April Dark Skies

Spring in the northern hemisphere is the beginning of Milky Way season, when the Galactic Center is above the horizon at night. Although the Milky Way can be photographed anytime of the year when the sky is dark enough, the region around the Galactic Center contains the most detail and so is more photogenic. Spring is also the time when the Milky Way can be seen as a full arch, low enough in the horizon to photograph with some landscape visible. Fortunately, many of us in the Pagosa Springs area live where skies are dark enough that we can photograph the Milky Way without traveling, so it could be a good subject while we are “staying at home”.

In April 2020, opportunities to photograph the Milky Way from Pagosa Springs, without interference from the Moon, begin on the 14th and last into the first couple of days of May. The new moon will be April 22, so the best dark sky conditions and longest time for viewing the Milky Way would be a couple of days on either side of the 22nd. During this period, you could photograph the Milky Way from around 1 a.m. until shortly before dawn, about 4:45 a.m.. For details, see any of a number of apps, such as PhotoPills, Sun Surveyor, or The Photographer’s Ephemeris, desktop programs such as Stellarium. 

Night sky photography isn’t just about the Milky Way. A classic method of photographing the night sky is to make very long exposures which show the motion of the stars as star trails. As with any night scape photography, the best images will also have a strong foreground, perhaps illuminated by the waning moon, low level LED light panels, or by light painting with a flashlight. For tips and references on start trail photography, see this post. 

Also coming up next week is the Lyrid meteor shower, which should be active beginning April 19, and  peak in the predawn hours of April 22 this year. However, you should be able to see some activity of the Lyrid any dark night from April 10 through 23, with up to 10-15 meteors per hour. The Lyrid shower occurs every spring, and if the skies are dark and clear, it can be one of the best meteor showers of the year. Fortunately, with the new moon on the 22nd, there should be excellent viewing of the Lyrids this year. To photograph the Lyrids, all you need is a clear, dark sky, wide angle lens, camera and intervalometer (built in or external) and lots of patience. For an excellent introduction to techniques for photographing meteor showers, see this article by Glenn Randall.

If you are sheltering in place, don’t live in a dark sky area, or just are not into going outside to photograph the Milky Way in the wee hours, here is an indoor activity.  The week of April 19 to 26 has been designated as International Dark Sky Week by the International Dark Sky Association, with the goal of reconnecting people around the world with our night sky. On their website, https://idsw.darksky.org , you can find a variety of virtual presentations that you can watch each day of that week. Topics include the relationship between humans and the night sky through history, basic astronomy, and art and conservation. Some of the presentations are stories about the night sky, appropriate for kids. You can also follow these and other presentations of the IDSA on their Youtube channel.

Happy star gazing!

Author: fotohiker

webs are for spiders

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