The Geminid meteor shower and the mysterious dome
NASA calls it the “best meteor shower of the year” and it’s happening overnight. The Geminids meteor shower will peak with a remarkable display of 60 or more shooting stars each hour, zipping around the pre-dawn sky, and one local amateur astronomer is well-positioned to view it.
On a cold afternoon, two brothers stand with their mom on a street near their home in Westnedge Hill. 11-year-old Hess and 6-year-old Grae take turns guessing the purpose of the strange white dome that appeared in their neighbor’s yard last year.
“It’s a time pod to the future, a teleporter,” said Hess Cameron.
“It’s a wizard’s helmet!” chimed in his little brother, Grae.
“A shed or a greenhouse,” decided Hess.
Their mom Alyson Cameron had another idea.
“Lots of people in our neighborhood have composting systems. I thought maybe it was a composting system.”
“That’s too logical,” Hess said, before he makes his final call.
“I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s those things and it’s a telescope in it.”
It’s called an observatory. And it’s the retirement project of amateur astronomer and astrophotographer,
Eric Schreur, who ordered the small fiberglass backyard observatory from Australia in 2019.
“They finished about March of 2020, and we all know what happened then.”
The pandemic shutdown.
The observatory was stuck on a dock “down under” but finally arrived in Kalamazoo almost a year after Schreur ordered it. He said he used his Erector Set building skills from childhood to assemble it in the backyard.
Schreur doesn’t actually sit in the observatory to stargaze. Instead, he controls the telescopes and cameras from inside his house.
All together a system like this costs over $20,000. Why invest so much in a hobby? After more than 20-years of lugging his equipment in and out of the house to stargaze in all kinds of weather, the short answer is:
“I don’t have mosquitos in the summer and I don’t have to shiver in the cold in the winter,” said Schreur, who became a stargazer in junior high, during a family vacation to Gun Lake.
“My father told my brother and myself, ‘Oh, you’ll have to go outside and over the lake and see if you can see any of the shooting stars.’ So, we went out, got on the dock and just laid back and watched shooting stars for a while," he said.
Schreur was hooked that August night and eventually turned his interest into a career. He became the planetarium coordinator at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, retiring in 2015 after 30 years on the job.
To be completely transparent, my husband Bill McElhone is the current director of the museum and was Schreur’s boss for a time. And like the Cameron family, we’re Westnedge Hill neighbors.
Schreur recently put some of his photos of the universe together in a guide called “Take Your Family Stargazing,” which he hopes will inspire others to explore their place in the universe.
“That’s where my curiosity has been all through my life, is, 'what is this place we live in?'”
One place to start is with meteor showers, just like Schreur. There are about 30 of them each year. Two of the best are the Perseids, which peaks in mid-August, and the Geminids, which peaks in mid-December.
“The August one is kind of better because people prefer to stand out in a warm air at night instead of standing out with their feet in the snow," he said.
Schreur added that this Geminid meteor shower won’t make for perfect viewing.
“There could be up to 120 shooting stars per hour when the radiant of the shower is at its highest point in the sky, but you’re probably not going to see them all because the moon is getting close to full,” Schreur said. “So, you can probably take half of that number away right from the beginning, cut it down to about 60 an hour. So, you might see, oh, a shooting star every two or three minutes.”
For this reason, Schreur isn’t sure if he’ll stay up to watch it.
“I don’t observe every night,” Schreur said. “If there’s a bright full moon it’s not so good for me. But if I look outside and see that it’s a clear dark night I say, ‘I can’t waste this night.’”
In any case, if Schreur’s watching tonight, he won’t be cold in the comfort of his den.