If you’re an avid photographer or you’re just curious about the night sky, then August is the month to step outside and look up.
At this time of year, the heart of the Milky Way lies directly above your head between 8:00pm and 9:00pm.
“This is when we have the most beautiful skies,” says amateur astronomer and astrophotographer Noeleen Lowndes.
The zodiac constellations of Sagittarius, Scorpius and Ophiuchus are jam-packed with stars and filled with stunning gas and dust clouds called nebulae.
And, at the moment, both Jupiter and Saturn are also in the centre of the galaxy, in the constellation of Sagittarius.
So even if you don’t have a good view of the Milky Way from your backyard, you can still find the heart of the galaxy.
So let’s take a closer look at some of the astrophotography favourites above you right now, with some tips for everyone from beginners to advanced photographers.
“You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to enjoy the night sky,” says Ms Lowndes who spent many nights studying the sky as a young mum before she picked up her first telescope 35 years ago.
“A pair of binoculars or even a small telescope can give you beautiful views of the Moon and the planets.”
But if you want to see the colours of deep sky objects such as nebulae you will need camera.
“You can’t really see those colours with your eyes, only the camera can pick them up,” says Ms Lowndes, who is the president of the Southern Astronomical Society in Queensland.
“That’s why I like using digital SLRs because I get that immediate wow straight away from my pictures.”
Jupiter and Saturn
Jupiter and Saturn, like all planets and the Moon, move across the sky along a line that passes through all the zodiac constellations called the ecliptic.
While the two bright planets appear as a pair in the sky, they are millions of kilometres apart and moving at different rates.
Jupiter takes about a year to move through a constellation, while Saturn takes around two and a half years to do the same.
Both planets were at their brightest in mid-July when they were directly opposite the Sun and closest to Earth, but they are still very prominent in the sky.
“At any time for the next three or four months they’ll be travelling all night through the sky,” Ms Lowndes says.
The two planets are currently bright enough that you can make out Jupiter’s moons in binoculars, says Dylan O’Donnell, an astronomer and astrophotographer based in Byron Bay.
Ms Lowndes took the photos of Jupiter and Saturn (above) last week from her observatory at Leyburn near Toowoomba, using a digital SLR camera attached to a 254 mm (10-inch) telescope.
“To take pictures of planets you need a large-aperture telescope to capture detail,” she says.
“It’s not very often you get to see the surface gases [on Saturn] so uniform and the Cassini division is so clear. It was a very stable and clear night.”
Spotting the centre of the galaxy
Moving higher in the sky you’ll come to the richest part of the Milky Way (although this is much harder to see with the naked eye in areas with light pollution).
If you live in an urban area and you want to catch this part of the sky from your backyard Ms Lowndes suggests looking up when there is no moon (the new moon is August 18) and after 9:00pm when there are less lights.
Four favourites of photographers in the August sky are: the Lagoon Nebula and the Triffid Nebula in Sagittarius, the Eagle Nebula in Serpens; and the Rho Ophiuchi complex on the border of Ophiuchus and Scorpius.
The images of these nebulae will vary depending upon the type of equipment and photo processing used.
Ms Lowndes uses a digital SLR camera with a variety of lenses or attached to a lower-powered 80mm telescope to capture wide field views of stars and deep-sky objects.
“That’s my camera that I use for all my nature shots, so it’s the real colour of the sky that comes down,” Ms Lowndes says.
Mr O’Donnell on the other hand often likes to zoom into nebula so he often uses higher-end telescopes and filters that bring out more of the colours.
Both photographers take multiple images with long exposure times and stack them together in software to create a single photo.
Lagoon and Triffid Nebulae
The Lagoon Nebula (M8) is a classic for beginners to cut their teeth on.
“It’s just so big and bright,” says Mr O’Donnell, who first picked up a telescope around six years ago after seeing a comet in the sky.
The Lagoon Nebula is very close to the red and blue Triffid Nebula (M20)
“They can be imaged in the same field of view with a modest 80mm telescope or camera and telephoto lens set-up,” Ms Lowndes says.
The Eagle Nebula (M16) which is home to the Pillars of Creation made famous by the Hubble Space Telescope, is a smaller nebula so a bit trickier for beginners to capture.
While dark dust lanes give the impression of an eagle with outstretched wings, the pillars can be seen extending upwards through the pink gas in the central area.
The nebula is embedded in a rich starfield that includes two star clusters: NGC 6611 (in front of the nebula) and Trumpler 32 (in the top right).
Her photo above is made up of 40 2-minute images stacked together.
Rho Ophiuchi complex
The Rho Ophiuchi complex on the border of Scorpius and Ophiuchus is so big you don’t even need a telescope to take photos, you just need a standard digital SLR camera, long lens and a tripod.
In the area around Antares the bright orange star at the heart of Scorpius (the star that is flaring in the top of the image on the left) there are blue and pink coloured nebulae, dark dust lanes and globular clusters (such as M4 to the left of Antares)
Ms Lowndes’ image, which was a runner up in the David Malin photography awards, was taken using a 200mm lens and is made up of a series of 20, 5-minute exposures to pick up all the stars and the two planets Saturn (bottom left) and Mars (bottom right) that were in the area at the time.
Mr O’Donnell’s image is taken using a 200mm lens and a series of 30 second exposures over 25 minutes.
“[Rho Ophiuchi] is really quite striking, to [take a photo] without a telescope is fairly straightforward,” Mr O’Donnell says.
And that’s not all…
You don’t need to be an astronomer or astrophotographer to enjoy the night sky. There are some beautiful things you can see with your naked eye, even in the most light polluted areas.
Earlier this month the Moon caught up with Jupiter and Saturn to make a pretty line up. The next opportunity to see this pattern again will be August 29.
But that’s not the only celestial line-up in the sky this month. Also look out for:
August 9: If you’re an early morning riser you’ll see four bright planets (Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) and the Moon stretched out in a line (the ecliptic) across the sky around 4:00am (AEST)
In the evening, the waning moon is close to Mars on the eastern horizon after 11:30pm (AEST). Mars is getting bigger and brighter as it approaches its closest point to Earth in October
- August 15 – 16: The crescent moon is close to Venus around 4:00am in the east.