Perseids 97

1997 Aug 11

A couple of local amateur astronomers participated in a public star party and Perseid meteor watch at Palo Alto Baylands, on the shore of San Francisco Bay, on the evening of August 11, 1997. A first quarter Moon, city lights, and a trace of haze, all conspired to brighten the sky, and the Perseid shower seems to have been relatively weak this year: We saw few meteors -- in not quite three hours before midnight, I noticed only four.

Fortunately, telescopic viewing provided plenty of entertainment for the fifty or so astronomical newcomers who showed up. We had an 80 mm refractor and a 4.25-inch fast Newtonian. Views of Jupiter and the Moon prompted many oohs and ahs. I showed Mars through the little refractor, because everyone wanted to see it, but kept warning people in advance that its tiny, gibbous disc would be a disappointment.

Subsequently, we looked at the Lagoon Nebula, M8 -- I explained that it was a region where newly-formed stars were illuminating left-over debris from their creation -- and then at the Dumbell Nebula. People kept exclaiming how faint they were, and I gently pointed out that these were among the brightest deep-sky objects that amateur astronomers look at.

Albireo -- beta Cygni -- exemplified a nice double star, with plenty of obvious color. The small reflector showed the double cluster, h and chi Persei, to advantage. A few stout-hearted folks hung on for a look at Saturn, then we packed up and cleared the park before the police locked the gate, at the prearranged time of midnight.

As public star parties go, this one was quite successful. Two telescopes would have been a bit scant for fifty people ordinarily, but enough folks were sitting on blankets and chairs, hoping for Perseids, to relieve pressure on the viewing lines. I think everyone enjoyed the views -- I received many thanks from parents for sharing my telescope and knowledge. It was delightful and encouraging, too, to have children scarce out of kindergarden remark that the apparent motion of the sky was because the earth was rotating, or that the view of Jupiter through the eyepiece was much like that they would have in space, closer up. I was glad I had brought a short ladder so small people could reach the eyepiece.

The park ranger and naturalist seemed to enjoy our presence. They had done their homework, too -- the naturalist had a stack of sheets of red cellophane to cover flashlights, and the ranger had put out barricades to keep autos and their headlights away from the viewing area. I wanted these hard-working public servants to have turns at the telescopes, but they were reluctant to take time away from park guests, so I tried special measures: "Let him in line -- he has a gun!" Everybody just laughed, so I varied the tactic: "Let him in line -- he has a book full of parking tickets!" That worked like a charm.

Palo Alto Baylands is an interesting site. We set up in the most southerly of the parking lots accessible from the eastern end of Embarcadero Road, near the boat-launching area, adjacent to the old concrete-and-rebar structure sometimes known as "Stonehenge West". The sky here is not nearly as dark as at any other site frequented by south Bay amateurs -- it is even brighter than at Houge Park. But it's probably as good it gets for an in-town location part way up the Bay shore, and there will be times when Baylands is clear while Montebello and Skyline Ridge are draped in fog and cloud. Baylands will usually be warmer, too. Seeing in Palo Alto can be good, though it wasn't on August 11. The location has toilets, and parking and setup area for scores of cars and telescopes. There is interesting wildlife, too -- we heard the eerie calls of Willets, and watched cute, inquisitive rats scurry among cars and down burrows near the observing area, no doubt much happier and much cleaner than in more urban areas. So although there was no coyote karaoke, as at the hill sites, perhaps we can all learn to squeak.

Naturalist Deborah Bartens was eager for more star parties at this location, at suitable times. I think we should try some, and see how the site works out. I suggested Fridays near first quarter. Bartens mentioned that a lead time of three to four weeks was desirable for arranging publicity, so Friday, 12 September seems the next likely date. I'm willing to handle such coordination with the Baylands folks as is required; do we have enough people to get a few more than two telescopes out there, in addition to our other commitments to public observing? I suspect we could arrange to stay there a little while after the public had mostly left -- Bartens simply advises the Palo Alto Police when to lock the park gate -- but this site is almost certainly not going to be as good as any of the regular ones in San Jose or Los Gatos.

-- Jay Reynolds Freeman

I took my family to watch the Perseid meteor shower up in the hills of Los Altos on Monday night, August 11th. Cars were parked in nearly every pull-off along the way. The sky looked clear (but a little "thick") as we started out around 9:00. We were parked, unpacked, and sitting in our chairs by 10:30. My wife saw the first "good one" dropping brightly out of the sky near Sagittarius while my back was turned to close the van door (doh!)

The Moon seemed extremely bright for first quarter. It was easy to see everything around us, including some fog which poured over a low ridge to fill in a gully below us in under of 5 minutes. The pool of fog dissipated as quickly as it arrived about 30 minutes later.

I started out the night trying to face South, as was my plan. The Moon was almost painfully bright to start with, so I turned mostly toward the radiant and looked up as much up as I could. From there I saw many short, dim streaks, and a few fairly bright ones that were lost overhead before I could turn to track them.

By 10:45 the kids were finally asleep in the van, and my wife and I were able to quietly enjoy the view for the rest of the night. There was still no major activity to speak of at this point; just some occasional streaks.

At about 15 Seconds prior to 11pm (which was the recommended time to start looking for a peak) a group of 4-6 coyotes started howling and singing. At 5 seconds before 11pm, a small storm of Perseids zipped from the zenith down to the southern horizon in a matter of seconds. It was as if that were the official kickoff of "Perseid Watch 97"!

Meteor activity continued to come and go in little storms like this throughout the night. We saw as many faint "zips" as we saw bright fiery trails -- at least a couple dozen of each. There were plenty "oohs" and "aahs" echoing through the hills that night.

There were also numerous sporadics (including some leftover S. Delta Aquarids). Most of the bright Perseids we saw were noticeably bluish or greenish in hue. The others tended toward green or white. There was one non-Perseid in particular that was quite "sparkly" as it descended while changing from white to green.

The Southern sky gradually darkened as the Moon crept closer to the horizon. The Moon, now yellow-orange, seemed to vanish within seconds of making first "contact" with the ground. The sky became considerably darker almost immediately after moonset.

I continually moved my chair from facing NE, to SE, and eventually SW as it became possible to do so. After the moon was gone, the Milky Way was nearly as bright as on a good night at Fremont Peak. I kept thinking that the city must be completely covered with fog, but the light domes were still too bright and high for that to be the case. It was as if the domes only reach so far before abruptly ending in untainted dark sky.

I had been noticing throughout the evening that the stars were VERY steady, and was wishing that I had my telescope to try and get some high-power views of Jupiter and Saturn. Soon I also noticed that everything was getting damp, and I finally had to collapse the tripod and put my dew-dripping binocular inside to dry off.

We continued to watch the short meteors outbursts (separated by minutes of nothingness) until about 2am when we were the last ones in our immediate area. On the way down, we saw none of the other cars we had seen on the way up, but we did get treated to multiple deer sightings (about 7 deer total). Most of them walked nonchalantly down the middle of the road as we pulled up next to them for a closer look before they would finally decide to disappear into the brush.

As we descended we could see that the city lights were still quite visible through what looked like a very thin haze below us. We never drove through an obvious fog layer, but at some point we suddenly noticed that the sky above us was orange with light pollution, and there were absolutely zero stars visible through it. My guess is that it was just a hazy, moist layer. Something that would appear transparent during the day (as we saw on the way up), but able to reflect enough light pollution back down to fully blot out all of the stars. When I got home, the weather channel simply listed the conditions as mostly cloudy with the "ceiling" at 1600 feet. I never saw any clouds.... just an orange reflection.

Although we saw only about 60 meteors in our 3.5 hours of watching, I would have to call our Perseid trip as a complete success. Hopefully enough bright streaks were etched into our memories to last until the next time.

-- Mark Taylor

A combination of circumstances nixed my planned trip to Bristlecone Pine for the Perseids this year. I was reduced to watching from my balcony in the middle of San Jose. My LM was about 3 :-( In about a half hour of observing from 10:45 to 11:30 I saw one meteor, probably a Perseid. Then the clouds rolled in. Maybe next year .... no, next year the Moon will be bad; maybe 1999.

-- Bill Arnett

Bill Arnett 1997 Aug 12