Chasing Meteors


Geminid Meteor Radiant in Gemini

Meteors were raining down the sky on the peak night of the Geminid meteor shower.

Back in August, when I wrote my column for the November-December issue of our Canadian magazine SkyNews, I noticed how good the circumstances were this year for the annual Geminid meteor shower. Normally one of the best showers of the year, if not the best, the Geminids were really going to perform in 2017.

The Moon was near new so its light would not interfere. For western North America, the peak of the shower was also timed for midnight on the night of December 13/14, just when the radiant of the shower was high in the sky.

Raining Geminid Meteors
The Geminids rain down the sky from the radiant in Gemini high overhead on peak night.

So in August when I saw the favourable combination of circumstances, I decided a meteor chase was in order. While the shower would be visible from home, Geminid peak night in December is often bitterly cold or cloudy at home in Alberta.

So I planned a trek to Arizona, for the shower and the winter sky.

While skies at home proved decent after all, it was still a chase worth making, with the shower visible under the perfectly clear and dry skies of southeast Arizona.

My chosen site was the Quailway Cottage near the Arizona Sky Village, the chosen dark sky site for many amateur astronomers, and at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains. Skies are dark!

Sky Dust - Interplanetary and Interstellar
The Zodiacal Light (left) and Milky Way over the Chiricahuas.

The Zodiacal Light was brilliant in the southwest sky for several hours after sunset. A tough sighting at this time of year from most sites, this glow was obvious in the Arizona sky. It is sunlight reflecting off cometary dust particles in the inner solar system.

Geminid Meteor Shower in the Winter Milky Way
Geminids streaking from Gemini as the winter sky rises.

On the peak night, the visual impression was of meteors appearing at a rate of at least one a minute, if not more frequently.

Geminid Meteor Radiant in Gemini
A tracked composite looking up toward Orion and Gemini.

The images here are all composites of dozens of exposures taken over 2 to 5 hours, stacking many meteors on one frame. So they do provide an exaggerated record of the shower. Meteors weren’t filling the sky! But you certainly did not have to wait long for one to appear, making this one of the best meteor showers in many years.

Geminid Meteors over the Chiricahuas
Geminids falling over the Chiricahuas as Orion sets at the end of the peak night.

Most of the Geminids were of average brightness. I didn’t see, nor did the camera catch many very bright “bolides,” the really brilliant meteors that light up the ground.

Bright Geminid Meteor Descending
A bright Geminid pierces Ursa Major.

Nevertheless, this was a night to remember, and a fine way to end what has been a superlative year of stargazing, with a total solar eclipse, great auroras, and for me, a wonderful stay under southern skies on an April trip to Australia.

All the best of the season to you and your family and friends. Clear skies!

Here’s to 2018, which begins with a total eclipse of the Moon on January 31.

— Alan, December 23, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

 

Meteor Shower over the VLA


Raining Meteors over the VLA Dishes

Meteors from the Geminid shower rain over the dishes of the VLA radio telescope.

Sunday night was a prime night for the annual Geminid meteor shower, one of the best of the year. To capture it, I traveled to the Plains of San Agustin in the high desert of New Mexico.

It’s there that the National Radio Astronomy Observatory operates the 27 dishes of the Very Large Array radio telescope, one of the most photogenic – and photographed – astronomical facilities in the world.

I set up at a viewing point near the entrance, to look northwest over the dishes, arrayed that night, and all season, in its most compact configuration, with all the dishes clustered closest together.

It was an active meteor shower! One particularly bright meteor left a persistent “train” – a smoke trail that lasted over 15 minutes. It creates the fuzzy cloud around the meteor at right. The bright bolide is on two frames, as the shutter closed then opened again as the meteor was still flying! So its bright streak got cut in two. Pity!

I shot with two cameras. The image here is from one, using a 35mm lens to shoot 334 frames over 3 hours. Each exposure was 32 seconds at f/2 and at ISO 3200.

I’ve taken about two dozen of the frames, the ones with meteors, and stacked them here, with the sky and ground coming from one frame. The camera was not tracking the sky.

Bands of natural airglow and clouds illuminated by the lights of Albuquerque to the north add colour to the sky.

I would have shot for longer than three hours, but this was a very cold night, with a brisk wind and temperatures below freezing. A snowstorm had even closed some roads the day before. Three hours was enough on the high plains of San Agustin this night.

— Alan, December 14, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

 

A Plethora of Perseids


A composite depicting the Perseid meteor shower on the night of Wednesday, August 12, 2015 as shot from southern Alberta, Canada.  The image takes in a wide swath of the north and eastern sky, including the radiant of the shower in Perseus at left of centre, near the Double Cluster visible as a clump of stars. All the Perseids can be traced back to this point. Also in the image: the summer Milky Way and, at left, a dim aurora in green and magenta that was barely visible to the eye but was picked up by the camera. The Andromeda Galaxy is at centre. The Pleiades is just on the horizon. Apart from some haze from forest fire smoke, it was a near perfect night: warm, dry, just a little wind to keep the bugs at bay, and no Moon. A perfect night for a meteor watch.  This is a layered stack of 35 images recording three dozen meteors (most Perseids but also a couple of sporadics not aimed back to the radiant in Perseus, such as the bright one at far left).  The 35 images were selected from 200 shot from 11 pm to 2:30 am that night, with most frames not picking up any meteors. This composite is from the 35 taken over the 3.5 hours that did record a meteor. Each exposure is 1 minute at f/2.8 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye, on the Canon 5D MkII at ISO 3200 (a couple of the early shots in the sequence were at ISO 1600 for 2 minutes).  The camera was tracking the sky on the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer tracker, so all images of the stars are aligned and registered out of the camera, with the meteors in their proper position relative to the stars and radiant. I masked out a couple of satellite and aircraft trails that were distracting, and took away from the point of illustrating the radiant of the meteor shower.  The horizon, however, is from one image, taken early in the sequence. Some of the blue in the sky comes from one of the early shots taken in deep twilight but that contained a nice meteor. And I liked the blue it added.  All stacking and processing with Adobe Ca

It was a good year for Perseid meteors, as they shot across the sky in abundance on dark-of-the-Moon nights.

Last week, August 11 and 12 proved to be superb for weather in southern Alberta, with clear skies and warm temperatures perfect for a night of watching and shooting meteors.

On both nights I had identical camera rigs running, all from my rural backyard. These images are from the peak night, Wednesday, August 12.

The main image at top is with a 15mm ultra wide lens, on a camera that was tracking the sky as it turned. Like many meteor photos these days it is a layered stack of many images, in this case 35, to put as many meteors as possible onto one frame.

While the result does illustrate the effect of meteors streaking away from the radiant point, here in Perseus, it does lend a false impression of what the shower was like. It took me 3.5 hours of shooting to capture all of those meteors.

Note the aurora as well.

The Perseid meteor shower on peak night of Wednesday, August 12, 2015, showing meteors radiating from the “radiant point” in northern Perseus, then rising in the northeast sky. One bright sporadic, non-Perseid meteor is at left, and a small sporadic is near the horizon at right. The meteor at far left, top, may be a satellite streak.  The Andromeda Galaxy is at upper right. A dim aurora is at left in the northeast. The setting is a ripening canola field at home.  This is a stack of 16 images, one for the “base layer” ground and sky, containing a bright meteor, and 15 other images taken as part of the same sequence, each containing a meteor, layered with Photoshop using Lighten blend mode. I rotated each of the additional “meteor layers” around Polaris at upper left, so the sky aligned closely, putting the meteors in close to their correct position relative to the stars, to accurately illustrate the radiant effect. This was necessary as this sequence was shot with a fixed, non-tracking camera (the Canon 6D) using a 14mm Rokinon lens at f/2.8. Each exposure was 1 minute at ISO 3200. The 16 meteor frames came from a set of 212 frames taken over 3.5 hours. I layered in only the frames with meteors.  Frames were taken from 11 pm to 2:30 am MDT.

With this camera I used a wide 14mm lens, but with the camera on a fixed tripod. I again blended frames, 16 of them, to show the meteors radiating from Perseus.

Because the camera was not tracking the sky, later in Photoshop I rotated each frame relative to a lower “base-level” image, rotating them around Polaris at top as the sky does, in order to line up the stars and have the meteors appear in their correct position relative to the background stars and radiant point.

Note the errant bright “sporadic” meteor not part of the shower.

The Perseid meteors shooting through Cygnus and the Summer Triangle area of the summer Milky Way, on the night of Wednesday, August 12, 2015. Deneb is the star at top left, Vega at top right, and Altair at bottom. The Perseids shoot across the frame from top left to bottom right. Other streaks are sporadic meteors or short satellite trails. I masked out other long satellite trails that were distracting to the image’s focus on depicting Perseids. This is a stack of 24 images, each with a meteor or two, taken over a 3.5-hour period that night, with each exposure being 1 minute at f/2, with the 24mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 1600. The 24 image with meteors were selected from a total of 214 shot for this sequence, with most frames not recording any meteor, and perhaps only satellites or aircraft.

Camera number 3 was aimed straight up for 3.5 hours, toward Cygnus and the Summer Triangle, in hopes of nabbing that brilliant fireball streaking down the Milky Way. I got a nice “rain of meteors” effect but the bright bolide meteor eluded me.

This was certainly the best year for the Perseids in some time, with it coinciding with New Moon.

Later this year, the Geminids will also put on a good show at nearly New Moon, on the nights of December 13 and 14. So if you liked, or missed, the Perseids, take note of the dates in December.

However, for many of us, a Geminid watch is a very, cold and snowy affair!

— Alan, August 18, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

Geminid Meteors by Moonlight at the VLA


VLA by Moonlight with Geminid Meteor #1

A Geminid meteor in the moonlight streaks over a dish of the Very Large Array.

Tonight I was out at the VLA, the iconic radio telescope array on the high desert Plains of San Agustin in central New Mexico. Over three hours I shot 325 frames for a time-lapse movie, hoping that a few would “catch a falling star” or two.

Tonight was peak night for the annual Geminid meteor shower so the chances were better than normal. The Geminids are one of the best performing meteor showers of the year.

Despite the peak occurring in the evening, conditions weren’t ideal. Light from the gibbous Moon lit the landscape nicely but did wash out many meteors. Of course, I just wanted some bright ones anyway! Also, clouds drifted in and out all evening – mostly in!

At top, you can see a faint Geminid meteor shooting up from Gemini the twins, visible rising at lower right, with Jupiter (now in Gemini) marking the constellation’s location.

VLA by Moonlight with Geminid Meteor #2

In this image I moved the camera, but the array was also now pointed at a new target in the sky so the dishes were turned to look west. This shot captures another faint-ish Geminid streaking toward Orion, just right of centre.

I didn’t nab the grand and brilliant meteor I had hoped for but it was a wonderful moonlit evening under the stars, watching the dishes dance the night away.

– Alan, December 13, 2013 / © 2013 Alan Dyer