Dark Skies at Ontario Provincial Parks
Selkirk and Rock Point offer dark skies for astronomy
During the summer months, I like to leave my light-polluted backyard in the city and travel to some Ontario Campgrounds for some astronomy camping. My two favourite Ontario parks are Rock Point Provincial Park and Selkirk Provincial Park. They both offer fantastic dark skies looking south over Lake Erie.
Stargazing at Selkirk Provincial Park
I had the pleasure of spending a clear, moonless night under the stars at Selkirk Provincial Park in late July. Despite being in the middle of busy season, I was able to book a campsite with open views of the sky. Because the park is located on the Northern shore of Lake Erie, the light pollution to the south is minimal. I decided to use my 3″ Explore Scientific triplet Apochromatic Refractor to image, as my 8″ Orion astrograph has been a bit of a headache for me lately, but that’s another story.
Astronomy at Ontario Campgrounds
It is important to book your campsite around the time of the new moon, to ensure that you are taking full advantage of the limited light-pollution from these areas. You will also want to make sure that you book a campsite that has an open window to the night sky, and is not blocked by the surrounding mature trees. A useful website for previewing each site at Ontario parks campgrounds is Ontario Parks Campsite Pictures. This way you can have a look at each site before you book!
The sky-window from my campsite:
I was hoping to have clear views directly south from my campsite (Site 85), but I ended up having a larger window to the West than expected. This changed my imaging target from Sagittarius, to an object high up above in Cygnus. The wispy nebulosity in NGC 7000 – The North America Nebula captured my attention once again. I settled on an area that included the Pelican Nebula – an object have not yet given a fair attempt at before.
My modified Canon Xsi DSLR did a good job at picking up the bright pink and red nebulosity of the Pelican Nebula. I wonder how many more shutter actuations my old 450d can handle? That old DSLR has been through every type of outdoor condition you could think of – including being completely covered in ice in the heart of winter. If I had to guess, I would say that this camera has at least a 60,000 actuation shutter count. Maybe much more!
Pelican Nebula – Image Details
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED80 with WO Flat III 0.8x FR/FF
Mount: Skywatcher HEQ5 Pro Synscan
Guiding: Meade DSI Pro II and PHD Guiding
Guide Scope: Orion Mini 50mm
Camera: Canon EOS 450D (Modified)
Total Exposure: 1 hour, 50 Minutes (22 x 300s)
Processing Software: Deep Sky Stacker, Photoshop CC
Support Files: 15 darks
As per my usual routine, I shot several exposures (In this case 5 minutes each) at iso 1600. This is the max-iso for this camera, and does produce a fair amount of noise. Luckily, most of this noise is cancelled out in the stacking process by using dark frames. Dark frames are simply exposures of the same length and temperature as “light” frames, but with the lens cap on the camera. I think of it as – Any data that the camera picks up with the lens cap on, is noise. There are no photons to collect. With stacking software (Like Deep Sky Stacker), the isolated noise data is removed from the final image. There are several tutorials online to better describe this process. I will go over the stacking process and workflow in a future post, for anyone interested. For now, I will share a link to the software I use; Deep Sky Stacker. It is currently the only program I use, and I am very happy with it.
Stargazing at it’s finest
The Milky Way was clearly visible to the naked-eye, a sure sign of limited light-pollution and dark skies. Aside from astrophotography, stunning views of the summer constellations and Messier objects are within reach to anyone with a pair of binoculars or a telescope. An amazing surprise we had that night was beautiful pink aurora overhead to the North! I heard reports from back home in St. Catharines that it was quite a show around 2am. Rarely do I see the Northern Lights from Southern Ontario, so it is always a treat. A lazy yellow waning crescent moon rose out of the Eastern horizon around 2am, and with that, it was time to get some much needed sleep!
Selkirk Provincial Park is a great place to go camping with your friends and family in the summer. What attracted me to this park was the dark skies to the South, and the proximity to my home. It was just over an hour drive from St. Catharines. This was my second time to the park this year. Our visit in late May was a very wet experience as their were intense thunderstorms the night we stayed. This time, however, I got the trip I wanted with warm, clear skies all night long. If you are also looking to enjoy some astronomy at Ontario campgrounds, I should remind you to check the forecast and moon phase calendar first. This way you can appreciate the advantages of having darker skies than you are used to in the city.