Tau-Herculids: Observing Report

In 1995 The comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann suddenly increased in brightness and broke up. This event was unexpected and due to its orbit being close to Earth the possibility of a future encounter with its debris could result in a meteor shower. Joe Rao wrote one such paper back in 2020 and many of us meteor observers were interested in the conclusion we could see something in 2022. As the time drew closer many more articles like this one in EarthSky further fueled the anticipation that something might happen.

Fast forward to Saturday May 28th and I was facing a problem: the weather forecast looked poor for eastern Kansas. During the week before I was carefully watching the weather and the Clear Sky Chart(s) for my area. By Sunday it was clear the models were predicting accurately and my area would be cloudy. Monday the 30th was the latest and last model run I would check on the Clear Sky Charts. South-central Kansas looked good with no clouds forecast through 1AM. Fortunately I had been researching a destination and had a spot picked out.

Late Monday afternoon I headed down to Kingman Kansas, about 45 miles west of Wichita. Outside that town to the west is Kingman State Fishing Lake and Wildlife Area which has its own Clear Sky Chart. It took about 3 1/2 hours driving to end up at my chosen spot. Thirty minutes later I was setup and waiting to observer the Tau Herculid (TAH) meteor shower. It could be just one meteor or it could be much more.

Waiting for darkness. Two cameras and SQM meter ready to go.

As true darkness neared, before I was officially observing, I saw three TAH meteors. This was a good sign! Any other year that maybe what one would see all night out of this practically unknown meteor shower. Once astronomical darkness had started I was officially observing. The night sky was reasonably good with a lot of moisture and atmospheric extinction near the horizon. My overhead SQM readings averaged 6.4 visual limiting magnitude, certainly a decent location despite the light domes from nearby towns.

The meteor shower was good but there was not an epic outburst of meteors that could have been possible (but was unlikely). For the Tau Herculid meteor shower this was an exceptionally active night, an outburst. And that was the point of this adventure, on this night Earth passed through a stream of debris from a very recent comet breakup. The model predictions that we would encounter some material from the 1995 break up turned out to be correct.

My actual observing report is filed here at the IMO. I recorded a total of 32 TAH meteors that night. Its possible I under counted the TAH meteors as I was a bit uncertain in some cases as the radiant area seemed pretty large. Meteors most often had short trails but I was surprised how bright many were compared to what I expected. During my night out I had two cameras running and based on @JAtanackov’s suggestion I ran one camera with a narrower FOV lens than I normally use. This 50mm/f1.4 lens was stopped down to 1.8 and captured a number of Tau Herculid meteors that likely would not have shown up very well using my wider angle lens. A quick review of the 700+ images captured on that camera shows one very bright meteor with an interesting sequence of images which I will post later.

Lunar Eclipse: May 15th

Sunday the 15th was a wild weather day as a storm blew through my area in the morning knocking out power for myself and a lot of people in the metro KC area. However, as forecast, the sky cleared later for the lunar eclipse. This is the last ‘complete’ total lunar eclipse visible at my location for several years to come (1) so I was anxious to watch it. For me this was an exceptionally nice eclipse and hopefully I have a few pictures to post later. Pictures are nice but truly experiencing a total lunar eclipse is where its at.

What made this total Lunar eclipse particularly great was how dark the moon got. Probably the darkest I have ever seen it. I am not alone in thinking that as others commented on the darkness as well. It truly was a spectacle with the dark orange-red moon floating among the stars. This is something I feel requires darker skies to fully appreciate.

For me one of the most interesting and exciting characteristics of a total lunar eclipse is experiencing the changing moonlight as the hour from first contact (U1) to eclipse (U2). At first as the Earth’s shadow takes a small bite out of the moon its not significant but each passing minute slowly reduces the moonlight until its gone. Even then the moon is going through a transition from the dark of eclipse start to maximum darkness at greatest eclipse and back to slowly brightening again as it heads towards the eclipse end.

Certainly one doesn’t have to sit outside watching the entire time. Lunar eclipses are fairly slow so one can enjoy the view for awhile and take a break. However just coming out once to see the moon at maximum eclipse isn’t watching an eclipse. Its just taking a peek, you lose the magic of going from a bright full moon illuminating the landscape to the eerie scene of a dark moon. Something that doesn’t happen regularly and only during a total lunar eclipse.

RMS Station Online

Composite image of meteors captured last night at my station, center meteor looks like a nice one!

Over the past weeks I’ve been finishing up a long running project to build a station to be part of the Global Meteor Network (GMN). Its been an interesting project that I will be posting more about soon. The short summary is the GMN is a network of inexpensive cameras that collect and report data for use in meteor research. Up until today I’ve been finalizing the configuration and testing its operation but I’ve not been a contributing station.

Tonight it will watch the sky and collect data as an official part of the GMN.

The Year Ends

Last day of 2021 encapsulates what the whole month has been like, oddly warm. This will be among the warmest Decembers on record here and there was no snow at all this month. None, nada, not a flake. Now I’m not one to complain too much about that if the night sky is clear. And it has been, I’ve gotten in some meteor observing and imaging time.

As for imaging, this year was a change for me as I started using N.I.N.A. It has worked very welland is a great open source image acquisition program. Congrats to the development team for all the work and improvements this year! In November I added a ZWO EAF to my telescope. With that and NINA its possible for me to automate a nights imaging if I desire. No more manual focusing, no need for manual target re-centering, I can just sit back and watch meteors all night. Add to that my successful LiFePo battery project it has been a fun year under the stars.

Tonight, the last day of the year, its cloudy with arctic cold approaching. It’s also likely to snow after the start of the new year. I would normally be kicking back enjoying a movie or my usual entertainment shows. Perhaps catching up on Star Trek Discovery now in Season 4. Or The Expanse season 6, although I have yet to watch season 5.

But instead I’ve recently started binging an old TV show, something outside my normal tastes.

Surprisingly good : Why You Should Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

December Showers

In the October 2021 issue of WGN, the journal of the IMO, it was suggested meteor observers submit observations from meteor showers with moon light present. Moonlight, something must of us meteor observers try to avoid, significantly affects how many meteors you can see. The aim of the project is to:

  • obtaining complete activity profiles of shower (maxima)
  • deriving reliable peak data for events occurring under poor conditions
  • improving value of daytime shower data (twilight observations)
  • determining the effect of sky background illumination quantitatively

This years Geminids offered a good chance to do that as will the 2022 Perseids. I reported on two showers:

Geminids (GEM)

Wasn’t planning on going out but the weather was ok and the chance for an hour in real dark skies was too alluring. So I went to the Flint Hills to observer the Geminids on 12/13. The hour from midnight to 1am had the sky full of moisture, thin bands illuminated by the moon. Moon was about 79% illuminated and I recorded 34 GEM even with that, bit surprising. As the moon got lower in the sky more and more meteors were visible. Total GEMs counted during nearly 4 hours observing was 190, a bit surprising. Temperature was so mild I could observer for long periods. The last hour or so the sky was nice and dark, well worth the trip. Clearly the Geminids are so strong they power through moonlight.

Ursids (URS)

The Ursids are not a very active shower but it certainly would be heavily affected by the strong moonlight. I did not travel for this opting to observer from my local area. The nearly full moon was out so why bother going anywhere! I got up early and observed starting about 03:45 on the 23rd. Cold morning but crystal clear. The moon was very strong being nearly overhead and 85% illuminated. I’ve never observed in such a moon light sky. Saw very few meteors, just two URS, with the sky around magnitude 4 naked eye limit.

Dark Sky Pilgrimage

Friday October 1st I drove across Kansas to the 38th Annual Okie-Tex Star Party. It has been two years since I made this trip, one I usually do every year. But 2020 wasn’t a normal year with everything everywhere being disrupted. I had gotten out to some dark skies in 2020, notably comet NeoWise. But this trip was different; out to a place more remote than most. Where the night sky is ablaze with countless stars, a place where there are no visible light domes in any direction, a place where those of us that treasure the night sky go.

Every Okie-Tex star party is different. Despite being held in the same location for 22 years each event has its own weather pattern, different blend of people that attend and unique night sky conditions. When the star party is scheduled depends on the moon, when it will be closest to new. This year that meant the start of October and for the first time the official starting day was a Friday.

My drive out that Friday was cloudy, something I like as it keeps the sun off me. It took a little under eight hours to travel out this year, just one refueling stop. Coming over the last hill to see camp Billy Joe full of people was a pleasing sight. Yet for the first time in many years I was arriving after most had already setup. For the longest time I had setup in the same spot on the field, as many other regulars do as well. But this year I moved a bit and setup differently. Not far from my old spot being close to several groups I know. This year would be a bit different though: new spot, new neighbor, and new things to try. Starting with power.

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