Observing the Night Sky

December marks the Christmas season, the onset of winter, and the shortest day of the year.  Despite it being “the most wonderful time of the year” according to a favorite holiday song, December provides challenges for those of us who enjoy exploring the outdoors in our Fox River Valley.  The cold and sometimes snowy weather presents its own set of challenges, but a bigger challenge, particularly for people who work a typical 9 to 5 schedule, is the short daylight period available.  I know for me, the work week in December sees me leaving the house in near darkness and returning home at the end of the day long after sunset.

Being a person who enjoys getting out to experience and photograph the natural world in our region, the dark winter days limit my traditional hikes to the weekends.  My solution to this problem has been to put the long hours of darkness to my advantage.  In addition to the traditional nature photography that I enjoy and have shared in this space, I also enjoy using my DSLR camera to engage in some photography of the night sky.  The longer nights provide more time for me to enjoy this pastime.

Expensive Equipment Not Required

Astrophotography can be as simple or complicated as you’d like to make it.  I use relatively inexpensive equipment (an older Canon Rebel DSLR and a couple of modest lenses along with a tripod) that requires only some basic knowledge of camera operation and very little set-up time.   Some advanced astrophotographers use expensive cameras, coupled to expensive telescopes with star-tracking technology, that compensates for the rotation of the Earth, to allow for very long exposure times to get beautifully detailed pictures of stars, planets, nebulae, and galaxies.  While advanced equipment is certainly helpful (and on my wish list!), it’s not necessary to get some beautiful and detailed shots of the night sky.

What Can We See and Photograph?

My DSLR and relatively wide-angle lenses allow me to take nice pictures of a number of constellations and planets, along with the awesome swath of our Milky Way galaxy that is visible from darker areas of the Fox Valley watershed as it arches overhead from the southwest toward the northeast.  From the darkest areas, I’ve been able to get some passable photographs of deep-sky objects such as nebulae (the Great Orion and Ring Nebulae), star clusters like the Pleiades and others, and even the Andromeda galaxy.  Meteors flashing through the sky provide for some unexpected highlights.  Finding the darkest spot available to set up for your night photography is definitely key to getting the best results regardless of the equipment you’re using.  I find the darkest spots that I know of in our watershed are in the southwestern portions of the area encompassing areas in Kendall, DeKalb, and LaSalle counties.  Part of the fun of this hobby is exploring for good dark sky observing spots!   Another fun part of astrophotography is simply being outside after dark and being serenaded by a pack of coyotes!

The bright star Vega and its constellation Lyra shine through the gathering clouds at dusk on December 18, 2020 just west of Leland, LaSalle County, Illinois.
A cropped view of the constellation Lyra featuring the bright star Vega on the right of the frame. The Ring Nebula is visible in this picture about halfway between the two bright stars that form the left side of the parallelogram of stars that form Lyra. This picture was taken from the Middle Fork Forest Preserve in Champaign County, Illinois. This preserve is a recognized International Dark Sky Park and is only a couple of hours drive south of the Fox River watershed. Photo taken on November 5, 2021.
The Pleiades or Seven Sisters is a prominent star cluster that can be seen in the northeastern sky in the early evening/night at this time of year. This picture was taken in mid-January of 2021 at my dark sky observing site west of Leland , Illinois.
This photo is a cropped view of the Andromeda Galaxy, one of the most distant astronomical bodies that can be viewed with the naked eye at about 2.5 million light years away! This picture was taken this past November from the Middle Fork Forest Preserve in Champaign County.

The Great Conjunction

Last December provided a once in a lifetime astronomical event: the ‘Great’ Conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn.  A few days before Christmas last year, these two planets were nearly perfectly aligned from our vantage point here on Earth.  They appeared to be very, very close together even though in reality they were still hundreds of millions of miles apart.  I’ve included a picture of this conjunction with this article along with some other pictures I’ve taken of the night sky over the last year. 

This picture was taken only a few hours after the closest conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn during last year’s Great Conjunction of those two planets on December 22, 2020. Jupiter is the larger and brighter of the two planets visible in the center of the frame while Saturn is slightly smaller and dimmer just to the right and beneath Jupiter. This picture was taken at my dark sky observing site in Leland , Illinois shortly after dusk looking to the southwest.

If you’re interested in engaging in this activity or astronomy in general, I’d highly recommend visiting the Cloudy Nights website for advice and recommendations.  Also, even if you’re not interested in taking pictures, seeing the incredible majesty of the stars against the velvet-black background of space that a dark vantage point affords is really an incredible experience!

Until next month, Happy Holidays!

All photos were taken by Tom Schrader