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!

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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!

Tracking Down Fallstreak Holes (with some VIIRS Day/Night Band imagery)

In mid January, I went on a bike ride around town due to pleasant temperatures in the mid 50s. On my way back, I looked up at a progressing layer of altocumulus to see a giant bald spot.

Photo Jan 12, 2 49 12 PM

Fallstreak hole!

I pondered for a little while over what it was, but I had a suspicion. As the shape held together, I knew it was a fallstreak hole! These are pretty rare but certainly catch the eye since it is a good patch of blue sky surrounded by a deck of cloud.

I knew planes were a common trigger of these because of the air mixing they cause flying through a cloud layer. Just 15 minutes ago I saw a low plane fly by and I wondered if it was caused by that. Once I got home I looked at a visible satellite view and spotted a pretty good train of fallstreak holes across central Michigan. They seemed to be on this lip of altocumulus cloud, ahead of thicker stratus clouds associated with a tracking low pressure system. With this pattern, I doubt a plane would have caused these holes. But it will remain a mystery.

Since I lost that specific image of the visible satellite view. I went digging.

NOAA CLASS (Comprehensive Large Array-Data Stewardship System) is a great resource for looking at archived satellite images. Anything from popular GOES imagery to the new Suomi VIIRS satellite images can be ‘ordered’ and downloaded. It is a large site, and it takes a little while to understand it and navigate. However once you get that crisp satellite image, you’re hooked!

Anyway, a week later I went to CLASS and started narrowing down my search results (you can easily get bogged down in hundreds of thousands of images if the search isn’t spot on). I selected the region over the Great Lakes/Michigan, and selected a time period of 2 hours around when I saw the hole from the ground. I ordered the 800mb file and got it downloaded.

The VIIRS images are .h5 files, so they must be viewed in a compatible program. I found HDFView to be a simple, free utility. What did I get? An image of some place with a bunch of clouds on it.

Where in the world am I?

Where in the world am I?

Now the search features on the website had me select a region on a map to narrow down where I want an image, so I knew I must be somewhere in the upper U.S. A few features on the image stand out, so we can to match these up with a map with boundaries on it.

Looking at the details of the surface on the bottom left, it has a good consistency and it appears to have cracks on it, so this was possibly a frozen-over lake…a large one. At this time I still believed it to be a usual North at the top image. But was this really true? I went to Google maps and started searching for clues. That other patch of undisturbed white in the middle of the image almost looks like Lake Michigan, but that can’t be right. It is definitely another body of water however. Where am I?! Am I even on Earth? Then I had a breakthrough. Matching the coast line of that large lake, I noticed how there was a sharp point that pointed towards this other vertical ‘lake’. Sure enough things became clear, I was holding the treasure map upside down. This stock image was flipped 180 degrees (possibly because of ascending and descending orbits of the polar-orbiting craft, similar to MODIS), and the large lake I am looking at is a frozen over Hudson Bay with adjacent Lake Winnipeg.

Mystery almost solved!

Mystery almost solved!

Locating Lake Winnipeg, I cruised east and there was the upper portion of the mitten. Thunder Bay is pretty recognizable on the north-eastern tip.  These images are high-resolution, so you can zoom in a get nice details. Bingo, there’s our fallstreak holes! This was taken at roughly 2:19 pm EST, so it was about 20-30 minutes before I saw the hole over Mount Pleasant.

Zoom in towards the lower right hand side shows northern Michigan peeking through the clouds.

Zoom in towards the lower right hand side shows northern Michigan peeking through the clouds.

This was a really cool find, and will definitely be using this method to document past weather events in the future!

Three views of Hurricane Issac in the Gulf of Mexico. One of the great abilities of having a archive of data, is to revisit notable event dates.

Three views of Hurricane Issac in the Gulf of Mexico. One of the great abilities of having an archive of data, is to revisit notable event dates.

The Aurora of July

It’s not exactly the weather I’m used to typing about, but Space Weather has gained a ton of momentum after Sun observing satellites have been launched in orbit in recent years.

Another way to gain momentum on a less talked about subject is to experience it for yourself, and learn upon it.

The weekend of July 13th I briefly heard about a sun flare up. I didn’t immediately act on it, it was mid morning, silly. Later I did hear that an Aurora may be visible Saturday and Sunday nights, and could be further south than the usual viewers. A ‘Class X1.4’ as specified. Here is a brief video found about the flare, along with a couple colorful charts that show a disruption in typical oscillation, by which you can tell is the flare occurring.

I’ve heard the whole, “may be visible in places as far south as ‘x’ and ‘y’!” So I was sceptical. Last time I was up at Mount Pleasant and caught faint red in the sky, but it was barely noticeable. Getting that shot didn’t make up for the early morning the next day, or the chilly temps:

NL over Mount Pleasant, MI

Some Northern Lights over Mount Pleasant back in October 11′.

The night started frustrating. First, its summer, and the sun takes forever to set and have the horizon light diminish. Second, there was the most irritating layer of high clouds messing around. They took their time moving out, but looked like false aurora at the time.

Throughout the night, I took a few test photos to size up a subtle foreground, and to see if the lights showed up. Curiosity kept me up past 1am and then 2am, and eventually spotted some on the horizon looking due north!

Add 1 Cup of Aurora

Very cool to see this pop up on the camera screen after the exposure. Your eye could not see it like this. At most, it was a faint blob , almost like a cloud. After I was satisfied with camera settings, I opted to get the camera going for a time-lapse. This would be a great opportunity to see the faint aurora in motion since it was so easy to miss by the naked eye. Settings were f/3.5, 60 second exposures, ISO 800, for 2 hours.

If stars are exposed, you can do some star trails! Perhaps a little too busy though, and the aurora looks like a blob of color. Cool none the less.
Northern Glow and Trails
This also was not the shot that came straight from the camera, we’ll head to the camera corner to discuss this a bit more.

One of the powerful factors of a digital photo is ‘white balance’. Essentially, what the camera ‘thinks’ is white. If it knows what tone value white is, it can adjust the other colors in the image based on that. Digital cameras typically have an Auto mode for this, as well as multiple presets for situations. These vary from Sunny, Shade, as well as some indoor lighting like Florescent and Tungsten lighting. Auto does a really good job, sometimes going to a preset will offer a little tinge that you find appealing. Selecting a preset is also great to ‘lock in’ a look to the photo. This is really important to remember when taking time lapses because you do not want colors changing every frame, like it may with Auto.

Post processing a photo can be quick, or it can be a painstakingly, nitpicky process. Lightroom gives you so many things to flip around and edit, you can get lost! Most of the time, you just want to process the photo how you saw it. The camera doesn’t get it right all the time, and you need to change a tone, crop this out, increase/decrease exposure, and realign the horizon. Well, here is a before and after of the still shot.

Where did that color come from!??!

You can see what I mean by just a faint blob on the horizon. Still, your eye could barely pick it up. All of the orange tone was using the preset of Sunny. This was consistent with the timelapse shots as well.

Had I been in Mount Pleasant, about 2 hours north, I imagine the show would have been closer. However, with this set up I’m thankful for what turned out. Down the road, we’ll have to go aurora chasing!