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Catch a falling star ... and fall colors

The Orionid meteor shower is one of the highlights of the fall season for skywatchers, generally sparking up to 15 meteor sightings an hour during its peak on Oct. 21-22. But how often is it that you experience the glories of the night sky and the glories of autumn at the same time? Photographer Jeff Berkes' picture of an Orionid meteor streak over Elverson, Pa., manages to provide exactly that sort of double autumnal delight.

"The sky was crystal clear and a moody fog was rising off the lake when I set up my camera at 1 o'clock Saturday morning," Berkes told SpaceWeather.com. "The Orionids were streaking bright, and I counted a couple dozen during the night."

This year turned out to be stellar for the Orionids: Reports gathered by the International Meteor Organization indicate that some observers could spot more than 25 meteors an hour during the peak. That bounty is also reflected in the photos that were sent in to SpaceWeather.com. To my mind, a picture taken by Mark Staples, looking across the fog on Little Lake Santa Fe in Florida, sets the proper mood for autumnal skywatching.

If you missed Saturday's peak, never fear: The Orionid show will still be playing nightly, albeit at lower activity levels, from now until around mid-November. Two somewhat weaker meteor showers, the North and South Taurids, are kicking in as well, reaching peaks on Nov. 5-6 and Nov. 11-12. Then, on the night of Nov. 17-18, the Leonid meteor shower hits prime time.

In past years, the Leonids created quite a stir, but this year the last-quarter moon will interfere with peak viewing. Fortunately, there are ways to maximize your viewing experience, even during a mediocre meteor show. To refresh your memory, here's a top-10 list of viewing tips:

  1. Pick a viewing spot far away from city lights, where the skies are likely to be clear and wide-open. Higher elevations are usually better than lower elevations.
  2. For help in site selection, you can check out the Clear Sky Chart website, which provides weather conditions for skywatching ... and links to popular viewing locations on a state-by-state basis. Your local astronomy club can also point you in the right direction.
  3. Bring a blanket or a chaise lounge to lie back on. Have layers of clothing available in case the air turns chilly at night. Bring snacks or drinks. Bring a flashlight so you can find your way through the dark.
  4. Bring a music player or radio if you need a diversion. But don't forget the earphones if you're going to be alongside other groups who may not appreciate your musical taste. Frankly, the best diversion is a deep philosophical conversation with your meteor-watching friends.
  5. Don't give up too quickly. Give your eyes plenty of time to get accustomed to the dark.
  6. Meteors associated with a particular shower (for example, the Orionids, the Taurids or the Leonids) appear to emanate from a particular point in a constellation (Orion, Taurus or Leo). But don't focus exclusively on that point. The best advice is to gaze straight up, taking in as much of the night sky as you can.
  7. The later you can stay up, the better. Generally speaking, meteor shows don't get good until after midnight, when Earth is turning into the stream of meteor debris.
  8. To get a better sense of what to expect at which time, use NASA's Fluxtimator. When you click in the right coordinates for meteor shower, date, location and viewing conditions, the Java-based calculator charts what the estimated meteor flux will be at different times.
  9. If you want to share your meteor sightings with the world via Twitter — and find out where the sightings are sizzling — the MeteorWatch website is the place for you.
  10. Even if you miss seeing the falling stars of the fall season, you can experience them vicariously by checking SpaceWeather.com. And there's always another show on the horizon, such as the Geminids (peaking Dec. 13-14).

Update for 11:30 p.m. ET: In an email, Jeff Berkes provides further details about how he captured that amazing image:

"I left my house in West Chester, Pa., shortly after midnight and arrived at French Creek State Park in southeastern Pennsylvania around 1 a.m. on October 22. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a crystal clear sky and a moody fog rolling off the lake. I was outside for only a couple of minutes before I saw my first Orionid meteor. I knew right then it was going to be a great night. The moon beginning its ascent around 2:15 a.m. worried me a bit, but the Orionids were flying high and bright. It was 3:27 a.m. when I captured this image, my first Orionid shot of the morning. I stayed up all night while taking over 500 photos and counted close to 30 meteors. I even had enough energy from a Wawa blueberry muffin to continue shooting through sunrise, before taking the 45-minute drive home at 9 a.m.

"I used a technique called 'light painting' to illuminate the foreground subjects in this shot. This is where I use a high-powered flashlight to light up objects up to 1,000 feet away. I spent the first 30 minutes checking out different angles before settling on this location. I usually do not like shooting directly into the moon when shooting meteors; however, with it being very low and behind the trees, it was not a problem for this bright meteor to burn itself into my sensor. Light pollution for once actually helped me out here by adding some flavor to the horizon and separating the trees from the sky. Around 2 a.m., I anchored my tripod along the water’s edge facing out over the lake, while the constellation Orion was rising higher off my right shoulder in the southeastern sky. I fixed the exposure time for the flashlight and then started popping off shots until I eventually captured one of these majestic meteors."

Berkes used a Nikon D3 camera with a 17mm lens. ISO: 800. Exposure: 25 seconds at f/2.8.

More about falling stars and the fall season:


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