Planetary Alignment

Planetary Alignment – simulation at time of photo 258. (Click on the figure for added detail.)

Over the month of June we were treated to a rare celestial event, with five planets aligning in the early morning sky. On certain days, the moon would also join in, so I made plans to head out to watch the event (and make photos of course) last Friday. Roberta really enjoys astronomy, so of course she was planning to brave the alpine start and head out with me. Sadly, she wasn’t feeling well, and had to skip this.

I did my research before the event, of course, so I knew I wanted to be in place between 0400-0500, in an area with unobstructed views to the east and south. And because I wanted to anchor my photo, I also wanted something in the foreground. Depending on what I was after, there were a few options, but in the end I went with the simplest and closest, heading out to Qawra. Driving at 0330 is great, as there’s hardly anyone on the roads.

Planetary Alignment. (Click on the photo for added detail.)

I walked down to Qawra point, below the restaurant that still keeps the name (Ta’ Fra Ben) by which many locals know the place. I had both my ultra-wide angle lenses with me, and initially set up with the 17-40mm at its widest. I knew Saturn wouldn’t fit, but I figured I wanted some shots with the planets closest to the moon. As I was making some test exposures, something bright passed by between Venus and the moon. I think it was a Starlink satellite. (See photo 243 above.)

Planetary Alignment. (Click on the photo for added detail.)

I also experimented with some exposures specifically for the crescent moon, which one cannot tell from the principal exposure. The night sky has some very hard contrast, with the moon several stops brighter than the rest of the scene. In the end, though, I decided to keep the photos as single exposures, as it all felt more realistic.
Eventually I switched to the 14mm, which has a wider field of view and also has the advantage of a faster aperture, letting in more light. I recomposed to get Saturn in, but sadly this also meant that the background glow of Pembroke, St Julian’s, Sliema, etc, also got in the frame. The bright lights in front are those on the coast road, in that section just past Salina.

Planetary Alignment. (Click on the photo for added detail.)

Eventually, the pre-dawn sky started becoming brighter, which was the more interesting part of the event for me. At this time, Mercury would also be above the horizon (the simulation at the top is at the exact time as the photo above), though sadly I couldn’t see it. I guessed there was some fog on the horizon, which became evident later.

Planetary Alignment. (Click on the photo for added detail.)

To cap things off I also took a long exposure of a few minutes. Obviously this is less interesting astronomically, but it does show up the landscape really nicely. At this point I swapped lenses to the really long telephoto, with 1.4x teleconverter, to try my luck at some photos of the moon and Jupiter. It is possible, but none of my results were good enough to share. The most difficult aspects of this are motion blur (rather obvious, given the extreme focal length) and the exaggerated contrast that there is in the night sky. I did manage to see the three Galilean moons (Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto) that were visible (Io being behind the planet), and at a much lower exposure even managed to get the disk of Jupiter show up clearly as a planet with coloured bands. (Just a few pixels across, of course, but to me still rather fascinating.) I also hung around for sunrise (about another hour) but unfortunately this was rather uneventful.


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