There’s nothing like escaping the lights of the city, stepping out of your vehicle and being greeted by millions upon millions of stars. This is just one of the many advantages we have living in rural Rim Country and being so far from the light pollution of the big cities.
Astronomers estimate that our sun is just one of the 100 thousand million stars in our Milky Way Galaxy alone. A 2013 study indicated that there are 225 billion galaxies in the observable universe. In 2016, with newer technology, that number was upped to 2 trillion. So, if I’ve done my math correctly, that means that the universe consists of 2,000 quadrillion stars, give or take a few.
If we lived in the Valley or another metropolis, we would have to drive many miles just to see a single star. This is just one of the many blessings we have living the good life in the Payson area.
In our Northern Hemisphere, each year from late February through early November, a cluster of stars appears in either the southeast or south sky, depending on the time we view it. Many of us refer to this cluster as “The Milky Way.” But technically, what we are seeing is a cluster of stars that make up the core, or center, of our Milky Way Galaxy. And our Earth is not anywhere near the center. NASA says we’re roughly 165 quadrillion miles from the core.
Seeing the Milky Way is always a thrilling experience for most of us. But to see the core in all of its magnificence, conditions have to be just right. The viewer needs to drive to a dark area, away from city light pollution. The sky needs to be clear of clouds, smoke and humidity, so the stars will appear sharp. Last, the moon needs to be absent from the sky at the time of viewing. So it’s not quite as easy as just walking out of our front doors and looking up.
Due to the Earth’s tilt (which brings us summer and winter), the best time to see the Milky Way becomes earlier as the year goes by. In the Northern Hemisphere in late winter, the Milky Way will both rise and set above the horizon just before dawn, so the best (and only) viewing time is between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m.
In late spring, a good time for observing the Milky Way is between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Just a week or so ago I took my annual May wee-hours-of-the-morning trip to Pine and snapped a few shots of the Milky Way core just after 2:30 a.m.
In the late summer and early fall, I’ve found that the Earth will have tilted enough that viewing the Milky Way is best between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m., perhaps a much more sane time to leave one’s home to venture out into the darkness.
I’ve found that photographing the Milky Way core can be both exhilarating and frustrating, often experiencing some of each during the same shoot. If you have never tried photographing the Milky Way core, but would like to give it a try, here are a few tips that may help you get started:
• In the daylight, scout out a location that is away from city lights and has an unobstructed south to southeast view. It’s good to be familiar with your location before going on the nighttime shoot.
• A cellphone just won’t work for this type of photography. A decent DSLR camera will, as a long exposure time is a must. A sturdy tripod is also required.
• Make sure you wear warm clothing or have it in your vehicle, as the nights in central Arizona cool off quickly.
If you’re an experienced photographer who has not yet tried your luck with astro-photography, but want to give it a go, these are the camera settings I have used for the past several years and have had decent luck: shutter exposure time: 10 seconds, f/stop: 2.8 or as low as your camera will go, ISO: 3,200. Post processing of your photos will be needed.
If you have any Milky Way photography questions, please give me a jingle at 928-468-1482. Also, you can sign up at Eastern Arizona College (our local community college) for the intermediate photography course I will be teaching this fall. You can also register online and if you’re 55 or over, there is no charge for the class. Milky Way photography is just one of many different areas of photography we will be exploring.