It Starts At Zero

Today at 09:37 UTC is the vernal equinox, the official start of spring in the Northern hemisphere where I am located. On this day the length of daylight and darkness at night is nearly the same and because it is not exact articles will be written and people will argue about it. Lost in all this is the fact that the equinoxes do not happen at exactly the same time every year. Look this up, last year the spring equinox was at 03:50 UTC on March 20th, almost six hours earlier than this year. Next year the spring equinox is at 15:33 UTC on March 20th, almost six hours later than this year. This highlights a problem with our calendar system: its messy to use for noting a position in space, where Earth is in its orbit around the Sun.

Simple geometry can give us an answer. Since the Earth’s orbit is nearly circular we can use the fact that there are 360 degrees in a circle to note where Earth is. This position is called solar longitude (Ls), denoted λ⊙, and is expressed in degrees. Knowing where Earth is in its orbit around the Sun is particularly useful in meteor science. At certain points in our orbit Earth crosses a stream of particles that produce what we call a meteor shower. So how do we create a reference for that not based on a calendar? We start by using the equinox.

The equinox is defined as the moment the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the geometric center of the Sun’s disk. This moment of equal day and night, or a precise point where the sun rises or sets on the horizon has been used for a long time in human history. As the Earth orbits the Sun it crosses this point because Earth’s rotation is tilted. In the spring equinox the Sun moves above the Earth’s equatorial plane and in fall it moves below that plane. These moments can be used as a precise reference if another point is used, a star(1).

Today at 16:32 UTC solar longitude is zero degrees.

Choosing the spring equinox as the start, or zero degrees, is an arbitrary choice. I do not know why the choice was made, historical significance? Perhaps a reference star is better in spring then fall? Research for another day. But the point chosen is an exact spot, a reference we can use to start marking the circle that represents our orbit.

When a meteor shower happens is noted by solar longitude to mark the position when Earth moves through the center of the orbit of particulate debris causing the shower. In other words, typically when the maximum of a meteor shower occurs. For example, the peak of the Perseid meteor shower happens at 140 degrees λ⊙. This translates to August 12th at 19:17 UTC for this year, in 2022 it will be August 13th at 01:32 UTC.

The reason why the equinox does not happen on the same date time every year is our Julian calendar system has 365 days in a year (366 during a leap year). In a year the Earth completes one revolution around the sun, or 360 degrees in a circle. This is the problem: 365 days in a year verses 360 degrees in a circle, our way of tracking dates and time gets out of sync with the exact location we are in space.

  1. We have to go a step further to be precise in choosing this point because everything in the universe is in motion. So we use a specific epoch ( )

Geminids 2020

Outlook for the 2020 Geminids was pretty good, essentially no moon and with the normal peak (λʘ= 262.2) occurring about the time the radiant was rising above the horizon for my timezone (CST). This meant I would be observing after the peak but close enough. Last question was weather: would it be clear?

Sunday December 13th it was clear and should stay that way, off to the Flint Hills for some meteors! I got to Teterville after dark and found the NW wind pretty steady at 10+ mph which was very annoying when temperatures are 24℉. Everything setup I started observing a bit after 20:00 CST.

Meteors were not very numerous at first but not unexpected as the radiant was only about 30° above the horizon. By midnight rates were much better, over 1 Geminid per minute. I had to take warm up beaks every so often as temperatures were about 20º F with 5 – 10 mph wind. Bit chilly. Frost was a serious problem for my cameras and they were knocked out after the first hour unfortunately.

The 2020 Geminid meteor shower turned out great, very nice display with many bright fireball level meteors. The night sky had been clear and magnificent with the winter constellations prominent all night. My total effective time observing was 4 hours and I logged 211 Geminid meteors. The choice of observing location south of Emporia was very fortunate, driving home I ran into thick ground fog north of my location. The sky was completely overcast from Emporia all the way north to Lawrence.

Night Time Visitor

From a soybean field in Douglas County: Comet NEOWISE.

Thursday night was my first look at comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE. Well this is a nice sight I have not seen for decades: a comet that is actually visible as a comet in the night sky!

I have been trying to see the comet since it started to appear in the evening sky. Every night until this Thursday has been pesky clouds or so much moisture in the air you couldn’t see anything below 20 degrees above the horizon. Looking at the satellite images Thursday I didn’t think I would get a chance but around 10:00pm I was outside and noticed it was pretty clear. Looked below the big dipper and I’ll be darned if I didn’t spot the comet from my front yard. Despite looking in the direction of the neighbors annoying overly bright yard light. So I threw camera and Abby into the truck and went north a mile or two to a field I had scouted.

Wow! Didn’t expect it to be so visibly comet like from the somewhat light polluted area. After gazing at it in wonder for awhile my immediate thought was I want to see this in a truly dark sky. Hopefully get the chance in the next few days.

It has been a long time since a comet showed up in the night sky that was more than a little fuzzball. Even if its not as spectacular as Hale-Bopp it is still a wonderful comet unlike anything else in many years.

Return of the fireflies

The past few days I have been enjoying the return of lightning bugs at my place. For the past week their numbers have ramped up and I may now be at peak firefly. Once its truly dark, near astronomical darkness, the show is at its best in my spot. Hard to tell if I have reached peak yet as I won’t truly know for a another week. But for now I’m just enjoying their nightly show.

This years return is nice treat compared to last years dismal showing. Last year my area had record rainfall for May through June and we were really wet. Parts of my yard were constantly soggy. This year I’m a bit dry and been hotter than usual. I think there is a correlation but that’s just speculating. Also of note this year is their nightly display has been closer to new moon so my area is darker.

Fireflies are one of the most fascinating nigh time displays in nature. That a little bug can fly around lighting itself up is really special. Gather several dozen or more of them together and they create a symphony of light.

April Lyrids

Out to the Flint Hills on Monday 4.20 to view the Lyrids. While this was one day earlier than the peak it was the only night the weather was going to cooperate for days. I was a bit surprised to see a few areas still being burned.

Looking West about 22:30 the sky was hazy from smoke

No matter as I could tell the north wind would blow any low level smoke away and the burning was pretty minimal. I’ve seen worse here.

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Quadrantids: Years First Meteor Shower

The Quadrantid Meteor Shower timing for 2020 looked very good for me: being in CST timezone the shower should peak January 4th at 2:30am. During the day Friday the only question was would it stay clear in the Flint Hills. At last minute I didn’t drive out there for fear it would stay cloudy there. Stayed home to watch shower in less than great skies.

Well son of a gun, checking satellite next day the skies did cleared over the Flint Hills about 2:00am.

Regardless of location and weather the Quadrantids were a surprise this year. The peak came three hours early which was terrible timing for my location. This shower has a very, very brief maximum strength of only a few hours. It was greatly diminished by the time I observed 2-4am CDT . Bummer. Be a number of years before I get this favorable timing again.

Okie-Tex 2019: Twenty years

One week ago today I woke up to activity all around my tent. Abby was ready to get out and investigate. Outside the sky was clear. The 36th annual Okie-Tex Star Party had officially started and people were rolling into camp Billy Joe. My one hope that morning was for decent weather throughout the coming week. 

Abby pondering the situation. She’s 4 years old and this is her 4th Okie-Tex star party.

You maybe wondering how it is I woke up Saturday morning already at the camp. Like last year I came early to help setup. I arrived Thursday evening and late that night storms rolled through waking me up as it battered my tent. Abby wanted to retreat to the truck that moment. Friday I was on the field with the crew laying out power lines. Quite a change from how things started long ago.

Twenty years ago I made my first trip out to this star party. While an experienced camper I was still rather new to the star party thing. Looking back its funny to think I packed all my gear in a little 93 Geo Tracker. I was in awe of the pristine night sky once darkness fell. That first year in western Oklahoma began what has become my most anticipated time of the year: a chance to spend night after night with the star filled sky. My yearly trip is more than just a vacation from work and city life. Its become my time to fully embrace the night sky, to shift my daily rhythm from day to night. A place and time where I eagerly wait for the sun to set and the night sky to appear. A week under the stars.

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