A Night with the Geminids Meteor Shower

I like to think of myself and fellow skywatchers as being travellers on our way to meet a meteor shower on certain nights of the year. That’s what happens as our planet reaches the place in its orbital path around the Sun where debris from comets or occasionally asteroids lies. Those fragments of rocks and dust, minding their own business out in space, get blindsided by our planet and are incinerated by our atmosphere, treating those looking up to a display of celestial fireworks. So we go to visit the meteors, not the other way around.

The Geminids have often escaped my attention in the pre-Christmas run-up. A look through the folders on my laptop’s drive reveals that I’ve made attempts to capture an earth-grazing white streak of evaporating space dirt roughly every three years. In need of an astro-fix as 2020 ended, I read in my monthly copy of ‘Astronomy Now’ that this year’s conditions were favourable, with no moon, and the potential for rates of close to 100 in the early hours of December 14th, far exceeding the reward afforded on warm summer nights when we visit the Perseids in August.

As with all astro events, you have to do your research. For meteors this involves understanding the breadth of the peak, the location of the radiant, and the zenithal hourly rate which distinguishes a strong from a weak shower. I tend to hedge my bets on the nights leading up to the maximum, testing out kit, finding the best vantage point, making sure I can locate a camera away from my neighbour’s festive or security lights, and most importantly, mitigating for poor weather on the main night itself.

So this year my standard meteor rig rolled out early. With a wide angle 14mm Samyang lens and an APS-C cropped sensor Canon 700D, the 1 in 500 rule allows 20 seconds or so of exposure before startrails appear. As I have a motorised tracking platform in the form of an iOptron Skytracker, the previous model that resembles a white brick, I like to expose for a little longer without risk of trailing. Then the resultant images, at least those that I imagine, can be stacked to offer a composite image of radiating light. The village fair photography prize would be mine.

Meteor capture rig

To let you into a secret, I have a sneaking suspicion that this setup and approach has a weak point, as many previous nights of recording literally hundreds of 30 second exposures have failed to snag the award winning fireball that I crave when I preview the images come the morning. Many fainter streaks have been captured, just not the big one. This December I upped the ante by setting the ISO one speed faster at 3200, opening the lens fully at f/2.8, and checking and double checking the focus using my laptop live view before the task of shutter control was handed to the £10 timer unit.

And so it went on the nights leading up to the peak. The drizzle cleared for an hour or two on the preceding night. 200+ frames were grabbed. Yet nothing was seen. My Twitter feed of fellow astros reported activity, but I had to content myself with knowing that the peak night was still ahead. After all, it’s been a year of waiting.

I should have been a weather person of some sort. I’m fascinated by it, I once took an exam in it. Weather watching has become an obsession. How many apps does it take to provide a consistent view? For me, at least three. Plus the TV weather, plus my weather station, its vanes turning slowly in the damp air, plus my latest habit of interpreting the UK satellite image – a fascinating pursuit in itself as the shadow of night appears from the east. Our planet is turning, and we all career towards the debris from Asteroid 3200 Phaethon as the early winter’s big offering comes into view. Alas the forecast was not promising in southwest England, unstinting rain and wind of the 13th rolled on into the night, the look-ahead suggesting there’d be 100% cloud cover until 2-3 a.m., sunrise at 6, then crystal clear by breakfast. Adopting the spirit of resilience that all amateur astronomers require, the unpromising outlook hinted at a few precious hours of clear sky before dawn.

So the plan was on. Charge the camera battery, change those in the timer and tighten down the clamps on the tracker mount’s ball head. Then sneakily turn off our outside LEDs, set the alarm, and sleep. Fitfully of course, like the night before a business trip or an interview or a big event for the kids.

I first awoke at 1 to the sound of rain, evicted the cat from the room, and then squinting another look through the bathroom skylight as 3am approached. A meteor shot across my view, making the decision easy. I was up now, no more sleep, just pull on the clothes and make it happen.

Ten minutes later I was outside with camera clicking. Next door’s lights are still flashing but only in a low key, festive way, not troubling the field ahead of the lens’s dome-like glass. Gemini is now 65 degrees up in the west, and as my eyes adapt I see one, and then another spit of firelight ejected from the whereabouts of Castor. Each time I glance back at the camera, trying to calculate if its sweeping field of view could have caught the fleeting descent. This continues for an hour as clouds drift across around a third of the sky. I start to relax, the temperature a mild nine degrees and the neighbourhood quiet.

Geminid Meteor December 2020

I see the early morning flights start to emerge above the UK after their transatlantic voyages. I know each will spill their Morse code of light across one or two frames as they traverse above. But that’s alright. My craving to record the event on camera has receded. I’m enjoying the moment and manmade trails cannot spoil it. In all I saw about thirty meteors until the sky brightened and the house started to wake. A good haul by my standards.

And those results? Did the camera catch a burning streak that eluded my eyes, skyrocketing me onto the cover of next month’s magazine? Not this time. Discounting those planes and a few sporadic meteors, photons from maybe ten true Geminids fell into the sensor’s grasp, shooting towards the now leafless trees that border the northern side of my garden, those same trees that frustrate in the warmer months as they obscure my view of the pole. Tonight they provided a picturesque backdrop to our small village garden.

This is why I do astro. In theory to capture an amazing WOW event, in practice to sit and become part of those heavens into which the camera gazes. Comfortable, mug of tea in hand, looking up with our curious black cat Robyn keeping me company and following my eyes skyward.