Night Light of the North Coast: The Changing Milky Way

On February 21, 2018, the Galactic Core (I think of it in capitals) rose at 02:57AM, appearing just a little south of east. By 05:00 when I photographed it, it was 18º above the horizon, and the dawn would soon chase it away. The streaks of light in this self portrait are from my light as I walked up the hill during the exposure.

I think many people take the night sky for granted, not realizing all that is happening in our view. It’s the night sky, what is there to think about, right? When the weather is clear, it is full of stars, there is a moon, which is probably full, or else it’s a crescent, and maybe the Milky Way. Oh, and some of those stars could be planets. And, hey, look, isn’t that the Big Dipper? But as I have been photographing and observing the heavens, my own appreciation has grown.

Admittedly, I’m no authority on the subject of astronomy. But my nighttime photographs do serve as studies of the sky at night. And though when taking them my thoughts are mostly on the esthetics of the shot, examining the last year of images does reveal to me some of the ways our night sky changes through the months and seasons.

In particular, the portion of the Milky Way that we can see shifts dramatically through the year as Earth’s night side  — our window to the stars — changes its angle of view night by night in our journey around the sun.

Here at the end of a year I thought I’d share a few images that show the changing Milky Way from February through the end of October. I haven’t photographed the Milky Way much in the months between November and January, in part because the weather is less favorable, but also because the best part of the Milky Way, the galactic core, is no longer visible to us during those months; it has slipped out of view, leaving only the thinner stretches of it visible.

By late February, the Milky Way’s core is once again visible, but only in the wee hours of the morning. The earliest in the year I have photographed it (so far) was on the cold, snowy morning of February 21, 2018, up by the Kneeland airport. At that time of year the core is rising in the east shortly before it is overpowered by the dawn. I pried myself out of bed at 03:00 AM to photograph it, telling myself that if I didn’t go out, then I wouldn’t bring anything back.

As the weeks pass, the core will rise a little earlier each morning, closer to midnight each day, until finally it is visible a little before midnight in later April. My Goldilocks zone is before midnight; after midnight means either staying up too late or getting up too early. Though the core is the most spectacular region to photograph, the thinner stretch of it is often visible when the core is not, and it also offers a compelling reminder of how far the vastness of space, of which our galaxy is but a minuscule grain of sand, is beyond our imagination.

To see previous entries of “Night Light of the North Coast,” click on my name above the article. If you’d like to keep abreast of my most current photography or peer into its past, you can follow me on Instagram at @david_wilson_mfx . I update my website mindscapefx.com less frequently, but you can contact me there.

By mid May, catching the Milky Way’s core is no longer an early morning activity. Its position above the horizon a little after 10PM is similar to where it was in February at 05:00AM. This photograph is from somewhere on Monument Road outside of Rio Dell with model Morgan Crowl, May 14, 2018.

Mid-June finds the angle of the Milky Way a little higher in the late night sky. This old fire truck from the Sprowel Creek Volunteer Fire Company in southern Humboldt was photographed on June 6, 2018 at about 11:00 PM.

The Milky Way is higher still in this image photographed after 11:00PM in on July 18, 2018 up where the Kneeland Road meets the Galactic Core. Each night the Milky Way rises form a point a little further to the right. Here it rises from the horizon just west of south.

Photographed September 21, 2017 after 11:00 PM, the Core is lower now, and the Milky Way is rising almost straight up from the horizon, and a little further to the west.

The Milky Way rises from just south of due west as the crescent moon sets between two friends at Moonstone Beach on the evening of November 10, 2018. Two months earlier saw the Milky Way rising from a point that would have been nearer the left edge of the photo in relation to the setting moon. By this time of year the Galactic Core has all but disappeared beneath the horizon.

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15 comments

  • Willie Caso-Mayhem

    Merry Christmas David and thanks for the morning pic’s.

  • It’s like the hand of a clock sweeping across the sky! I didn’t realize how much it changes throughout the year. Beautiful!

  • Thank you for these views and the others you have shared.
    We sleep outside when we can in the summer months under our dark skies, watching the changes in the celestial sphere and the Milky Way as it rotates above us. Yum. Consider photographing from the top of Black Lassic sometime. It is a stunningly expansive view.

  • artist formerly known as wildman

    Nice David. Really like the Morgan shot. You must have had the legs of the light hidden by her body. Excellent work.

  • Good stuff once again. 3:00am is pretty early, but maybe I can make one of those missions some time!
    Happy Holidays!

  • Thanks, good people.
    When growing up I’d sometimes look up at the night sky and notice that the Milky Way wasn’t there. I remember vaguely wondering why, but the casual periodic observations didn’t yield any insight, and I never thought too far into it. It wasn’t until planning photographic compositions with the Milky Way in them that I realized that I really had to track it and keep up with it if I were to plan the shots effectively as it marched across the sky through the seasons. It has been a pretty amazing exercise in observation, and after photographically chasing the Milky Way as we’ve orbited the sun a few times, the apparent motion that it takes really makes sense to me in light of how Earth’s rotation, it’s tilt relative to the orbital plane, and our planet’s orbit around the sun combine to give us a slightly different nighttime view of the cosmos with each passing night through the year.
    I think I’m hooked.

  • Too bad it’s all a simulation. The latest physics escapes the photog.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulation_hypothesis

    That’s okay, the cultish spell of the digital age has him entranced.

    • You’re right — you’re a Holodeck program I’ve been running… but you aren’t supposed to realize it. I’ll have to make some adjustments.

  • Your photos are absolutely spectacular! Thanks so much for sharing them.

  • Oh fuck yeah bud!

  • All the photos are good, but I particularly like the last one. Sharing and contemplating.

  • Rise of The Galatic Core

    What if your birthday was on day of the rise of the galactic core would that mean in that in your own space in time the stars of the universe lined up perfectly just for you? Wouldnt that be amazing? What would this mean? I wonder what the Native American’s and great astrologists that have lived on this planet would think of that?.

  • I really appreciated your photos and your time to do this. I am an amateur astronomer and plan on getting a 10- inch Dobsonian soon. I would like to contact you when I do. Again, thank you.

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