Mesmerizing Perseid timelapse video

By Phil Plait | August 20, 2010 11:00 am

I missed the Perseids last week — a combination of bad weather and having to get up early to go to SETIcon the next day — but I, and now you, can get a good feel for them via this lovely timelapse video taken by photographer Henry Jun Wah Lee:

Joshua Tree Under the Milky Way from Henry Jun Wah Lee.

I’m not sure how many of those streaks are Perseids, how many are random meteors (typically from any given location you see a handful of sporadic meteors per hour) and how many are airplanes. Still, it’s pretty.

The large lumpy cloud you see in this video is actually the Milky Way. We live inside the galaxy, which is a huge flat disk with a puffy ball of stars in the core. We’re offset from the center, so when we look in that direction (toward the constellation Sagittarius) we can see the swelling of that central bulge; it’s a bit like living a few miles north of downtown New York City, so when you look south you see the densest concentration of lights. Looking toward the center of the galaxy means we see more stars, gas, and dust in that direction. Looking elsewhere, we see the disk as a thick line across the sky. It rises and sets just like everything else in the sky.

I like these kinds of videos. I do love sitting outside and watching the sky go by, but when I can’t, this reminds me of how relaxing and how wonderful it is.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff

Comments (44)

  1. BMcP

    I am curious, why is it so often orange along the horizon during the recording? At first I thought it was the glow of dusk after sunset but the orange never subsided as the movie went on. Is it an effect caused by the camera?

  2. What is that explosion at 0:32-0:33? On the left hand side, it looks as though a streak (meteor?) hit something and sends a spray of golden sparks outward that persist for a second of time in the video. In this time lapse, I can’t tell how long that would be in real time.

    What the heck was that?

  3. Phunk

    BMcP: I’d guess it’s light polution from a nearby city.

  4. These are almost ALL planes!

    A fleeting event like a meteor going through the Earth’s atmosphere would not reguster in a time-lapse, where seconds are smeared into minutes.

    Note the direction of the planes are not coming from a radiant, but from all over the sky and in some cases from opposite directions.

    Still awesome though! :-)

  5. PG

    @BMcP: My guess would be lights from a nearby house or town.

  6. Bobbar

    Wow! I really like the one right at 30 seconds that bursts leaving a visible cloud!

  7. I think PG is right–probably terrestrial light pollution.

  8. Stargazer Bob

    The orange glow along the horizon is sky glow caused by the lights of a distant city/town/etc. The sky reflects a significant percentage of civilizations light back down and out from the sources (street lights. houses, offices, cars, etc. that can be seen for many miles “over the horizon”. This is the bane of astronomers. In this case, from Johsua Tree, looking south west you will get glow from the Palm Springs area and to the south will be Imperial Valley, etc. Overall the sky at Joshua Tree is very good.

  9. I am having a hard time believing those were all aircraft. THAT many in one night?

    Maybe there is something we don’t know about how the video was made. Many of them seem to have the right trajectory to have been meteors.

  10. Nice work, Mr. Lee. The last “shot,” with its lovely lighting of the Yucca palm, is particularly striking in its deep focus effect.

    I suspect the orange glow beyond the hills is Palm Springs, or perhaps the smaller town of Indio.

  11. There’s one beautiful meteor at 0:32 – watch the puff of smoke get broken up by the high-level atmospheric winds. Superb!

    There are some very faint ones in the background, but most of them are planes. The sky rotates by quite a large degree while a streak goes from zenith to horizon. This would translate to several minutes in terms of time.

    It doesn’t matter either way. Just looking up is a wonderful experience. Even on a cloudy day! :-)

  12. astronomer24

    Is that a meteors exploding at 0:33 on the left side, just a second after one of them seemingly curves? It seems to leave a dust cloud after the explosion.

  13. This is SO beautiful. Makes me regret that I didn’t take the time to drive somewhere dark and see it. Just the timelapse video nearly brought tears to my eyes, and I imagine the real thing is so much grander.

  14. Neil Vickers

    I was 8,500′ up in the Grand Tetons for this years’ display. For a Chicago boy, that sky was incredible! The low temperatures and constant threat of bears also added interest.

  15. XPT

    Very pretty but I think what look like meteors are actually planes. The few meteors are really faint as far as I can tell. With the exception of 0:32.

  16. Kirk

    That glow in the sky could maybe be zodiacal light or the gegenschein. Both are caused by sunlight reflected by interplanetary dust. You can generally only see this light when it’s really dark, as it easily gets washed out by any sort of light pollution or the moon.

    Given that we can see the Milky Way so clearly in these images, that light could also be what’s appearing there. But Phil would know much more than I if that’s the case.

  17. Jim Atkins

    The glow (if this is from Joshua Tree NP) is mostly Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. I can see it from my front yard- I’m on the north side of the park, about three blocks from park headquarters in Twentynine Palms. The mountains in the park block most of it, but it’s still apparent. We are also under the main jet airway from Phoenix, Dallas and Atlanta to Los Angeles, so there are a lot of jets passing through our airspace. Still, this is pretty much what our sky looks like on a good night- I’m a lucky man!

  18. Mount

    Starting at about 0:48 there is a point of light above the right third of the tree that is stationary against the moving sky. Is that perhaps a geosynchronous satellite, a camera artifact, or something else? You need it in full screen with HD on to see it.

  19. Chanelle

    @12 The view of the night sky from the Tetons is incredible for anyone, no matter where they are from. High elevation, combined with being hundreds of miles from anything but small towns, makes for the best possible viewing combination.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I always liked timescapes nearly as much as landscapes; and now technology makes up for the deficits of memory vs visual scenery. How cool isn’t that!?

  21. A number of family members and I went to my brother’s place outside of town to watch the meteors. We were slightly disappointed, as we saw more airplanes than meteors. Due to the fact my other brother had to work in the morning, we were forced to head home shortly after midnight, so we probably missed the best of the shower which was supposed to be before dawn.

    We never saw anything near the meteor per minute that was forecast, but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless. I can think of much worse things to do on a Thursday night than sitting out in the yard on lawn chair munching popcorn and staring up in the sky for a few hours.

  22. Maritova

    Wonderful video!

    I was lucky to have a houseboating trip with some friends to Lake Powell during the Perseids. The skies were very clear, and for someone accustomed to city life (or the occasional semi-rural camping trip), I was just stunned at how many stars I could see. It’s one thing to see pictures of so many stars, it’s another to really see it. And the meteors were amazing too.

    It was wonderful how that utter sense of wonder captivated my friends and me as we lay on our backs and watched the showers. I found it was even better if, when lying down, you imagine that you’re stuck to the “roof of the Universe,” looking downward.

    One thing I was wondering, and maybe someone here can help answer it: one of my friends was wondering why the Milky Way is dark and patchy in the center part of the disk (the center “layer”, not the core), compared with the brighter stretches above and below the center. I said it was because those areas have lots of clouds of gas and nebulae that are opaque and less bright, and that when viewing the galaxy in other wavelengths, the center is brighter than the rest. Did I get this right or did I miss something? I want to make sure my friend and I are well-informed.

  23. Mark T.

    #18 got it right. If you Google Earth for Joshua Tree you’ll see it’s right on the main air travel routes. And the horizon lights are not just Palm Springs but all the smaller towns surrounding it.

    When it comes to light pollution there is almost no escape in SoCal.

  24. Gonçalo Aguiar

    The orange glow is the zodiacal light if I’m not wrong. It is very faint and can only be seen in class 1 of Bortle Dark-Sky Scale.

    The footage is immensely beautiful, too bad I had not the opportunity this year to experience this by myself.

    Best Regards.

  25. Jim Atkins

    Mark T- I can see the milky way from my front yard most nights here in the Morongo Basin, north of the park. We have dark sky ordinances in both incorporated cities, and the light to the north of the park isn’t too bad. There are about 150,000 people all together in the Palm Springs area to the south of the park, and it gets pretty light polluted. Just a few miles east of us here in 29 Palms it gets SERIOUSLY dark- there really isn’t anything east of us until you get nearly to the Colorado River. Nice place for an astronomer to live!

  26. Brian Too

    @24. Maritova,

    Your explanation was bang on the money.

  27. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great video – wonderful. :-)

    Perseids~wise unfortunately I was clouded out – & live at the wrong latitude anyhow, too far south.

  28. It was cloudy over the entire state during the peak night, but the following night was clear here, and I was super lucky to spot not just a few shooting stars, but a (relatively speaking) massive fireball. I was bummed to miss the main night, but the consolation prize was still worth it in my book.

  29. Jason

    @2. The explosion at 0:32-0:33 (also mentioned by 6, 12, 13, and 16) is a fireball if it got brighter than any planets (magnitude -4), while a bolide (although not officially defined) would be brighter than the full Moon. The lingering streak is ionized gas and debris.
    At first I thought the explosion being referred to were the flashes from 0:48-0:55 that I noticed before reading the comments. These are from a distant thunderstorm and include both “heat lightning” and surprisingly red sprites (or so it appears).
    When I was on a road trip (last year) and saw a Joshua tree for the first time the driver asked me what kind of tree it was (since dendrology is a hobby of mine along with astronomy, meteorology, etc.) and at that moment U2 was playing on the radio.

  30. Markle

    About the sky glow. The photographer seems to confirm the city skyglow. From his site:

    To see the Milky Way, the ideal time is summer during or around a new moon so that the moon light doesn’t drown it out. Head to a place far away from the pollution of city lights. To photograph the galactic core, I suggest making sure you don’t have a city positioned to the south of your location. Your long exposure will pick up the light from the city.

    Not that I doubt Jim Atkins’ testimony, it’s just nice to see a bit more confirmation from the horse’s mouth.

    Here’s a still of the bright one that caught everybody’s eye. Click on the thumbnail to see the full size image.

    Meteor flash

  31. Stephen

    This is simply the best night-time, star time-lapse video I’ve ever seen. Plus the Sigur Rós track goes along perfect with it. You really get that ‘spinning on a mote of dust, in a vast cosmic ocean’ feeling. Brilliant

  32. FATSO

    “Mesmerizing Perseid timelapse video” – another misleading title. This timelapse could have been
    done on any summer night. Chris (#4, #12) is the lone voice in the wilderness of oohs and aahs.
    Each frame is a time exposure of at least a few seconds (maybe 20 sec mentioned on the photographer’s website). Meteors last a fraction of a second to a few seconds. The fireball many noted at about 0:32 is present in only a single frame, leaving only its train of hot gas to persist in several subsequent frames. Anything seen as moving in playback had to be slowly moving across the camera field of view over at least a few frames, i.e. about a minute or more. So every object that looks like a “shooting star” in the playback has to be an aircraft or an artificial satellite, both moving much more slowly than any meteor, and so appearing in several consecutive frames. Toggle between play and pause over and over until you catch one in transit. You will see in that single time exposure that the brightness of the “hyphen” is either extremely constant, or nicely dashed, due to the rhythmic blinking of the aircraft running lights, or the periodic flashing of reflected sunlight off a rotating spacecraft or spent booster upper stage. So this is NOT a “… Perseid timelapse video”, it’s a timelapse movie of man-made objects cruising over the desert on any typical summer night. The odds of catching an actual meteor in one of the frames is less small on the night of the Perseids, so maybe that one fireball he did catch was one. A diligent viewer toggling through frame by frame might find a few more, but any streak or hyphen would have to
    be in a single frame only to be a meteor.

  33. Brian

    Beautiful videos, but as others have said, I can’t believe any of these are Perseids. I was lucky enough to be able to go out for an hour or so and actually see them, and each one went by about as fast in REAL time as the streaks in this highly sped-up video do.

    However, I was a bit surprised that in real life they didn’t all go in much the same direction, as I (and Chris #4, I suppose) had expected they would. Much as in this video, I saw no pattern to where they appeared or in what direction they travelled.

    Still, this is some beautiful photography.

  34. Lavocat

    I expected a cover of The Church by U2 – or vice versa. I think musically, what can I say?

  35. dominic
  36. I think there is a lot of “editing”. Look at those shots with the sunset on the horizon and the milky way just a few degrees higher up. That has to be a composite !
    Still my compliments to the author for the fantastic good taste in joining these different aspects of the evening and night sky to make something awesome.

  37. Angelo

    Nice and relaxing video, but there’s almost no meteors in there: those are planes. Timelapse videos compress time, so a fancy meteor light path simply cannot be shown that way.

  38. Gish


    I knew it was Sigur Rós but had to know which song.

    It appears to be an excerpt from Untitled #3 (Samskeyti) off the Sigur Rós album, ( ).

    Yes. Those are parentheses.

  39. Andy

    Pretty video, and lovely Sigur Ros track, but very few meteors on it. I’ve done enough timelapse photography to concur with Chris and the few others noting that most of the streaks are aircraft. I would go further to say that virtually all the streaks are aircraft, except for one or two that ‘blink’ – ie appear on only a single frame and travel a short distance (many meteors only travel < ~20degrees of sky). Sigur Ros provide good soundtracks for many nights under the stars.


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