Tyrone Starry Lake Tranquility & Co. Donegal Zodiacal Light With Aurora - March 6th 2022

It's now meteorological Spring in the northern hemisphere, the days are getting longer and the sun is beginning to warm the ground, and with good fortune nature presented us with a run of excellent clear nights thanks to high pressure and cloudless skies, it was the perfect time for filming and Astrophotography. Spring is also Zodiacal Light season, that pale wedge-shaped apparition which can be seen from dark locations after evening twilight in the west extending through the ecliptic plane. In recent years I've always made considerable effort to the capture and document the Zodiacal Light (ZL) and this year was no exception. February and March present the best observational window period when the angle of the ecliptic is steep in relation to the horizon, and of course one needs a dark moonless night and clear skies.

On March 1st Omagh photographer Paul Martin and I decided to head out on a week night photo shoot to take advantage of these superb clear nights, we had both agreed that it would be shameful not to take advantage of the situation after all the weeks of cloud cover we had been experiencing. Paul and I hooked up at dusk and headed into west Tyrone to seek darker skies and find new locations, it was done on a whim with no real location in mind, we would just go for a drive and see what happened. We arrived on the hills of the west somewhere in the transition zone between Tyrone and Donegal. The sky was very dark, we literally just pulled over on a narrow mountain road and set up the cameras. As dusk faded we could easily discern the ZL, in an instant I would say it was perhaps the best I've ever seen it as a slanted cone of light reaching up to the Pleiades and in my opinion it was close to the brightness of the Milky Way between Cygnus and Cepheus, however slightly more diffuse, it really was great to see it again. We got images from this excellent location however there was one isolated house on the mountain with a very bright security light which completely ruined our composition, we couldn't escape from it so I won't post those images on the website.

We continued driving until Paul found a cool location near a forest which boasted a huge lake inside. We hiked through the forest trails carrying the gear then found a wonderful clearance in the trees which offered us a tremendous view across the lake. It was a dark moonless night with a keen frost with no wind at all so the lake was more or less completely still, at times it was like a mirror. We were instantly struck by how many stars were visible on the surface of the lake, I don't think we have ever seen such fantastic star reflections like it before. This was 15mm on full frame, 8 seconds at ISO6400, you can actually see Milky Way structure, dust clouds and dark obscuration nebulae between Orion, Auriga and Perseus. We were blown away when we looked at the water, there was Orion's Belt, Sword, and the fuzzy glow of M41 visible with the naked eye on the lake, this was truly a tranquil moment, we almost held our breaths as we took in the scene on this frigid silent night.

I shot a short time lapse at 15mm with the same set-up, I used a selection of these stills to make this star trail. It's not often one can capture so many trails reflecting on the water.

We ventured further long the lake and the view became even more spectacular. I cropped this image so the lake dominates the scene, the reflections were outstanding. When you can see star reflections this sharp and clear on a lake you can be certain the water is absolutely still, a rare situation to encounter during a random night out, usually its always breezy, especially in the hills. The visual observers among you might easily recognize Open Cluster Messier 41 in Canis Major below Sirius.

I found this life buoy which made for an interesting foreground prop, I got a nice time lapse sequence here. Of interest are the streaked reflections of Orion's Belt and the red glitter paths from distant wind turbines.

Paul and I found this small wooden jetty, standing on it admiring the stars and reflections was such a peaceful experience. It was -4C however we were so in the zone we didn't really feel the cold that much, and of course we had to take a selfie. I decided take part in the star count project which asked members of the public to count how many stars they could see within the four principle bright stars of Orion, I counted 30 naked eye stars which I think was a very respectable result and a testament to the dark skies in this part of the country.

On March 4th I was out exploring the countryside, of course my mind is never far from Spring and Summer storm chasing so I was on the hunt for promising storm spotting locations in the Sperrins. I ended up above Lough Fea looking west across the Sperrins, the view was beautiful in the sunshine. There was also a convective outlook issued, weak 50 SBCAPE however with a cool pool aloft with -30c air and NWly flow, as a result convective hail showers were forecast with a low chance of thunder. I noticed that the sun was now stronger and solar heating was definitely agitating Cumulus clouds inland, I felt we were getting close to storm season. Just as I was entertaining these thoughts several Towering Cumulus came into view, the lead tower formed into a nice cell which dropped a well formed hail core. I got the drone in the air and flew out to take a look, dry puffy hail stones fell from the sky hitting me in the face and bouncing off the tablet screen, I could also see hail falling past the drone camera, I recorded video and several stills, in this image you see the hailstones streaking through the air.

Later that night I met up with John Fagan at Beaghmore Stone Circles in Co. Tyrone, John was using his sky tracker to capture tracked images of Orion with the intention of capturing Barnard's Loop, this involved a lot of exposures and dark frames. We had watched the slender crescent moon with earthshine set, which I time lapsed, then darkness arrived with the ZL. I had the 10" Dobsonian set-up to begin an evening of deep sky observing and I had several moderately faint comets I wanted to find. I had just found L3 ATLAS in Gemini when a car pulled up, a group of guys came out, they explained they had seen the telescope while passing and had always wanted to look through one, so I showed them M42, M81 and M82, M1 and we all had a great chat about the sky which we really enjoyed, it was nice to see such interest in the stars and to meet very nice people. No sooner had they left when an elderly gentleman and his Son arrived for the same reason, so we ended up giving another sky tour. I never got to use the telescope much myself however it was gratifying to help others learn the stars so that was of greater importance than my observing plan for this night. Frozen, we called it a night at 12am, it was time to get home as we had a big adventure planned the following day, a day and night shoot at a new location in Co. Donegal.

We decided to devote a day of such perfect weather to a full length photo shoot in Co. Donegal. John Fagan and I met Paul Martin in Omagh and Paul very kindly volunteered to drive us which was very decent of him, this worked out well as we could chat and discuss plans all in the same vehicle and Paul's jeep had plenty of room for all our camera gear, snacks and clothes, we also had his Dog Oscar along for the trip. The drive really got us buzzing, even though it was only March the bright high sun and blue skies reminded us of a proper Summer's day, we all admitted it felt odd because normally this situation with us all together in daylight would be for a big storm chase.

We made good time with several stops along the way and before long we where in Donegal, we had explored the northern section before so this time we targeted the W/SW, Paul had a location in mind he wanted to check out. We stopped at a famous look out point overlooking the distant Mullaghmore with a wonderful view across the ocean and a brew and snacks in the sunshine, it felt like being on holiday. We then stopped at Killybegs Harbour and admired the huge fishing vessels, I've never seen so many fishing trawlers in one place in all my life, then we moved on around the coast and stopped once more at a famous look out point, we were immediately in awe of the beauty before us.

We couldn't pass this opportunity up, the light was superb and the landscape was stunning, I had never actually been here before in my life, we wasted no time. John began shooting DSLR landscape images and Paul and I got the drones in the air, he was flying the DJI Air 2S and I was using my old faithful DJI Mavic 2 Pro. I burned through one full battery here recording footage (see below) and shooting aerial stills from various perspectives, I can't post all of the images on here so here are just a few of my favourite scene.

You see that headland below and to the left, that's where we would end up for our night shoot however we didn't know it at the time.

Flying back over land, I love the light here contrasting with the white cottages and the shadows of the stone walls, and of course the mountain in the background.

We were all in our element here and really didn't want to leave however it wasn't long until sunset and we had a lot of cold hours ahead of us so we needed to get something warm to eat. We headed back into Killybegs and sampled one of the local takeaways, then we sat on the wall beside the sea overlooking the fishing vessels in the harbour and indulged, I had a curry chip, that really warmed me up. It was a nice moment sitting by the sea watching the sun set and the veil of warm light slowly moving across the vessel masts, then dusk arrived.

The temperature was dropping fast, Paul and I waited a while until it was dark enough yet still twilight, we found that sweet spot when all the boats and town were lit up with lights yet blue hour was still present in the sky, then we got the drones up once more.

I took plenty of images however this one was my favourite. 180 degree panorama of the entire headland, harbour, town, twilight arch and even the crescent Moon, there was even a sunset afterglow hugging the horizon. That dark headland on the left is where we would soon end up for our night shoot. As darkness fell we returned to our early position on the look out, we where there for the ZL, however we were also aware of aurora potential from a solar wind stream, however the set-up didn't indicate anything significant so the ZL came first, and if the aurora did appear it would be the icing on the cake. It turned out our position on the road was not ideal, as the Earth rotated the ZL would move behind the mountain and the aurora would be blocked completely, I even hiked a bit up the mountain in the dark to seek a better view, I found it however a field of power lines and poles cut rite though the W/NW sky so I climbed back down to brain storm with the guys. John suggested going to lower ground to get out of the wind with the headland outside Kilcar being a possibility, it would offer us a better view to the W and NW, so we jumped in the jeep and made our way there.

That was a very good decision, we drove along the dark headland until the road ran out. I then grabbed my two cameras and walked further out across the sand dunes and got set up on a hill looking across the sea. I was instantly impressed by how dark the sky was here, we have dark skies at home however this definitely has that extra edge thanks to less light pollution. The ZL was instantly visible, a tilted cone of light over 60 degrees (120 moon diameters) high where it emerged with the Pleiades, the light even faded away into the Milky Way in Auriga, then as I turned to the east I could see the Gegenschein (counter glow) between Leo and Cancer. I also noticed a glow to the north which I knew was the aurora stirring, I set up the full frame 5D Mark IV with 15-30mm F/2.8 lens and began shooting a time lapse, ISO6400, 6-8 sec exposures at 15mm, tungsten WB.

The waxing crescent moon with Earthshine was embedded within the ZL, I let the camera do its thing while I took in the sky around me, M33 was relatively easy if you know where to look, and I re-did the star count in Orion and bagged 35 naked eye stars in the same area, and that was with a crescent moon present. I then noticed the aurora growing, in the distance I heard yells from Paul and John coming from somewhere in the darkness, I knew they were reacting to the aurora coming alive. I could easily see pale naked eye pillars moving above the horizon glow and at times ghostly fingers would extent over the top of the mountain I had been standing on earlier.

I set up my second camera, the 600D with 10mm F/2.8 lens using auto WB, because ISO1600 was my highest usable ISO I had to take exposures of 25 sec's, compared to 6-8 sec's with the full frame, so now I had two cameras shooting time lapse. When I looked at the images of the ZL I was delighted by what I saw, I had also captured auroral rays at the edge of frame, so I had the ZL and aurora in the same camera field of view, this was a new first for me, this moment alone completely validated the trip, and to have this moment time lapsed made it extra special. The ZL is caused by sunlight scattered off dust particles within our solar system, the consensus had always been that the dust originated from ancient comets and asteroids, however recent evidence now suggests that the dust actually comes from huge dust storms on planet Mars, it's amazing to think that you are seeing Martian dust glowing in the sky. The aurora of course is caused by charged particles from the Sun interacting with the Earth's magnetic field, a visual manifestation of the Earth being attacked by the sun, witnessing these two phenomena with the naked eye together in unison is a magical experience.

The aurora was getting my attention so I turned the 5D to the north for several exposures and a short time lapse. It wasn't an impressive aurora visually however it was surprisingly photogenic on camera, I never saw any dominate colour with the naked eye, which is rare as I usually always see some colour, but the camera sensor detected greens, reds, and purple, the Milky Way was also present in the scene, it seemed all the boxes were being ticked tonight.

Settting moon with glitter path, faint glow of ZL above and green auroral arc to the right. When the moon set you could literally see the sky getting darker within minutes, it was quite notable like being experiencing an eclipse.

After moonset during total darkness with ZL, Orion, Hyades, Pleiades with M31, M33, M34 and Double Cluster, this was 13 sec's at 15mm ISO6400. I had such a great time standing within the sand dunes under the stars at a brand new location watching the ZL and aurora, however now it was getting extremely cold and the aurora had faded and we had a long drive back home so we gathered up our gear and met up at the jeep, got a brew and snacks and warmed up then began the drive back. This day and night was a complete success, we were delighted to have made the effort, we had a fun adventure and a nice memory to look back on for years to come. When John and I got back to our cars in Omagh the windscreens were covered with solid ice, the temp was -4C, but thankfully the roads were bone dry despite the cold so the drive back was easy.

Full DSLR time lapse of the ZL and aurora captured with the Canon 5D Mark IV with Tamron 15-30mm F/2.8 and Canon 600D with Samyang 10mm F/2.8 at tungsten and auto white balance.

Drone footage of our Kilcar area headland in Donegal in great sunshine followed by a short clip of Killybegs harbour at night. This certainly won't be our last trip to Donegal and we hope to return in the future during special occasions. Thanks very much for reading


Martin McKenna

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