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.
What a show! This years Geminid meteor shower was fantastic.
I’ve seen all the major meteor showers and the Geminid meteor shower is without doubt the finest annual meteor shower in the Northern Hemisphere. The one factor that keeps many from experiencing this grand show is the weather. Its usually cold unlike its major rival the August Perseids. More importantly this time of year can have unsettled weather with frequent cloudy nights. I’ve missed many a Geminid shower because of that. Not this year.
This year the timing for North America was superb. A waxing moon would be minimal interference. It would set before midnight. By my calculations the Geminid peak would occur near the end of darkness in the central time zone. Maximum activity would happen from midnight to morning for Kansas. North America won’t have this specific moon and peak shower timing for years to come (1).
I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to catch this if at all possible. I planned and prepared for weeks monitoring several possible locations. As the time neared it became clear my observing site would be far western Kansas. Only there could I have some certainty of a clear dark sky. At noon Thursday the 13th I headed out to Monument Rocks.
I’ve been to Monument Rocks a few times but never in December. Driving I-70 across Kansas one is reminded it can be a challenging time of year. Out west past Salina there are gates on the highway exit ramps that are closed when the weather is bad. Like the blizzard that happened early this month shutting down the highway. There were still remnants of that along the road.
Five and a half hours later I arrived at my destination. It was sunset, the winds were still strong but starting to ease a bit. On the way out the gusts were over 50 mph. Fortunately Monument Rocks is a bit lower than the surrounding area. A slight bowl that would help reduce the wind. Temperature was dropping fast without the sun. The sky was crystal clear.
After scouting around the rocks I decided to be on the north west corner of the formations. I waited for darkness to arrive, the waxing moon to get lower. The soft moonlight illuminated the rocks, I’d never seen this pretty sight before. As the stars came out I could better judge where I wanted to be so I could capture a few pictures. Jeff and Noah arrived as I was finalizing my spot.
It was still early, still not fully dark, but the meteors were already falling. Standing there Jeff and I caught a fantastic Geminid earth grazer than took five seconds or so to streak across the sky. Show time! Time to get the chairs and sleeping bags ready. The temperature was down to 18° F, I was dressed in many layers. I even brought chemical hand warmers.
When its this cold you observe for awhile then take a break in the car to warm up. As the radiant for the Geminid meteor shower got higher and higher the meteors started raining from the sky. The meteor rate was intense for awhile, this is my official count:
Time Range (CST)
Thats a total of 319 Geminids recorded over 3 1/3 hours (199 minutes) observing time. Its entirely possible I under counted the Geminids in the time frame from 1am to 3am. There were moments with many meteors streaking across the sky simultaneously. And note I probably saw a hundred meteors during my breaks in the car but those were not counted (!).
While I intended to go until the end of darkness the cold, wind and physical wear got to me by 5:40am. I didn’t do my last planned 30 minute session. The meteor rate was down to less than 70 per hour by my estimate. Crazy to say that is low but it certainly looked and felt like activity had dropped significantly from our amazing numbers earlier. Had it been even 30° I would have pushed on but the temperature was around 14° F and still a bit of wind. I was done, what a night it had been.
Peak Geminids was an incredible sight. The only time I’ve ever seen more meteors was the 1998 Leonids (year of the fireballs, unbelievable display words hardly do justice).
1. The particular circumstance where the Geminid shower peak will occur near end of darkness for the CST zone and the moon will be of little interference will not happen again for years. Here is a peek at future dates, approx peak time and moon conditions:
Almost everything is unloaded from my truck the evening I arrived at Okie-Tex. I took this picture because some people have asked why it takes me so long to get ready for the star party. It takes me a good week to collect, verify and pack everything in their cases or carriers.
I was inspired to post this after seeing Jerry’s What’s in my Bag article. Seeing his spread of equipment I’m guessing he carries a bit more than I do. What I love about Jerry’s picture is you see whats in all the cases. That’s whats in my cases, except I don’t need jar openers 🙂 There are a lot of parts and pieces to being an astrophotographer.
This 2018 trip I was traveling pretty light, around 700lbs of gear. Ensuring you have everything needed for the trip and carefully packing it away takes time. The last thing you want being far from home is finding your missing a special cable or adapter.
Peak star party: a field full of amateur astronomers, deep sky observers, astrophotographers and simply lovers of the night sky. Several hundred people.
This was Monday night, October 18th, our first all night clear sky for the 2017 Okie-Tex star party. Just before darkness I got into position. During the day I chose a spot to get the entire star party field. About the start of astronomical darkness I started a series of photos to build the panorama above. Click the image for a bigger version.
Technically it was our third night of the star party. Really it was the first good night as Saturday was cut short with clouds and most people are tired from traveling that day. Sunday night we got smacked with rain, hail and wind after watching a tremendous display of cloud to cloud lightning to our NNW. So as darkness fell Monday night you could feel the excitement for a good clear night on the field.
Surprisingly (to me) this is my first nightscape panorama. Its made from two rows of six exposures each 30 seconds long, landscape orientation with a 14mm lens. I didn’t get the coverage exactly right, lost track of my count on the second row. So the top very right corner I had to fill in. I should have taken a few more shots to ensure proper overlap, need to execute a bit better. This image isn’t perfect, likely I’ll tweak it a bit but overall I’m pretty happy with it.
A beam of light intensifies before the sun rises: morning Zodiacal light. My favorite image from a series of photos I took Friday morning just before the end of astronomical darkness. A few clouds drifting over the area enhanced the color of the bright star Sirius (middle right) and added a bit more color on the horizon. Click picture for a larger version.
It wasn’t but 15 minutes earlier that the sky was completely clear as captured in the picture below, taken with a different angle that captured the Pleiades .
There were active imagers and observers scattered throughout the field. Click image for a larger version. Both of these photographs were 1 minute long exposures using a Skytracker to follow the stars.
The steady brightening of the Zodiacal light was a pleasure to experience this year. Starting about an hour before the end of astronomical darkness the cone of light slowly grows in intensity until a moment is reached where it is brightest and the sky is still dark. Then it fades, the sky begins to lighten as the sun creeps closer to the horizon and the Zodiacal light is washed out with the approaching dawn.
The Okie Tex star party field glows red under the milky way and stars (click for larger image). Photograph is looking South West as astronomical darkness begins Wednesday night, September 15th. I was trying to capture the feel of the star party as everyone starts observing and imaging.
This 90 second 1/2 speed tracked photograph reveals the night sky is not fully dark yet but it looked dark to your eyes. This is not the entire observing field, it extends a bit further north (to the right). Brightest red spot on left side is the midnight cafe. Nothing like having a fresh grilled cheeseburger at midnight out in the middle of no mans land.
The Perseid meteor shower peaked on Thursday morning August 14th and with nearly ideal conditions this year it was a must see event. Jeff, Phil and I met out in the Flint Hills and the weather turned out pretty good. With the odd weather patterns we’ve had in NE Kansas this summer I feel fortunate.
Pictured above is 37 seconds of the night sky looking north around 2:00am Thursday morning (click for larger version). A long dead Osage Orange tree in the foreground has likely seen thousands of nights like this. The camera captures the colors your eyes can’t make out, the green airglow in the bottom left, the yellow tint of light pollution from Emporia some 30 miles to the north.
Two meteors frame the double cluster. Neither of these meteors is a Perseid! The top one is a Kappa Cygnid (KCG). I was pleasantly surprised how many KCGs I saw, far more than the 3 meteor per hour rate would suggest. These meteors were distinctly different than the Perseid being much slower.
The Perseid meteors put on a good show with many bright ones. One really nice fireball lit up the sky early in the morning. I didn’t count all night, I spent most of Wednesday night just enjoying the beauty of the dark night sky. It had been a year since I was in the Flint Hills! Pity as the KCGs seemed particularly strong early in the night. These are the numbers I did record:
Altogether I counted 95 Perseids but during breaks saw even more, in total well over 120 Perseids and dozens of Kappa Cygnids not to mention all the sporadics and ANT meteors.
Our crew was up all night, I took hundreds of images but didn’t capture many notable Perseids. They travel so fast that the camera fails to record all but the brightest parts. Next time I will rethink my camera lens / ISO settings. Really wide images with f2.8 or f4.0 lenses fail to record much of meteors trail. Which leads me to wonder how many images I’ve seen posted from the Perseids are actually Perseid meteors (instead of say the KCGs or ANT).
Now that I got a good night out under the stars I’m really ready for the Okie-Tex Star Party in a few weeks!