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Archive for August, 2009

I never expected this to be a good Perseid year, but I did at least get in one solid hour of very enjoyable Perseid watching. The score?

1 wink

3 ghosts

2 Perseids in full bloom

1 Wrong Way Corrigan

1 brilliant Perseid that rushed in between the clouds  – a real  curtain dropper that brought an appreciative “wow” from my lips.

I had awoken from a sound sleep at 2 am wondering why.  One glance out the window told me. My clear sky alarm clock in my head must have gone off.  Sure, I get up at 2 am many mornings, but in this case I had gone to bed under cloudy skies and I was so solidly asleep that at first I thought something was wrong with the air conditioner because I couldn’t hear it. It seemed to take forever to drag myself to a level of consciousness where I could hear it and reassure myself nothing was worng – except now I was wide awake.  That, for me, means I had been solidly asleep. And I have to admit, when I looked up at the quarter moon the first thought that went through my mind was – “real nice moon – I’ll meander out to the observatory.” It wasn’t until five minutes later when I checked the “Clear Sky Clock” on my computer – and saw that the second night of the Perseids would be a total washout –  that it really occured to me that right then I had a window of opportunity to see some Perseids and it probably was my only one for this year. Net result? By 2:20 am I had a sweatshirt on, my tea and binoculars were in hand, and I also had two pillows to make the upstairs deck a bit more comfortable for flat-on-your-back meteor watching.

As I surveyed the sky I was pleased to see stars to fourth magnitude – and as I checked with binoculars in key areas I found the transparency was great – the problem was, of course, that pesky last quarter moon. It was high in the southeast and washing over the radiant point for the Perseids, as well as everything else.  That’s when it dawned on me that what I was likely to see were “winks” and “ghosts” of meteors and not the usual bright streaks.  And the first three fit this bill. Two were ghosts. I’m pretty sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. I saw them – but they must have been right near the level of visibility – just faint flashes. The third was a kind of brilliant wink right over head between Perseus and and the “W” of Cassiopeia.  Very near the radiant point. Meteors are not the same intensity throughout. Some of them have several spurts of brilliance along a trail that in total is much dimmer – and most have one brilliant point in a longer trail. So in the case of the “wink” I was seeing the brilliant point, but not the trail that lead up to it. That would have been too faint. Or maybe it was coming straight toward me? Or maybe a little of both?

Then I got a couple of real nice ones that looked like what you think a meteor should look like. One went through the Northern Cross and another was over by Aldebaran, pretty low in the southeast. That came when I was checking on the Pleiades, the Hyades, Aldebaran and Mars with with my 12X36 IS binoculars. (OK – I admit – I kept a pretty good watch for meteors, but I also did some binocular touring, so I could have missed some. But even in these conditions it’s fun to check on bright clusters like the Pleiades and Hyades. It’s also fun to know that a few hundred billion stars in the form of the Andromeda Galaxy are high overhead and looking down on you and you can look back!  All of this was easy to see in the binoculars, as was Mu Draconis, a favorite binocular double that was just above my maple tree to the northwest. )

There were a few clouds around, especially to the north and along the eastern horizon, but most of the sky was really transparent  – a 5 on a scale of 1-to-5 – and while I did check on the moons of Jupiter over in the southwest a couple of times, for the most part I kept a steady watch in the sweep of sky that goes from Capella in the east to Vega in the west and down to the “guardians” of the pole, hanging below Polaris. (No I could not make out any of the fourth magnitude stars in the Little Dipper, but I could identify stars of magnitude 3.5 and a few fainter, so I suspect my limit was right around magnitude 4. I also suspect that had there been no moon – and if my horizon were less obstructed than it is from the upper deck –  then in these skies I would have been averaging 15-30 Perseids an hour. Given that the shower doesn’t peak until roughly mid day today, that’s about right.  It’s also a very firm reminder that  in astronomy you have to seize your window of opportunity when it appears. It’s easy to get it in your head that the Perseids come every year and so there will always be another chance. There will, of course, but given the fickleness of weather, your personal schedule, and the very predictable interference of the moon, seeing a good “shower” is a rare event. So I grab what I can when I can – and frankly, it was just darned nice to  be out in the cool night air and enjoying this peaceful interlude. It ended nicely as well.

About 3:15 am the clouds were building in the north and west and even in the east Venus had put in appearance, but was very red which meant it was shining through some haze. To the north a solid bank of overcast was reaching for Polaris. To the west, scattered high clouds were obscuring parts of the Summer Triangle. But I still had a window  – a wide rectangle between Perseus and Polaris. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I thought, “if a brilliant fireball choose this moment to put in an appearance in that clear rectangle?” And bingo – there it was! Not quite a fireball, but it rivalled Jupiter in brilliance. I would put it at magnitude  -2 and while I continued to look for another minute or two, I was certain that was the finale on my 2009 and Perseid meteor “shower” experience. And real nice curtain dropper it was!

Oh  –  I forgot the “Worng Way Corrigan.”  That was a stray meteor that didn’t belong to the shower – it was in Andromeda and moving towards, rather than away from, the Perseid radiant point – but it was a very respectable meteor, just going the wrong way. Instead of heading for California, it was heading for Ireland – and I suspect both it and Corrigan knew what they were doing, but it’s more fun to think of them as confused. 😉

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