Watching the 2016 Perseids Meteorite Shower

This year has been a lot of fun watching meteorite showers, and Perseids 2016 did not disappoint.  I was able to watch the skies a week prior to the peak on the east side of the Collegiate Peaks near Buena Vista, then again the night before, during and after the peak of the Perseids (peaked Aug 11, 2016).

The Perseids are created by the dust trail from comet Swift Tuttle as our orbit intersects with its debris each year.  This year was a special “outburst” year thanks to our cosmic friend Jupiter whose gravity altered the course of some debris last year; making way for a more dusty intercept on this year’s orbit for Earth!

In Colorado about a week before the peak, the days were socked in with clouds and some rain, but after midnight the clouds cleared out and provided a wonderful display of the stars and Milky Way over the Collegiate Peaks from the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area south of Buena Vista Colorado.  Although I didn’t capture it as it was left of my field of view, I saw a massive fireball which I can only assume was a Perseids meteorite!  Several other meteorites I witnessed that night were likely Perseids.

Milky Way and Mt Princeton

Milky Way over Mt Princeton, with Mt Antero on the left. A small meteorite also captured!

I took this picture with Sony Alpha A7RII with Rokinon 14mm f2.8 prime lens.  Manual focus was set to infinity, f2.8 and exposure was 8 seconds at ISO 12800, obviously on a tripod.  I have found that opening the exposure over 8 seconds leaves a blur/trail with stars that I do not like, so I had to adjust the ISO to absorb more light.  I made some minor adjustments in Lightroom.

Star Trails

Star trails from several stills over Mt Princeton.

I thought this was a fun shot, it was a video capture of the stars including Milky Way using the A7RII Star Trails app.  This is a fun little app but I have not explored it deeply yet to discover if there are many creative uses for it other than the obvious.  A couple of satellites are also present streaking across the sky over each 8 second exposure.

Fast forward a little under a week, to the days around the peak of Perseids 2016.  Each of the nights here where I live near Larkspur Colorado it was cloudy and stormy before and after dusk.  But luckily each night all the storms moved off east and the skies cleared up in time for the moon to set and give great dark skies for viewing this “outburst” year.

I set up in my front yard pointing towards the south/western sky which is the largest portal I have through my trees.  I was able to witness many Perseids shooters and caught a couple in my field of view.

Stacked Milky Way photos (6 of them) with a Perseids meteorite

Stacked Milky Way photos (6 of them) with a Perseids meteorite

In the above photo, I took the 3 shots before and after the meteorite and stacked them in Photoshop.  A brief summary of the process that I’m still only beginning to use

  • Open all the photos as layers in Photoshop
  • Select all layers and then use the alignment feature of the stack
  • Create a Smart Object
  • Use the Smart Object / Stack Mode function and Median setting to combine all the light of the photos into a single picture

This is the first time I played with this workflow and will be exploring it further to fine tune the results, but i’m quite impressed of what Photoshop can do merging the light of several photographs; remember I only like to take up to 8 second exposures of the stars, so this gave me almost a minute worth of light.  I think that too many pictures will confuse the auto-alignment feature of Photoshop, I tried another experiment with 12 photos and the results looked horrible.  I have to play with this more (if you have any suggestions here, would love to hear from you in the comments!)

Perseid Colors

Amazing color on this closeup of a Perseids fireball caught on the eve of the peak.

I caught another amazing meteorite and did a digital crop to show the spectacular colors of Perseids meteorites!  This was the largest shooter I saw the eve prior to the peak.

Then came the peak, which again was forecast to be up to double of other years!  I set my alarm each hour after dark and went outside to witness the show, but it was very cloudy and even had a thunderstorm to our south.  I was getting bummed as by 12:30 we were still socked in with clouds!  At the 1:20 alarm, however, the sky was crystal clear; amazing what can happen in less than an hour here in the Colorado foothills! The sky stayed clear until dawn, when it got cloudy again.  Perfect timing, mother nature!

I typically count meteorites in two categories (that’s all I can keep track of that late in the night); one is total number and the second (I use my hands for this one) is for “large” meteorites.  Large ones are definitely not all fireballs, and is definitely subjective, but I like to remember how many ones I see that make me go “cool” or “wow”.  Here is the play-by-play I posted to facebook for each 30 minutes I was watching…

  • First 30 minutes, 54 shooters, 13 were large and several fireballs. Finally cleared up after a cloudy evening.
  • Next 30. Count now at 83, with 29 being large, the last two were fireballs. This half hour has had more larger ones per capita…
  • Next 30. 122. 39.
  • Next 30. 159. 51.
  • Next 30. 189. 66.
  • Last 30 minutes. 231. 87.

Given that I live in a forest and have a limited window into the night’s sky, I think this is an amazing number, one of the best I’ve seen in the many many showers I’ve watched! I caught about 50 of these on my camera, which is definitely the most I’ve ever caught, but due to the wide angle (14mm, Rokinon f2.8 prime lens) most were really small and overall uninteresting.  I did catch some spectacular fireballs in the field of view; but missed most which is par for the course.

Perseids Meteorite

Perseids shooter, very large (fireball) showing the Milky Way and wonderful colors as it burned up in our atmosphere!

Perseids and Milky Way

Perseids over the Milky Way

Perseids

This was the morning of the peak of Perseids 2016, this large fireball left a vapor trail for many minutes.  Extremely lucky that it stopped at the bottom of my field of view!  I was surprised that I actually caught this one!

Closeup of a Perseids Fireball.

Closeup of a Perseids Fireball!

Fireball vapor trail

Vapor trail immediately after the prior fireball, this lasted several minutes and was distorted as the upper atmosphere winds moved it irregularly.

The night after the peak I was exhausted, so I missed setting the alarm reminding me to get up in the early morning hours.  I did go out about 4:30 and saw a burst of about 15 in 15 minutes, 2 of which were “large” on my subjective scale…which surprised me on the morning after the peak!  My cell phone app states that the shower’s window is July 17th through August 24th, so there are surely many more nights to experience this year!

eta-Aquarids

This year’s eta-Aquarids meteorite shower was one I’ve been waiting for as it was close to a new moon; with the moon rise just before dawn.  This should be ideal conditions for watching a meteorite shower.

eta-Aquarids are produced from the debris left from Haley’s Comet.  These are very fast shooters and have been said to be large and leave long trails; sometimes lasting for minutes.  I’ve only seen a couple of meteorites that have left trails for longer than a couple seconds, so I’ve been looking forward to this particular shower.

eta-Aquarids Crescent Moon

Crescent moon on the eve of the eta-Aquarids rising above Larkspur Butte

The peak is Cinco de Mayo, so I went out and viewed them the morning of and the night after this date.  The shower has a large window of time so hitting the peak on this day is sometimes off.  It was somewhat hazy the morning of but I was able to see a few small shooters.  Obviously it wasn’t the peak; or if so I was unlucky.  I did do a timelapse and caught one on film.

eta-Aquarids meteorite

eta-Aquarids meteorite with some color from light pollution and haze

I’m trying out a new lens, a Rokinon 14mm fixed f/2.8 lens which is often praised for astrophotography work. It is manual focus but so far I’m not having a focus problem like I have had with other lens. I took these at ISO 1600 for 15 seconds and am so far excited about the results. So far (it’s in the middle of the second night), there is a thin cloud cover at about 30k; you can sometime see through (barely) the clouds but the sky is mostly covered; making viewing difficult. I have seen several shooters but they have been relatively small and faint with the clouds; probably faint without the cloud cover too.

Aquarids Milky Way over Larkspur

Milky Way over Larkspur with Aquarids Satellite

On the morning of May 6th, there was substantial cloud cover.  I went out about 11:30 and I could see the clouds coming from the South.  They overtook the stars about 12:30; I looked again about 3:30 and it was still cloudy; but at 7:30 it was clear.  These pictures illustrate that even living in a rural area the light from neighboring towns 15 minutes away is quite substantial.  The could cover was relatively light, however, and for a while you could see the stars through the clouds; through open exposure on the camera anyway.

Light pollution

Light pollution from Castle Rock reflecting off the clouds really stands out when there is cloud cover

Light Pollution - Aquarids

Light pollution reflecting off the clouds from Monument

2015 Perseids is Coming

Are you ready for the Perseids? They peak on Thursday AM but the show can be at its best within a couple days of the peak. Several years ago two mornings before was the best…it all just depends on when we pass through the cosmic comet debris from Swift-Tuttle. This year will be extra special because of the new moon, making watching extra bright!

Here are some of the shooters I caught from years past! Can’t wait to hear your experience with the cosmic light show!

FYI, best time is after midnight to dawn; if you’ve never witnessed a show; get a nice lounge chair and just look up, and let your eyes scan into infinity…when one shoots, your eyes will automatically focus on it. If you are a counter like me (it keeps me awake), use your fingers or you’ll likely lose count; or there are cell phone apps for that!

If you are going to take pictures, get a tripod and a shutter remote, switch over to manual exposure mode, set to lowest f-stop/aperture setting, iso needs to be fairly low or it will get noisy, exposure for up to 8 seconds (if you go over 8 the stars will be blurry, my rule of thumb). Zoom out as far as you can go, turn off auto-focus and image stabilization (it moves the mirror and eats battery), and lock on the shutter remote! Oh, and focus, that is the hard part, you can try auto-focus but you should turn it off after you get a good focus, which will likely require some experimentation. Have fun! :star2:

2012 Perseids Shooter

2012 Perseids Shooter

2013 Perseids

2013 Perseids Shooter

2012 Perseids Shooter

2012 Perseids Shooter

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2014 Quadrantids Meteorite Shower

Watched near the peak (which occurs a little before noon our time) of the Quadrantids this morning. This shower of space dust comes from the minor planet 2003 EH1 and its peak is usually for a very short duration; literally hours–not days like normal showers. The radiant is around the big dipper handle straight up in the sky.

I watched for about 1.5 hours and saw about 25; 15+ were really nice. It was a treat this year because there was no moon…I have tried to watch this shower in the past and never saw much of anything! Here’s a couple I was able to catch…now let’s see if I can catch any sleep…

Quadrantids 2014 from Colorado USA

Quadrantids 2014 from Colorado USA – click for large image

Quadrantids 2014 from Colorado USA

Quadrantids 2014 from Colorado USA – click for large image

Shooting Stars – Orionids 2011 and Geminids 2010

Those that have known me for a while know that it’s rare that I let a descent meteorite shower pass me up without at least trying to check it out.  Of course the weather has to cooperate and it is a late night so work/day life has to cooperate too! 🙂

Last year I started mounting a camera and have been successful at getting a few of the elusive shooters.  Here are some of the shots that I’ve taken where I’ve gotten a shooting star.  Any tips that others use?  I just mount to the tripod, zoom all the way out (18mm stock lens), use autofocus to get the focus and then turn it to manual focus mode, then take pictures using a timer.  Camera settings I’m still playing with; for the Orionids 2011 I used a low value for F-stop and a high ISO value at 30 second exposures (almost too long).  For the Geminids 2010 I used a little higher F-stop but again 1600 ISO and 30 second exposures.

Orionids Orionids