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

 

What Was That Glow in the Sky?


Here’s a time-lapse of the strange glow of light that moved across the northern sky on the night of the Camelopardalid meteor shower.

What I thought was an odd curtain of slow-moving, colourless aurora — and I’ve seen those before — has many people who also saw it suspecting it was a glow from a fuel dump from an orbiting satellite. Perhaps.

This short time-lapse of 22 frames covers about 22 minutes starting at 11:59 pm MDT on May 23 (as logged by the camera’s GPS). Each frame is a 60-second exposure taken at 2 second intervals. I’m playing them back at one frame per second.

The camera was on a tracking platform to follow the stars — thus the ground slowly rotates. This was one of the cameras I had operating the night of May 23-24 to capture meteors from the Camelopardalid meteor shower. The shower was a dud, but …

The most interesting thing my cameras did catch was this odd glow which started large and diffuse and then became more defined as it got smaller and moved off (or so it appears) to the north, then fades away. My photos (and I have it on frames from another camera), and photos taken by other observers across North America, show a faint satellite moving along south to north parallel to the cloud’s long axis. Is this the culprit that caused the cloud? If so, it would have to be very high to be seen from a wide range of longitudes – astronomers in Manitoba and Minnesota also saw and shot it.

But any fuel dumps I’ve seen always have clouds that start small and concentrated then become large and diffuse. This did the opposite.

I’ll await further analysis and explanation.

P.S.: You can watch a better version of the movie here at my Flickr site.

— Alan, May 25, 2014 / © 2014 Alan Dyer

 

 

 

Perseid Meteors and Planets over a Mountain Lake


It was quite a night, and a wonderful dawn. This was the scene at the end of a night of falling stars.

A trio of Perseid meteors zips down at left, while at right a trio of solar system worlds rises into the pre-dawn sky. The overexposed waning Moon is flanked by Jupiter above and Venus below. Jupiter shines near the Hyades star cluster and below the Pleiades cluster.

I took this shot (it is actually a composite of three shots, each with its own meteor) on the morning of Sunday, August 12 on the peak night of the annual Perseid meteor shower, widely publicized this year due to the lack of a Moon for most of the night, and the convenience of falling on a weekend. The scene is looking east over Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park, Alberta, one of the few places in this part of the Rockies you can look east to a reasonably unobstructed sky.

Notice the glitter path on the water from not only the Moon but also Venus.

— Alan, August 13, 2012 / © 2012 Alan Dyer