meteor showers

The Perseids pack a punch thanks to clear skies

The skies were mostly clear in southern England for the peak of the Perseid meteor shower last night. Here are a few pictures that I captured of the display from the countryside to the east of Bristol.

Perseid fireball_12-13 08 2013webA brilliant Perseid fireball streaks across the sky. Credit: Will Gater

fireball_animation_smallThe same fireball image as above animated together with the previous and following frame to show the presence of a ‘persistent train’. Credit: Will Gater

Perseid 12-13 08 2013webA faint Perseid (top right), the Andromeda Galaxy and Double Cluster. Credit: Will Gater

Perseid fireball_dew_12-13 08 2013webA spectacular Perseid fireball captured with a lens covered in dew! Credit: Will Gater

Perseid_12-13 08 2013_croppedA Perseid meteor falls through the constellations of Pegasus & Aquarius. Credit: Will Gater

Sporadic meteor 13082013Not a Perseid! A short sporadic meteor points the way (sort of) to M31. Credit: Will Gater

Dartmoor’s delights make up for lacklustre Leonids

Jupiter with the Hyades & Pleiades (also shows NGC 1647 & NGC 1746). Credit: Will Gater

Last Saturday I headed up onto Dartmoor in the hope of seeing a few meteors from the Leonid meteor shower. Even though I had clear, dark skies on my side, the Leonids put on a rather feeble display this year; in a 3-hour observing session I only saw four, though I did see around twenty respectable sporadic meteors. After a good few hours of trying (and failing) to catch one of the blighters on camera I gave up and decided to have a go at imaging some other targets.

I couldn’t resist photographing the superb sight of Jupiter with the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters. The image above is a stack of six three-minute exposures taken at ISO 400. I used an unmodified Canon 550D DSLR and 90mm lens with an HEQ5 Pro mount (which was autoguided by a Sky-Watcher SynGuider attached to an 80mm refractor). The picture of the North America Nebula below was taken with the same setup, but it’s composed of about 30 minutes of exposures at IS0 400.

The North America Nebula (NGC 7000) & Pelican Nebula. Credit: Will Gater

A Draconid meteor drops from the sky

The Moon & clouds spoilt the peak of the Draconid meteor shower. Credit: Will Gater

After watching the clouds rolling in all day here I decided that the only way I’d have a chance of observing the peak of the Draconid meteor shower tonight would be if I followed the few gaps there were in the clouds by car. So, as the Sun was setting, I set off on a drive around Somerset looking for patches of clear sky. Unfortunately every time it looked as if I’d get a glimpse of the stars the clouds closed up obscuring everything. With complete cloud cover overhead I set off home thinking that was the end of the night.

Thankfully when I was about 15 miles from home the clouds broke and Jupiter and the Moon appeared to burst out of them in front of me. In an incredible stroke of luck there was a big lay-by about 100 metres ahead, so I pulled over and parked up. With small swathes of clear sky appearing overhead I set up the camera and began taking 20 second exposures at ISO 800.

Gaps in the clouds afforded brief glimpses of a starry sky. Credit: Will Gater

Before the clouds closed in again I saw four Draconid meteors including a relatively bright one which I managed to photograph (below). It was a lot of effort to capture just one meteor on camera. Hopefully next time the clear skies will come to me so I don’t have to go chasing after them.

A Draconid meteor shoots across the sky (click for a wide-field version). Credit: Will Gater

Observing the 2010 Geminid meteor shower

Over the coming week the 2010 Geminid meteor shower gets underway, building up to a peak which is expected on the morning of 14 December. I thought now would be an ideal time to repost a few excerpts from the blog post I wrote about the shower last year.

The position of the Geminid meteor shower radiant (see text below), in relation to the surrounding constellations. Click the image for a larger version. Credit: StarDate magazine. Used with permission from The University of Texas McDonald Observatory

The best time to look for the meteors will be on the night of the 13/14 December. How many you’ll see depends on several factors, such as your local light pollution levels and the cloud cover. Steve Owens has a great post about this here, where he explains how to calculate the number of Geminids you can expect to spot from your viewing location. Meanwhile, here’s what I had to say about the Geminids this time last year:

“Meteors are produced when tiny pieces of space dust enter our atmosphere at enormous speeds. As they do the air ahead of them is compressed violently causing it to heat up. This tremendous heat in turn makes the meteor glow as it streaks across the sky. It’s amazing to think that the average meteor is created by a piece of celestial detritus no bigger than a grain of sand.

Ordinarily on a clear dark night you might see a handful of meteors every hour. These are known as ‘sporadic’ meteors as they don’t belong to a particular shower. However when a meteor shower is underway there’s a good chance you’ll see many more, as the shower is supplementing the handful of sporadic ‘shooting stars’.


A meteor from the 2009 Geminid meteor shower darts through the constellation of Hydra, close to the star Alphard, as captured by Pete Lawrence. Credit: Pete Lawrence

Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through a trail of debris left by a comet as it passes through the Solar System. The particular object that creates the Geminid meteors measures around 5km in diameter and is known as 3200 Phaethon. It was found in the early 1980s and is in fact designated as an asteroid, though it certainly has some cometary traits. Perhaps, some have argued, it is a ‘dormant’ comet.

If you go out over the next few nights and see any meteors you’ll know you’ve spotted a Geminid if it appears to come from a point in the constellation of Gemini. This point is known as the ‘radiant’. The constellation that the radiant is located in gives the meteor shower its name; so the Geminids come from Gemini, the Orionids come from Orion etc.

In terms of where to look, my advice would simply be to look up. Gemini is high in the sky over the next few nights at around 1:30am, and with the Moon out of the way later on in the evening, we’ve got some good observing conditions for this year’s shower. Wrap up warm and sit back in a sun-lounger if you can, as this should stop your neck from getting tired and give you a better, more comfortable, view of the sky.

Meteor showers like the Geminids are a great chance to get together with friends to observe too, as the more eyes the better. You can join in with the special Geminid ‘Meteorwatch’ event on Twitter by tagging any Geminid meteor observations you tweet with the hashtag #meteorwatch.”

Clear skies and good luck meteor watching!

5 tips for making the most of the Perseids

The Perseid meteor shower is currently putting on a show in the night sky, as the Earth passes through the trail of debris left by the comet Swift-Tuttle. The shower is expected to reach a peak sometime between the evening of the 12 of August and the morning of the 13 August. Even so, it’s worth looking out for Perseid meteors a few nights before and after this time; on Saturday night I managed to spot 13 Perseids, including a spectacular fireball, during a roughly two-hour period of clear sky.

With the Moon out of the way, this year, we should have a fairly good view of the peak of the shower. With this in mind, I’ve put together my top five tips for making the most of the Perseids.

  1. The best time to look out for the Perseids will be between the evening of the 12 of August and the pre-dawn hours of the 13 August, around the time when the peak of the shower is anticipated. After midnight is a good time to look, as the patch of sky the meteors appear to come from will be higher in the sky then.
  2. Don’t get too hung-up on the exact direction in which to look. Simply try to find an observing site, away from sources of light pollution, where you can see as much of the sky as possible, and look up.
  3. My favourite piece of meteor shower observing equipment is undoubtedly my sunlounger. If you have one, dig it out. Being wrapped up warm lying back on a sunlounger is, to me, the perfect way to watch meteor showers. They’re great for binocular astronomy too.
  4. If you’re a budding citizen scientist then you can submit a report of your meteor shower observations to one of the astronomical societies. The SPA have a form here and the BAA have one here.
  5. For me, meteor showers are mainly about having fun and revelling in one of nature’s greatest spectacles. So my final tip is to invite your friends over to watch the shower with you. When the brighter meteors blaze over you’ll then have someone to share the excitement with. If you’re on Twitter, you can tweet your observations to other meteor watchers using the hastag #meteorwatch.

That’s it! Clear skies and good luck.

A quick guide to the Geminid meteor shower

A meteor from the 2009 Geminid meteor shower darts through the constellation of Hydra, close to the star Alphard, as captured by Pete Lawrence. Credit: Pete Lawrence

The annual Geminid meteor shower will put on a celestial show over the next few nights, with some predictions suggesting that almost 100 meteors per hour could be spotted shooting across the night sky. Meteors are produced when tiny pieces of space dust enter our atmosphere at enormous speeds. As they do the air ahead of them is compressed violently causing it to heat up. This tremendous heat in turn makes the meteor glow as it streaks across the sky. It’s amazing to think that the average meteor is created by a piece of celestial detritus no bigger than a grain of sand.

Ordinarily on a clear dark night you might see a handful of meteors every hour. These are known as ‘sporadic’ meteors as they don’t belong to a particular shower. However when a meteor shower is underway there’s a good chance you’ll see many more, as the shower is supplementing the handful of sporadic ‘shooting stars’.

Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through a trail of debris left by a comet as it passes through the Solar System. The particular object that creates the Geminid meteors measures around 5km in diameter and is known as 3200 Phaethon. It was found in the early 1980s and is in fact designated as an asteroid, though it certainly has some cometary traits. Perhaps, some have argued, it is a ‘dormant’ comet.

If you go out over the next few nights and see any meteors you’ll know you’ve spotted a Geminid if it appears to come from a point in the constellation of Gemini. This point is known as the ‘radiant’ and it’s the constellation that the radiant is in that gives the shower its name; so the Geminids come from Gemini, the Orionids come from Orion etc.

In terms of where to look, my advice would simply be to look up. Gemini is very high in the sky over the next few nights at around 1:30am and with a Moon that isn’t going to cause too much trouble we’ve got some good observing conditions for this year’s shower. Wrap up warm and sit back in a sun-lounger if you can as this should stop your neck from getting tired and give you a better, more comfortable, view of the sky. Meteor showers like the Geminids are a great chance to get together with friends to observe too, as the more eyes the better. You can join in with the special Geminid ‘Meteorwatch’ event on Twitter by tagging any Geminid meteor observations you tweet with the hashtag #meteorwatch.

The actual peak of the Geminid meteor shower will occur at around 5am (UK time) on Monday morning when the constellation of Gemini will be sitting in the west, around 40 degrees above the horizon, as seen from the UK. Even so there have already been several reports of Geminid meteor sightings. So if it’s clear where you are, go outside over the next few nights and see what you can see!