Happy New Year! The beginning of the first month of the year is always a busy one for astronomy, and January 2019 is no different, as the Earth reaches perihelion, the Quadrantid meteors peak, and a partial solar eclipse crosses the Pacific… all this week. Continue reading “Quadrantid Meteors Kickoff a Busy January 2019”
When it comes to meteor showers, the calendar year always seems to save the best for last. We’re referring to the Geminid meteor shower, one of the sure fire bets for dependable meteor showers. In fact, in recent years, the Geminids have been upstaging that other yearly favorite: the August Perseids. If the Geminids did not occur in the chilly (for the northern hemisphere) month of December, they’d most likely get a better rap. Continue reading “Get Ready for the 2018 Geminid Meteors”
A relatively obscure meteor shower may put on a surprise performance in early December 2018. Chances are, you’ve never heard of the Andromedids, though it’s worth keeping an eye out for these swift-moving meteors over the next week. Continue reading “A 2018 Outburst From the December Andromedids?”
An Eta Aquarid meteor captured on video by astrophotographer Justin Ng shows an amazing explodingred meteor and what is known as a persistent train — what remains of a meteor fireball in the upper atmosphere as winds twist and swirl the expanding debris.
The meteor pierced through the clouds and the vaporized “remains” of the fireball persisted for over 10 minutes, Justin said. It lasts just a few seconds in the time-lapse.
Here’s the video:
Justin took this footage during an astrophotography tour to Mount Bromo in Indonesia, where he saw several Eta Aquarid meteors. The red, explody meteor occurred at around 4:16 am,local time. The Small Magellanic Cloud is also visible just above the horizon on the left.
Eta Aquarid meteor piercing through cloud and left behind a red smoke trail that lasted for over 10mins. Taken in Mt. Bromo 8hrs ago. pic.twitter.com/WtFl9TGRbj
— Justin Ng (@justinngphoto) May 6, 2017
Persistent trains occur when a meteoroid blasts through the air, ionizes gases in our atmosphere. Until recently, these have been difficult to study because they are rather elusive. But lately, with the widespread availability of ultra-fast lenses and highly sensitive cameras, capturing these trains is becoming more common, much to the delight of astrophotography fans!
Mount Bromo, 2,329 meters (7600 ft.) high is an active volcano in East Java, Indonesia.
Halley’s Comet may be at the far end of its orbit 3.2 billion miles (5.1 billion km) from Earth, but this week fragments of it will burn up as meteors in the pre-dawn sky as the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. The comet last passed our way in 1986, pivoted about the Sun and began the long return journey to the chilly depths of deep space.
Today, Halley’s a magnitude +25 speck in the constellation Hydra. Although utterly invisible in most telescopes, you can imagine it below tonight’s half-moon near the outermost point in its orbit four Earth-sun distances beyond Neptune. Literally cooling its jets, the comet mulls its next Earth flyby slated for summer 2061.
Some meteor showers have sharp peaks, others like the Eta Aquarids, a broad, plateau-like maximum. The shower’s been active since mid-April and will continue right up till the end of this month with the peak predicted Saturday morning May 6. Observers in tropical latitudes, where the constellation Aquarius rises higher than it does from my home in northern Minnesota, will spy 25-30 meteors an hour from a dark sky in the hour or two before dawn.
Skywatchers further north will see fewer meteors because the radiant will be lower in the sky; meteors that flash well below the radiant get cut off by the horizon, reducing the rate by about half ( about 10-15 meteors an hour). That’s still a decent show. I got up with the first robins a couple years back to see the shower and was pleasantly surprised with a handful of flaming Halley particles in under a half hour.
While a low radiant means fewer meteors, there’s an up side. You have a fair chance of seeing an earthgrazer, a meteor that skims tangent to the upper atmosphere, flaring for many seconds before either burning up or skipping back off into space.
The Eta Aquarids will be active all week. With the peak occurring Saturday morning, you should be able to see at least a few prior to dawn each morning. The quarter-to-waxing gibbous moon will set in plenty of time through Friday morning, leaving dark skies, but cuts it close Saturday when it sets about the same time the radiant rises in the east.
For best viewing, find as dark a place as possible with an open view to the east and south. I like to tote out a reclining lawn chair, face east and get comfy under a warm sleeping bag or wool blanket. Since twilight starts about an hour and three-quarters before your local sunrise, plan to be out watching an hour before that or around 3:30 a.m. I know, I know. That sounds harsh, but I’ve discovered that once you make the commitment, the act of watching a meteor shower becomes a relaxed pleasure punctuated by the occasional thrill of seeing a bright meteor.
You’ll be in magnificent company, too. The Milky Way rides high across the southeastern sky at that hour, and Saturn gleams due south in Sagittarius at the start of dawn. If you’d like to contribute observations of the shower to help meteor scientists better understand its behavior and evolution, check out the International Meteor Organization’s Eta Aquariids 2017 campaign for more information.
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to spend more time under the stars in 2017, you’ll have motivation to do so as soon as Tuesday. That morning, the Quadrantid (kwah-DRAN-tid) meteor shower will peak between 4 to about 6 a.m. local time just before the start of dawn. This annual shower can be a rich one with up to 120 meteors flying by an hour — under perfect conditions.
Those include no moon, a light-pollution free sky and most importantly, for the time of maximum meteor activity to coincide with the time the radiant is highest in the pre-dawn sky. Timing is everything with the “Quads” because the shower is so brief. Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through either a stream of dusty debris left by a comet or asteroid. With the Quads, asteroid 2003 EH1 provides the raw material — bits of crumbled rock flaked off the 2-mile-wide (~3-4 km) object during its 5.5 year orbit around the sun.
Only thing is, the debris path is narrow and Earth tears through it perpendicularly, so we’re in and out in a hurry. Just a few hours, tops. This year’s peak happens around 14 hours UT or 8 a.m. Central time (9 a.m. Eastern, 7 a.m. Mountain and 6 a.m. Pacific), not bad for the U.S. and Canada. The timing is rather good for West Coast skywatchers and ideal if you live in Alaska. Alaska gets an additional boost because the radiant, located in the northeastern sky, is considerably higher up and better placed than it is from the southern U.S. states.
The Quads will appear to radiate from a point in the sky below the Big Dipper’s handle, which stands high in the northeastern sky at the time. This area was once home to the now defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis (mural quadrant), the origin of the shower’s name. As with all meteor showers, you’ll see meteors all over the sky, but all will appear to point back to the radiant. Meteors that point back to other directions don’t belong to the Quads are called sporadic or random meteors.
Off-peak observers can expect at least a decent shower with up to 25 meteors an hour visible from a reasonably dark sky. Peak observers could see at least 60 per hour. Tropical latitude skywatchers will miss most of the the show because the radiant is located at or below the horizon, but they should be on the lookout for Earthgrazers, meteors that climb up from below the horizon and make long trails as they skirt through the upper atmosphere.
Set your clock for 4 or 5 a.m. Tuesday, put on a few layers of clothing, tuck hand warmers in your boots and gloves, face east and have at it! The Quads are known for their fireballs, brilliant meteors famous for taking one’s breath away. Each time you see one chalk its way across the sky, you’re witnessing the fiery end of an asteroid shard. As the crumble burns out, you might be fulfilling another resolution: burning away those calories while huddling outside to see the show.
It’s that time of year again… time to look ahead at the top 101 astronomical events for the coming year.
And this year ’round, we finally took the plunge. After years of considering it, we took the next logical step in 2017 and expanded our yearly 101 Astronomical Events for the coming year into a full-fledged guide book, soon to be offered here for free download on Universe Today in the coming weeks. Hard to believe, we’ve been doing this look ahead in one form or another now since 2009.
This “blog post that takes six months to write” will be expanded into a full-fledged book. But the core idea is the same: the year in astronomy, distilled down into the very 101 best events worldwide. You will find the best occultations, bright comets, eclipses and much more. Each event will be interspersed with not only the ‘whens’ and ‘wheres,’ but fun facts, astronomical history, and heck, even a dash of astronomical poetry here and there.
It was our goal to take this beyond the realm of a simple almanac or Top 10 listicle, to something unique and special. Think of it as a cross between two classics we loved as a kid, Burnham’s Celestial Handbook and Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar, done up in as guide to the coming year in chronological format. Both references still reside on our desk, even in this age of digitization.
And we’ve incorporated reader feedback from over the years to make this forthcoming guide something special. Events will be laid out in chronological order, along with a quick-list for reference at the end. Each event is listed as a one- or two-page standalone entry, ready to be individually printed off as needed. We will also include 10 feature stories and true tales of astronomy. Some of these were culled from the Universe Today archives, while others are new astronomical tales written just for the guide.
The Best of the Best
Here’s a preview of some of the highlights for 2017:
-Solar cycle #24 begins to ebb in 2017. Are we heading towards yet another profound solar minimum?
-Brilliant Venus reaches greatest elongation in January and rules the dusk sky.
-45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova passes 0.08 AU from Earth on February 11th, its closest passage for the remainder of the century.
-An annular solar eclipse spanning Africa and South America occurs on February 26th.
-A fine occultation of Aldebaran by the Moon on March 5th for North America… plus more occultations of the star worldwide during each lunation.
-A total solar eclipse spanning the contiguous United States on August 21st.
-A complex grouping of Mercury, Venus, Mars and the Moon in mid-September.
-Saturn’s rings at their widest for the decade.
-A fine occultation of Regulus for North America on October 15th, with occultations of the star by the Moon during every lunation for 2017.
-Asteroid 335 Roberta occults a +3rd magnitude star for northern Australia…
And that’s just for starters. Entries also cover greatest elongations for the inner planets and oppositions for the outer worlds, the very best asteroid occultations of bright stars, along with a brief look ahead at 2018.
Get ready for another great year of skywatching!
And as another teaser, here’s a link to a Google Calendar download of said events, complied by Chris Becke (@BeckePhysics). Thanks Chris!
One of the best yearly meteor showers contends with the nearly Full Moon this year, but don’t despair; you may yet catch the Geminids.
The Geminid meteor shower peaks next week on the evening of Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, December 13th/14th. The Geminids are always worth keeping an eye on in early through mid-December. As an added bonus, the radiant also clears the northeastern horizon in the late evening as seen from mid-northern latitudes. The Geminids are therefore also exceptional among meteor showers for displaying early evening activity.
First, though, here is the low down of the specifics for the 2016 Geminids: the Geminid meteors are expected to peak on December 13th/14th at midnight Universal Time (UT), favoring Western Europe. The shower is active for a two week period from December 4th to December 17th and can vary with a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 50 to 80 meteors per hour, to short outbursts briefly topping 200 per hour. In 2016, the Geminids are expected to produce a maximum ideal ZHR of 120 meteors per hour. The radiant of the Geminids is located at right ascension 7 hours 48 minutes, declination 32 degrees north at the time of the peak, in the constellation of Gemini.
The Moon is a 98% illuminated waning gibbous just 20 degrees from the radiant at the peak of the Geminids, making 2016 an unfavorable year for this shower. In previous years, the Geminids produced short outbursts topping 200 per hour, as last occurred in 2014.
The Geminid meteors strike the Earth at a relatively slow velocity of 35 kilometers per second, and produce many fireballs with an r vaule of 2.6. The source of the Geminid meteors is actually an asteroid: 3200 Phaethon.
A moderate shower in the late 20th century, the Geminids have increased in intensity during the opening decade and a half of the 21st century, surpassing the Perseids for the title of the top annual meteor shower.
The Geminid shower seems to have breached the background sporadic rate around the mid-19th century. Astronomers A.C. Twining and R.P. Greg observing from either side of the pond in the United States and the United Kingdom both first independently noted the shower in 1862.
Orbiting the Sun once every 524 days, 3200 Phaethon wasn’t identified as the source of the Geminids until 1983. The asteroid is still a bit of a mystery; reaching perihelion just 0.14 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun, (interior to Mercury’s orbit) 3200 Phaethon is routinely baked by the Sun. Is it an inactive comet nucleus? Or a ‘rock comet’ in a transitional state?
Observing meteors is as simple as setting out in a lawn chair, laying back and watching with nothing more technical than a good ole’ Mk-1 pair of human eyeballs. Our advice for 2016 is to start watching early, like say this weekend, before the Moon reaches Full on Wednesday, December 14th. This will enable you to watch for the Geminids after morning moonset under dark skies pre-peak, and before moonrise on evenings post-peak.
Two other minor showers are also active next week: the Coma Bernicids peaking on December 15th, and the Leo Minorids peaking on December 19th. If you can trace a suspect meteor back to the vicinity of the Gemini ‘twin’ stars of Castor and Pollux, then you’ve most likely spied a Geminid and not an impostor.
And speaking of the Moon, next week’s Full Moon is not only known as the Full Cold Moon (For obvious reasons) from Algonquin native American lore, but is also the closest Full Moon to the December 21st, northward solstice. This means that next week’s Full Moon rides highest in the sky for 2016, passing straight overhead for locales sited along latitude 17 degrees north, including Guatemala City and Mumbai, India.
Photographing the Geminids is also as simple as setting a camera on a tripod and taking wide-field exposures of the sky. We like to use an intervalometer to take automated sequences about 30 seconds to 3 minutes in length. Said Full Moon will most likely necessitate shorter exposures in 2016. Keep a fresh set of backup batteries handy in a warm pocket, as the cold December night will drain camera batteries in a pinch.
Looking to contribute some meaningful scientific observations? Report those meteor counts to the International Meteor Organization.
And although the Geminids might be a bust in 2016, another moderate shower, the Ursids has much better prospects right around the solstice… more on that next week!
A company named Sky Canvas plans to launch a colorful artificial meteor shower barrage via micro-satellite.
In the ‘strange but true department’ and a plan that would make any super-villain envious, a Japanese start-up plans to shoot meteoroids at the Earth to create the first orchestrated artificial meteor shower. The effort is benign in a bid to study the behavior of meteors and reentry characteristics, while also putting on a good show.
The idea is brainchild of Lena Okajima, who started the ALE Company which is funding the project.
“I’m very excited about this project, not only because it will turn my childhood dream into a reality, but also because it can contribute to fundamental scientific research in a new form without relying on public funds and donations,” Okajima said on her biography on the ALE website.
First, a clarification: despite what several news sites have reported, Sky Canvas/ALE have not made a formal bid to incorporate the proposal as part of the 2020 Olympics in Japan, though they’re certainly open to the idea. An artificial meteor shower during the opening ceremonies for the 2020 Olympics in Japan would definitely be a unique first!
Early testing and a first satellite launch with an as-yet unannounced carrier may occur in the later half of 2017, with another launch per year, each year following.
Long a dream of astronomer Lena Okajima, an artificial meteor shower may soon grace a sky near you.
The meteoric payload will be carried into low Earth orbit aboard a small 50x 50x 50 centimetre cubical satellite dispenser. Different pellets will burn blue, orange and green. The team won’t reveal the ‘secret formula’ for the colors, but you only have to think back to high school chemistry class and Bunsen Burner flame tests to imagine the elements probably used. (hint: the green isn’t kryptonite). Laboratory tests suggest that the artificial meteors should be visible from about 200 kilometers (120 miles) away. Said satellite dispenser will carry about a 300-500 pellets. At say, a meteor a second, such a display would last from five to just over eight minutes in duration.
A test carried out in the lab verified that the brightness for the pellets should be right around apparent magnitude -0.86, just a bit fainter than the brightest star in the sky Sirius at magnitude -1.5.
Looking for an artificial meteor shower to light up your next event? Well, such a performance isn’t cheap. With a roughly eight million dollar price tag, an artificial meteor shower breaks down to about $16,000 USD per meteor.
The plan is to place the 50 kilogram satellite (fully loaded) in a sun-synchronous orbit. This is a highly inclined retrograde polar orbit, also favored by Earth-observing and (supervillians take note) spy satellites.
The Sky Canvas system will also have the ability to ‘weather abort’ about 100 minutes prior to the event in case of inclement weather. Once in low Earth orbit, said satellite will orbit the planet once every 90 minutes. Such a dispenser is a one shot affair, and will burn up shortly after use.
Are artificial meteor showers a great idea? On one hand, it might be a great educational resource, and a way to get the general public excited about space and astronomy. Still, for those of us who have endured many an early morning vigil for the occasional surprise flash of a meteor, there’s perhaps something a bit kitschy about meteor showers on demand. It’s also slightly reminiscent of the early Space Age ideas to create nighttime illumination via large mirrors floating in space, or place advertising (!) in low Earth orbit. Streaks of artificial satellites already routinely photobomb deep sky images… do we want to contend with orbiting Pepsi logos as well?
Some may also bemoan the advent of yet more artificial light – however ephemeral — streaking across the already brightening sky. And here’s another possible dilemma: will a -1 magnitude artificial meteor appear all that impressive from the already garish glare of downtown Tokyo, Las Vegas or Dubai? Still, I’d make the trip to see the world’s first artificial meteor shower… and humanity already routinely creates similar unheralded “shows” every time a piece of space junk reenters the Earth’s atmosphere.
I also can’t help but think of the fictional metal band Disaster Area from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which ended each concert with a sun-diving spaceship.
There are also possible practical applications for the project, including understanding meteor showers, spacecraft reentry, studying the upper atmosphere, etc. And though this may seem far-fetched, NASA already uses luminous chemicals dispersed from sounding rockets to do the same thing.
JAXA has already performed similar artificial meteor experiments here on Earth using an arc-heated wind tunnel laboratory, mimicking and modeling the Chelyabinsk meteor and the asteroid sample return mission Hayabusa-1 and the future return of Hayabusa-2.
Just maybe though, light pollution awareness might prove to be the project’s greatest strength. An artificial meteor shower might just cause city dwellers and urban planners to turn the lights down, and simply gaze up at the night sky for a brief moment.
A flash of light recently reminded us of the most stunning sight we ever saw.
We managed to catch an early Leonid meteor this past Saturday morning while waiting for the new Chinese space station Tiangong-2 to pass over southern Spain. The Leonids are active this week, and although the light-polluting just past Super Moon lurks nearby, we’ve learned to never ignore this shower, even on an off year.
First though, here’s a rundown on what’s up with the Leonids in 2016:
The Leonid meteors are expected to peak on the night of Thursday, November 17th into the morning of Friday, November 18th. The shower is active for a 25 day span from November 5th to November 30th and though the Leonids can vary with an Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of thousands of meteors per hour, and short outbursts briefly topping hundreds of thousands per hour, in 2016, the Leonids are expected to produce a maximum ideal ZHR of only 10 to 15 meteors per hour. The radiant of the Leonids is located at right ascension 10 hours 8 minutes, declination 21.6 degrees north at the time of the peak, in the Sickle or backwards Question Mark asterism of the astronomical constellation of Leo the Lion.
The source of the Leonids is periodic Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle.
Now, for the bad news. The Moon is an 82% illuminated, waning gibbous phase at the peak of the Leonids, making 2016 an unfavorable year for this shower. In fact, the Moon is located just 42 degrees from the shower’s radiant in the nearby constellation of Gemini at the shower’s peak on Friday morning. In previous years, the Leonids produced a ZHR numbering in the 15-20 per hour. The estimated ZHR last topped 100 in 2008.
The Leonid meteors strike the Earth at a moderate/fast velocity of 71 km/s, and produce many fireballs with an r value of 2.5.
The Leonids are notorious for producing storms of epic proportions every 33 years. This last occurred in years surrounding 1999, and isn’t expected to occur again until around 2032. Some older observers still remember the great Leonid meteor storm over the southwestern United States in 1966, and the U.S. East Coast witnessed a massive storm in 1833.
We can attest to what the Leonids are capable of. We saw an amazing display from the shower in 1998 from Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait, with an estimated rate of around 900 per hour towards dawn. When a shower edges towards a zenithal hourly rate of 1,000, you’re seeing meteors every few seconds, with fireballs lighting up the desert night.
And it is possible to defeat the waning gibbous Moon. Though the Moon is near the zenith as seen from the mid-northern latitudes in the early AM hours (the best time to watch the shower,) its almost always possible to view the shower with the Moon blocked behind a house or hill… unless you have the bad luck of viewing from latitude 20 degrees north, where the Moon crosses directly through the zenith on Friday morning.
But take heart, as we’re past the halfway mark in 2014, headed to the Leonid ‘storm years’ of the early 2030s.
Don’t miss the 2016 Leonids… if for no other reason, to catch a flash of storms to come.