New Years Milky Way and the Orion Axis of Nebula

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Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you enjoyed your holidays, had a wonderful Christmas, and are currently having a happy first few days of 2014!

For weeks, I’ve been waiting for this one window of opportunity to occur…an opening in the weather, which has kept the skies clouded over for the bulk of December and much of November. Cloudy skies make for bored astronomers and astrophotographers. Well, as it so happened, the first two days of the new year were that window…January 1st and 2nd offer clear skies…and, tonight (the 2nd) is the first meteor shower of the year: The Quadrantid Meteors. (More on the meteors in a bit.)

Last night, I drove about 40 miles out of down to a random road I’d never been on before: Comanche Creek Road, off Highway 86 out a ways on the plains. Skies were pretty dark here…to the west, you could easily see the huge light bubbles of Denver and Colorado Springs, however they were in part obstructed by some hills. The sky overhead was not completely clear of light pollution (need to drive over 100 miles far out into the plains, a good ways south of Limon, CO…or deep into the mountains), but it is FAR darker and clearer than my backyard. The difference in the number of stars is rather incredible…I can pick out the big ones, all the major stars of the major constellations, all of which are in the magnitude as low as 3, with maybe some mag 4s. Out on Comanche Creek Rd. I could see at least triple the number of stars, and everything was quite brilliant. It’s about a 40 minute drive, and a very quiet, untraveled little road.

Off to the side where i parked was a stand of trees, and it ended up making a wonderful foreground backdrop to the milky way, which in that region of the sky is nestled up nice and close to my favorite constellation, Orion:

The constellation of Orion nestles up nice and close next to the winter band of the Milky Way. This region of the milky way is art of the galactic disc, the heart of the galaxy and it's bright bubble are visible during the summer months.

The constellation of Orion nestles up nice and close next to the winter band of the Milky Way. This region of the milky way is art of the galactic disc, the heart of the galaxy and it’s bright bubble are visible during the summer months.

Speaking of Orion, thanks to the dark skies, I was finally able to capture a wide field image of the “axis of nebula”, as I like to call it: Orion Nebula (M42), De Mairan’s Nebula (M43), Horse Head Nebula (in front of emission nebula IC434…the pinkish-red swath of light behind the dark and dusty horse head), Flame Nebula, and a reflection nebula higher above and to the left of Flame called M78:

The "Axis of Nebula" in the constellation of Orion. Spanning from M78 in the upper left, through Flame and Horse Head nebulas in the center, down to M43 and Orion Nebula (M42) in the lower right.

The “Axis of Nebula” in the constellation of Orion. Spanning from M78 in the upper left, through Flame and Horse Head nebulas in the center, down to M43 and Orion Nebula (M42) in the lower right.

I’m pretty satisfied with this shot. It is a stack of 30 light frames (forgot to take dark and bias frames, so it’s a bit noisy…it was VERY cold last night, less than 20 degrees, and the wind eventually picked up, which made it feel MUCH colder, and I ended up packing it in well before I had originally intended to.) I think this is about as good as I can do with my current equipment…I’ll need a telescope on a quality tracking mount to do any better (although I intend to visit those dark skies again sometime soon here, and use my 600mm lens, see if I can get some better close-up shots of Flame, Horse Head, Orion, and M78 nebulas.)