Catching Comet Dust – the Orionids

In 1066, Halley’s Comet appeared just before the Battle of Hastings. The comet passed particularly close to the earth that year and was described by witnesses as a bright new star in the heavens. King Harold of England took it as a bad omen that he would lose the battle to William the Conqueror which we know, of course, he did. And we also know now that the comet probably had very little to do with it.

Halley’s comet swings through the inner solar system making itself visible to all of us here on Earth once every 76 years. It was 1986 the last time it swung by, and it won’t be back until 2061. Since that’s kind of a long time to wait, it’s fortunate that anyone can see bits and pieces of the comet every year in October when the Earth passes through the trail of debris it left on its last pass. This morning, I got up two hours before dawn and went out to watch, and try to photograph, the Orionid meteor shower.

I didn’t see any meteors but managed to photograph three. With 25 to 30 second exposure times, that wasn’t so hard to manage. I pushed the button on the camera and fidgeted in the cold drinking my coffee until I heard the shutter close and then pushed the button again. After an hour, I came in, reviewed the photos, and found 3 faint streaks indicating meteors. Then I drank coffee, ate chocolate eyeballs (my favorite Halloween candy), and watched the X-Files on Netflix until the sun rose and my family eventually got up. Not a bad morning.

So here’s the best of my meteors:

A few other interesting things in the photo: The brightest star in the frame, to the left of the meteor trail, is Jupiter. It appears right in the middle of the constellation Taurus. Almost directly to the left, at the edge of the frame, are the three stars making up Orion’s Belt. The top half of that constellation is also visible in the frame. The star cluster, Pleiades or the Seven Sisters, is also visible at the bottom of the frame near the tree tops. (If you continue the line defined by the meteor streak, toward the bottom of the photo, it will pass just to the left of the cluster.)

I’m just learning about the night sky and at first, could rarely find anything other than Orion or the Big Dipper without help. I use several websites to gather information but my favorite tool is the planetarium software, Stellarium. Here are a couple of screen shots showing the same part of the sky in the photo.

And here’s one with the constellation lines drawn in:

How cool is that? Stellarium can be downloaded for free at http://www.stellarium.org/

Though the best viewing was forecasted for this morning before dawn, the Orionid meteor shower will continue through tonight. See more here:

http://earthsky.org/tonight/radiant-point-for-orionid-meteor-shower

If you liked this post or learning a bit about things that happen in the night sky, you might enjoy the account of the last meteor shower I lost sleep over:  Why I Stayed Up for the Perseids.

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Why I Stayed Up for the Perseids

Because standing in my driveway at 3:00 AM next to a tripod holding my camera taking 30 second exposures over and over of a relatively small section of sky not polluted hopelessly by city lights, streetlights, porch lights and the rising moon on the off chance a meteor might steak through the frame just sounded like fun.

For the record, I was out there for about an hour and a half. Because of the poor viewing conditions, I saw less than a dozen Perseid meteors and I caught an image of just one. It was the second picture I shot, but that didn’t stop me from taking about 50 more exposures of dark patches of sky.

Here is my meteor:

Not perfect, I know, but it’s my first try, and I love it.

If you look near the right edge of the photo, you’ll see 5 bright stars in the shape of a sideways “W.” That’s Cassiopeia. The radiant point of the Perseid meteor shower, the point from which all the meteors appear to radiate, is near the constellation Perseus which is below and to the right of Cassiopeia (and not in the frame). It is made up of fainter stars and is more difficult to see, especially in a light-polluted sky. (See http://earthsky.org/tonight/wheres-the-radiant-point-for-the-perseids for a handy diagram.)

The Perseid Meteor shower occurs each year when the earth crosses the orbit of a comet called Swift-Tuttle which orbits the earth once every 130 years leaving a path of dust and debris behind it. Each August, as the earth passes through this comet dust, we get a light show as the bits enter our atmosphere and burn up leaving bright streaks across the sky.

The best viewing time for the Perseid shower is after Perseus rises above the horizon, which was after midnight. I waited until 1:00 to set up my camera. That would give me a couple of hours to shoot for meteors before moonrise which would lighten the sky even more. After a while, I got a bit bored, and pointed the camera at our front porch, hit the button waited about half the exposure time and then stepped into the frame. And that’s how I made this ghostly self-portrait:

See the bricks through my shirt? Dorky, I know (but it will make a good prop when it’s time to decorate for Halloween). I took a few more dark, star-studded-sky-with-no-meteor-streak photos and then the moon rose.

That’s Venus trailing behind in the little crook in the tree tops.

I went to bed about 4:00 AM and got up about 7:00 and felt like a zombie half the day. It was completely worth it. I haven’t spent that kind of time watching the stars since the last time we went camping maybe, or the last time I walked on the beach after sundown. I wonder sometimes what it was like before electric lights and TV and air conditioning closed us up inside our homes, when people were still more a part of the world we live in and the night sky was the best show on earth.

If you missed the Perseids, don’t worry, there are several more coming up soon. Here’s a link: http://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/earthskys-meteor-shower-guide

And for those of you who, like me, have never photographed stars or meteors but would like to try, I found a handy, simple guide here: http://www.steves-digicams.com/knowledge-center/how-tos/digital-photography-101-how-to-photograph-meteor-showers.html#b