Spaced out in California

Astronomical adventures in (NY and) CA in the summer of 2007

Including - so far - the outburst of the Aurigid meteors on Sep. 1 and the total lunar eclipse of Aug. 28

Aurigid outburst over a California mountain

New: the
activity profile and radiant have now been analyzed!

The best five meteors from three hours (10:00 til 13:00 UTC on September 1, 2007) of my Mintron tapes from Fremont Peak, extracted with MetRec: They flew through the FOV of the 6 mm lens at 11:16:32, 11:30:01, 11:30:53, 11:39:02 and 12:02:40 UTC (clicking on each strip loads the original - tiny - BMP) and are all Aurigids, except the 3rd one, according to a detailled analysis by S. Molau (personal communication). All 10 Aurigids I captured can be seen here! All frames have Capella on the right, some Polaris on the left - sorry for all the hot pixels ...

They came as predicted, they were as bright as expected and thus pretty beautiful one by one - but there could have been more of them: This, in a nutshell, was the outburst of the Aurigid meteors on the morning of Sep. 1, 2007, as observed from Fremont Peak State Park, South of California's Bay Area and East of Monterey. The astronomical world at large had gotten word of this potential and exceedingly rare (because of the meteoroids' origin) sky show only one year before, and few had been excited enough to travel one third around the world to be on the lookout - which would work best from California and few other places. But by sheer coincidence the international Solar Eclipse Conference in Los Angeles and a major total eclipse of the Moon (also best seen from the American West Coast) would take place just a few days before: This was excuse enough for an astronomy-filled trip from Germany to first New York City and then on to California. There my small group on August 30 linked up with a major air-borne campaign to observe the Aurigids, organized by Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute in Mountain View.

It was at that institute (sharing its campus with a well-known anti-virus software company - doesn't that sound like the showdown in Independence Day ...? :-) where the passengers of the two aircraft and us few dedicated ground-based supporters met for an indepth briefing: The air-borne folks included celebrities like Ron Dantowitz of the Clay Center who had brought a full battery of optical systems, George Varros and Jérémie Vaubaillon, co-author with Jenniskens of the main paper predicting the Aurigid outburst. Two Gulfstream GV planes - provided by private sponsors who didn't want to be named in public at that time*) - would fly East of West, 300 km apart, with dozens of experiments placed behind the windows (which were not to be scratched, the observers were told in no uncertain terms). At the same time two groups of ground-based observers, consisting mainly of three meteor experts from Armagh Observatory and us three from Germany, would go to Lick Observatory and at the Fremont Peak Observatory, respectively: Later that day the two groups held a planning meeting in our hotel room to arrange for double-station meteor videography. A few other ground-based groups were in touch with Jenniskens as well, e.g. in the San Diego area and even in Hawaii.

In the end the Fremont Peak site was taken by two from the Armagh group, the Germans and Jürgen Wolf from the SOFIA project (also an FPOA member with crucial knowledge, namely of the lock code for access to the observatory site). We had scouted out the location right at sunset on August 31 (which was a show of its own, with the Sun sinking into distant coastal fog and its final light being split into something alike Baily's Beads during a solar eclipse) and then retired to a motel in neighboring San Juan Bautista - a "sleepy-looking country town", though with an amazingly well-sorted market - for a few hours of sleep. When we returned to observatory at 2:30 a.m., the Moon was high in the sky, exactly four days after full (easily memorized because of the eclipse), and yet the sky was surprisingly dark. The brightest stretches of the Milky Way could just be seen, and the limiting magnitude in the darkest areas was about 5.1 mag. This was a pleasant surprise, as was the warmth of the air in these September wee hours. The meteors could come!

My first Aurigid sighting took place at 3:38 a.m. PDT = 10:38 UTC (others caught one or two earlier), and soon they came one every few minutes. Obviously the outburst was there (and the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office wrong)! It was already evident at this point that practically all Aurigids were very bright and leaving wakes of perhaps ½ second. Unfortunately I started making systematic counts only from 4:10 a.m. onwards, expecting the peak at either 4:33 (that was the latest prediction, also discussed at the Aug. 30 meeting and in the CBAT Electronic Telegram No. 1045 of Aug. 31) or a few minutes later (according to earlier models): The peak time seemed to be pretty independent of the (unknown) perihelion time of parent comet Kiess. Alas, it soon 'dawned' on us that the peak was coming early! Here are my counts for 5-minute intervals:

4:10 - 4:15 a.m. PDT 11:10 - 11:15 UTC 2 Aurigids
4:15 - 4:20 a.m. PDT 11:15 - 11:20 UTC 5 Aurigids Three in one second at 4:16 a.m.!
4:20 - 4:25 a.m. PDT 11:20 - 11:25 UTC 2 Aurigids
4:25 - 4:30 a.m. PDT 11:25 - 11:30 UTC 2 Aurigids
4:30 - 4:35 a.m. PDT 11:30 - 11:35 UTC 2 Aurigids
4:35 - 4:40 a.m. PDT 11:35 - 11:40 UTC 3 Aurigids
4:40 - 4:45 a.m. PDT 11:40 - 11:45 UTC No Aurigids
4:45 - 4:50 a.m. PDT 11:45 - 11:50 UTC No Aurigids
4:50 - 4:55 a.m. PDT 11:50 - 11:55 UTC 2 Aurigids
4:55 - 5:00 a.m. PDT 11:55 - 12:00 UTC 2 Aurigids
5:00 - 5:05 a.m. PDT 12:00 - 12:05 UTC No Aurigids
5:05 - 5:10 a.m. PDT 12:05 - 12:10 UTC One final Aurigid
5:10 - 5:15 a.m. PDT 12:10 - 12:15 UTC No Aurigids
5:15 - 5:20 a.m. PDT 12:15 - 12:20 UTC No Aurigids Dawn detected at 5:18 a.m.

Thus some 35 Aurigids in total were seen during the whole outburst (including those prior to 4:10 a.m.), a number matched by the other observers at Fremont Peak. And the maximum came at about 4:15 a.m. or 11:15 UTC, a result confirmed by observers both on the planes and on the ground, reporting to the IMO. The maximum ZHR calculated there is deceiving, of course: It does not mean that one could actually see 100+ meteors in one hour! These numbers are effective zenithal hourly rates, extrapolating how many meteors per hour one could have seen had the rate at that particular time held steady. It didn't, however: The peak was pretty short, also in line with the predictions, and no observers could see more than a few dozen meteors in total. With dawn coming and no more Aurigids seen, observations were terminated, and we left Fremont Peak right at sunrise (which was announced by distinct crepuscular rays to the right of bright Venus). Back at the motel a brief report was sent to the world, before heading back to bed:

Here's the raw deal from Fremont Peak, California, before going to bed (it's 7:15 a.m. now :-): Three observers saw 30 to 38 Aurigids each tonight in about 1 1/2 hours under perfect conditions. There was one striking cluster of three within one second and close to each other, otherwise there were often long lulls. But the Aur were nearly all bright and had nice wakes (though no persistent trains). There was no pronounced maxiumum at either 11:36 or 11:33 (as the latest models said) UTC, rather here are my counts for 5-minute intervals from 11:10 to 12:20 UTC (several more Aur were seen between 10:38 and 11:10 UTC, but not counted systematically):

2 - 5 - 2 - 2 - 2 - 3 - 0 - 0 - 2 - 2 - 0 - 1 - 0 - 0 (then dawn came).

So for us the peak came early, at 11:15 UTC perhaps. And another strange observation: In the first half of the outburst, most meteors were high in the sky - and in the 2nd most every meteor was very low in the sky. Certainly just a statistical fluke, right ...?

Daniel signing off from San Juan Bautista, CA, USA

The world was interested indeed, as I found out later: The Cosmic Log referred to my posting only a few hours later, and it was also quoted in full by, the MAC campaign (from which a summary of results is available) and IMO.

The data from two video cameras we operated on Fremont peak have since been analyzed "officially"; more analysis of observations from there will follow; e.g. Bernd Brinkmann caught quite a number of Aurigids with a series of 30-sec DSLR fish-eye images (other fine images - from Arizona - are here). His visual impressions are also mentioned here, while some pictures from our associated ground team at Lick are here, the combined Lick/Fremont Peak results are available and more analysis from other states is here and here.

*) This has changed since: In early September plane spotters noted a Boeing 767 owned by the founders of Google at Moffett Field on NASA's Ames campus, and soon local media found out about an agreement between the Google founders and NASA. Questions to the Google press office whether the role of the now Ames-based Gulfstreams, also owned by the Google founders, in the Aurigid MAC had thusly become open knowledge, were redirected to Ames' public affairs, which sent me this prepared approved statement on Sep. 18:

"On Aug. 1, 2007, NASA entered into an agreement with H211, LLC, a California limited liability company, owned by the principal executive of a Space Act Agreement signatory, to use the NASA Ames Moffett Federal Airfield on a non-exclusive basis. The agreement also allows the NASA Ames Earth Sciences Division to place instruments on aircraft owned by H211 principals to regularly collect Earth atmospheric and terrestrial observations in support of science research and analysis.

On Aug. 31, 2007, H211, LLC-approved aircraft took off from NASA Ames carrying scientists from NASA and the SETI Institute to observe the Aurigid meteor shower. The high altitude viewing perspective from the aircraft allowed scientist to study more meteors than they could see from the ground. Scientists onboard recorded observation times, brightness distribution, elemental composition and penetration depth into the Earth's atmosphere.

To say that in simpler terms, I asked Ames whether stating publicly that "the Aurigid MAC had the opportunity to use the two Gulfstream GV, owned by the Google founders and based at Moffett Field under an Aug. 1 agreement with NASA that includes their use for scientific observations" was now o.k.; Ames' Dolores Beasley replied immediately: "That's fine." Science also reports it in its Sep. 21 edition (p. 1663). So now you know who were the kind souls that made the Aurigid MAC - as well as Perseid observations two weeks earlier - possible. And how all that's linked to the news about the 'Google plane(s) parked at NASA' that had - to my amazement - even spilled into Germany ...

Notes from a (not only) space-minded trip

Aug. 17
Flight (8 hours 46 minutes) from Frankfurt, Germany, to JFK, New York City, NY, USA. With the AirTrain and the E train to the Vanderbilt YMCA with extremely small rooms but a good price and a great location in downtown Manhattan. Despite what both our pilot and the New York Times of today are predicting, it's raining heavily in the late afternoon. Rare failure of a short-range weather forecast?
Aug. 18
Visit to the WTC site - an experience even more moving than expected, perhaps because there is (still) so little there. No images of the Twin Towers at all, for example. Walking around Wall Street and Battery Park. Taking the Staten Island Ferry (now completely free!) to Staten Island, then a bus to Midland Beach - where incidentally the "Back to the Beach Festival" by the Borough President ist taking place. Live music includes "The Remnants".
During return ferry trip ominous dark smoke is seen over the Manhattan skyline, apparently originating near the WTC site. Indeed: The former Deutsche Bank building nearby is on fire; it had been damaged on 9/11 and was finally being torn down systematically (big story in yesterday's NYT, incidentally) when disaster struck. Now questions are being asked ...
Back in Manhattan going straight past the burning building, ending up in Washington Square Park where an excellent Jazz band is playing. Dinner in a Venezolan restaurant at Christopher Street, later that night re-visiting the Chicago City Limits, as good (and incredibly fast) as ever.
Aug. 19
Walking through 1/3 of the Central Park to the American Museum of Natural History - which sets you back $30 just for a 30-min. planetarium show at the famous Hayden and two extra exhibitions on frogs and mythic creatures! Plus gift shops in every corner ... The Willamette meteorite is impressive indeed (and again causing trouble). Dinner in China Town; it's raining heavily again, once more in sharp contrast to what the NYT said - wrong two out of three tries.
Aug. 20
Visit to the UN HQ; the tour ($ 13) includes both Security Council and General Assembly halls.
Flight (5 hours 48 minutes) to San Diego, CA in Southern California; staying at the Catamaran Resort.
Aug. 21
All day driving around San Diego & La Jolla with Kurt Barnhart whom we knew from the 1991 TSE in La Paz, BCS, Mexico. Lunch at "The Del", visit to the San Diego Air & Space Museum (the only one in the world where a real GPS satellite is shown). La Jolla Cove - and return to Mount Soledad, once scene of a marvellous sunset annular eclipse, now home to a Veterans Memorial. The Moon, Jupiter & Antares are in conjunction, well visible also from the hotel pool.
Aug. 22
Just resting; in the evening "cruise" with the Bahia Belle through Mission Bay, with good view of fireworks at Sea World - and a re-incarnated Santana as the lone on-board musician. The magazine "101 Things to do - San Diego" not only recommends the Air & Space Museum (item 18) but also watching out for the Green Flash at sunset (item 83) and meteor observing (item 93)!
Aug. 23
Brief stops at Sunset Cliffs and Point Loma with lighthouse & tide pools, then driving up the (cloudy & grey) coast from Del Mar to Newport Beach; there Balboa Island turns out to be a particularly attractive spot. On through occasional traffic jams to Hollywood, Los Angeles; staying at the BW. Nightly visit to Hollywood Bvd. - where it turns out that the Walk of Fame includes the Apollo 11 astronauts! All done on a soundstage after all ...? :-)
Aug. 24
Noon visit to the San Fernando Observatory (home of the little telescope that might have shown diameter variations of the Sun) - it's located on the grounds of the LA Department of Water and Power in Sylmar, where the LA Aqueduct terminates!
Then up Mt. Wilson where at the observatory a visit to the CHARA interferometer has been arranged (on very short notice). Later participants of the 3rd Solar Eclipse Conference arrive; further telescopes can be visited (100", 60", Snow, 150' solar) and the first few talks are given. Mike Simmons promotes his initiative "Astronomers without Borders".
Aug. 25
The Solar Eclipse Conference continues at Griffith Observatory in the recently burned large Griffith Park. Among the talks is an update on Solar Radius Variations from Solar Eclipse Observations - and the first wx stats for the 2017 TSE are given. There is also a real (on-line) journal about eclipses, Totality!, available in PDF from here (scroll down).
Aug. 26
Final day of the Solar Eclipse Conference, then finally a chance to see the Griffith planetarium show "Centered in the Universe" (in contrast to the shows in New York and Oakland they not only have a Zeiss Universarium, they also use it, in combination with full-dome video, for the regular program!). It is good, in contrast to what they do with their visitors to the old Zeiss refractor! The nearly full Moon is shown, defocussed (you cannot correct it) and with so little magnification and w/o any filter that the glaring view is simply unbearable. What's that good for???
Aug. 27
Driving North through the Mojave desert to the Edwards AFB and NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center - where a visit of the SOFIA flying observatory has been arranged, including climbing around the actual German telescope!
The local paper Antelope Valley Press is full of space stories today: about the Scaled Composites tragedy (the town of Mojave actually calls itself "the home of SpaceShipOne"), space elevator visions and glider testing at Edwards - apparently one feels like an aerospace community here. Plus they have a picture of Buzz Aldrin throwing the 1st ball at a local game on the frontpage: The Apollo 11 astronaut is now wearing a beard (and can hardly be recognized)!
Turning East at Mojave, then sunset observed from near Boron, behind a huge Joshua tree. Lodging at The Cottage Hotel in Randsburg, a semi-ghosttown. Where so few people live or come by that the hotel owner immediately starts telling his (wild) life's story to us ...
Aug. 28
In the wee hours a spectacular total lunar eclipse observed from the hills right above Randsburg. After catching some sleep driving on northwards through the Owens Valley; the Sierra mountains are in clouds, though, and one can only guess which one Mt. Whitney may be. From Big Pine up to the CARMA radio interferometer (born from the merger of two others) where a visit has been arranged; spectacular evening light. Overnight at the OVRO cottage near Big Pine.
Aug. 29
Further up the valley, detour to the June Lakes, visit to the south shores of Mono Lake (S. Tufa area), then over the Tioga pass and Hwy 120 into the Yosemite NP - where, despite the near Labor Day weekend not many people are around. Thus the valley can be visited w/o problems. In the evening on to Groveland, where overnight at the Hotel Charlotte. Dinner in a saloon right over the street, w/live (unplugged) country music, buffalo burgers - and Weizenbier ...
Aug. 30
Three hours through the Central Valley to Mountain View: Aurigids summit at the SETI Institute, later testing the meteor video cameras (in the darkened motel room as it's way too bright outside).
Aug. 31
Visit to the Stanford University campus and specifically the Stanford Solar Center to gather information about the SID monitors and to go to the Wilcox Solar Observatory. Then driving South to the Big Basins Redwood State Park (with particularly old and high sequoias) and on to San Juan Bautista.
Sep. 1
In the morning Aurigids observations on Fremont Peak, then back North to Oakland, where the Chabot Space & Science Center beckons - visit to the old & new telescopes and to two planetarium shows (Astronaut & Black Holes). No time to stay for the night there, but on to Half Moon Bay where a spectacular sunset is viewed from a cliff overlooking the beach. It's cold, man!
On to Milbrae, in the airport Clarion for the final two nights. There were expectations of traffic chaos because the Bay Bridge was closed, but apparently the relentless announcement of that fact has scared so many people away that things are going particularly smoothly ...
Sep. 2
Various sights in San Francisco, e.g. the sea lions at Pier 39. Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge to the other side & back - and at the Summer of Love 40th Anniv. festival in Golden Gate Park, with some lineup and 50,000 in the crowd (plus interesting papers like the re-born LA Free Press on distribution). A fitting conclusion to such a truly spaced out trip ...
Sep. 3/4
Flight back to Cincinatti (3 hours 59 minutes) - with a funny sunrise in the West as the plane climbs faster from SFO than the setting Sun can sink, for several minutes - and immediately on to Frankfurt (7 hours 57 minutes).

Lunar eclipse in the California desert

total lunar eclipse of Aug. 28, 2007, was not only a good 'rehearsal' for doing astronomy in the wee hours, it was also - at least for me - the most beautiful one ever. And the one during which I did the most serious visual and in particular naked-eye observing, in part triggered by a request by ALPO's John Westfall at the Solar Eclipse Conference: The changing brightness and color pattern of the umbra during totality (the 1½ hours just flew by) was also evident in digital images; the effect was much more pronounced than I'd ever seen, but then perhaps I never looked so carefully. Overall it was a most satisfying experience - and it paid off to have gone to a dark site: The gradual appearance of the Milky Way out of a blue full-moon sky is a particularly striking phenomenon that one never sees from urban areas!

Daniel Fischer - first posted Sep. 9, updated Sep. 10, 12, 18, 20 (first video stills added) and 29 (first analysis linked), October 2 and 24 and November 21 and 25 (extra page with all 10 video Aurigids added), 2007, March 8, 2008, and Novemver 17, 2011.