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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Quadrantid Meteor Shower 2009 report

Last night I finally made it out to the Blue Ridge foothills again, arriving around 11 p.m. when the waxing crescent Moon was just setting. I had intended to observe mostly planetary nebulae, but a friend from the club showed up and after about an hour we noticed enough meteors that we abandoned our telescopes and dedicated the rest of the night to observing the Quadrantid meteor shower.

The Quadrantids are a very steeply peaked shower that aren't observed much because they are only visible from the northern hemisphere at a time that most people aren't willing to sit around outside and freeze. Enter the die hards. We had been prepared to observe anyway, and I've always got my reclining chair in the car "just in case."

Well, I must say, it was quite a show. Although the Quadrantids are generally known as faint and fast, these were fast, but certainly not all faint by any means. We saw quite a few that were first magnitude or brighter, including one at least -5 over toward the eastern horizon. As is often the case in meteor showers, they tended to clump together. Earlier in the watch they often came in pairs, close to each other and parallel, while later we had several flurries where we counted 8-10 within the space of a single minute! Limiting magnitude at this site ranges from about 4 in the east (Washington D.C. metro area) and last night nearly 6.0 in a small area directly overhead because it was so clear. No clouds at all, no haze, and thankfully no dew (which would have been frost, given temperature in the mid to upper 20s (F). The wind made it a bit challenging, but the meteor display made up for that and more.

Although we weren't initially planning a meteor watch and didn't keep official counts with periodic limiting magnitude estimates and all that, I estimate that rates were probably 100 or more per hour from midnight until dawn.

Prior to abandoning the scope, I checked out Comet 144P/Kushida, which is about 10th magnitude (more experienced estimates placing it a little brighter) a few degrees from 5 Tauri. It was an easy pickup, with the round coma extending to a diameter of about 2.5 arcminutes and a dim nearly pinpoint condensation in the center visible in averted vision in my 10-inch f/5. No tail visible.

I tried for planetary nebula PK 174-14.1 which is about 1.5 degrees NW of 95 Tauri. It is 15.3 magnitude and about 20 arcseconds in diameter, but despite a couple of glimmers that I couldn't confirm, it was invisible in this scope and sky combination.

I also tried for IC 2087 (Cederblad 38), which is not quite a degree to the NE of PK 174-14.1. This is a reflection nebula around a young stellar object named Elias 18, which is embedded in a dark cloud of obscuring dust known as the Taurus Molecular Cloud. Once again, despite using a range of powers, I could find nothing in that spot. This one is also tough because there are no guide stars in the immediate vicinity due to the obscuring molecular cloud. Locating it with high power is therefore problematic. Amateur guru Steve Gottlieb described the view in his 17-inch as "a fairly faint direct vision object, moderately large, round, 3'-4' diameter. Fairly well defined although edges fade into background." This is one I could conceivably pick up from a darker site with the 10-inch, and I'll put it on my list, once I get around to making that list!

The two aforementioned objects took up about an hour of observing time, all for naught. So I chose NGC 2371/2372 as the next object. This is one of my favorite planetary nebulas, located in Gemini. In the 10-inch I can see two lobes oriented SW-NE, with the SW lobe the brighter of the two and faint nebulosity connecting them. In the center is a very dim central star, just visible with averted vision with the scope in perfect focus. This is one I've observed with a 30-inch in Arizona, at which time I was also able to see the two puffs of gas about 2-3 times further out than the bright lobes and perpendicularly aligned to them. I call them the "outriggers." But this is a great object in any scope that no observer should pass up. It responds well to O-III and narrowband filters.

Driving home directly into the sun in the morning is not something I would like to do regularly. I don't know how commuters who live way out west of the city do it every day without going blind trying to see whether the numerous traffic lights are red or green. Night is so much nicer, and usually I try to leave before our own star is up over the horizon!

Have a happy New Year! Let's hope for clear skies on moonless nights.