Meteor showers happen when masses of meteors fall into the earth’s atmosphere in a shower, producing heavenly fireworks. They are named after the constellations in which they are seen. On October 24th, we had the Orionid showers, and on November 17th, we are about to witness the Leonid showers.
Approximately midnight to 3.40 AM on the night of the 17th/early morning of the 18th of November, 2009. (Actual time may vary). The showers can be viewed with the naked eye and no telescope is required.
For more info see here and here.
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Many people may remember the eagerness with which Bangaloreans looked forward to the Leonid meteor shower a few years ago; alas, many of the meteors arrived a little ahead of schedule, and the actual date and time did not provide us the good spectacle that we hoped for. I remember sitting, with several neighbours, on the roof of our apartment building, sharing snacks and coffee, and joking that though we had not seen much, at least the heavens had brought the neighbours together!
But when most of us are content to just watch the Leonid meteors, there are some who take a step further.
Meet Sriharsha Ganjam, a young amateur photographer and astronomer in his late twenties, who has had an idea that has never before, to his knowledge, been implemented: the making of a video documentary of the Leonid meteor shower.
Ganjam counts this attempt unique because, he says, he has looked extensively on the net, and has not found any other instance of a video documentary of any meteor shower, except the very short one of the Orionid showers that NASA put up just a few days ago. This video, too, has just one meteor streaking across.
“The Leonid shower, on the other hand, is supposed to be twice as strong as in other years, with two debris clouds intersecting each other, and peaking at the same time,” says Ganjam. “The debris clouds were laid down by the comet Tempel-Tuttle, on its orbit around the sun.”
Being an avid photographer, and an amateur astronomer from childhood, this young man decided that he would try and make this video, as India was one of the prime locations for the shower according to NASA.
“Yes,” smiles Ganjam. “I was searching (on the net) for information, and found that NASA has a department called Meteroid Environment Office (MEO), which tracks meteors and meteor showers.” NASA, in fact, responded to his email with a presentation, giving a lot of data about the showers, like their estimated ZHR density, and the time in India when the peak could be expected. “India is in the front seat, as far as witnessing this event is concerned, according to the MEO,” explains Ganjam. “We also want to take advantage of the fact that we have a new moon that night, which removes any light glare from the moon.”
The location that’s best for this photography would be the north-west or the south-west of India, as the east would have the retreating monsoon. And since in Bangalore, the team has access to the south-west (Deccan) plateau, it proved to be a great opportunity. “All the factors, from the double-strength shower, to the location, and my being able to infuse others with the same enthusiasm, just fell into place this time,” says Ganjam.
Hm, enthusiasm. How did he get 12 others to join him in the initiative? Ganjam has been a member in good standing of India Nature Watch, an online forum for wildlife photographers, and the photographers he knew were all looking for something different to do. Astrophotography fitted the bill perfectly, and he got a quick and eager response from his friends.
“Initially,” says Gowri, a recent post graduate and the only woman photographer in the group,”the meteor showers were supposed to be on two nights, the 17th and the 18th of November,but now the forecast is only for the night of November 17th.” So the photographers are working to a tight deadline.
The locations at which this effort will be undertaken need to conform to several parameters.
Firstly: there must be no light pollution (excessive artificial light and glare especially seen in cities, that prevents clear view of the sky). “It is difficult to find such locations anywhere near the city,” says Shivakumar L, who is part of the team, as even a radius of 40km from the city would have enough scattered light in the sky to spoil the photography. Therefore, the photographers must look for terrain that is not near human habitation…or at least, not near villages or towns with electricity. This almost automatically means that the location would be in a forest or nature preserve area.
That brings the photographers to the necessity to get permissions to camp on the location at night, and give undertakings that they will not, in any way, harm or affect the wildlife of the region. In any case, all of the people on the team are avid naturalists and wildlife photographers and they are very keen that local wildlife is not disturbed in any way.
Another parameter for the astrovideography of the Leonid showers is that each location must be in a different kind of terrain (mountainous, water body, flat plain, and so on), just to give a variety to the finished documentary. The group of photographers is thinking of one location in the open meadows, one in a forest clearing, one near a water body, one near a rocky outcrop. The idea is to have, in each location, an identifiable landmark. Also, hopefully, this will obviate any negative results of vagaries in the weather. “All it takes is some cloud cover for the project to be dead in the water!” says Gowri with a smile. The team is taking some very scientific insurance…by keeping their fingers crossed!
An essential condition also is the availability of an east-west orientation for the cameras. This allows for the best documentation of the Leonid showers, as the constellation rises in the east and sets in the west.
What about the funding for this project? Surely the equipment for such an effort would be very expensive? “Oh,” smiles Ganjam, “all of us are pooling in our own resources for the project. I am touched that all my friends just jumped into this with such enthusiasm.” All of the team are using high-end Digital SLR cameras for the effort. But there have been expenses that are specifically oriented to this project. All cameras needed tripods for stablility and intervalometers which they have had to buy, for this project. “Since we are using our own cameras, the cost of dedicated equipment for the project is not high,” says Santosh Saligram, another member. This group, passionate about photography, has many members from an IT background.
Other mundane details also have to be thought of…the question of taking leave from the respective jobs, for example! “If we choose a location in…say, Nagarhole, or Coorg,’ says Samad Kottur, “we will have to think of the travel and accomodation questions, also.” The fact that the areas of least light pollution will very likely be deep in the forests, also brings into play the question of requesting, and getting, special permissions from the Forest Department. As avid wildlife photographers, the team is very keen to avoid any kind of disturbance to wildlife.
The team is looking forward to the 17th, with the hope that multiple locations will prevent the project from being scuttled by bad weather or poor visibility. They are all seriously concerned that the cloudy, rainy weather that is over Karnataka right now, may lay waste several weeks of intense preparations. They, are, however, going to take up their positions in the chosen locations, in readiness.
Having got all this information, I decided to ask a group of amateur astronomers,the Bangalore Astronomical Society, what they feel about such an initiative. I spoke to Naveen Nanjundappa, who has been spearheading the popularization of astronomy amongst the common people of Bangalore for the past few years, what he feels about it. “It’s a very good project,” he responds enthusiastically, having made time-lapse still images himself, in the past. “This is a combination of astronomy and photography, and it’s a fascinating field.”
The members of BAS are also planning a trip to a light-pollution-free area to see the Leonid showers. They feel that the kind of video that’s going to be attempted by Ganjam and his friends, will further popularize astronomy amongst ordinary folk as well as provide lots of data for researchers.
Let’s wish the astrodocumentary team a night of clear skies and good visibility on the 17th …and let’s also be out on our terraces, looking out for the “showers of light” that we will enjoy for a short time, while Sriharsha Ganjam and his group document it as a great database for both laypersons and scientists. ⊕