A Tale of Weird, Dumb Luck in Oregon Coastal Astronomy
By Andre' Hagestedt
(Portland, Oregon) – To paraphrase an old cliché from dozens of blues songs: if it weren't for weird luck, I'd have no luck at all. (Above: nighttime above Cape Foulweather, near Depoe Bay)
This seems my lot in life when it comes to photographing astronomical and scientific phenomena. Granted, I get some incredible shots of some really cool things – and often even more than what I'm aiming for. The Transit of Venus last year. Some great lunar eclipses. Plenty of star movement in those nighttime photos of the Oregon coast (which, unfortunately, way too many uninformed people still mislabel “meteor showers”). And so many nearly-unexplainable sights in those night skies on the beach in the form of fishing boats and odd light casts in the air, stuff that consistently surprises me.
Then there are the things I get to see which no one else does (largely because I'm some sort of beachy night owl who lurks on the sands in the wee hours). Things like glowing sand – quite a bit. Or tons of shooting stars.
Yet these things I can only write about – as I can never seem to catch them with my camera.
Such was the case with this last batch of amazing shooting stars that hit Oregon around May 5. It was May 6, about 3 a.m., when I wandered into my favorite secret spot between Hillsboro and the Oregon coast range to try and photograph those Aquarid meteors.
Here, I saw some of the most incredible fireballs of my entire life. These were not those quickly darting, sparks of light that most shooting stars are made of. Indeed, these were intensely elongated streaks that almost seemed to slow-burn their way through the atmosphere, ending in a fizzle that looked a bit like a sparkler. (Above: iridium flare in the coast range)
In spite of being only tiny granules of dust, these were spectacular. A streak so long it seemed to happen in slow motion (though I'm sure it wasn't much longer than the usual falling star), and often with a bit of a red or orange cast to it, adding to the fiery quality. Then at its end a true fireball: it sometimes resembled a giant match head in the sky, giving off one last blast and blaze – a final blaze of glory.
Yet wherever I had my camera lens trained on, these did not occur there. They happened elsewhere in the sky, far from the reach of my rig's line of sight.
After more than an hour, and about 150 photos later, I knew I'd come away with nothing. In that time, I probably saw six of these mammoth monsters. But none graced the workings of my handy digital friend. However, I knew I'd have to sit in front of my computer and check all these shots carefully, because you never know what you'll get. There could be a surprise.
Indeed, there was. But not the kind I'd hoped. (Above: Seaside, Oregon at night)
Somewhere in the final ten of that 150 exposures, I did spot a little streak. Unfortunately, this I recognized as not a meteor. Yet, with no small sense of irony, this was something rarer. Really much rarer, by comparison.
It was an iridium flare. Not a meteor.
An iridium flare is a unique glimpse of a satellite, one where the sun briefly reflects off its iridium surface. These are actually much harder to see than a meteor because they happen way less often.
I later got near-confirmation from astronomy expert Jim Todd at OMSI this is what it had to be. In order to really confirm it, he pointed me to a website that helps you do just that, although it did not have the date quite right. So there's a little wiggle room here for total confirmation, but this has all the telltale, cylindrical shape and configurations of a satellite glinting in the sunlight – and not a shooting star.
I've seen probably close to 100 shooting stars out on the coast at night, usually around the Manzanita or Cannon Beach area, and a fair amount down on the central Oregon coast. But I've never actually SEEN an iridium flare.
But oh, the most bitter of ironies: I've never photographed this most-favored sight of a shooting star. Yet this is the second time I've snapped an iridium flare while trying to get a meteor.
The first was in Manzanita last year. These bright, clear summer night skies were yielding a fair amount of little streaks in the sky, and plenty of awe-inspiring glimpses of the Milky Way galaxy. (Above: iridium flare at Manzanita, in the upper left corner)
Try as I might, my dozens of exposures yielded no fiery ball of dust. But upon closer inspection on my laptop, I spotted one streak, which later turned out to be most likely an iridium flare. This one was darting down above Neahkahnie Mountian, somewhere near the Big Dipper.
Of course, then there's that sad tale of the “glowing sand” phenomenon, which is so faint on this Oregon coast it's impossible to photograph. Don't even get me started on that.
With such odd, even twisted luck, I don't know what to expect next. Perhaps some day – or night, rather – I'll be trying to photograph the surreal things fishing boats do to the night skies. And then, somewhere behind me – in the grand tradition of flicks like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” - some giant alien orb will be checking me out.
Knowing my luck, I won't catch it either. But its glow will probably just ruin my shot.
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