With all this talk of “the best meteor shower of 2017,” Alisha and I decided to go on an adventure to take advantage of the majorly clear skies and lack of rain in northern Nevada. Knowing that the lights of Fernley, Fallon, and Reno would drown out the night sky, we made the trek north to Black Rock Desert. We perched ourselves out on the playa a few miles from where the Burning Man festival is held and got the pictures in the slideshow above.
The meteor shower was fantastic Between 9:30 pm and 12:15 am, I very un-scientifically counted 274 shooting stars, 121 of which fell between 11 and midnight. It was cold, so we stayed in the car. We also pointed north most of the time, despite reading several sources suggesting we point south. Most of this blog post will be about the adventure my wife and I went on last night to make that slideshow happen, but below that will be some of the history and science behind the Geminid Meteor Shower.
Before this, the best meteor shower I had seen was during one of the summers when I was in high school. I went with a group out to go camping in the national forest near Mount Adams in Washington. We found this super random, massive patch of asphalt, laid out on the ground and watched the shower for a while in the dense forest. While that experience was awesome, this one for sure topped it.
We’re still pretty new to Nevada, so this was our first trip up to that area. We drove out after nightfall, which Alisha hated. She’s not fond of me taking her off the beaten path after sunset, but she had a new form of hatred for this one. Not wanting to chance getting stuck in the mud (many usually dry lakebeds are full of water right now), we didn’t go all the way out to Black Rock City out in the middle of the lakebed. Instead, we accessed the playa using a hot spring as a waypoint. This hot spring is down 20 miles of unmaintained gravel road east of Gerlach.
Ironically, this unmaintained gravel road was a state highway not long ago. Google Maps still has it marked as a state highway, but as I turned down this road riddled with potholes it was clear that it had long been forgotten. The only sign on this road, aside from the sign saying it was unmaintained, was put up by the Bureau of Land Management showing that we were over 90 miles from Winnemucca, which is the next city on that road with gas or food.
Anyway, so here we are in the dark on a gravel road that has nothing on it for the next 90 miles. Eventually, we turned off and crossed the railroad tracks and got out onto the not muddy lakebed. Once Alisha got her equipment set up, I turned off the headlights and holy moly. We were able to see the lights down on the horizon coming from Winnemucca, but aside from that, the only light was from the stars. And it was so quiet. I’ve been in the middle of nowhere before, but out here where there weren’t even plants there was nothing. No wind. No critters. No cars or planes or anything.
We stayed long enough for Alisha to get some good pictures, including two 45-minute exposures. On the 90 mile drive back home, we only passed one single car the entire way and made it home just after 2 am. We will certainly be returning to Black Rock Desert to get more night pictures. Hopefully, we’ll also have a good summer meteor shower this year.
The Geminids are caused by an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon. This three-mile wide asteroid flies around similar to how a comet does, starting in the Asteroid Belt beyond Mars and flying close to the sun and then heading back out past Mars. The shower is named after the Gemini constellation, which it appears to come out of.
Phaethon acts like a comet in the way that it spews dust behind it as it goes, but the big difference between it and more conventional comets is that the dust that it sends out is rocky rather than icy. It is believed that the surface of this asteroid resembles that of a dried-up lakebed one might find in Texas where the clay is all cracked. This cracking then causes the material on the comet to come loose and fly off.
This meteor shower was first observed in the mid-1800s, which was surprising to me. I always thought that meteor showers had kinda just always happened in the same general way as they have for thousands of years. Turns out, that’s not the case for many meteor showers, but this one is particularly recent. Some other showers were first recorded in the 4th and 10th Centuries A.D.
There will be another meteor shower the night of January 3rd. Unfortunately, that’s the day after the next full moon. If you’re not into trying to spot little rocks falling into the earth’s atmosphere while they’re being drowned out by the moon, there’s always April. At least it’ll be warmer then.