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 living near Chiefland Astronomy Village in Florida, 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. 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 were expected. Still, I was surprised that I saw almost none. My skies were good with the winter Milky Way easily visible and the radiant a couple of fists above the horizon.
While astronomers can predict the positions of planets and stars like clockwork some phenomena remain elusive. The aurora is a prime example and infamous for either not showing up on time, not happening when it’s “supposed to” or appearing unexpectedly.
Native Americans mythology makes room for nature’s unpredictable side by including a character called the trickster that usually takes the form of an animal. Locally, he’s a coyote. The trickster is a supernatural being that 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 solid overcast an hour before the start of shower, but for some unknown reason was clear over neighboring Lake Superior. I wished for a boat. In lieu of that I just got in the car and drove the 2 miles down to the lake. Incredibly, a chunk of clear sky hung open in the southeastern sky in the direction of the Orion and the shower. Elsewhere clouds hung thickly.
I set up a camera and 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 (where the meteors appear to stream) southwest of Procyon in 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 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 that I was looking at a bunch of airplanes!
We have an air national guard base in Duluth, 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 in Monoceros.
The sole Alpha Monocerotid I saw streaked slowly upward from the unicorn and sliced across Orion maxing out around first magnitude. For me 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.