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Geminid Meteor Shower from Dead Horse Point

Geminid meteor shower from Dead Horse Point, Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Geminid meteor shower from Dead Horse Point, Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Meteor showers are nature’s most spectacular fireworks display. The Geminid meteor shower, which peaks around December 13-14 every year, is always one of the two best meteor showers of the year. The December 2023 shower promised to be exceptional because it coincided with new moon, ensuring that the meteors would stand out strongly against a dark sky.

I began planning my Geminid shoot months in advance. I wanted to capture as many meteors as possible, of course, but I also wanted to shoot the meteors falling over a dramatic landscape. I had already shot the Geminids over Longs Peak and Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, over the Sangre de Cristo Range from Great Sand Dunes National Park, and over Monument Basin in Canyonlands National Park. I wanted a fresh location. The Geminids’ radiant (the point in the sky where the meteors appear to originate) rises in the northeast around astronomical dusk, passes nearly overhead around 2:00 a.m., and is setting to the west at astronomical dawn. I wanted the radiant to be in the frame in the final composition. That meant I needed to find an impressive landscape somewhere in an arc from east, through south, to west, as seen from my shooting location.

Ultimately, I settled on Dead Horse Point, in Dead Horse Point State Park, near Moab, Utah. The view looking southwest from the point is one of the most spectacular in the Moab area. Unfortunately, there was a catch: the Geminid radiant would be 84 degrees above the horizon when it was positioned correctly within the final composition. I would need to include a significant amount of sky above the radiant to accommodate meteors that appeared to travel upwards from the radiant. The only way to capture that much sky was to use an ultra-wide 14mm lens, which has an angle of view of 104 degrees on the long axis. Of course, I needed to capture a significant amount of land as well, which meant the only way to shoot the background sky and land was as two separate panoramas, one exposed correctly for the land, one exposed correctly for the sky. I’d shoot the two panoramas when the radiant was southwest of Dead Horse Point, directly over a spectacular U-shaped bend in the Colorado River. To capture the meteors I would use a bracket that can hold two cameras on one tripod. I’d mount a 14mm lens vertically on one camera and a 16mm lens horizontally on the other and compose to include only a thin strip of land at the bottom. That way I’d capture all the meteors that fell in a wide, inverted-T shaped section of sky. I’d then make back-to-back exposures with both cameras all night, moving the cameras periodically through the night to keep the radiant centered in the frame.

On December 12, my wife Cora and I drove to Moab from our home in Boulder. Unlike most years, the peak of the shower was predicted for noon on the 14th. No meteors are visible at noon, of course. So which night would be better, the night of December 13-14, or the night of December 14-15? As it turned out, the weather made our decision for us. Heavy clouds, accompanied by rain showers, blotted out the stars on the night of the 13th-14th. We would have to gamble everything on the following night.

The storm cleared slowly the following morning. Cora and I hiked the Murphy Hogback trail, then drove to Dead Horse Point. The skies were clear. We began shooting back-to-back images with both cameras at 6:30 p.m., astronomical dusk, when the sky becomes as dark as it will get. An hour into the shoot, I noticed condensation beginning to form on the front of the lenses. Had the condensation continued to build up, it would have ruined every shot for the remainder of the night. I stopped making exposures, dried the lenses, and began shooting again.

Fifteen minutes later, I had to dry the lenses again. Condensation was starting to look like a serious problem. Soon I was forced to clean the lenses every 10 minutes. Then every five minutes. Then every three minutes. By 2:00 a.m. I was cleaning the lenses after every 30-second exposure. Fog began forming in the canyon below and drifting upwards. By 4:00 a.m., still 2 ½ hours before astronomical dawn, the situation was hopeless. The cameras were covered with dew, fog was obscuring the stars, and the meteors had become few and far between. We gave up, packed up the gear, and drove back to our hotel, arriving just as the hotel began serving a much-needed breakfast.

When we returned home a few days later, I spent two days sifting through the 1,772 frames I’d captured, searching for bright meteors. Eventually I identified 66 meteors I thought were bright enough to play a significant role in the composition. I stitched the land panorama together without trouble, then tried to stitch the sky panorama, taken with the 14mm lens pointed up about 50 degrees. Adobe Lightroom failed miserably, producing a wildly distorted and unusable image. I turned to PTGUI, a dedicated stitching program. The automated stitching feature failed. In desperation, I tried entering control points manually. Panoramas are always shot with adjacent frames overlapping by about a third. Control points are identical points in the overlapping area of two adjacent frames. I painstakingly identified the same stars in each frame and instructed PTGUI to make those stars match up. The result was still distorted, but with enough warping, stretching, and rotating, I got a usable sky. I then tried AutoPano Giga, another dedicated stitching program, to see if I could get a better result, but it also failed. The PTGUI version was my only option.

The next step was to combine the land and sky panoramas in a way our visual system would find believable. The final step, which took another five or six hours, was to drop in all of the bright meteors and arrange them so they appeared to be coming from the radiant.

The result is clearly a composite. I certainly didn’t capture 66 bright meteors in one 30-second exposure. I did, however, watch all those meteors fall in one night while perched atop a cliff some 1,600 feet above a spectacular canyon carved over eons by the Colorado River.

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