Saturday, March 15, 2014

One Minute of the Meteor of the Century

During the previous 3rd quarter moon, I was taking wide-field photos of constellations for my March What's Up presentation to my club, the Temecula Valley Astronomers, and to the Orange County Astronomers.
I was able to get the photos I needed over two clear nights. We were expecting a winter storm, and the night before the storm arrived was surprisingly clear. Also, my neighbors didn't have their 15 bright, white, un-shielded lights on, so that made a good opportunity to get better images of Canis Major.

After taking about four images like the photo below, I decided to get an image of Monoceros, which is left of Canis Major:

Wide-field image of Canis Major (Sirius is the bright star)

I moved my camera and took a short exposure to test if I was pointing where I wanted:

Overlapping images show my repositioning of the camera.

This wasn't quite right, so I moved my camera a little farther:

As I studied my photo in the camera viewer, a fireball lit up over head. I saw that it was headed for Canis Major. "Move my camera?" I thought, but rejected that idea. Next thought: "Maybe I'll catch a piece of it", so I pressed the shutter release.

I had the mirror lock setting on. So this first press merely rotated the mirror to reduce camera vibration. I pressed the release again just as the meteor fell out of sight. Once the meteor was gone, I figured there's no need covering it with more exposure, so I stopped my exposure. To my surprise, I captured a fragment of the meteor. I'd describe it as perhaps one year's worth of the meteor of the century, but "minute" sounds catchier.

Fragment of meteor in the bottom corner of my 3rd frame

Trace the path of the meteor

I, of course, regret turning my camera away, but the fireball could just as well have passed through Monoceros. In hindsight, I'm surprised that I reacted in time to catch the fragment. I think this reaction was the result of many cumulative hours of night photography, a reflex I've developed with practice. Had this meteor struck Earth, astronomers would be asking for any image to help identify its trajectory, and my fragment would have been scientifically useful. For now, it's merely a fun story.

Meteor fragment at maximum size


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