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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We Hit the Geminids Jackpot

After being clouded out on Monday night December 13, I put my hopes on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning to get a view of the Geminids meteor shower this year. We were not disappointed. Although there was a slight haze in the early evening, by 11:00 PM, when we were heading out, the skies had completely cleared and the winter constellations shined brightly overhead.

We threw our camp pads and sleeping bags in the car, together with my 80mm Brandon wide-field telescope and eyepieces, and headed up to our dark sky site just outside of Mitzpe Ramon. I brought the telescope just in case I decided to do some deep sky viewing, but it is not at all needed to observe a meteor shower. In fact, one of the beauties of a meteor shower is that all you need to see it best are your two eyes and a dark sky location, both of which we have in ample measure in Mitzpe Ramon.

I was quite confident we would get a good show, but I was not prepared for just how good it was. Although the peak of the meteor shower was scheduled for the previous night, the actual time of the peak was 13:00 UTC on Tuesday (15:00 Local Israeli Time). So, Tuesday night around midnight was actually closer to the peak time than the night before. Also, the Geminids, unlike the other great shower of the year, the Perseids, has a very broad peak, spread out over a longish period of time.

We threw our pads on the ground, spread out our sleeping bags and hopped in, waiting for our eyes to adapt to the dark and the show to begin. Although the first quarter moon was still visible, we immediately began to count lots of meteors. Donny, my observing buddy, counted 34 meteros in the first hour, despite the moon light. After the moon went down around 12:45AM, the meteors intensified. They were mostly very bright, with medium length trails, moving at moderate to fast speed, and bright white in color. We saw one fireball, which illuminated the entire area during its brief passage, and was accompanied by a dimmer twin, that fell in parallel beside it. On a number of occasions the meteor's train was illuminated by the ionized gas it left in its path, brightening and dimming as it quickly fell through the sky.

Our Geminids meteor count, by the quarter hour, December 14-15, 2010

We were delighted with the show, which was one of the best I have seen. Other observers report it one of the best meteor showers of the last 10 years. It is still not too late to view it, as many meteors from the shower will continue to be visible through December 17, although in smaller numbers than previous nights.

Lying on the ground in our sleeping bags under a star-filled sky, watching the shooting stars, called to mind that not far from this place, G-d took Abram out under the night sky to show him these stars and demonstrate how numerous his descendants would be. Not far from this place, under a sky very much like the one we watched, Abraham began his journey to sacrifice his son Isaac, which would end the generations to come that G-d had promised him under this same night sky. Not far from this place, under a sky filled with the same stars, Jacob, Isaac's son, would flee from the wrath of his brother Esau, lie on the cold hard ground as we did, and dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder. And not far from this place, in the middle of the night (va'yehie be'chatzie ha'lahylah) under a sky filled with stars that looked like our own, Moses would take the Children Of Israel out of Egyptian bondage to the very self-same land that we were lying on.

Such are the thoughts on an astronomical evening in the Holy Land.

Clear skies and fair viewing.
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