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

 

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