The annual Perseid Meteor Shower peaks from August 11 to 13, the event many consider to be the best meteor shower of the year, thanks to frequent meteors streaking across the sky and comfortable nighttime temperatures. This year, skywatchers can expect to see between 50 and 75 meteors an hour under dark skies, or about one meteor every minute. The meteors are bits of material strewn across Earth’s path in space by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. The bits of dust and grit glow brightly as they burn up while entering Earth’s atmosphere at about 37 miles per second.
This year, for those who venture out before midnight on the peak date(s), Earth’s Moon won’t interfere. Dedicated meteor spotters — those who observe in the wee hours between midnight and dawn — may curse as Moon rises and brightens the sky, making faint meteors harder to see. There is another problem, however, much closer to home: the weather.
The weather forecast calls for mostly cloudy skies Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Of course.
Do not abandon hope.
The nights preceding and following the shower’s peak see occasional meteors from the Perseid and Alpha Capricornid showers and include fireballs (very bright meteors) from both. When the sky’s clear, go out and enjoy the mild nights that may include “shooting stars.” After twilight fades, find a dark spot, spread out a blanket, or untangle that deck lounge chair, apply a little mosquito repellent and look up. As your eyes grow used to the dark you’ll see more and more stars, planets Jupiter and Saturn gracing the southern sky, and with decently dark sky, spy the soft clouds of our own Milky Way galaxy. You’ll probably see a satellite or two, too.
Stephens Memorial Observatory is closed for the season. If we enjoy a stretch of clear nights this winter, we may open for a special Open Night event (we would love to show you the Orion Nebula) so watch this website and our Twitter feed for updates. Otherwise, we’ll hope to reopen in March for monthly sessions and for better luck with the nighttime weather in 2019!
Saturday night’s Open Night presented “interesting” situations. Shortly after arriving at the observatory, we saw rain arrive and heard thunder. Rain stopped, then started again as another compact thunderstorm passed over the village of Hiram. To the north we could see clear sky just outside the borders of the storm. To the south, over Garrettsville and Manuta, we could spy towering cumulus clouds and radar revealed intense rainfall. All of this weather around 8:30 to 9:00 and even a bit later. But at the appointed hour of 9:30, the sky began to clear overhead and we opened the dome.
There, in the southern shy, was Jupiter shining brightly. Hope? Nope! Storm delays and perhaps a bit of spring growth allowed Jupiter to slip behind the upper branches and leaves of a neighboring tree! Visitors arrived and we looked at mushy images of Jupiter pulled through little gaps between tree leaves. Surprisingly, occasional glimpses were had of the giant planet’s distinctive cloud bands and blurry dots of light — the Galilean Moons — could be seen. Then nothing, as Jupiter arced deeper into the branches. We fished around for a while, looking at a couple of bright stars through the murky atmosphere to the south. Saturn was lost in other trees and the messy air.
The faint, fuzzy Ring Nebula would be impossible, no? No. The sky to the east-northeast, inhabited by Lyra and the Ring, was crisp and clear. We rotated the dome, swung the big scope into position, and quickly found Messier 57 – the Ring Nebula. Of the night’s 19 visitors, those who were able to wait out the passage of clouds and darkening of sky were rewarded with clear, bright views of the famous planetary nebula; the beautiful end to a strange and frustrating evening.
The scheduled May Open Night looked to be another “no-go” due to weather right up until about 90 minutes ahead of opening. Forecasts had, for days, called for overcast skies and inclement weather, and the day of the event bore that out. Then, defying forecasters and expectations, the sky began to clear. What looked to be another canceled Open Night turned into a decent time to look at Jupiter and the Hercules Star Cluster! With little advance publicity we hosted 10 observatory visitors, mostly local people but one couple drove all the way from Warren to participate.
Though the sky was mostly-clear, seeing conditions were only fair to good. Through the grand Cooley Telescope at about 129X magnification, we were able to observe Jupiter and the planet’s distinctive north and south equatorial belts, the four Galilean Moons shining brightly in space nearby. As the night progressed we observed Jupiter’s Great Red Spot slowly rotate into view and even glimpsed its red color now and again! These were not the best views we have had of the “King of Planets,” but they were interesting, nonetheless.
The second object of the night was the Hercules Star Cluster (Messier 13) which, at first glance, looked like a cloudy smudge in the telescope’s wide-angle eyepiece. Now and again, however, with moments of good seeing and a little averted vision, we gained the impression of “graininess” as perhaps some of the globular cluster’s brighter stars stood out.
In our previous post we explained the reasons for not scheduling a December Open Night this year. As it turned out, the most likely date the public event would have occurred would have been December 17 and, unsurprisingly, the weather that night was awful! So, today we bundled up the big telescope for a long winter’s nap and, unless we are blessed with stretches of clear nights with tolerable temperatures in January and February, we won’t open to the public until March 2017.
Our best wishes to everyone for a happy holiday season and a peaceful and productive new year!
Well we give up! The skies and the calendar just are not coming into alignment for a December Open Night! Clouds and inclement weather (of various temperatures) are making stargazing impossible and have been plaguing us quite often this season. And there’s no way we would schedule a public event for Christmas Eve!
So we’ll say thanks for your interest and hope more clear skies come our way next year.
Normally at this point we bundle up the telescope for the winter and schedule nothing until March. If, however, the weather presents us with sufficient notice of good observing chances we may just present a “pop-up” Open Night before spring. We would love to show off the Orion Nebula through the old scope! Watch our Twitter feed and/or check back here after the holidays for any surprises.
At any rate, we hope you will have a safe and warm winter and a wonderful new year. For those who observe it, happy Christmas to you!
UPDATE: Due to current and predicted overcast sky conditions and the high probability of inclement weather, tonight’s planned Open Night has been CANCELED. Let’s hope for much better conditions the night of June 18 when we hope to see Saturn and Mars, as well as other amazing things! – 5/14/2016 @ 4:30 PM
Stephens Memorial Observatory of Hiram College is to be open for public observing Saturday, May 14, from 9:00 to 11:00 PM. As is so often the case, however, predicted weather conditions for this event do not look good; cloudy skies with rain chances are expected. If the sky is very cloudy, the open night event will be canceled and the observatory will not be open. Check back for updates and a final decision and announcement to be made Saturday.
The always-impressive First Quarter Moon will be featured as well as brilliant planet Jupiter and its moons. Given time and visibility, M13: the Great Globular Cluster of constellation Hercules, will also be viewed.
No reservations are required and there is no admission fee for observatory public nights.
The Observatory is located on Wakefield Road (Rt. 82) less than a quarter of a mile west of Route 700 in Hiram. There is no parking at the Observatory. Visitors may park on permissible side streets near the Post Office, a short distance east of the observatory.
Preparing for this week’s expected heavy rains and wind, I went to the roof of the observatory to clean out the rain gutters and check the downspouts. Chores done and with the dome open, I made another experiment at solar imaging through the big vintage Cooley Telescope. I found I could focus on the Sun (through a safe solar filter) and, with a Canon DSLR camera at the telescope’s prime focus, recorded a few one-shot images at ISO 400 and 1/500 second. The telescope is a 9-inch refractor with a focal length of 3,327mm. The results appear better than last time but show the apparent effect of atmospheric turbulence: that’s my story and I’m sticking with it! A few sunspots were visible and details of Sol’s roiling atmosphere show up. The photographic technique is the simplest we can use; more sophisticated processes are employed these days to achieve best results. Still, proof of concept is a good thing and getting the image focused is a critical step. I think next time we may try a dimmer subject.
UPDATE:As it turned out, although the skies turned cloudy just as the observatory opened for the night, the overcast cleared in short order giving way to very good seeing! About 20 visitors came and enjoyed views of Saturn, its moons, and the Cassini Division within the ring system, the beautiful Hercules Globular Cluster (M13), and Messier 57 aka: the Ring Nebula. Our views of M57 were the best we have enjoyed from Hiram thanks to an eyepiece on loan for testing! Next Open Night is set for July 25.
The title to this posting ought to include a question mark! So far this year, the weather has been very uncooperative on our public Open Nights and Saturday’s forecast doesn’t look very promising. We shall hope for the best because our June 20 event features the beautiful ringed world Saturn. We also hope to spy the Ring Nebula and, to break the ring theme, the diamond-dust Hercules Globular Cluster (M13). If the skies are clear enough, we will be open from 9:30 to 11:00 PM Saturday. The Observatory is located on Wakefield Road (Rt. 82) less than a quarter of a mile west of Route 700 in Hiram. There is no parking at the Observatory. Visitors may park on permissible side streets near the Post Office, a short distance east of the observatory. No reservations are required and there is no admission fee for observatory public nights. Cloudy skies at the starting time cancel the event and, in that case, the observatory will not open. For updates and more information, return here or follow “@StephensObs” on Twitter.