Chasing a meteor

In pursuit of the Perseid Meteor Shower

Perseid Meteor Shower

Above: A small meteor, part of the Perseid Meteor Shower, streaks through the sky over the Black Hills very early Friday morning.

I had been hearing about the Perseid Meteor Shower for weeks. Usually this annual event produces a pretty good show, around 80 meteors an hour as the Earth passes through the streams of debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. But this was forecast to be special, due to something about the gravity of Jupiter bending the stream of dust just enough to nudge it about 930,000 miles closer to Earth. Scientists said there could be as many as 150 to 200 meteors an hour.

I had attempted to photograph a meteor shower once before — and had zero luck. With this rare opportunity presenting itself, I decided to try again. And to me, this was a momentous decision, because these showers are never scheduled in prime time. They occur in the wee hours of the morning, like 1 a.m or 3 a.m.

So I made my preparations. I reviewed and rehearsed all of the settings on my camera, a Sony A7II full-frame mirrorless camera body, because you can’t simply use the automatic mode to shoot pictures of the night sky. I updated the camera’s firmware, made sure I had three extra charged batteries, dug out a couple of flashlights, checked to see if my 28mm wide angle lens needed a firmware update (it didn’t), and practiced using the Sony app on my iPhone to control the camera. With the app I can trigger the shutter (eliminating camera shake as it is depressed) and change the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture. I can also view the photos on the iPhone just after they are taken, making it possible to adjust the exposure or the framing as needed. I also grabbed a compact external battery for the iPhone, thinking that constantly using the phone to control the camera for an hour or two might suck the phone’s battery dry (it didn’t).

My research found that the area of the sky from which the meteors would come, the constellation Perseus, would appear above the horizon shortly after sunset. But, the moon would keep the sky too bright to easily see meteors until it set at 12:48 a.m. at my location in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota.

I went to bed at 11 p.m. Thursday night after setting the alarm for 12:40 a.m. My plan was to arrive in Wind Cave National Park after all the residual moonlight had disappeared, making the sky as dark as possible at that location 10 air miles from the small town of Hot Springs.

As I drove into the park, the speed limit reduced from 65 to 45 mph. It’s low in the park in part because at that speed it’s easier to avoid hitting one of the hundreds of buffalo that call it home. On a moonless night, a black buffalo is difficult to see against an asphalt road. A few get hit every year, and a 1,600-pound buffalo can ruin your night.

I slowed down to 40 as I drove the last five miles through the park to my destination on Highway 87. I have been a little jumpy lately about damaging my truck after hitting a deer a month ago (my first deer strike) near Devils Tower. I replaced the front bumper two weeks ago ($470) and as luck would have it, a few days ago I walked out of ShopKo and saw that while I was inside some butthole had hit that brand new bumper with their car. No note, of course. It’s scratched and not dented, thankfully, but that repair will cost me another $100.

So I scanned back and forth like radar looking for anything on the road. Then I saw something large and brown off the road near the edge of the light from my headlamps. Then another, and then there were 20 of them — elk — surrounded me on both sides of the road. They were not IN the road, so avoiding them was not a problem. But I was glad I was only going 40 mph as I slowed to about 10 moving through the herd. There were probably dozens more that I could not see on that moonless night.

Arriving safely at the turnout on Highway 87 south of the Beaver Creek bridge, I got out and scouted around for a good location for my tripod. I wanted something interesting in the foreground of the photos, not just a plain horizon. What I hope for in landscape photos is interesting stuff in three zones: the near ground, middle ground, and in the distance. At night, though, filling all three orders is not usually possible.

I took my flashlight and walked up a small hill checking out the possibilities, hesitant to use the flashlight because I didn’t want to destroy my night vision. It’s difficult to see stars if you’ve been blinded by a bright light. I wanted to get some trees at the bottom of my photos. The nearest ones were about 150 feet away. As I walked through the prairie grasses and small shrubs, mostly without the flashlight, I was hoping not to step on something I’d later regret, like a snake or a fresh buffalo chip. Every now and then I turned on the flashlight and looked in all directions; I didn’t want to invade the space of a dozing buffalo. Suddenly about 10 feet away there was the sound of a medium-sized bird taking off from the ground. A grouse, I assumed, but I never saw it.

Clouds drifted through the sky while I was attempting to photograph meteors.

I found a spot with a good view of the north and east horizons. The Perseus constellation would be in the northeast. I went back to the truck, again mostly without the flashlight, and retrieved my tripod and camera bag. Returning, I got everything set up and pointed the camera to the east with the trees at the bottom of the frame. I took a few single shots and made adjustments, settling on aperture of f2.0 (the largest opening in the lens possible, letting in the most light), shutter speed of 20 seconds (longer would leave star trails as they moved), and ISO of 2,000. Focusing manually was difficult because I could not see the stars in the viewfinder. I focused on a red light on a communications tower on Battle Mountain, 10 miles away, and tried to make sure that I didn’t accidently bump the focus dial after that, screwing up the focus.

Night sky
The clouds were illuminated by city lights, probably from Rapid City, 33 miles away.

Then, using the iPhone app, I set the shutter to take continuous shots, one after the other automatically. The strategy in getting photos of meteors is to take many, many shots, hoping that you’ll get lucky and a meteor will pass in front of your camera while the shutter is open.

As the camera was happily shooting away, I would occasionally point it in a different direction, since there was about a 50 percent cloud cover that I had to shoot around. I also experimented with light, using a fairly powerful flashlight to illuminate various objects. Wearing all black, hoping the camera would not see me, I lit up some trees, just to see how it would turn out. And, with my back to the camera, I illuminated the ground and trees in front of me, hoping my silhouette would show up (it did).

The streak of light on the left is, unfortunately, not a meteor.... just an airplane.
The streak of light on the left is, unfortunately, not a meteor…. just an airplane.

After about an hour, and hoping I had something worthwhile in the camera, I packed up my gear and drove home, arriving at 3:30 a.m. I went back to bed, then a few hours later, got up and transferred the images from the memory card to my computer.

With my naked eye, I had seen about a dozen meteors in various parts of the sky and shot over 100 photos. One of them, ONE, included a meteor.

But I call that a success.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “Chasing a meteor”

  1. Thanks David and Bruce.

    I did some rough calculations in regards to David’s question of how far the airplane traveled during the 20-second exposure. If it was going 500 mph, it would cover about 2.8 miles.

  2. Bill, great commentary on your excursion . I liked how you empathized slowing down in the park due to large animals. The stars are always a mystery. I should know since my bed is outside under the night sky.

  3. nice Bill,i wonder how many miles (if any?) the plane traveled in those 20s second of the bottom shot,the middle one of your silhouette is awesome.thanks for sharing these.I know you have the website store thingy to sell your photos,i have not bought one…yet. im thinking i want to look at your wildlife shots,i think i saw you have a section on it,and find something for my mom for C-mas.

    good stuff for certain..thanks


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