Friday, December 14, 2012

A Meteor Drizzle

It was a brisk 20- or 30-something last night when I got home from a small Christmas Party at the house of one of our board members at work.  I was more concerned about getting home in time to let the dog out before he made a mess indoors, than I was about paying attention to the sky.

When I walked in the door, Toby rushed downstairs as if to say "at last!" and danced around, eager to get out to relieve himself.  It was nearly 9 PM, after all, and I'd been gone over 12 hours.  He peed, then ate, and we went for our walk.

What a beautiful night.  The sky was dark (no moon), despite all the light pollution (neighbors and neighboring cities), and Orion and Saturn were bright up above.

 In the image above, you see Orion in the center, 
with Sirius (really bright blue star at the bottom) 
just coming over the horizon.
Saturn is just out of range off the top of the photo.

As we made the loop back toward the house, I saw not one, but two meteors streak across the sky out of Orion's feet.  A few minutes later, a third streak rushed across the sky.  Rumor had it that we might see up to 60 meteors this night, so I figured a little night time photography was ahead of me.

We got home and I dug out the camera, tripod, and remote cable release.  I got things assembled and we went out into the back yard, where the worst of the neighbors' lights were blocked by the house.  I set up the tripod and started shooting - leaving the shutter open for 5-20 second intervals (playing around with the ISO), hoping a meteor would streak across the sky while it was open.  Five or six did, but as bright as two or three of them were, the camera didn't register most of them.

Here's the one shot that worked:

Unenhanced image

Same image, lightened so the streak(s) show up.

Tonight's meteor shower, or drizzle, as it turned out for me, had two possible origins.  The first was the Geminid Meteor Showers.  I did a little research on these, and it turns out that they are a fairly new occurrence in our skies.  Most of our meteor showers have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, but the Geminids only appeared in our skies about 150 years ago.  They occur when our planet passes through the orbit of an asteroid we call 3200 Phaethon.  The meteors are bits of debris (some no bigger than a grain of sand) burning up as they pass through our atmosphere.

The other potential source, new this year only, is the tail of debris cast off by the comet 45P/Wirtanen.  Apparently Earth is passing through this tail at approximately the same time it's going through the asteroid's orbit.  So, in theory, there could be two meteor showers happening at the same time!

Now, I was out there about 10:00-11:00 PM (-ish).  The experts were saying that the best show (the most meteors) would be between midnight and 3:00 AM.  Well, I didn't think I was going to be awake at that time, but lo! and behold! I was.  It was about 12:30 when I grabbed the camera set-up again and headed back into the yard, thoroughly bundled up (standing still for an hour or so in a frosty yard at midnight in December is a chilly prospect).  I positioned the tripod where the other neighbor's light was mostly blocked and looked up at the sky.  Where were all the stars?  It seemed a high fog had moved in, rendering the view unusable.  What few stars I could see were all hazy and blurry.  No good.  The good news, though, was that I could go back inside and get some sleep knowing I probably wasn't going to miss much.


  1. Thursday night at 1:30 am, I was all bundled up in my capote (there's nothing like a blanket coat !), lying flat on my apt. balcony and looking up at the sky. Saw about a half-dozen good streaky meteors before calling it quits. It was in the low 20s then.
    I could feel the frost descending onto my glasses. Glad to know you were out there too, and trying to take photos, no less ! Good work -

  2. Pretty impressive night photography. We have so much interior light, I'd have to pop in the Element and drive to a dark place. You've inspired me to do this one of these nights. Good work, Ellen!! Love your photographs.