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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All things must pass. A bit of billion-year-old comet dust disintegrates above a decaying pioneer farm.
This was a lucky shot to be sure. Last night I returned to my favourite farmstead site to shoot a time-lapse sequence of the stars turning over the moonlit rustic buildings. I started shooting some test frames to get the settings right — the camera was on a motorized dolly to move it along a track for the next three hours, so you want to make sure you have all the settings right. I opened the shutter to start a test series, and whoosh! A bright meteor appeared. Right on time and in frame. That doesn’t happen very often!
However, shooting hundreds of shots for a time-lapse sequence, now a common practice among astrophotographers, does boost your chances of picking up a bright meteor on one of the frames. But having it appear nicely framed is often too much to ask. I was lucky. But … I was out with a camera aimed at the sky, and for getting good shots that’s the first requirement!
Here’s the “long” version of an image I posted a few days ago. This combines 430 exposures to make one long star trail image.
A bright meteor appeared in one of the hundreds of 5-second-long exposures and registers in the composite, streaking diagonally across the star trails. The stars circle around Polaris at top. The horizontal streaks are clouds blowing from left to right across the sky during the night. The blades of the windmill in the Wintering Hills wind farm are blurring by the long exposures.
It’s been a productive few nights shooting out at the wind farm, capturing scenes of harvesting the wind!
A rare bright meteor pierces the northern sky beside a spinning windmill in the moonlight.
I shot this Thursday night, August 30, as one frame of 300 or so shot for a time lapse sequence. Having a camera taking hundreds of frames at rapid interval, as you do for a time-lapse movie, is the only way to capture the chance and fleeting appearance of a bright meteor like this.
You can see the Big Dipper behind the machine and Polaris, the North Star, directly above the well-placed meteor.
I drove out to the new Wintering Hills Wind Farm now operating northeast of me and found a machine I could get close to. And they are huge! This is a sequence from a dolly shot I took. But the other camera was on a fixed tripod and I’ll stack those images into a long star trail scene, to get the circumpolar stars spinning alongside the windmill. But the machine was turning so fast that even 4 second exposures in bright moonlight blurred the blades more than I would have liked.