I forgot what a normal winter was like around here until this season. Already I’ve had more snow than last three years combined.
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(!).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
In some of the farm fields around me springs arrival is celebrated by emergence of a purple carpet. Not all fields will have this having been freshly tilled preparing for planting. Likely corn. Other fields were prepared a month or more ago for grasses or wheat. The fields yet to be worked for crops are far from barren as the Henbit flowers in a pink-purple color. From a distance the sight is very nice:
Soon the field I took a picture of will be prepared for crops and the Henbit will be gone. Thats ok as the flowers don’t last all that long. But while their at peak color the fields have a wonderful color to them.
This is the first of a series of posts. While Earth Day was Sunday April 22nd celebrating the place we live on for only one day seems to short. I’m going to observe Earth week.