One of the Brightest Stars in the Sky is Actually a Satellite

The bright streaks drawing an arc across the night sky are caused by the satellite BlueWalker 3. The prototype satellite is brighter than most stars. Image Credit: Ilse Plauchu-Frayn

Back in the 70s, kids used to look up at the summer sky and try to be the first one to shout, “Satellite!” That seems like a relic from the past now, alongside Polaroid cameras and astronauts on the Moon. These days, it’s rare to spend any amount of time looking at the sky without seeing a satellite, or several of them.

A new satellite is emphasizing that fact. It’s a prototype communications satellite with a roughly 700-square-foot antenna, and it’s brighter than most stars.

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Many of the World’s Greatest Observatories Suffer from Some Light Pollution

Night sky in the African country of Namibia. (Credit: Fabio Falchi; Licence Type: Attribution (CC BY 4.0))

In a recent study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, an international team of researchers examined the levels of light pollution at astronomical observatories from around the world to better understand how artificial light is impacting night sky observations in hopes of taking steps to reduce it. But how important is it to preserve the scientific productivity of astronomical observatories from the dangers of light pollution, as noted in the study’s opening statement?

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How Could we Light our Cities and Still See the Night Sky?

Standing beside the Milky Way. Drowming out the night sky blocks us off from nature, and that's not good for humans. Credit: P. Horálek/ESO

The night sky is a part of humanity’s natural heritage. Gazing up at the heavens is a unifying act, performed by almost every human that’s ever lived. Haven’t you looked up at the night sky and felt it ignite your sense of wonder?

But you can’t see much night sky in a modern city. And the majority of humans live in cities now. How can we regain our heritage? Can quiet contemplation make a comeback?

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Most light pollution isn’t coming from streetlights

Zodiacal light tilts upward from the western horizon and points at the Pleiades star cluster in this photo taken March 19, 2009. Clouds at bottom reflect light pollution from nearby Duluth, Minn. U.S. Credit: Bob King

Light pollution is the arch nemesis of astronomy, spoiling both the enjoyment of the night sky and the professional study of our universe. For years we’ve assumed that streetlights are the main culprit behind light pollution, but a recent study has shown that streetlights contribute no more than 20% of all the pollution, and if we want to solve this vexing astronomical problem, we have to think harder.

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A Night-Sky Timelapse You Don’t Want to Miss

Still image from the timelapse, "Illusion of Lights: A Journey into the Unseen." Credit and copyright: Brad Goldpaint Photography.

It’s an old story: a couple leave their jobs, sell everything, and live in motorhome to capture footage and imagery of the night sky.

Wait… what?

This unique story is exactly what Brad and Marci Goldpaint did. They left their jobs and traveled throughout the western US in an RV to begin educating the public about the damaging effects of light pollution. They wanted to help reconnect people with the simple beauty of the night sky and have been teaching photography workshops and gathering footage for a new timelapse called “Illusion of Lights: A Journey into the Unseen.”

With breathtaking scenes and soaring music, this video “introduces you to the concept of movement and time that visually explores our night skies,” says Brad on Vimeo.

We’ve featured images and timelapses from Brad before, and he shared how the sudden loss of his mother caused him to reassess his goals and priorities. Since 2009 he’s been working on outdoor photography and has now dedicated his work to sharing images of the night sky with others.

For this timelapse, Brad said he “spent countless nights traversing in the dark, carrying heavy camera equipment, and braving the dark unseen.” He dealt with lightning storms, dangerous winds, and up-close encounters with bears and other wildlife. Sometimes, after spending days hiking to a remote location and with optimistic weather reports, Mother Nature showed up and ruined his opportunity to get the shot.

A few highlights: at about 2:00 there is an exploding meteor with a persistent train that is stunning. You’ll also see strange lights on Mount Rainier. Brad explained these lights are from people climbing the mountian at night in hopes of reaching the summit by sunrise the following day. The white lights you see are from their headlamps. “Can you imagine climbing up a mountain in the middle of the night?” he asks?

Another still from "Illusions of Light." Credit and copyright: Brad Goldpaint Photography.
Another still from “Illusions of Light.” Credit and copyright: Brad Goldpaint Photography.

For more about this film see their website.

Illusion of Lights: A Journey into the Unseen from Goldpaint Photography on Vimeo.

Simply Breathtaking Night Sky Timelapse: “Huelux” by Randy Halverson

An aurora behind a building storm. From the timelapse 'Huelux.' Credit and copyright: Randy Halverson.

Regular readers of Universe Today will be well-acquainted with the photography and timelapse work of Randy Halverson. He’s just released his latest timelapse and in a word, it is breathtaking. Aurora, thunderstorms — sometimes both at once — and, of course, stunning views of the night sky.

Randy shot the footage during April-November 2013 in South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah. “The weather in 2013 made it difficult for me to get some of the shots I wanted,” Randy said on Vimeo. “There were many times I planned to shoot the Milky Way or Aurora, and the clouds would roll in. But that also allowed me to get more night storm timelapse than I have any other year.”

He added that the aurora sometimes appeared without warning. In the video, be on the lookout for slow and fast moving satellites, quick meteors and slower moving airplanes. “The meteors are hard to see in timelapse, but you may see a quick flash because they only last one frame,” he said. “If you see a light moving across the sky, it is either an airplane or satellite, not a meteor.”

Sit back, put this on full screen and full sound and take a well-deserved break from your day!

Thanks once more to Randy Halverson for continuing to share his handiwork! Find out more about this timelapse at Randy’s website, Dakotalapse.

Huelux from Randy Halverson on Vimeo.

Stunning Timelapse: Stargazing in the Canadian Rockies

The night sky over Pyramid Lake in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. Credit and copyright: Jack Fusco.

One of our favorite photographers, Jack Fusco, recently visited Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, one of the worlds largest dark sky preserves. He went there on behalf of Travel Alberta, during the annual Night Sky Festival. “I was lucky enough to have two clear nights to explore and shoot as many photos as possible to create a short timelapse while there,” Jack told us via email. “In the end, I took over 2,000 photos at locations such as Lake Annette, Athabasca Glacier, Pyramid Lake, and many others. Out of all the places I’ve traveled in search for dark skies, Jasper definitely offered some of the best views I’ve ever seen. The sky in the Columbia Icefield area was unlike any I had witnessed before.”

Jack added that it was great to be around so many people that were excited about astronomy and preserving the night sky, and he’s already looking forward to going again in 2014, and astronaut Chris Hadfield is already lined up as a guest.

If you’re rushing about for the holidays, take a few minutes to enjoy a brief respite with this lovely timelapse. You can see more images and videos at Jack’s website.

Zodiacal Light Over ESO’s La Silla Observatory

Moonlight and zodiacal light lights up the skies over ESO's La Silla observatory. (Credit: Alan Fitzsimmons/ESO)

We don’t put much stock in astrology or horoscopes here at Universe Today, but there’s one thing related to the zodiac that’s all science and no superstition: zodiacal light, captured here in a gorgeous photo by astronomer Alan Fitzsimmons above ESO’s La Silla Observatory.

Created by sunlight reflected off fine particles of dust concentrated inside the plane of the Solar System, zodiacal light appears as a diffuse, hazy band of light visible in dark skies stretching away from a recently-set Sun (or before the Sun is about to rise).

The Moon is located just outside the frame of this picture, bathing the observatory in an eerie light that is reflected off the clouds below.

The La Silla Observatory is located at the outskirts of the Chilean Atacama Desert at an altitude of 2400 meters (7,900 feet). Like other observatories in this area, La Silla is located far from sources of light pollution and, like ESO’s Paranal Observatory, it has some of the darkest night skies on the Earth.

The dome in the foreground, just to the right, is the Swiss 1.2-metre Leonhard Euler Telescope named in honor of the famous Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707–83).

Image credit: A. Fitzsimmons/ESO

Stunning Astrophotos Reveal the Importance of Dark Skies

The Milky Way and Aurora over Godafoss, waterfall of the gods, Iceland, by Stephane Vetter from France, the first place winner in Beauty of the Night Sky category, TWAN 2013 Earth & Sky Photo Contest.

The World at Night’s (TWAN) annual Earth & Sky photography contest showcases the stunning beauty of the night sky while highlighting the challenges of keeping our skies free from light pollution. TWAN has now announced the winners of this year’s contest, and the winning photos are simply breathtaking. This year’s theme of “Dark Skies Importance,” were judged in two categories: “Beauty Of The Night Sky” and “Against The Lights,” said Babak Tafreshi, the founder and director of TWAN,” and the winners were selected from submissions by photographers in about 45 countries.”

The selected images were judged to be those most effective in impressing the public on both how important and delicate the starry sky is as an affecting part of our nature, and also how bad the problem of light pollution has become.

Tafreshi added that “the amazing number of eye-catching entries from across the world tells how public attention to night sky is growing as well as interest to sky photography and we are very pleased if TWAN has a role on this increasing awareness.”

The overall contest winner and first prize in the Beauty Of The Night Sky category is our lead image, taken by Stephane Vetter of France, for his March 2013 panoramic photo “Sky Above Godafoss” of aurora and the Milky Way over the “Waterfall of the Gods” in Iceland.

See more winners and more information about the contest below:

The first prize in Against The Lights category goes to Andreas Max Böckle of Austria for his photo “Under the Hood” taken from overlooking the city of Salzburg in a moonlit night:

Stars over Salzburg, Austria by Andreas Max Böckle, the first winner in Against the Lights category in TWAN 2013 Earth & Sky Photo Contest.
Stars over Salzburg, Austria by Andreas Max Böckle, the first winner in Against the Lights category in TWAN 2013 Earth & Sky Photo Contest.

David Malin, one of the judges and a world-known pioneer in scientific astrophotography said, “The 685 entries the judges examined (more than twice than the 2012 judged images) represent some of the best TWAN-style photographs ever gathered together in one place… I feel privileged to have seen so many beautiful images in such a short time!”

Click on the images here to see larger versions. You can see all the winners (and the great prizes they won) at the TWAN website, and this video highlights the winning photos:

‘Crossed Destinies,’ the Milky Way of Reunion Island, Indian Ocean by Luc Perro from France is the 2nd place winner in the Beauty of the Night Sky category in the TWAN 2013 Earth & Sky Photo contest.
‘Crossed Destinies,’ the Milky Way of Reunion Island, Indian Ocean by Luc Perro from France is the 2nd place winner in the Beauty of the Night Sky category in the TWAN 2013 Earth & Sky Photo contest.

Aurora Over Antarctica: a “Teardrop From Heaven”

“We managed to snap a few photos before Heaven realised its mistake and closed its doors.”
– Dr. Alexander Kumar

This stunning photo of the Aurora Australis, set against a backdrop of the Milky Way, was captured from one of the most remote research locations on the planet: the French-Italian Concordia Base, located located at 3,200 meters (nearly 10,500 feet) altitude on the Antarctic plateau, 1,670 km (1,037 miles) from the geographic south pole.

The photo was taken on July 18 by resident doctor and scientist Dr. Alexander Kumar and his colleague Erick Bondoux.

Sparked by a coronal mass ejection emitted from active region 11520 on July 12, Earth’s aurorae leapt into high gear both in the northern and southern hemispheres three days later during the resulting geomagnetic storm — giving some wonderful views to skywatchers in locations like Alaska, Scotland, New Zealand… and even the South Pole.

“A raw display of one of nature’s most incredible sights dazzled our crew,” Dr. Kumar wrote on his blog, Chronicles from Concordia. “The wind died down and life became still. To me, it was if Heaven had opened its windows and a teardrop had fallen from high above our station, breaking the dark lonely polar night.

“We managed to snap a few photos before Heaven realised its mistake and closed its doors.”

With winter temperatures as low as -70ºC (-100ºF), no sunlight and no transportation in or out from May to August, Concordia Base is incredibly isolated — so much so that it’s used for research for missions to Mars, where future explorers will face many of the same challenges and extreme conditions that are found at the Base.

But even though they may be isolated, Dr. Kumar and his colleagues are in an excellent location to witness amazing views of the sky, the likes of which are hard to find anywhere else on Earth. Many thanks to them for braving the bitter cold and otherworldly environment to share images like this with us!

Read more on Concordia Base here.

Lead image: ESA/IPEV/ENEAA/A. Kumar & E. Bondoux. Sub-image: sunset at Concordia. ESA/IPEV/PNRA – A. Kumar