“I’m comfortable with the unknown — that’s the point of science. There are places out there, billions of places out there, that we know nothing about. And the fact that we know nothing about them excites me, and I want to go out and find out about them. And that’s what science is. So I think if you’re not comfortable with the unknown, then it’s difficult to be a scientist… I don’t need an answer. I don’t need answers to everything. I want to have answers to find.” ― Brian Cox
One of the things I get asked a lot is “what’s up there?” Depending on the context of the question, the answers can be many and varied. In this case, I’ll address the version referring to “how do you know what to shoot throughout the year?” although this only applies to the Northern hemisphere. The South has its own set of rules that I know nothing about, and I won’t pretend to either. So, make yourself comfortable, grab that coffee, and let’s see what there is in the night sky throughout the year in this brief overview.
A lot of this is given over to what we refer to as “galaxy season.” We’re coming out of the winter months, which are dominated by Orion The Hunter and The Pleiades, but we’re not quite into Milky Way season yet. Thankfully, mother nature is very giving in that we still have plenty to shoot in the night sky, and galaxies are some of the most interesting objects up there. Imagine if you will taking images of not “just” different stars, but entire galaxies! Whole civilisations rise, fall, and rise again in them. They’re so distant (even our closest one, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light years away, that when the light from them left, there were still dinosaurs romaing the earth. In some cases, depending how deep you want to go, earth was almost still a primordial soup and life was only just beginning to develop and flourish here.
Some of the more popular galaxies lay in the constellations Virgo, Leo, Ursa Major and Coma Berenices. A quick look on Wikipedia at any of those constellations / astersims will reveal a lot more about what’s actually there. But during the springtime they’re all ideally placed and the nights are still long enough to get serious amounts of data gathering in on them. Weather permitting of course!
The image above is Messier 51, or the Whirlpool Galaxy, in the constellation Canes Venatici, taken with the 72ED and Altair GPCam2 290C. It consists of a pair of clearly interacting galaxies, and was the first to be classified as a spiral galaxy. It lays approximately 31 million light years away. To give you some perspective, the first monkeys had only appeared on earth about 8 million years before the light from this image left its home and began its epic interstellar journey.
By late Spring we’re moving into the proper start of Milky Way season, and our galactic core is rising at an appreciably earlier time. Although it’s becoming visible at the start of March, you need to be staying up until around 3am to start seeing it rise through the triangle of Vega, Deneb and Altair, and even then it’s very low down still. But it’s still not too late to be capturing those galaxies!
Us astrophotographers generally aren’t that keen on the summer months. The nights are much shorter, and generally warmer. Although that warmth is a welcome relief from the often biting cold of winter, it doesn’t lend itself well for long exposure imaging as those camera sensors become much warmer, and this can translate into very noisy images, unless you have the capablities of a cooled camera.
On the positive side, the Milky Way is up in all its glory and its possible to obtain some absolutely stunning images of the galactic core and Great Rift (the area around the Summer Triangle of Vega, Deneb and Altair.) There’s a lot of fabulous nebulae out as well, such as the Crescent Nebula in the consellation Cygnus, or the Dumbbell Nebula in Vulpecula to name but two.
There are still some notable galaxies visible as well, for example in the constellation Draco, such as the Spindle Galaxy and Tadpole Galaxy. Cygnus (The Swan) contains a lot of interesting features also, such as the double star Albireo, or the North America Nebula close to Deneb, and the much-loved Veil Nebula.
As summer disappears, and the nights start to lengthen, you can still capture the Great Rift, but already you’ll start to see the gradual progression of the autumn constellations, such as Aries, Andromeda, Cepheus, Perseus, Cassiopeia and the square of Pegasus. These are home to some truly stunning deep sky objects, not least the Andromeda Galaxy itself, one of the most photographed objects in the night sky, and where a lot of us begin our astrophotography journeys.
Cepheus contains a deep sky object (DSO) that I have come to regard as my astrophotography nemesis – NGC 7023, the Iris Nebula. I’ve had more attempts at this than NASA has had at landing things on Mars, and with far less success! This year though, I’ve opted to make this my big 2021 project and intend gathering data on it with as many opportunities as possible. Again this is entirely weather-dependent of course.
As the autumn progresses further, we see the easily identifiable Pleiades Cluster in the constellation Taurus. This is another one that a lot of us astrophotographers cut our teeth on, and as beautiful as it is, it’s so very easy to get it wrong. The stars themselves are bright, and it can be difficult to pull out the surrounding nebulosity without blowing out those stars. It can be even harder to pull out the darker dust areas surrounding all of that as well. From what I’ve seen a low ISO / gain for the stars themselves, with shorter exposures, and combine those with longer exposures for the nebula and dust clouds seems to be the way to go. And if you’re lucky enough, you’ll capture the hidden gem that rides seemingly alongside the cluster itself. If you’ve already successfully imaged the Pleiades, there’s a strong chance you may already have it! No spoilers from me though, you’ll need to do your own research for this one.
We also see the return of our old friend, Orion, into our night skies, and he becomes more and more prominent as the autumn rolls onwards into the dark cold winter nights.
What better way to start off the winter months than imaging the Pleiades (if you haven’t already done so during the late autumn) and Orion. The latter has so many beautiful and spectacular DSO’s that it’s worth a post in its own right! You have the Great Nebula (M42) itself of course, as well as the spectacular Horsehead and Flame nebulae. You also have the stunning Barnard’s Loop encircling all of that, as well as the Witch Head Nebula and Casper the Friendly Ghost Nebula (M78.) Orion itself makes for an unbelievable widefield image, and you can shoot it at 50mm with an APS-C sensor quite comfortably.
You also have nearby Monoceros, which contains the Rosette Nebula, sometimes referred to as the butthole of universe.
Monoceros also contains the Christmas Tree cluster and Cone Nebula, which make for some truly interesting imagery.
Bordering this, you have the constellation Gemini, containing, among other things, the Jellyfish Nebula, and M35, a large bright elongated open cluster.
As you can see there is ALWAYS something to photograph in the night sky at any given time of year, and at some point I’d love to find the time to go into more detail on each season. I hope though that this brief summary has given you a good starting point and decent overview of what you can capture throughout the year. So for now, heads to the stars, and clear skies all!