Clear Winter Nights Can End Fast

It’s been a long winter so far for me. Few opportunities to observe or photograph the night sky. Tonight – 17th February 2013 – it seemed that there was a shot at, well, some shots. It’s been clear all afternoon and evening. The moon is sitting spectacularly between Jupiter and the Pleiades, and Orion is just a few degrees to the west of that amazing sight – should be beautiful to see and lend itself to great shots for both camera and telescope. I’ve had my 80mm f/15 refractor on the balcony all afternoon on the EQ-4, and even got some nice shots of the sun this afternoon with it. Now it’s all cooled down and is at ambient temperature (important for telescopes), I’m wrapped up like a well-wrapped wrapper, and I’m all set for some lovely winter balcony-based astronomy.

And of course the clouds start to roll in from the north at 9:05 pm, just as the moon and stars of interest are swinging low enough in the horizon to work for me from the balcony. Not quite in position for the telescope. Whimper. I took a couple of quick hand-held shots for exposure. By the time I had a camera on a tripod the clouds were everywhere.

The moon and Orion - and Jupiter. See the posting for the details...

The moon and Orion – and Jupiter

Well, make lemonade, eh? Here’s one of the hand-held shots – still interesting – the moon is the brightest object, and you can see the bright cluster of stars just to the right – the Pleiades – peeking through the clouds. Jupiter is the bright object to the left and up from the moon. Due left of it is a bright yellow star, Aldebaran. The constellation Orion – the Hunter – lies off to the left. Another hour and a half until these things start to set behind the trees and Escarpment near by… maybe the clouds will part again at some point.

When the Apollo missions were heading to the moon the first mission priority, once the crew was safely down on the lunar surface and outside, was to collect a little bit of rock – the “contingency sample.” This was placed into a pocket, and if for some reason they had to leave in a hurry, well, they took something back with them. I guess this shot was my “contingency sample” for the evening.

Canada’s Own “Big Meteor” – of 1966

It could be said that the coincidence of the century happened on 15 February 2013, when  on the same day that earth was approached by a sizable asteroid (2012 DA14) an amazing meteorite streaked through the sky over the Ural Mountains, exploding with enough force that over 1,000 people were injured by glass and other debris from building that were knocked about by the blast.

On September 17, 1966 a similar event – a major meteorite – streaked over Southern Ontario and likely ended up splashing down in Lake Huron, some dozen miles off of Kincardine. My family and I were  witnesses to it, recorded as “The Bolide of September 17, 1966” in the Journal of the  Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. While not cited by name, the reference on the second page of the journal article, “One key observation from about eight miles south of Kincardine, on Lake Huron…” is a note about my father’s report of our family’s experience of the event.

We were at our cottage that Saturday evening; I was 6, my sister was 3, and my parents had some friends over for a barbecue. About 12 minutes before 9 PM the sky suddenly lit up all around us. I was actually in the cottage when the flash occurred, but my father was outside. I rushed out and did see the vapour trail high overhead. My overwhelming memory of the light from the bolide was that it was strongly green.

Being just a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, some of the adults immediately thought we were in the middle of World War III. My father, though, knew just what he had seen, and he wrote up an account in a letter to the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa.

As a child I often dreamt of setting out in search of fragments of the meteorite. I would examine rocks along the Lake Huron shore, hoping that one might look like a meteorite. Alas, I never did find it! However, it’s not impossible that it could be found one day. The likely location is well-known, and the waters off of Kincardine aren’t too deep – but the search would be tedious. Any remains of the space rock would likely be foot-ball-sized or smaller, possibly scattered over a square km or more of lake floor.

The observation of the 1966 event was considerably enriched by a photograph taken from Guelph, Ontario, as well as the verbal reports provided by observers such as my father. Astronomers calculated that the meteor likely first became visible over south-western Ontario north of the Lake Erie shoreline south of Brantford, and then moved north-west at about 17 km per second; it was likely luminous for at least 10 seconds.

In a review of meteor observations over Canada, Hodgson (1994) related that it’s likely that the 1966 Southern Ontario Bolide had its origin in the asteroid belt, because of its velocity.


Halliday, I. 1966. The Bolide of September 17, 1966. Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. 60 (Dec.): 257. Available on-line at:

Hodgson, J. H. 1994. The Heavens Above and the Earth Beneath: A History of the Dominion Observatories Part 2: 1946-1970. Geological Survey of Canada, Open File 1945 (Accessed as a Google eBook 16 Feb 2013)