The Alpha Monocerotids happened as predicted, even if not quite as we expected.
Astronomy is just so weird. Sometimes you have to take it in stride. After the hype of the Alpha Monocerotids — of which I'm partly to blame — the shower proved to be very weak. Michael Boyle Sr., an amateur astronomer in Florida, an ideal spot from which to view the event, reported about 20 meteors per hour at peak. Others saw a few. I stood in a bitter cold wind for an hour and 15 minutes and saw exactly one.
I can't tell you exactly why the shower was a dud, but it's safe to say our understanding of the Alpha Monocerotids is imperfect despite the fact that the researchers nailed the predicted peak within 10 minutes of the original estimate (5:00 UT vs. 4:50 UT). While the 400 meteors per hour rate was for ideal conditions over a short period of time, the radiant was low for many observers in the U.S., so fewer meteors were expected. Still, I was surprised that I saw almost none. My skies were excellent despite occasional clouds, with the winter Milky Way easily visible. The radiant stood a couple of fists above the horizon. (Nov. 23 update: The count was off by a factor of 5 possibly due to Earth grazing the comet's trail instead of passing directly through it.)
While astronomers can predict the positions of planets and stars like clockwork, some phenomena remain elusive. The aurorae are a prime example — infamous for either not showing up on time, not happening when they're "supposed to," or appearing unexpectedly.
Native American mythology makes room for nature's unpredictable side by including a character called the trickster, which usually takes the form of an animal. Locally, he's a coyote. The trickster is a supernatural being who likes to mess with humans and break the rules. If you're a skywatcher, it eventually becomes second-nature to allow for a potentially spectacular event to not happen at all. Yes, there is disappointment, but there is often joy in the occasion for the simple reason that you showed up.
Showing up means you invested a part of yourself and time to pay attention to something in that big world out there. In doing so, you've also opened yourself up to experiencing something unexpected. At the very minimum, those who did go out last night got to see Orion and Sirius in all their twinkling glory. I saw that . . . and a little more.
The sky over my house was solidly overcast an hour before the start of shower, but for some reason was clear over the neighboring Lake Superior. I wished for a boat. In lieu of that, I got in the car and drove the two miles down to the lake. Incredibly, a chunk of clear sky hung open in the southeastern sky in the direction of Orion and the shower. Elsewhere clouds hung thickly.
I set up a camera, stood in the 20 mph, 20° wind, and watched. I saw a couple of sporadic or unrelated meteors but no shower members until around 10:37 p.m. That's when I noticed what looked like sparks flashing from the radiant (from where the meteors appear to stream), southwest of Procyon, a star near the constellation of Monoceros, the Unicorn.
The sparking continued for several minutes and looked almost exactly like distant fireworks — pop! pop pop! pop! I started yelling crazy "wows" into the wind, thinking this was it, the event we had all hoped for — until I looked around and noticed there weren't any sister meteors plowing across the rest of the sky. That wasn't normal. A couple minutes later the flashes had shifted further west and eventually it became apparent: I was looking at a bunch of airplanes!
We have a national guard air base in Duluth, Minnesota, and the pilots will routinely practice flying at night over Lake Superior and the neighboring state of Wisconsin. I'd never seen so many bunched up so close at a distance. Their flashing lights mimicked head-on meteor flares and created the perfect fake meteor shower with a "radiant" or direction of travel from the southeast of Monoceros.
The sole Alpha Monocerotid I saw streaked slowly upward from the Unicorn and sliced across Orion, maxing out around first magnitude. For me, though, the Milky Way was enough, the Big Dipper standing on his handle above wispy clouds, and the roar of waves slapping the rocks below the road where I parked my car.
Now nearly frozen, I collapsed the tripod and got back into the car at 11:30 p.m., strangely content after not seeing what might have been the best meteor shower of my life.
This post originally appeared in AstroBob: Celestial happenings you can see from your own backyard.