Comets & Meteors
On Sunday January 24th, 2016 at 10:30 AM, a bright fireball streaked over the Florida skies. Having been a bit worn down from the east coast snow storm, I got excited when I heard the news from my friend Marc Fries. His message was short and sweet, “Your pending AMS reports contain a meteorite fall!” I immediately checked and approved over 80 reports from eye witnesses of the fall. After computing and publishing the trajectory, I sent the map to Marc. He responded quickly, ‘SPOT-ON BULLSEYE!’ The AMS’s fireball trajectory intersected with the meteorite cloud Marc had found.
While fireballs fall every day, it is rare for large groups of people to see them. It is rarer still for them to show up on doppler weather radar. When this does happen, its an almost certain sign that meteorites are on the ground under the return. This was one of those times. A radar return like this takes out all the guess work and you know exactly where to search.
News of the fall spread in the meteorite community quickly. I got a call from my friend Larry Atkins the next day. He exclaimed after I answered the phone, “I’m in the car, just two hours away from the strewnfield!” Larry had been visiting his Dad in Florida the weekend of the fall. When he heard the news, he jumped in his car and and started driving toward the field.
While the radar returns looked rich, the terrain and prospects for making a find were bleak. The meteorites fell over swamp land and pine forests. Hunting for meteorites in the woods is doable but not easy, hunting in a swamp is beyond possible. Larry spent the next few days driving around the area and getting a lay of the land. He figured out who the land owners were, contacted them and hunted what he could, even in the rain. We talked daily and by Wednesday I was ready to roll. I hadn’t been meteorite hunting since 2012 and I was ready to try my luck again. Besides, with the cold and snow, I could use a long weekend in Florida, even if it was walking around a swamp.
I drove down with my friend Brendan Fallon Thursday night. We were in the field hunting with Larry and his Aunt Laura by Friday morning. I’m glad Larry had done all the ground work before I got there, or else I’d have been driving around lost for days.
As we approached the ground near the radar returns, Larry got a call from a local number. We stopped the car. It was a land owner. After about 15 minutes of talking we left to meet him at his property. When we got there, he told us, the morning of the fall he heard a crackling noise and saw two smoke rings in the sky above his head, one inside the other. He was into the fall and liked the idea of finding a meteorite from it, but at the same time, he didn’t think we had a chance. He gave us permission to hunt, a key to the gates and a laminated map of his 15,000 acre ranch and then went on his way.
As we walked into the property, I laughed and boasted, “Thanks Larry! It sure is nice to walk into a 15,000 acre private ranch 15 minutes after starting a hunt.”
Larry responded, “I’m glad you appreciate my last 4 days of hard work Mike!” We all laughed, as we trotted into the property. This was the zone, and we all knew we were going to find meteorites. It’s a super exciting feeling you get when you are walking around in a place where meteorites just fell. Every step and every glance matters, one step leads to the next and there could be a meteorite around you at any time.
We spent most of the first day at the ranch and left in the afternoon to scout out alternate areas. There is only one road into and through the search area, and calling it a road is a bit of a stretch. It’s made out of what looks like beach sand and is even called Sand Hill Road. It had rained all day the day before, leaving the road and many areas flooded.
Larry was riding shot gun when we got to a wash out that was wider than the road and over 50 feet long. Surrounded by deep mud, it looked like a lake. I stopped the car saying, “I don’t think we can make it through.” Larry encouraged me stating confidently, “We definitely can.” After some back and forth, I switched seats and let Larry drive. He backed up and then accelerated fast. We hit the pond at 30 MPH and drove right through it, with quite a bit of mud squirming. Astonished and relieved, I gasped, “nice job!” Part of me thought we were going to get stuck. I don’t think I would have attempted it alone. Needless to say, I was really impressed with Larry’s driving that day.
We spent the rest of the afternoon scouting for ‘low hanging fruit’. Thats what we call clear spots along the side of the road or hunt-able areas that are easy to access. Exhausted, we left he strewnfield and went straight to dinner. We celebrated at a nice steak house like we had already found meteorites. We were all filled with energy and so optimistic and grateful to be at that place in that moment.
The next day, we went out to the state park and started hunting the paths and dirt roads that went through the swamp. We were all walking north on a road about 10 feet wide. We got to a fork and Larry and Brendan turned around to search the other side of the road. Laura and I stayed behind to search the remaining roads. We didn’t get far as the water from the swamp overflowed onto the road making it impassible. We turned around and headed back to the car to regroup.
On our walk back, I paused for a second to stretch, looked down and there it was. The first meteorite from the fall. It was small, about 8 grams and I knew right away, but was cautious to get too excited at first. I got on the ground with my face just inches from the rock. Examining it from all sides I stated, “this is a meteorite.” Laura excitedly inspected and agreed. After a quick meteorite dance, Laura ran down the path to get the other guys while I stayed behind.
They returned, we celebrated, took some pictures and continued on. I felt so relieved and at peace. Any other finds from this trip would be a bonus. I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do and was totally satisfied. We had a meteorite from this fall. I thought about all the mechanics involved to get to this place and time. For over 4 billion years this rock traveled 100s of millions of miles. Just 6 days ago, it ended its journey in a brilliant explosion 10-20 miles above the Earth’s surface. And then, was found by me in a swamp. It was an amazing thought cycle filling me with euphoria.
I hunted around the next two hours close to my find. I wanted to find the fragments related to it. Meteorites often fall in clusters and are found close to each other. Surrounded by water and a swampy mess, I couldn’t grid the area, so I just did the best I could.
A little later, I heard screaming from the group. Sure enough, Larry had just found the second stone. A 18.5 gram stone about a half-mile south of where I found mine. We all celebrated and were so excited. Now that we had found two stones and just hours apart, we all knew there were more meteorites all around us. We hunted until dark that night and then went out to dinner to celebrate. We were all walking on air.
My friend Josh Adkins drove down from Baltimore Saturday night and arrived in Lake City before we headed out to the field. Having not slept, and just driven 13 hours, he was pumped and ready to spend the day hunting. It’s amazing the energy people can get from meteorites.
We went back to the place where we had made the finds. “You don’t run from meteorites.”, Larry repeated a few times that day. When you find one meteorite there are others close by, so stay in that place and keep searching. Larry, his Aunt Laura and I started near my find. We were walking down a sand road just about an hour after we started, when Laura exclaimed, “Here’s one.” Sure enough, one side of a small meteorite was poking through the sand in the road. I don’t know how Laura even spotted it, as it was flat against the road and looked like a leaf. After taking some pictures she pulled it out of the dirt. It left an impression the size of a sugar cube in the sand road.
After Laura’s find, I started paying extra attention to all the dark objects on the ground. Leaves, burnt wood chips and tree bark all look like meteorites from 6 feet up. The only way to know for sure is to touch them as you go by. I spent the rest of the day, crouching down every other minute and checking dark objects in the sand. I felt like the guy who combs the fringe on his rug.
By 5 o’clock Sunday evening, Larry and Laura were worn out and wanted to quit early. It was my last day there and I didn’t want to stop early, while remote, I still hand a chance to find another meteorite. I suggested we drive toward the center of the radar return, and hunt for another hour until dark. Larry dropped us off on the main sand road and continued down a quarter mile with his Aunt. We planned to have him pick us up at the same spot an hour later.
The three of us hunted around the road, finding nothing and then worked our way back to where Larry dropped us off. I felt tired but satisfied. It was a great trip and I had accomplished what I set out to. As I reflected and thought about my find accepting it would be my one and only, I looked down into an old mud puddle. The mud was dry on top and cracked like the ground in a dry lake bed. One of the cracks looked odd to me, so I poked it with my finger. Expecting it to be soft to the touch, when I realized it was hard, I got excited. There was a rock here.
I pulled it out and immediately felt the weight. It was much heavier than a normal rock its size. I wiped away the mud and started to see smooth divots throughout the stone. I shouted out to Brendan and Josh, “I think I got another one.” They ran over and inspected themselves, agreeing. I still wasn’t sure, the color was off, but it was hard to tell with all the mud. I borrowed a loupe from Brendan and once I looked at it through the magnifying glass I knew it was a meteorite. The rock had a fantastic crust that was oozing rust.
I worked my way down the road to show Larry and confirm the find. I still had a little bit of doubt, it might not be a meteorite. Before I gave it to him to inspect, I said firmly, “Don’t throw it away! It’s covered with mud and hard to tell. You need to use the loupe”. Suspect at first, Larry inspected it with the magnifying glass and agreed. This was another meteorite, the 4th and biggest so far at 42 grams. What a great way to end the day and the trip.
The next morning, Larry mailed his stone to Alan Rubin at UCLA. Alan will cut the stone, analyze it and determine its classification. We should get a report in another week.
I started my drive back home alone. Brendan didn’t want to leave without a meteorite. He stayed behind with Larry, Laura, Josh and several of Larry’s family members. I wished them luck but knew they would have a hard time in the days to come.
The day after I got home I got a text from Brendan. Josh’s truck got stuck in the mud on Sand Hill Road.
It took them two days two get the truck out of the mud. The rest of the week for them was tough. I kept wondering when Brendan would give it up and come home. The Sunday morning a week after I got home, I got a text from Brendan and Josh. They had found a stone, a big one.
Wow. Over three miles away from my 42 gram find, they found a 800 gram stone almost completely buried in the sand. Amazing.
They continued to hunt for another four days with no finds. I would have called it quits after my first trip if not for the new big find. Larry was still at it with a friend and his aunt and uncle. I had to give it one more shot over a long weekend. I was in the field by friday morning and we spent two days hunting with five people total. About mid day today, Larry made another find in the woods. An almost 80 gram stone.
I’ve got one more day in this strewnfield and then back home tonight. No matter what happens on my last day of hunting, this was a miraculous discovery with 6 stones and almost 1,000 grams recovered.
Here’s a cosmic gift delivered just in time for Christmas, Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy, discovered this past August by accomplished amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy using only an eight inch backyard telescope. The comet became viewable to observers in the Northern Hemisphere the week before Christmas and can almost be seen with the naked eye. The comet will continue to brighten over the next few weeks and should reach peak magnitude in mid January.
Image Details for Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy
LRGB: 13 minutes each
Camera: Apogee U16M
Guider: SBIG 402 with MMOAG Off Axis Guider
Telescope: RCOS 14.5
Mount: Paramount ME
Location: Auberry, CA
Date: December 25th, 2014
Software: The SkyX, MaximDL, FocusMax, CCDStack, Photoshop
While I have been mourning the passing of Comet ISON I take solace in the fact that there is another great comet that can be seen and imaged right now. Here’s a photo of Comet 2013 R1 Lovejoy, a new comet discovered earlier this year.
This image is the result of 5×120 second RGBL images tracking the comet and 1×30 second RGBL to capture the star background. Quite a bit of processing goes into making a pretty comet picture. Enjoy
Here’s the latest photo from SOHO today:
It looks like the comet has started producing a new tail.
Contrary to the initial reports that suggested ISON died a fiery death as it plunged into the sun, ‘something’ emerged from the sun later than planned. A dust trail without a nucleus was the first suggestion. Now it appears the dust cloud is starting to get brighter. Check out this animation from the LASCO space telescope showing ISON go around the sun.
Here are the frames used to make this animation of comet ISON.
Here’s a photo from NASA’s SOHO spacecraft. Comet ISON just entered its field of view today. The space ship should be able to watch the show as the comet goes around the sun tomorrow!
Here’s a reprocessed version of my comet ISON photo from Nov 15th, right around the time of the outburst. This image uses the Luminance channel. It was a bit of work to stack it all together, and it changes the color, increases the resolution but also dims some of the finer features. I think I like the original one better, but since the clouds on both coasts have kept me from imaging I figured I’d work with the data I already collected.
This photo is the result of 3×60 seconds exposures, one each through red, green and blue filters and 3×60 seconds of luminance or clear filter shots.
Due to clouds and high humidity I have not been able to observe Comet ISON the last two days. The window of opportunity to catch ISON in darkness from my California observatory, while the comet is still above the 15 degree viewing threshold, is almost over. I might have 1 or 2 days left at best. Moving forward my efforts will be focused on DSLR photography of comet ISON. For the next week or so of November, ISON will be visible right before dawn on the horizon in the south east. We will then have to take a break while the comet goes around the sun. At this point the comet will only be viewable by NASA and ESA space based telescopes, but don’t worry several of them will be pointed at ISON while it grazes the sun. At some point in December, if the comet survives passage around the sun, we will start to be able to see it again in the western sky at and after dusk. If this happens it will be a spectacular sight potentially stretching across half of the sky.
Here is some information to help you observe comet ISON in November and December 2013. These ISON sky charts were created using the program Stellarium. Stellarium is a free planetarium software program that you can use to model the sky and solar system at your location. You will have to follow some special instructions to get comet ISON to show up in Stellarium. For power users, I have posted this information below.
Where is Comet ISON in November 2013 and what time will Comet ISON be visible in November 2013?
Most people interested in Comet ISON want to know where it is, what time it will be there, if they will be able to see it with their naked eye and what it will look like. Over the next week these ISON sky charts will help you find the comet while it is still visible in November.
This (Nov 18-Nov 25) is the last week to watch ISON before it passes the Sun! these ISON sky charts will help you over the next 6 weeks. To find it look in the East at 5:30 AM.
On Monday, November 18th, 2013 the comet will be visible low in the eastern sky by 5:30 am. The best viewing time for comet ISON this week will be between 5:30 – 6:00 AM. Here is a sky chart with Comet ISON for reference.
By the following Monday, November 25th, 2013, we will no longer be able to see ISON because it will be rising with the Sun. At this point we will have to eagerly wait to see what happens. I am thankful NASA has space telescopes that will watch ISON as it orbits the Sun.
The best way to plan out your Comet ISON observing session is the the planetarium program Stellarium. Once you download and install it, to add Comet ISON, follow these instructions:
- Press the ‘Configuration Window’ button on the left
- Press ‘Plugins’ Tab
- Press ‘Solar System Editor’
- Press ‘Configure’ Button
- Press ‘Import Orbital Elements in MPC Format’
- Press ‘Add Objects’ Button
- Select ‘Comets’ Radio Button, then ‘MPC’s list of observable comets’, then press ‘Get Orbital Elements’ Button.
- In the add objects search box enter ‘C/2012 S1 (ISON)’, select the check box and press the ‘Add Objects’ Button.
- Now you will be able to search for ISON, see where it is inside stellarium for your location, and change the viewing data and time.
This is certainly the BEST way to know how to find ISON in the sky. Good luck and happy observing!
Capturing ISON was challenging again this morning, but I was able to sneak out one short exposure (1 x 60 seconds x RGB) in between clouds. It looks like it has changed again since yesterday.
What a surprise it was to image ISON this morning. I immediately noticed a significant brightness. I only had about 20 minutes of image time due to the sun rising and ISON’s current low elevation. This may be the last telescope photo of ISON I take before it goes around the sun. This image is only a 60 second exposure of RGB. The clouds ruined the viewing for most of the morning and this was the first and only set of frames I could get. Feeling lucky
Here is an alert email from Mike Kelly about ISON brightening this morning.
Dear Comet ISON Observers,
There are several reports of a dramatic increase in comet ISON’s
brightness this morning. Total magnitude estimates, reported to the
Yahoo Comets Mailing List, are around 6.5 to 6.0.
Emmanuel Jehin (TRAPPIST) reports a factor of 8 increase in OH and
Afrho (dust) in the last 24 hours. He also reports that there is not
yet an indication of disruption.
A nice set of images by Juanjo Gonzalez can be found at
are taken the 12th and 14th of November.
Observations are clearly need to determine how long this trend
persists, if any fragments appear, or the nucleus disintegrates. If
ISON is undergoing a fragmentation or disruption phase, expect another
I was eager to look at Comet ISON images this morning, but a little disappointed with the second tail as it actually seems fainter in today’s pictures than it did yesterday. I think this is most likely due to differences in seeing conditions between the two days (maybe a little hazier for me today). Either way here are my latest ISON photos from this morning. Here is a page with all of my Comet ISON photos.
Here is just the luminance channel. You can see the second tail a little more clearly in the black and white photo.
Image details: 15 minute luminance channel (5×180) and 3 minute RGB. (1×180) at 3×3 binning.
I noticed a new prominent feature in the tail of Comet ISON while imaging it this morning. It looks like a thin jet towards the top.
Below is a comparison of today’s image with the last one I took just two days ago on November 8th. You can see the trail is just barely visible on the 8th.
Here is an inverted version of the same picture. Its a little easier to see the features in the inverted picture.
Here’s the color version of just the comet this morning.
And here is the color stacked with trailing stars. (I will come back another morning to image the star field and complete the final picture).
These images are the result of 5×3 minute exposures of Red, Green, Blue and Luminance at 3×3 binning on the morning of November 10th, 2013.
If you have noticed this feature already, please email me links to your most recent images. I’d love to compare.
I’ve been diligently imaging Comet ISON each morning possible since mid September. It is changing nearly everyday, getting bigger brighter and a longer. Comets in general are challenging to image and each one has its own little quirks: how bright it is, how fast its moving, how much dark time there is available to image. For ISON we have only had about 1 hour each morning to image which doesn’t leave a lot of time for a long exposure. On a whim, I decided to combine 3 days worth of data together to get a better image. Here is a picture of Comet ISON that was taken over a three day period, November 2nd, 3rd and 8th.
Image processing is a big part of the challenge with getting a nice comet image. There are several different ways to process and look at the picture. The easiest thing to do is to just stack on the comet and have the stars trail like this image below.
While you can get a good view of the comet, the background doesn’t look so nice. We see trails of red, green, blue and white because the telescope is tracking the comet with each exposure. When we combine the image centering on the comet, the stars don’t line up in the same place, leaving us with streaked multi-colored stars.
Its a time consuming process, but what you need to do is reject all of the stars out of the pictures while stacking the RGBL frames. This will give you an image of just the comet with no stars.
Once you have the comet isolated, you then stack just the stars or re-image the star background on another day (when the comet isn’t there). Then merge the 2 images (the comet only and the starfield) using the photoshop overlay feature and you will have a nice combination of a clear starfield and a well defined comet.
Image Details for Comet ISON
Shot With 30 minutes of RGB and 1 hour of LUM
Total exposure: 2.5 hours
Camera: Apogee U16M
Guider: SBIG 402 with MMOAG Off Axis Guider
Telescope: RCOS 14.5
Mount: Paramount ME
Location: Auberry, CA
Date: November 2nd, 3rd & 8th
Software: The SkyX, MaximDL, FocusMax, CCDAutoPilot, CCDStack, Photoshop
Here’s another photo of ISON from October 27th, 2013.
The current Moon phase is making it difficult to image, but Comet ISON continues to get brighter. Here’s a color picture of ISON from October 26th, 2013.