(meteorobs) eta Aquarids, strike two

Bruce McCurdy bmccurdy at telusplanet.net
Thu May 5 23:38:30 EDT 2005

    Meteor observing is a strangely addictive pursuit. In the late 80s I was introduced to the Perseids as a group activity to begin the new observing season every August. I still cherish those nights of social observing, however there simply aren't enough major showers on the calendar. Nowadays as I pursue the lesser showers and accept the Law of Diminishing Returns, I more often find myself alone with my thoughts, which occasionally can be interesting companions. Especially when there isn't much meteor activity to disturb them, as was the case last night.   :(   

    Of course, belonging to a global network such as meteorobs means one is never truly alone, just working independently. One must report one's observations, in tabular form if one has scientifically interesting results, however on a slow night an essay will have to suffice.  If whimsy isn't your style, feel free to move on to the next message.

    When I set up my lawn chair somewhere on the periphery of civilization I like to think I have a front row seat to witness the interface between the heavens and Earth. The "two solitudes" presented in book-one-chapter-one-verse-one actually share a single continuum, whose connectedness can be witnessed with each flash of a meteor.   

    This was my second attempt to observe the eta Aquarids, having battled them to a 90-minute stalemate in 2002. In (soccer) football parlance, it was eta Aquarids nil, Bruce nil. I later made my first ever post to meteorobs ("eta Aquarids, strike one"), and one of the good denizens from this list suggested that at my somewhat extreme latitude (+53.5°) I would be doing well to see a solitary eta Aq. Certainly I have seen none since, as we have been snowed out on this date the last two years running. (Ten days before the onset of perpetual twilight, no less; we northerners have to be winter tough!)  

    But I am determined to experience all of the "major" showers at least once.  Secondly, one of the considerations of living at a high latitude is that of the global network that monitors meteors, I figure that fairly frequently I am defining one of the limits of coverage. In this case, that would be the unfavourable limit, but who knows, maybe I'd get just one of those spectacular earthgrazers and it would be worth the effort.

    I took this week's moderately clear skies and thin Moon as the go-ahead, set my alarm, made the 30-minute drive and dutifully took my spot under sub-urban skies in the wee hours this morning. I observed for the hour ending at 5 a.m. local time, which the numerologists will note was 05/05/05/05h!  Suffice to say this was not a portent of anything momentous, because nothing happened.  

    I saw one nice meteor very early on, a 0-mag white beauty with a brief train in my direct vision right next to the Little Dipper just as I was doing my first limiting magnitude estimate. (Same thing happened during the Lyrids: both times, a sporadic.) But then, nothing. My aging eyes played a few tricks on me, a growing problem especially during slow nights. But at least one useful observation of a classic "dark meteor" which crossed my vision at a speed exceeding the fastest Leonid, therefore conclusively discounting it as anything real.    

    Finally I saw a brief faint flash pass north-westward through northern Cygnus. Certainly quick enough to be an eta Aq, close to the right direction, but having no previous experience with this radiant I can't say for sure I got one. Even if I did, it was unworthy of being an icebreaker, certainly no spectacular eathgrazer, just a blip. Definitely too ambiguous to call.  

    The sky brightened all too quickly as I cursed myself for misjudging the observing window slightly. But the solitude paid dividends, as I enjoyed the gifts of the sheltering sky: an invigorating breeze, the first clouds of morning scudding by, the rising chorus of the avian symphony, the glow of the onrushing sunrise, a pair of Canada geese taking off from a nearby lagoon, memories and anticipation of meteors if not actual meteors themselves. 

    I clambered back into the car at 05:05 (!), started the engine, then switched it off and declared "You know what? I'm a stubborn S.O.B." and got back out for another quarter hour. For this determined effort I was rewarded with zero additional meteors, nary an earthgrazer to be seen. And yet, I *was* rewarded: looking high overhead I watched Deneb fading into the rising twilight. At ~500 parsecs this most distant of the first magnitude stars is a hundred million times further away than the Sun, and exceeds anything else in my daily experience by a factor of a quadrillion or so. As I watched even this superluminary fade to obscurity I felt a sense of the true, trivial scale of my daily problems, which are meteoric dust compared to the marvels of the Universe.  


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