2019 Starts 0-2

I forgot what a normal winter was like around here until this season. Already I’ve had more snow than last three years combined.

Saturday January 12th was the prettiest snow I’ve seen in years

All the storms have meant cloudy weather. I missed the Quadrantid meteor shower. Even though it wasn’t favorable timing its still worth watching. Then this last Sunday I missed the lunar eclipse. I was ready but by eclipse first contact the clouds rolled over me and that was it. A real bummer since the moon was well placed and we don’t get another total lunar eclipse until 2021(!).

2018 Geminid Meteor Shower Campaign

What a show! This years Geminid meteor shower was fantastic.

Geminid meteor shower composition from December 2012, Flint Hills

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.

Beautifully clear sky over Monument Rocks when I arrived. This is looking SE at the southern part of the formation

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.

Super wide angle picture of Orion rising above moon lit Monument Rocks. Click for larger version, Note Comet 46P/Wirtanen in center, the little green fuzzball.

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) Geminids (GEM) Sporadics (SPO)
23:26-23:56 26 1
00:27-00:57 38 2
01:23-02:00 76 7
02:30-03:10 71 10
03:35-04:05 59 3
04:40-05:12 49 4

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 (!).

A Geminid meteor streaks above Monument Rocks early Friday morning. Click for larger version

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).

Notes

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:

Year Peak Time (CST) Moon Condition / Age General Outlook
2019 12:30 Nearly full/17 days Terrible
2020 17:00 New Moon Excellent
2021 01:00 Waxing crescent/10 days Poor
2022 07:00 Waning crescent/20 days Terrible
2023 13:00 Near new /1day Excellent
2024 19:30 Almost full/13 days Terrible
2025 01:30 Waning crescent/24 days Ok
2026 07:30 Waxing crescent/5 days BINGO – EXCELLENT

 

 

Please Stand By…

nobody born in past 30+ years has any clue about this picture

Changed out my theme here and I’ve got a bunch of little bugs and formatting to clear up.  Since I’ve been tweaking and reviewing I see many text format issues with past posts. Can’t blame that on the theme change, that happened when I migrated to this hosting provider a year ago. Just never noticed until now.

Great Okie-Tex Cloud Out

 
The Okie-Tex Star Party ended a week ago running Oct 6th through October 14th. Timing couldn’t have been worse for the weather this year. And I’ve been to almost every Okie-Tex since they moved the event to Camp Billy Joe in 1999. This being my 18th trip to the Oklahoma pan handle its never been so bad weather wise. Cloudy, drizzle on many days, rain and lightning storms on some, hailed one afternoon, and just more clouds day after day.
 

Can’t even see Black Mesa through the low clouds

There was not a single night that it was clear for more than a few hours. I have to base some of that on my friends reports as I left early. Really early, like Monday evening. It was obvious after two days of drizzle and rain it wasn’t going to get any better. And it didn’t.
 
That said I did get to experience the reason I drive out here every year. As part of the setup crew I arrived Thursday evening and that night was one of the best I’ve seen in some time. It was a visual treat, the sky was crystal clear, the milky way blazed in all its glory, meteors darted across the sky. As I had nothing setup I just laid back in my chair and enjoyed a pristine night sky for hours and hours.
 
Was that Thursday night special simply because I hadn’t been in a class 1 Bortle sky in a year? No, not exactly. This is the water vapor image for Thursday night, about 4am Friday morning:
 

Red-Orange is dry air

There was an exceptionally dry air mass sitting over the region. So dry the next day as we setup the field the temperature shot up to the low 90s with a relative humidity of 14%. Desert like conditions, I couldn’t drink enough water. Friday night was pretty good, almost like Thursday but with a few more clouds, black shapes in the sky, floating through getting thicker after midnight.

Its unfortunate those that came Saturday never experienced the Okie-Tex skies. After talking with Tim and Chuck it seems this year’s star party was much like 1998, that year was cloudy the entire week also. Lets hope this cloud out only happens once every twenty years.

Dark Horse Jumps the Star Party

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.

Moonlight Thoughts

Tonight the moon is full. Earth is located exactly between the moon and the sun (ok technically that precise moment for my location is 4:06 CDT tomorrow morning). In 44 days, the the moon will be between the sun and Earth and at exactly 13:05 CDT the moons shadow will be just north of me. I will be somewhere in that shadow.

Whats interesting about the full moon is that the night sky during full moon is reportedly how dark the daytime sky will get if one is standing in the path of totality during a solar eclipse. I don’t know since I’ve never experienced the wonder of totality. Clearly the horizon during totality will appear more like sunset. But what is the naked eye limiting magnitude (NELM) during totality?

Only way to find out is to be in the path of totality in 44 days. I’ll have my sqm with. Incidentally the NELM with a full moon was 4.3 at 23:40.

Flashes in the night

Last week as true darkness started I wandered my backyard in awe and wonderment. All around me were fireflies flashing. They floated by my head the close flash incredibly bright. Those near the ground would momentarily create a circle of greenish light. They were everywhere. Some near the ground, some up high in the trees, most floating a few feet above the ground in the still air. At least a hundred blinking lights. Truly a magical night. I knew then I’m at peak firefly.

Every night for the past ten days I’ve been out watching the little bugs. The timing has been great this year with the moon now days past full, a waning crescent. Observing fireflies isn’t something I just started as I’ve been seriously doing it for years. I’ve even tried photography several times. But my local light pollution and perhaps lack of skill, or maybe poor technique, haven’t yielded good results. Its really difficult to capture that special feeling be around hundreds of fireflies

I have learned a great number of things about fireflies over the years. That each species flashes in a unique way. That they are out to mate and will die after their light show is done. That the males are flying around and the females sit waiting to chose the right one.

Perhaps most interesting to me is that a peak period of activity happens. That is, for a short time, perhaps a week or two, the greatest number of fireflies are active. For my location its roughly this time of year ever year. And then they will get less and less as the days pass. Certainly there will be some fireflies flashing in my backyard a few months from now. Just as their were a few flashing two months earlier. But nothing like the numbers I have now. Peak firefly, week of the lightning bug, seems like their should be a name for it.

Fireflies come out well before the sun sets and get ready for their nightly show. If one looks around you’ll see them waiting on tall grass or perched on bush like this guy from my yard last July:

Firefly getting ready for the nights show

I read that firefly numbers are going down which does not surprise me at all. Between light pollution and lawn maintenance chemicals I’d bet their numbers in suburbia, where I grew up many years ago, are greatly reduced. None of that is present where I am now. I also border a wet wooded area: perfect habitat for fireflies. Even with good living conditions their numbers do vary from year to year. In particular around the 2011 drought period here the firefly activity was significantly less.

And this is something I’ve wondered for years: how do I get an accurate count of the fireflies active in a given area at that time? Maybe accurate isn’t the right word. Maybe quantifiable is a better one. Fireflies per cubic meter / per second? I have observed variations from year to year and would like to be able to compare numbers rather than a gut feeling I have that there are more or less fireflies.

Even if I never figure out how to properly count their quantity or get a stunning picture that truly reflects what I am seeing, I consider myself lucky I get a lovely show every year.