Sucker Holes, Media Hype, and Observational Reality

Be Realistic about Observing

One of the truisms in amateur astronomy is that the minute something exciting is predicted to occur in the sky, the sky immediately clouds up.   This is true especially if there’s an especially juicy coronal mass ejection inciting some space weather in Earth’s close neighborhood.  Or, perhaps an occultation of a star by the Moon. As soon as the news gets out, the clouds start to gather.

This happened to me on October 8th, when the space weather forecast showed a good chance of seeing aurorae even at the mid-latitudes. I mentioned this as part of a talk I gave onboard a cruise ship that day (I do astronomy enrichment presentations for the Smithsonian and Celebrity Cruise Lines) and of course it clouded up that night.  But, we persevered, and eventually a sucker hole did open in the clouds that revealed some of the sky, and we saw a gorgeous greenish display to the north, complete with spiky formations that came and went.

Another case in point has been the media hype for the Orionid Meteor shower that was supposed to deliver dozens or more meteors per hour.  The news media picked up on this right away, and I saw at least one  headline about “spotting a stunning meteor shower” from a news organization that used to have a qualified science writer on its staff but now just rewrites from a press release, spices it up, and then publishes hypey stuff that they think will grab people’s attention. (Yes, CNN, I’m talking about you…)

The press release I got from a reputable observatory mentioned that it might be possible to see up t0 25 meteors per hour.  No promises, just a possibility. No flashy graphics about “dazzling” sights… And, reports I’ve seen from actual observers indicate that the counts have been a bit less than normal.

This is the sort of thing that really ought to give the media a bad name for over-hyping.  A competent science writer would have been able express the story much more clearly for readers/viewers and given a more realistic view of what the shower might look like.

The reality of observational astronomy is that sometimes something can be quite spectacular, and sometimes it just isn’t. Astronomers’ models can only go so far in predicting how good a meteor shower, for example, will look. There are a lot of other factors that influence your observational experience… including clouds.

The best thing to do is get out there and observe… there are some gorgeous skies coming our way over the next few months, so be ready for them! Cherish each meteor, search out the planets, check out the nebulae, and never stop looking for the wonders to be seen in the night-time sky!


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