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

 

The Perseids Perform


Radiant of the Perseid Meteor Shower (2016)

It was a great night for shooting meteors as the annual Perseids put on a show.

For the Perseid meteor shower I went to one of the darkest sites in Canada, Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan, a dark sky preserve and home to several rare species requiring dark nights to flourish – similar to astronomers!

This year a boost in activity was predicted and the predictions seemed to hold true. The lead image records 33 meteors in a series of stacked 30-second exposures taken over an hour.

It shows only one area of sky, looking east toward the radiant point in the constellation Perseus – thus the name of the shower.

Extrapolating the count to the whole sky, I think it’s safe to say there would have been 100 or more meteors an hour zipping about, not bad for my latitude of 49° North.

Lone Perseid in the Moonlight
A lone Perseid meteor streaking down below the radiant point in Perseus, with the sky and landscape lit by the waxing gibbous Moon, August 11, 2016. Perseus is rising in the northeast, Andromeda is at right, with the Andromeda Galaxy right of centre. Cassiopeia is at top. Taken from the 70 Mile Butte trailhead in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

The early part of the evening was lit by moonlight, which lent itself to some nice nightscapes scenes but fewer meteors.

Perseid Meteor Shower Looking North (2016)
The 2016 Perseid meteor shower, in a view looking north to the Big Dipper and with the radiant point in Perseus at upper right, the point where the meteors appear to be streaking from. This is a stack of 10 frames, shot over one hour from 1:38 a.m. to 2:37 a.m. CST. The camera was on the Star Adventurer tracker so all the sky frames aligned. The ground is from a stack of four frames, mean combined to smooth noise, and taken with the tracker motor off to minimize ground blurring, and taken at the start of the sequence. All exposures 40 seconds at f/3.2 with the 16-35mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.

But once the Moon set and the sky darkened the show really began. Competing with the meteors was some dim aurora, but also the brightest display of airglow I have even seen.

It was bright enough to be visible to the eye as grey bands, unusual. Airglow is normally sub-visual.

But the camera revealed the airglow bands as green, red, and yellow, from fluorescing oxygen and sodium atoms. The bands slowly rippled across the sky from south to north.

Airglow is something you can see only from dark sites. It is one of the wonders of the night sky, that can make a dark sky not dark!

TECHNICAL:

Meteor Composite Screen ShotThe lead image is stack of 31 frames containing meteors (two frames had 2 meteors), shot from 1:13 am to 2:08 a.m. CST, so over 55 minutes. The camera was not tracking the sky but was on a fixed tripod. I choose one frame with the best visibility of the airglow as the base layer. For every other meteor layer, I used Free Transform to rotate each frame around a point far off frame at upper left, close to where the celestial pole would be and then nudged each frame to bring the stars into close alignment with the base layer, especially near the meteor being layered in.

This placed each meteor in its correct position in the sky in relation to the stars, essential for showing the effect of the radiant point accurately.

Each layer above the base sky layer is masked to show just the meteor and is blended with Lighten mode. If I had not manually aligned the sky for each frame, the meteors would have ended up positioned where they appeared in relation to the ground but the radiant point would have been smeared — the meteors would have been in the wrong place.

Unfortunately, it’s what I see in a lot of composited meteor shower shots.

It would have been much easier if I had had this camera on a tracker so all frames would have been aligned coming out of the camera. But the other camera was on the tracker! It took the other composite image, the one looking north.

The ground is a mean combined stack of 4 frames to smooth noise in the ground. Each frame is 30 seconds at f/2 with the wonderful Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 5000. The waxing Moon had set by the time this sequence started, leaving the sky dark and the airglow much more visible.

— Alan, August 13, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

Capturing the Quadrantids


Quadrantid Meteor Shower Composite

The Quadrantid meteors streaked out of the northern sky on a fine winter’s night.

The temperature was mild and skies clear in the early evening for the annual Quadrantid meteor shower. This is a prolific but short-lived shower with a brief peak. The cold and low altitude of its radiant point keeps this shower from becoming better known.

This was the first year I can recall shooting it. I had some success during a 2-hour shoot on January 3, from 9 to 11 pm MST.

The result above is a stack of 14 images, the best out of 600 shot that recorded meteors. The ground and sky comes from one image with the best Quad of the night, and the other meteor images were masked and layered into that image, with no attempt to align their paths with the moving radiant point.

However, over the 2 hours, the radiant point low in the north would not have moved too much, as it rose higher into the northern sky.

Most of the meteors here are Quads, but the very bright bolide at left, while it looks like it is coming from the radiant, it is actually streaking toward the radiant, and is not a Quadrantid. But oh so close! I left it in the composite for the sake of the nice composition!

Light clouds moving in added the natural star glows around the Big Dipper stars.

All frames were 10 seconds at f/2 with the 24mm lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.

— Alan, January 4, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.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 

How to See & Shoot the Perseids


A trio of Perseid meteors shoot at left in the pre-dawn sky over Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park. The overexposed waning crescent Moon shines between Venus (below) and Jupiter (above), with Jupiter near the Hyades and below the Pleiades in Taurus. Taken the morning of Sunday, August 12, 2012 with the Canon 5D MkII and 24mm Canon L-series lens. This is a composite of three exposures, one for each meteor, each for 40 seconds at ISO 2000 and f/5. Landscape is from one image, two other meteors from two other frames layered in and registered in the correct position in the base layer.

It’s Perseid meteor shower time. Here are tips for seeing and shooting the meteors.

What are the Perseids?

They are an annual meteor shower, perhaps the most widely observed of the year, that peak every year about August 12. They are caused by Earth passing through a dust stream left by Comet Swift-Tuttle, last seen near Earth in 1992.

Each “shooting star” is really a bit of comet dust burning up in our atmosphere as it ploughs into us at 200,000 kilometres an hour. They don’t stand a chance of surviving – and none do.

All Perseid particles burn up. None reach Earth.

Perseid meteor caught night of August 12-13 2009 from Cypress Hills Prov Park in Saskatchewan at the annual Saskatchewan Summer Star Party. One frame of 250 shot as part of a time-lapse movie. Taken with Canon 5D MkII and 24mm lens at f/2.5 for 30s at ISO1600.
Perseid meteor caught night of August 12-13 2009 from Cypress Hills Prov Park in Saskatchewan at the annual Saskatchewan Summer Star Party. One frame of 250 shot as part of a time-lapse movie. Taken with Canon 5D MkII and 24mm lens at f/2.5 for 30s at ISO1600.

When are the Perseids?

The peak night of the Perseids this year is the night of Wednesday, August 12 into the early morning hours of August 13, with the peak hour occurring about midnight Mountain Daylight Time or 2 a.m. on the 13th for Eastern Daylight Time.

For North America, this is ideal timing for a good show this year. However, a good number of meteors will be visible the night before and night after peak night.

Even better, the Moon is near New and so won’t interfere with the viewing by lighting up the sky.

In all, except for the mid-week timing, conditions this year in 2015 couldn’t be better!

Perseid meteor caught night of August 12-13 2009 from Cypress Hills Prov Park in Saskatchewan at the annual Saskatchewan Summer Star Party. One frame of 260 shot as part of a time-lapse movie. Taken with Canon 20Da and 15mm lens at f/2.8 for 45s at ISO1600.
Perseid meteor caught night of August 12-13 2009 from Cypress Hills Prov Park in Saskatchewan at the annual Saskatchewan Summer Star Party. One frame of 260 shot as part of a time-lapse movie. Taken with Canon 20Da and 15mm lens at f/2.8 for 45s at ISO1600.

What do they look like?

Any meteor looks like a brief streak of light shooting across the sky. The brightest will outshine the brightest stars and are sure to evoke a “wow!” reaction.

However, the spectacular Perseids are the least frequent. From a dark site, expect to see about 40 to 80 meteors in an hour of patient and observant watching, but of those, only a handful – perhaps only 1 or 2 – will be “wow!” meteors.

A pair of Perseid meteors shoot at left in the late night sky at the Upper Bankhead parking lot in Banff National Park. The  waning crescent Moon is just rising above the trees. A faint Perseid is at right, while a satellite trail goes from left to right as well.  Taken the night of Saturday, August 11 into the wee hours of Sunday, August 12, 2012 with the Canon 7D and 10-22mm Canon lens. This is a stack of two exposures, one for each meteor, each for 60 seconds at ISO 1250 and f/4. The stars are trailed slightly due to the two-minute exposure time in total.
A pair of Perseid meteors shoot at left in the late night sky at the Upper Bankhead parking lot in Banff National Park. The waning crescent Moon is just rising above the trees. 
Taken the night of Saturday, August 11 into the wee hours of Sunday, August 12, 2012 with the Canon 7D and 10-22mm Canon lens. This is a stack of two exposures, one for each meteor, each for 60 seconds at ISO 1250 and f/4. 

Where do I look?

All the meteors will appear to radiate from a point in the constellation of Perseus in the northeastern sky in the early hours of the night, climbing to high overhead by dawn.

So you can face that direction if you wish, but Perseids can appear anywhere in the sky, with the longest meteor trails often opposite the radiant point, over in the southwest.

Shows unusual Perseid meteor varying in brightness? Or is this a satellite that mimics Perseid for position (it comes right out of the radiant point).  Taken at SSSP, August 14, 2010, using Canon 5D MkII and 15mm lens.
Shows unusual Perseid meteor varying in brightness? Or is this a satellite that mimics Perseid for position (it comes right out of the radiant point). Taken at Saskatchewan Star Party, August 14, 2010, using Canon 5D MkII and 15mm lens.

How do I look?

Simple – just lie back on a comfy lawn chair or patch of grass and look up!

But … you need to be at a dark location away from city lights to see the most meteors. You’ll see very little in a city or light-polluted suburbs.

Head to a site as far from city lights as you can, to wherever you’ll be safe and comfortable.

How do I take pictures?

To stand any chance of capturing these brief meteors you’ll need a good low-noise camera (a DSLR or Compact System Camera) with a fast (f/2.8 or faster) wide-angle lens (10mm to 24mm).

Sorry, keep your point-and-shoot camera and phone camera tucked away in your pocket – they won’t work.

Set up you camera on a tripod, open the lens to f/2.8 (wide open perhaps) and the ISO to 800 to 3200) and take a test exposure of 20 to 40 seconds. You want a well-exposed image but not over-exposed so the sky is washed out.

Set your exposure time accordingly – most cameras allow a maximum exposure of 30 seconds. Exposures longer than 30 seconds require a separate intervalometer to set the exposure, with the camera set on Bulb (B).

Take lots of pictures!

To up your chances of catching a meteor, you need to set the camera to shoot lots of frames in rapid succession.

Use an intervalometer to take shots one after the other with as little time between as possible – because that’s when a meteor will appear!

Barring an intervalometer, if you have standard switch remote control, set the camera on High Speed Continuous, and the shutter speed to 30 seconds, then lock the remote’s switch to ON to keep the camera firing. As soon as one exposure ends it’ll fire another.

Twin Perseids in this photo? Or are these satellites?  Taken at SSSP, August 14, 2010, using Canon 5D MkII and 15mm lens.
Twin Perseids in this photo? Or are these satellites? Taken at SSSP, August 14, 2010, using Canon 5D MkII and 15mm lens.

What else do I need to know?

• Focus the lens carefully so the stars are sharp – the Live Focus mode helps for this. Focus on a bright star or distant light.

• Aim the camera to take in a wide swath of the sky but include a well-composed foreground for the most attractive shot.

• Aim northeast to capture meteors streaking away from the radiant. But you can aim the camera to any direction that lends itself to a good composition and still capture a meteor.

• To increase your chances, shoot with two or more cameras aimed to different areas of the sky. Meteors always appear where your camera isn’t aimed!

• Be patient! Despite shooting hundreds of frames only a handful will record a meteor, as only the brightest will show up.

Can I track the sky?

If you have a motorized equatorial mount or a dedicated sky tracking device (the iOptron Sky Tracker and Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, each about $400, are popular), you can follow the stars while taking lots of shots. This avoids the stars trailing and allows you to use longer exposures.

The video above shows a Star Adventurer tracking the sky as it turns about its polar axis which is aimed up to a point near Polaris. Click the Enlarge and HD buttons to view the video properly.

Polar align the tracker, but then perhaps aim the camera to frame the summer Milky Way overhead. Take lots of 1- to 3-minute exposures, again at f/2.8 and ISO 800 to 1600. Some exposures will pick up meteors – with luck!

Tracking then stacking

Later, in processing, because the sky has remained fixed on the frame, it’s then possible to stack the images (using a “Lighten” blend mode on each image layer) so that the final composite frame contains more meteors, for an image with lots of meteors captured over an hour or more of shooting.

While it is possible to stack shots taken on a static tripod to produce such a meteor composite, doing so requires a lot of manual cutting, pasting and aligning of meteor images by hand. The result is a bit of a fake, though I’ve done it myself – the image at top is an example, though with only a trio of meteors.

Good luck and happy meteor watching!

– Alan, August 6, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com 

A Lone Geminid Meteor


Lone Geminid Meteor (Dec 12, 2014)

A lone meteor streaks away from the constellation of Gemini, part of the annual Geminid meteor shower.

Once again, as I did last month for the Leonid shower, I set up two cameras firing away hundreds of frames in hope that some would record a few meteors from the annual Geminid shower now going on.

I took about 700 frames, but only this one picked up a meteor. Clouds did intervene for a while – that’s when the brightest meteors would have appeared I’m sure. I observed from my front patio for a while and saw several Geminids, including two beautifully bright ones. But of course, both were just outside the field of both cameras.

I shot the shower tonight, Friday, the night before the peak on Saturday, as the forecast calls for cloud for the rest of the weekend here in southern New Mexico.

So this may be my best shot of the 2014 Geminid meteors.

– Alan, December 12, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer