Milwaukee meteor fest

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Thursday, August 13, 2015

Perseids rained over the entire globe, peaking the night of August 12 and the morning of the 13th. // Jamie Cooper
Yes, you can see meteors from Milwaukee. Well, at least from a site slightly north of Brew City.

Last night (August 12 — the only night near the maximum of the Perseid meteor shower that promised clear skies), my wife, Holley, and I decided to pack some reclining chairs, blankets (it is the frozen north, after all), and snacks, and head to Harrington Beach State Park, near Belgium, Wisconsin, a location roughly 35 miles (56 kilometers) north of Milwaukee’s city center.

A local astronomy club, the Northern Cross Science Foundation, operates an observatory within the park. The facility accommodates a superb 20-inch reflector, but that’s not why we were there. Instead, we set up in the parking lot adjacent to the observatory with nothing more than binoculars.

During the time from the end of twilight until it clouded over several hours later, my wife saw a total of 25 Perseids and four sporadic meteors (those not associated with any shower). We shared the views of 16 of those 25. In addition, I saw eight meteors she didn’t see plus one sporadic. Adding it up, our total was 38 meteors — all before midnight. That’s not bad considering where we were. What’s more, three of those meteors were fireballs — shooting stars bright enough to cast a shadow.

Several of the meteors the author and his wife witnessed were fireballs like this one. A fireball is a meteor bright enough to cast a shadow. // Jamie Cooper
And the brightest of those was one of the best meteors I’ve ever seen. It boasted a brilliant, 35°-long path that left a brief smoke trail. But the coolest thing about it was the color. It started as a classic lemon yellow, but near the end of its run the last 10° took on a distinctly coppery hue. Someone better versed in the way the eye’s color receptors function probably can tell me whether this was a true shift in the meteor’s color or if my red and green cone cells simply were fatigued with an overload of yellow.

Finally, let me thank Brian (sorry, man, I never got your last name). We began chatting with him well before dark and decided to set up next to him. OK, next to him and his sweet 16-inch reflector with full go-to capability. Throughout the night, he would tell us the current deep-sky object in his eyepiece, and we would rise from our recliners to enjoy the view. And although the sky wasn’t the best, the optics in Brian’s scope were top notch. We observed quite a few planetaries, including the Ring Nebula (M57) in Lyra, the Blue Snowball (NGC 7662) in Andromeda, the Dumbbell Nebula (M27) in Vulpecula, and others. And lots of globulars, too: M5, M13, M15, and more. The conditions didn’t warrant seeking out nebulae (the Milky Way’s center had a mixture of thin clouds and light pollution), but we did take a detailed look at Saturn and four of its moons and, of course, at the sapphire and gold wonder that is Albireo (Beta Cygni).

All in all, it was a great night. It reminded me why I always suggest that people observe meteor showers: Watching them combines comfort, low stress, and opportunities for excitement — plus, you don’t need any equipment.


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