Shooting from the Thumb

In my first post back its not so much about weather! But weather and space conditions were just right to capture a stunning sky from Caseville, MI (yes during the Cheeseburger Festival) this past weekend. With clear cool skies, a moonless night, and low light pollution I was lucky enough to capture not only the Milky Way, but also the dusty Andromeda Galaxy and a surprise visit by the Aurora!

We started out taking a few test shots from the yard as the evening sky dimmed. Stars were certainly eager to come out! With the leftover sunset light fading, my girlfriend and I went to the Saginaw Bay coastline to try shots along the beach. I had never shot over the water before. I was hopeful that if the water was calm enough, perhaps some shots could reflect the night stars and make something cool. Really didn’t know what to expect but was excited to experiment.

The Milky Way was very visible once eyes adjusted and I initially aimed my T2i with kit lens 18-55mm in that direction to see what we could find. I only brought the T2i on the beach run because it has Magic Lantern installed on the SD card, and thus has an automatic intervalometer on it. I set that up to take repetitive 15sec shots of the milky way as it paced the sky. Bumping the camera to 3200ISO, stars filled the shot, but a shot of the Milky Way at 18mm on a crop sensor camera isn’t too interesting, you need a subject! Cue the aurora borealis…

Aurora over Saginaw Bay

Canon T2i 18-55mm f/3.5 15″ ISO3200 (Click for larger)

Missed the stellar noise control of the 6D on the beach, but the T2i still holds its own with a little post cancellation. I initially didn’t recognize the aurora on the horizon. Dismissed it as fog rolling in off the water. Once I saw vertical pillars, I remembered what this meant. Mid shot of the Milky Way I pivoted the camera down to double check with the long exposure of the camera sensor, and sure enough that was the aurora! After awhile the aurora calmed down and I ached for the 6D back at our current residence. With no moon out and no clouds in sight, the stars were begging for an extended photo shoot. On the walk back I stopped on a back road and just did a sample shot. The scene reminded me of a shot in upstate New York two years ago. Bonus? The Milky Way darting through…

Above the Canopy

Canon 6D 24-105mm f/4 30″ ISO4000 (Click for larger)

As the night wore on, we got tired and pulled some blankets out to just lie in the back yard and keep shooting. Trees can really frame stars well! Looking northeast, the Milky Way pulled up and started to look vertical. Experimenting with some shots, I noticed a dusty ‘star’ which I would later look back in Stellarium and realize it is the Andromeda Galaxy! So many very interesting sights in the sky, and then the aurora cheering from the corner saying, “Look at me too!”

Galactic Gouge

Canon 6D 24-105mm f/4 30″ ISO4000 Andromeda Galaxy in the lower right. (Click for larger)

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Was a great opportunity to capture the night sky in central Michigan and spend the weekend with some great folks! Thanks go out to my girlfriend’s family and grandparents for hosting!

October Lights

Some great looking Aurora for Michigan Tuesday night following a Coronal Mass Ejection from the Sun on Sunday. It finally made its way to Earth’s magnetic field! And boy was it a strong impact.

Full Tilt

Arrived to a spot just in time to catch the opening act!

I first learned about the ejection from Tamitha Skov on twitter. She posts plenty of great space weather updates, and also the science behind the sun and its Earth effects. Upon hearing that Lights in North America were possible via the NWS Space Weather Prediction Center’s Facebook Page, I thought I would at least probe the skies of Michigan later.

Around midnight things started to ramp up on the Kp Index, a rough indicator of aurora visibility. Its dark, and parking along side a rural road is a little dangerous due to unsuspecting travelers, so I decided to start small and bike across the street to an apartment complex that opened to a large field. I’m still south of some intense light pollution, so was not expecting much, but just wanted a hint.

Kp ranges. The higher the Kp number, the further south aurora may be visible. On this October night, we reached about 6.5/7 on the Kp scale.

My tripod was missing in action, so this complicated things greatly. Taking photos of the aurora requires the camera to be very steady while the picture, sometimes 8-20 seconds in length, is being taken. So I just relied on setting the camera on the ground and placing some items under the lens to prop it a bit. Turns out on my first shot I got what I was looking for. The hint. Circled is just a slight green band of aurora popping up between two patches of loud light pollution. So lets trouble shoot; northern lights = check, tripod work around = check, no light pollution = no check.

Just a taste of aurora!

Just a taste of aurora!

Having to get up at 7am the next morning was also a negative factor, if these lights took off, I could be up for awhile.

Dew was forming on my car windows, a quick roll down of the windows and a wiper swipe and things were clear. I traveled to McDonald Park along Pickard Rd. which is west of town, and north of any obstructive light pollution.

When I got out of the car, I saw the tell-tale signs of an ongoing Northern Lights performance. What you see with your eyes is different than what the camera picks up. Aurora could look different in high latitudes then what I saw last night, but if I could describe it, it looked like an elevated fog. You could tell it was there because the sky above looked similar to sky right along the horizon, but in between… was the Lights. I modified a photo from early on to represent what I could see myself.

Estimation of what was visible to eyes early on.

Estimation of what was visible to eyes early on.

The camera tells a more colorful and stunning story. By having the shutter open and the camera taking a picture for 20 or so seconds, any lights in the dark sky are more pronounced. So stars are plainly visible, as well as the aurora colors. This was a few minutes after the above photo:

Lights by Man and Nature

Getting a little creative with the show still on. Timed a car going by to add a different type of light.

The sky lit up with activity right as I settled down. I mean I could actually see some vertical elements moving across the horizon to my naked eye. I teared up a bit. This was amazing. You see countless photos of the Northern Lights online(guilty here), but seeing it in the flesh, is just spine tingling. Red is apparently more rare as it is Oxygen reacting with the disturbance, and this take a little longer to process, may explain the abundance of green, but little sprites of red.

Dugout Lights

Nearby baseball field provided some foreground interest. This dugout seemed to be nicely enveloped in some lights.

If you’re interested in Aurora spotting, there are a few resources to keep an eye on. Things may get confusing along the way, but stick to sources that blend public viewing and educational. You’ll learn a lot fast!

Be patient, and be ready to be disappointed. Computer models and predictions can point to an event, but the light strength just may not cooperate. At the same time, the opposite can happen, and you may get a treat! Happy hunting!

Week Rumblings (Sept 18, 2013)

Cardboard skies have given way to a beautiful Wednesday heading into what looks like a dreary end of the week. This doesn’t necessarily include the weekend.

Thursday will be hot and humid with thunderstorms likely on Friday as we will reside in the ‘warm sector’ of a mid-latitude cyclone. The warm sector is a region of warm moist air that is located between the associated warm front and cold front of a low pressure system. Typically, the warm sector is a nice place to look for thunderstorm development as the cold front sweeps behind acting as a lifting mechanism. This will be the case on Thursday with hot and humid conditions in place, and an increased chance of thunder on Friday when the cold front moves through.

Forcasted surface map for Thursday evening showing Michigan in the warm sector behind the red warm-front, and blue cold-front.

Forecasted surface map for Thursday evening showing Michigan in the warm sector behind the red warm-front, and blue cold-front following for Friday.

Cooler and drier air will move in for the weekend as the cold front wipes this mess clean. An area of high pressure will dominate this weekend bringing temperatures in the mid 60s and clear skies to the area.

Tropical weather is off to a slow start as Tropical Storm Humberto wanders along disorganized out in the Atlantic. Humberto is expected to remain a Tropical Storm, and take a journey northward. A broad region of low pressure over the Yucatán Peninsula looks promising, but remains plagued by its own disorganization. As this area moves north and west, it is expected to achieve depression status, but this is over the next 48 hours.

In the Eastern Pacific, Tropical Storm Manuel is docking along the Baja peninsula. Manuel is actually on the weather map above painted as a Tropical Depression in the coming days.

Week Rumblings (Sept. 9, 2013)

Been a rather busy summer. Despite some neat weather events taking place, I’ve either; A: written half of a post and it got past a relevant time to be posted or B: just was flat-out too busy to write something up! Let’s see how far we get this time…

Big story this week is our temperature fluctuations. Around the beginning of September, temps were right on the money and we were getting that nice Fall vibe going on. Beautiful weather topped off last week with highs in the mid-70s and clear skies. It also felt nice and crisp outside, actually noticed this due to slightly increased distance visibility. Our slate had been wiped clean early in the week after some storms, and the humidity had retreated south. However the weather systems had other plans and threw us a curve ball early this week. Today felt like we were back in the middle of summer! Highs topped out at 93F today, dew-point temps were in the mid 60s, so the humidity was around as well. This is all thanks to a ridge that developed early this week which pumped warm, moist, southern air into our region.  Last week with our cooler temperatures, a strong low pressure area over NE Canada provided us with air drawn from the cooler north. So we are seeing tales from both sides, in other words, Fall.

Won't be long before trees start looking a little more diverse in color!

Won’t be long before trees start looking a little more diverse in color! (and the sun setting earlier)

The heat won’t last long. This was the one day that stood out reaching the 90s. We will begin cooling down for the rest of the week, and enjoy a 60s weekend. With this temp swing, there are scattered showers and thunderstorms to go with it. These won’t last past Thursday evening. A few short-range, high-resolution models show a line of showers and thunderstorms developing along the cold front as it slowly drapes across the region. This line will begin in northern Michigan late tonight/early Wednesday morning and progress SE.

Bottom Line: This was a one-off hot day, expect the next two days to be cooling down, but filled with on and off showers. Weekend looks clear and cool. Enjoy temperatures in the mid 60s, 30 degrees cooler than Tuesday!