Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Leonids - Close But No Cigar!

Ahh, we were blessed with very clear, crisp skies over night, just in time for the peak of the Leonid meteor shower. I had a relatively early night and woke up at 2:00am. Throwing on some thermals and two layers of clothes, I jumped in the car with my DSLR and drove about twenty miles northwest of my house to one of the observing spots I have picked out. It was pretty cold, but ever so clear! Orion hung high in the sky the Pleiades were crystal clear and steady - excellent!

The Leonids were pretty nice to watch, but not really spectacular. Between the predicted peak time of 3:00am and 4:00am US CST, I think I saw around 20-25 or so. Most of these were short streaks of light, but a few were rather brilliant (yet still small) fireballs/bolides. They petered out closer to 5:00am. They streaked across the Orion, Casseiopia and Ursa Major regions throughout the morning. Again, pretty neat to see these, but I bet the folks in the China region had a better time, where the meteors were supposed to peak at 200-300 an hour.

Interesting to note I did see a small number of dimmer meteors emanating from the Andromeda region. They were very faint but noticeable, with very short trails. According to the Meteor Showers Online Website, these may have been the "Andromedids". I'll need to research that further, though.

I set up my camera on the side of the road and started taking 30 second exposures, from 2:45am to 5:15am. I really wanted to try to capture one in an image. Naturally, all of the bright meteors avoided my camera field-of-view as if to mock me, whereas dimmer ones did move in front of my camera but were so faint they failed to register on any of my photos. I have about 190 images to go through and if anything looks decent I will post it to the blog.

Still, it was great to stand around and watch the show while listening to the packs of coyotes nearby. I intended to have a short nap before work once I got home but stayed up to watch the news instead. I am going to have a rough day at the office today!


Johany DeMarco said...

Hi Phil,
I'm a beginner astronomer and I must say I really LOVE your astro article called "Astronomy Without a Telescope."
It was VERY easy to read and understand. Please keep featuring articles like this one for those beginner stargazers out there!!!

Phil said...

Hey Jo!
Thanks very much for the feedback on the article! It's had a lot of downloads but you're the first to comment on it, so I really appreciate it. I'll start working on some basic imaging articles next year so stay tuned...
Thanks again and clear skies!

Johany said...

Hi Phil,
I had one quick question about astronomy. Most people when they look through a telescope expect to see the beautiful deep sky images of nebulas and galaxies that we see in magazines and online.

You know the ones, the ones with all their beautiful colors, the ones you can't stop looking at because they're just so darn beautiful! I'm one of those people!

I just found out that this is far from the truth! That even with advanced telescopes our eyes because of the rods and cones are only able to perceive a little green if that. That the colors that the nebulas and galaxies really look like are in actuality black and white and grey.

And that person told me that even the images of deep sky gems that we see through Hubble are enhanced, that the colors are not even real. Is this true?

He also proceeded to say that if you were to go on a spaceship to one of the beautiful nebulas and galaxies you see so beautifully illustrated in photos, no matter how close you get to them, they will always appear black and white or greyish. Is this really true?

I'm asking you this because I feel you are an expert and would really like your expert opinion on this.

I really thought that if you looked through a telescope you'll be able to see the beautiful colors emitting from these nebulas. But even out there in space they don't even emit those colors! This really makes me so sad.

If this is true, how do you go about it? How do you see the photos and live with the realization that they are not real? The deep sky gem is real, but the colors arent'?

I am sorry if I wrote too much. I have been soooo excited to get started with backyard astronomy and then this guy told me this and everything I expected came crashing down.

Thank you Phil for your patience. I can't wait to hear from you!!!

Phil said...

Hi Again, Jo!

Great question, but first let me clarify one thing. I am by no means an expert! :-) I just have a passion for astronomy and am learning a lot as I go along. I get a lot of things wrong but that's part of the process. Anyhow, I am just an enthusiastic backyard astronomer willing to share my experiences so others can maybe learn something!

Ok. So, this is a tricky question which can have some looooooong answers! In a nutshell, the human eye just doesn't have enough receptors or sensitivity too pick up color in local or distant space objects.

In some instances this isn't the case. For example, you can detect reddish hues when observing Mars, orange when looking at Saturn, and different star colors depending on their spectral class/type (looking at different double stars is a good way to see differences in star color, same with open star clusters).

However, again, the human eye can not really detect much color when looking through the telescope. You see glorious, colorful pcitures because they are taken with cameras that use sensitive CCD chips that, combined with processing software, produce the sorts of images you see on websites and magazines.

Having said that, though, what you CAN see is still rather interesting. What makes astronomy interesting from a visual perspective are both detail you can see in various objects given the right instrument and viewing conditions, as well the mathematics behind some of the things you actually observe.

The detail you can see in various objects, regardless of lack of color can be quite stunning. The moon is always amazing, especially when you observe up and down the day/night terminator. Some planets reveal interesting detail, too, such as Mars and Jupiter. The latter is rather dynamic to watch, as you can observe its four biggest moons, as well as its cloud bands (and Great Red Spot) move about the planet rather quickly! One of my favorite things to watch is the transit of a Jovian moon across the surface of its mother planet - you can see a tight round black shadow on the surface, and it moves across the surface in a matter of a few hours. Other objects are great to look at as well, such as the Great Orion Nebula. In a decent scope (4" and bigger) you can see some lovely detail and wispy nebulosity in this object, moreso from a dark sky site. Some galaxies are pretty cool, such as M81 and M82 group and the "Leo Triplet" galaxy group. Globular clusters, in decent sized scopes, are stunning. Resolving hundreds of thousands of stars in tiny pin-pricks of light with a black space background can be jaw dropping.

The mathematics and theory behind what you get to observe also adds a bit of excitement, too. So, for instance, when you look at something like the the M13 Globular Cluster, you are looking at a star cluster that contains around 30,000 stars at a diameter of around 145 light years, and at a distance of around 25,000 light years away. So, to look at something like that is stunning when you think about it - the light that hears your eyes through the eyepiece took 25,000 years to get here! And that is just one of hundreds or thousands of objects you can observe...

So, despite not seeing vivid color, astronomy is fascinating on that what you can see is still aesthetically pleasing, and, in a sense, scientifically mind boggling!

Of course, you can always get into taking your own astrophotos and come up with your own colorful images, but pursue the visual route first just to get acquainted with the skies.

Check these links out for a bit more information:



Don't be disheartened by the lack of color issue. Sadly, a lot of cheap telescope manufacturers use colorful images just to lure folks into buying their rubbish. Have a realistic expectation about the hobby and you will find it rewarding.

Good luck!

Vijay Chakravarthy said...

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Vijay Chakravarthy said...

Link to your blog has been add in my friends blog list @ spacestation-shuttle.blogspot.com

Jo said...

Thank you so much for answering my questions! You have been so helpful. And in my eyes you are and will always be an expert! :)

The links you gave me were also very helpful. If I have any more questions is it okay if I may ask you? And thanks for always presenting your knowledge and information in an easy to understand way, not to mention your great sense of humor!!! Thanks again Phil. You're the best!!!

Phil said...

No probs, Jo. Any questions - fire away!

Connie said...

Too bad it didn't come out on your camera. Sounds like you had a great time watching the sky.

Johany DeMarco said...

Hi Vijay,

I must say I checked out your blog and I think it is AWESOME! It is very informative and you got some pretty cool graphics!

I too have a blog called "Into The Mists" and although I have not posted anything yet on astronomy I will pretty soon. I really enjoy Phil's blog and his astro articles and I'm now getting my feet wet in astronomy once again!

In the meanwhile my blog is about all that is interesting, magickal, outdoorsy, strange, mysterious, and unknown. All the posts there are things that I'm very much interested and passionate about and will fall under one of the above categories.

If you're interested in exchanging links with me after checking out my blog please let me know.

I'll be definitely be going back to yours, and of course, Phils!!!

Phil said...

Hi Vijay,

A link to your very interesting blog has been posted on my links list, to the right-hand side of the blog.