Meteor Hunting

I thought the evening was a disaster. I got to bed at 10 pm. Set the alarm for midnight. Got up and saw that the clouds were impenetrable at my home near Los Gatos, California. With a sigh I finished packing up my equipment and set out toward the place I had picked days before.  It was a private home with an open lot and a great view of the Diablo Mountain Range.  The owners had agreed to let me arrive at midnight and remain until about 5 am. BUT when I arrived I couldn’t see the stars or the mountains. Darn.

I know that sometimes the mountains east of the San Francisco Bay Area block the low clouds from advancing inland, so I continued on. Sure enough I noticed from the freeway that I could actually see a huge hole in the sky. Astronomers call them “sucker holes” because they sucker you in to thinking its worth setting up equipment.  I had to find a way to turn around on the freeway and find an off-freeway road with a decent view.  Finding such a place took about 20 minutes, and by the time I arrived, thick clouds had enveloped the eastern sky, but at least I could sometimes make out stars to the north, including the all important Polaris.

I set up and aligned my Polarie, and started the automatic timer to take continuous 44 second exposures (2000 ISO) starting at 1:28 AM. I figured, the clouds were sometimes thin enough that I might capture a meteor through them – after all, once in a while I could make out where the bright planet Jupiter was.  Time passed and I huddled in my car with what seemed like 20 layers of clothes. I had forgotten my pillow and my sleeping bag and didn’t have my customary thermos of hot chai. The night was cold, breezy and a little damp so the shelter of the car was essential.  I slept fitfully. Each time I awoke I saw thick clouds. From 2:16 to 2:23 the clouds seemed like they were going to disappear but they were just teasing me! I slept and shivered some more. I finally found my emergency coat – a tattered old garment I keep in the car which my wife would never willingly let me be seen in public with,  and a towel to use as a blanket on my legs. By 3:56 AM the Polarie had tracked Orion high into the sky so little of the foreground was left in the shot. But now the sky was dramatically clearer! Thick clouds threatened in the west but my view of the sky was much better.

I moved the camera and reoriented it vertically so I could keep the slope of the hillside in the shot for at least a while. I watched for a bit hearing the familiar sounds of the shutter closing, pausing, opening…  A brilliant meteor appeared – it was definitely in my field of view! I was almost ecstatic until I noticed the sound of the shutter opening again and realized the bright one had appeared and left while the camera was between shots. It got away! I later discovered that I did catch one little meteor in the vertical mode (see above).

From 4:16 to 4:55 I let the rig continue running in the vertical alignment and retreated again to my car for warmth. But now Orion was heading farther and farther south where the fierce light pollution from Fremont and San José was daunting. I aborted the vertical shot and framed up a lovely spreading oak tree that caught my eye. I spent a solid 15 minutes on that oak tree with Orion hanging above it.

It was now 5:03 in the morning and I was colder than ever.  So I decided I’d reframe the sky shot to avoid the glow of the cities and retreat to the car out of the wind. It was then that I finally really slept and I woke when my alarm went off: 6:02 AM.  I was leading a group of hikers to scrub graffiti off the summit of Mission Peak and some were going to meet for breakfast at 6:30 AM.  The sky was mostly cloudy again, but I spent a few more minutes framing up my friend the oak, collected my equipment and headed for Denny’s.  I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon with a wire brush and paint remover.

After my graffiti scrubbing expedition I was exhausted and slept until early Saturday evening. I copied and started looking through my images. I found a very peculiar one almost right away.  I wondered what the “squiggle” was.

Looking at the frame before the squiggle was still there, though the shape was different.  I kept going backward until I found a brilliant flash. BINGO! It seems the meteor appeared at almost exactly the time that my alarm went off. I never saw it with my tired eyes.

I hastily grabbed the frames from just before the meteor until the floating squiggle ceased to be visible and assembled them into a timelapse:

And there you have it. Almost 5 hours of clouds, a very few meteors and one of the most fascinating phenomenon I’ve ever captured.

By the way, I now have literally thousands of shots to sort through from the following night which was much clearer. So far no brilliant streaks. 🙁

If you’re wondering what settings and tricks to use to capture a meteor, please see my article.

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