Arizona Photographer Escapes Monsoon Rains to Capture Saturn in Beautiful Clarity

An Arizona-based photographer traveled to great lengths in search of the perfect weather needed to capture the planet Saturn on Sunday during opposition.

The irony is that astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy would end up capturing Saturn from California, where he had recently moved to Arizona in search of darker skies for his work.

“The southwest got a lot of cloud and rain overnight,” McCarthy said. “It’s, you know, quite frustrating for this photographer who recently moved to Arizona to escape this. I knew the monsoons were coming, but apparently this year is particularly bad.”

Below is an example of the booming, cloudy conditions McCarthy faced.

Seeking relief from the current monsoon season, McCarthy left her home in Arizona to capture some celestial events, including August’s recent full moon and Saturn’s opposition. According to NASA, opposition is the point where Saturn is directly opposite the Sun from our night sky. This also happens during Saturn’s perigee, when the planet is closest to Earth, making it even more prominent and brighter than usual.

After a trip to Sacramento, he began to return home, thinking he would find a place to capture Saturn along the way.

Yuma, Arizona initially had a promising forecast with calm skies, so that’s where McCarthy was en route when the forecast changed.

“With planetary photography, it’s very different from a lot of other types of celestial photography because the planets themselves are so small. The air currents will just fold over the image of Saturn and Jupiter or whatever and completely murky details,” McCarthy explained. “So it’s very important that you get the calmest skies possible, and that goes all the way up to the upper atmosphere.”

Los Angeles isn’t known for its clear skies, but forecasts on Sunday called for five out of five clear skies over downtown. Once again, McCarthy changed his route and headed to LA.

“I found a parking lot with an upper level that was completely empty,” McCarthy said. “I got out my telescope and all my stuff and started filming Saturn.”

After a few hours, McCarthy produced an incredibly detailed image of Saturn and its rings. The bright lights around the planet are some of Saturn’s moons.

Using a telescope and two cameras, McCarthy used an infrared light filter to capture the shape of the planet and rings. The image above is actually made up of multiple images layered together to capture the stunning detail of Saturn and its rings.

“It reduces the amount of light that passes through and shifts it to infrared, which is going to scatter a lot less than shorter wavelengths, like blue. And that allowed me to get really sharp detail on the planet, a ring with really defined edges and, of course, just gorgeous, beautiful shape of the planet.”

He then used a color camera to put it all together.

“By mixing those images together I was able to kind of get the best of both worlds where I had to use the infrared which really narrowed things down, I had the individual color filters which made me gave a lot of color depth, which is why I like the cloud bands on the scatter to have distinct colors,” McCarthy said.

Now back in Arizona, McCarthy said he’s still excited to make it his new home base.

“For Arizona’s defense, the skies have been amazing so far. So it’s that monsoon season,” he said. “Overall, it’s still the right decision for me for what I’m doing because in Sacramento it would be like fog in the winter and smoke in the summer. There was never a good time.”

Even though the monsoon season was bad for astrophotography, McCarthy learned to hone his skills creating beautiful images of powerful lightning and thunderstorms.

McCarthy believes he got serious about astrophotography before the Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017. During the pandemic, he made the switch and now captures celestial images full-time.

You’ll likely see some of his detailed images of the moon because NASA is using them to promote the upcoming Artemis 1 launch, including a 30ft banner hanging in front of the Space Launch System rocket.

You can find more of McCarthy’s work on his website where he explains his photographic processes in detail.

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