’s sky movements:

  • Calendar and visibility of lunar and solar eclipses of the year
  • Positions of jovial satellites (transits through Jupiter, behind Jupiter, moon shadow transits, etc.)
  • Positions of planets relative to background stars
  • Positions of the brightest asteroids
  • Occultations of stars by the Moon and asteroids
  • Luminosity of the planets during the year

Much of the publication also includes background information on orbital motion, astrophysics, optics, constellations, and deep sky objects and catalogs. Also covered are weather-related topics such as historical cloud cover over North America. Some of this basic information is static and, for lack of space, very condensed, but includes references to other books and websites, so it serves not only for a good condensed review of useful information, but also for a good starting point for further reading. For newcomers to astronomy, these sections can seem daunting, so a softer starting point for general astronomy information is a book I reviewed earlier called “The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide”.


2022 Night Sky Almanac

A “lite” version of a planning reference, also from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, is the “2022 Night Sky Almanac”. Unlike the thin, dense black and white printed pages of the “Observer’s Handbook”, the Night Sky Almanac is printed with glossy color pages on thick paper. This year’s version contains 120 pages primarily organized as a month-by-month sky guide, including two northern sky charts per month. For astrophotographers this book is a little disappointing as it is geared more towards the beginning visual astronomer, but if you are new to astronomy this is a good reference to pick up at least once.

The almanac is aimed at observers in the northern hemisphere and is essentially the monthly central section of what’s happening in the sky from magazines such as Sky & Telescope or Astronomy, but with the advantage of having the whole year right away and at a lower cost than a regular print magazine subscription.

On the other hand, a magazine subscription might be best for you if you enjoy reading about space and astronomy and the brief reminders (usually a month in advance) of what’s to come in the sky don’t bother you. And if you love browsing astrophotography equipment ads, this is the way to go for you. For my part, I must confess that even though I had subscribed for many years (decades) to astronomy magazines, I gave it up when the magazines were compressed by limited incomes and reduced the costs of printing using cheaper paper and (smelly) ink.


Dynamic events: comets

For more dynamic events that might not be covered in the “Observer’s Handbook”, the Internet is, of course, my preferred source of timely information. Objects such as comets are discovered and can become visible in a short time. Or periodic comets (comets in close orbit around the sun) that have sudden outbursts may not be covered in print publications.

Although you may not know it, at any given time maybe a dozen comets are visible in amateur telescopes. Most of them are too dark to be seen visually, even at the closest approach to the sun, and usually do not have a distinct tail when far from the sun, so they may not be aesthetically appealing , but determined comet enthusiasts regularly photograph and publish them. images on this online group:

https://groups.io/g/comet-images

Based on the news and images posted in this group, you can use planetarium programs such as Stellarium to download the latest orbital data from the Internet and view the comet’s position among stars and nebulae for “combo” compositions potentially attractive.

The main source of detailed information on all comets, see the comets page at the MPC (Minor Planet Center) at Harvard.

solar activity

Solar activity is another category of dynamic events that can only be predicted approximately in advance (i.e. increased likelihood of activity in years near the peak of the 11-year solar cycle ). Sunspots can be seen in near real-time shots from an array of solar telescopes and space probes or see the SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) satellite site.

Clouds, smoke and eclipses

Even for astrophotography opportunities that are known well in advance (e.g. eclipses) our atmosphere can pose a problem, so here the internet is a godsend for astrophotography. An example of this is the 2017 solar eclipse that passed through the continental United States. From long-term records of cloud cover, I decided that the best chance of getting a clear picture of the eclipse would be west of the Mississippi River. Based on this, several reconnaissance trips narrowed my choice down to the stretch from eastern Oregon to western Nebraska. My preferred choice would have been my wife’s cousin’s location in Jackson, Wyoming, but smoke from the wildfires prompted me to relocate to eastern Wyoming in recent days. To track cloud cover and smoke on a daily basis, I used NASA’s MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) imagery site.

For “normal” weather monitoring (48-72 hours ahead) at a specific location, a popular resource covering North America is the Clear Sky map. For a selected location, graphs show forecast cloud cover, temperature, humidity, transparency, wind, and even smoke.


rocket launches

Rocket launches aren’t strictly what we might call “astro” photography, but if you’re near a launch site, these present a photographic challenge comparable to capturing an eclipse. To keep up to date with these, an internet source is needed. An Android app that I have found useful is Space Launch Now.

Launches are subject to literally last-second changes, so keeping a connection as real-time as possible (streams can be delayed by 15 seconds or more) is essential for status changes. SpaceLaunchNow does not provide real-time status itself, but usually includes links to streaming webcasts.

Typically launches near sunset or sunrise when the rocket and contrail are illuminated by sunlight, but darkening the sky and foreground provide the best photo ops.

Dawn

Another dynamic celestial event worth planning for is the appearance of the Northern Lights, which is usually tied to solar activity. Auroral activity is generally limited to the rings around the Earth’s geomagnetic poles (northern latitudes are more accessible than southern). Since solar activity is picking up right now, it’s a good time to start planning photoshoots in advance.

Generally, late fall, winter, or early spring are best for aurora hunting due to longer nights, especially at high northern latitudes, but dramatic peaks in intensity and dynamic motion. occur when flares occur on the sun and auroral displays can be seen farther south. So while a trip to the north can be planned based on general solar activity and the weather outlook, capturing the most spectacular auroras depends on monitoring sites of “space weather” activity that can provide alerts as short as half an hour before an event.

Sky wide open

Whatever your interests in astrophotography, the sky offers great opportunities if you plan ahead. The clock is ticking and the sky is spinning!

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