Tears of the Hunter: Our Guide to the 2016 Orionid Meteor Shower

Orionid

The month of October is upon us this coming weekend, and with it, one of the better annual meteor showers is once again active: the Orionids.

In 2016, the Orionid meteors are expected to peak on October 22nd at 2:00 UT (10:00 PM U.S. Eastern Time on October 21st) , favoring Europe and Africa in the early morning hours. The shower is active for a one month period from October 2nd to November 2nd, and can vary with a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 10-70 meteors per hour. This year, the Orionids are expected to produce a maximum ideal ZHR of 15-25 meteors per hour. The radiant of the Orionids is located near right ascension 6 hours 24 minutes, declination 15 degrees north at the time of the peak. The radiant is in the constellation of Orion very near its juncture with Gemini and Taurus.

A gallery of Fall meteor shower radiants, including the October Orionids. Image credit: Stellarium
A gallery of Fall meteor shower radiants, including the October Orionids. Image credit: Stellarium

The Moon is at a 55% illuminated, waning gibbous phase at the peak of the Orionids, making 2016 an unfavorable year for this shower, though that shouldn’t stop you from trying. It’s true that the Moon is only 19 degrees east of the radiant in the adjacent constellation Gemini at its peak on the key morning of October 22, though it’ll move farther on through the last week of October.

In previous recent years, the Orionids produced a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 20 (2014) and a ZHR of 30 (2013).

The Orionid meteors strike the Earth at a moderately fast velocity of 66 km/s, and the shower tends to produce a relatively high ratio of fireballs with an r value of = 2.5. The source of the Orionids is none other than renowned comet 1/P Halley. Halley last paid the inner solar system a visit in early 1986, and will once again reach perihelion on July 28, 2061. Let’s see, by then I’ll be…

The orientation of the Earth's shadow vs, the zenith positions of the Sun, Moon and the radiant of the Orionid meteors at the expected peak of the shower on October 22nd. Image adapted from Orbitron
The orientation of the Earth’s shadow vs the zenith positions of the Sun, Moon and the radiant of the Orionid meteors at the expected during the peak of the shower on October 22nd. Image adapted from Orbitron.

Unlike most meteor showers, the Orionids display a very unpredictable maximum – many sources decline to put a precise date on the shower’s expected maximum at all. On some years, the Orionids barely top 10 per hour at their maximum, while on others they display a broad but defined peak. One 1982 study out of Czechoslovakia suggested a twin peak for this shower after looking at activity from 1944 to 1950. All good reasons to be vigilant for Orionids throughout the coming month of October.

And check out this brilliant meteor that lit up the skies over the southern UK this past weekend:

‘Tis the season for cometary dust particles to light up the night sky. Trace the path of a suspect meteor to the club of Orion, and you’ve likely sighted an Orionid meteor. But other showers showers are active in October, including:

The Draconids: Peaking around October 8th, these are debris shed by Comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner. The Draconids are prone to great outbursts, such as the 2011 and 2012 meteor storm, but are expected to yield a paltry ZHR of 10 in 2016.

The Taurids: Late October into early November is Taurid fireball season, peaking with a ZHR of 5 around October 10th (the Southern Taurids) and November 12th (the Northern Taurids).
The Camelopardalids: Another wildcard shower prone to periodic outbursts. 2016 is expected to be an off year for this shower, with a ZHR of 10 topping out on October 5.

And farther afield, we’ve got the Leonids (November 17th) the Geminids (December 14th) and the Ursids (December 22nd) to close out 2016.

A 2015 Orionid captured by a NASA All-Sky camera atop Mt. Lemmon, Arizona. Image credit: NASA.
A 2015 Orionid captured by a NASA All-Sky camera atop Mt. Lemmon, Arizona. Image credit: NASA.

Observing a meteor shower like the Orionids is as simple as finding a dark site with a clear horizon, laying back and watching via good old Mark-1 eyeball. Blocking that gibbous Moon behind a building or hill will also increase your chances of catching an Orionid. Expect rates to pick up toward dawn, as the Earth turns forward and plows headlong into the meteor stream.

You can make a count of what you see and report it to the International Meteor Organization which keeps regular tabs of meteor activity.
Photographing Orionids this year might be problematic, owing to the proximity of the bright Moon, though not impossible. Again, aiming at a wide quadrant of the sky opposite to the Moon might just nab a bright Orionid meteor in profile. We like to just set our camera’s intervalometer to take a sequence of 30” exposures of the sky, and let it do the work while we’re observing visually. Nearly every meteor we’ve caught photographically turned up in later review, a testament to the limits of visual observing.

Clear skies, good luck, and send those Orionid images in the Universe Today’s Flickr forum.

Perseid Meteor Shower Briefly Storms, Still Has Legs

A brilliant Perseid meteor streaks along the Summer Milky Way as seen from Cinder Hills Overlook at Sunset Crater National Monument—12 August 2016 2:40 AM (0940 UT). It left a glowing ion trail that lasted about 30 seconds. The camera caught a twisting smoke trail that drifted southward over the course of several minutes.
A brilliant Perseid meteor streaks along the Summer Milky Way as seen from Cinder Hills Overlook at Sunset Crater National Monumen at 2:40 a.m. (9:40 UT) August 12.  It left a glowing ion trail that lasted about 30 seconds. The camera caught a twisting smoke trail that drifted southward over the course of several minutes. Credit: Jeremy Perez

The Perseid meteor shower must have looked fantastic from 10,000 feet. That’s how high you would have had to go to get past the pervasive fog and overcast skies at my home last night. Tonight looks a little better for weather, so I’ll do what all hopeful amateurs astronomers do. Set the alarm for 2 a.m. and peek out the shade looking for those glimmers of starlight that indicate clear skies.

A composite photo, made from images taken last night August 11-12 from the UK, captures multiple Perseids. Credit: Peter Greig
A composite photo, made from images taken last night August 11-12 from the UK, captures multiple Perseids. Credit: Peter Greig

From observations reported as of mid-afternoon to the International Meteor Observers 2016 Perseids Quick-Look site, it appears the greatest activity or highest meteor counts happened over Europe and points east in two outbursts: a brief but intense display around 23:15 Universal Time (6:15 p.m. CDT in daylight) August 11 when some observers briefly saw up to 15 Perseids a minute (!) with many bright ones, and a second peak starting around 2:00 UT (9 p.m. CDT) and lasting till 5:00 UT (midnight CDT).


90+ Perseid meteors captured on video August 11-12, 2016 by Ohio amateur John Chumack

While Europeans clearly hit the jackpot — some observers calling it the best since the 2002 Leonid storm — U.S. observers varied in their meteor counts. A few thought the shower was a bust, others reported numbers more typical of an “average year” shower. It appears that Earth passed through a dense filament of comet dust while it was night in Europe but late afternoon in the Americas. C’est la vie météore!

We should be past peak by today, but experience shows that tonight should still be a very good time for Perseid watching. Indeed, the next few nights will reward skywatchers with at least a dozen an hour. I’ll be out watching and hopefully not imagining what’s happening 10,000 feet over my head. Good luck to you too!

Get Ready for the 2016 Perseids

perseid meteor

Out camping under the August sky? The coming week gives us a good reason to stay up late, as the Perseid meteor shower graces the summer sky. An ‘old faithful’ of annual meteor showers, the Perseids are always sure to produce.

The 2016 Perseids present a few challenges, though persistent observers should still see a descent show. The Perseids are typically active from July 17th to August 24th, with the peak arriving this year right around 13:00 to 15:30 Universal Time on Friday, August 12th. This will place the radiant for the Perseids high in the sky after local midnight for observers in the northern Pacific, though observers worldwide should be vigilant over the next week. Meteor showers don’t read predictions and prognostications, and an arrival of the peak just a few hours early would place North America in the cross-hairs this coming Friday. The Perseids typically produce an average Zenithal Hourly Rate of 60-200 per hour, and the International Meteor Organization predicts a ZHR of 150 for 2016.

Looking to the northeast from latitude 50 degrees north at 1AM local on the morning of August 12th. Image credit: Stellarium.
Looking to the northeast from latitude 50 degrees north at 1AM local on the morning of August 12th. Image credit: Stellarium.

The nemesis of the 2016 is the Moon, which reaches Full on August 18th, six days after the shower’s peak. The time to start watching this shower is now, before the waxing Moon becomes a factor. The farther north you are, the earlier the Moon sets this week:

Moonset on the evening of August 11/12th:

Latitude versus Moonset ( in local daylight saving time)

20 degrees north – 1:30 AM

30 degrees north – 1:14 AM

40 degrees north – 0:56 AM

50 degrees north – 0:30 AM

Early morning is almost always the best time to watch any meteor shower, as the Earth-bound observer faces in to the meteor stream head on. The December Geminids only recently surpassed the Perseids in annual intensity in the past few years.

The orientation of the Earth's shadow versus, the Sun, Moon and the radiant of the Perseids at the start of the projected peak on August 12th. Image credit: Orbitron.
The orientation of the Earth’s shadow versus the Sun, Moon and the radiant of the Perseids at the start of the projected peak on August 12th. Image credit: Orbitron.

The radiant of the Perseids drifts through the constellations of Cassiopeia, Perseus and Camelopardalis from late July to mid-August. The Perseids could just as easily have received the tongue-twisting moniker of the ‘Cassiopeiaids’ or the ‘August Camelopardalids.’ The source of the Perseids is comet Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle discovered by Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle in 1862. Comet Swift-Tuttle reached perihelion on 1992, and visits the inner solar system once again in 2126.

The Perseids are also sometimes referred as the “Tears of Saint Lawrence” who was martyred on a hot grid iron on August 10th, 258 AD.

The Perseids have been especially active in recent decades, following the perihelion passage of Comet Swift-Tuttle.  Meteor showers come and go. For example, the Andromedids were a shower of epic storm proportions until the late 19th century. We have records of the Perseids back to 36AD, but on some (hopefully) far off date, the debris path of Comet Swift-Tuttle will fail to intersect the Earth’s orbit annually, and the Perseids will become a distant memory. During previous years, the Perseids exhibited a peak of ZHR= 95 (2015), 68 (2014), 110 (2013), 121 (2012) and 58 (2011). Keep in mind, the Perseids have also sometimes displayed a twin peak during previous years, as well.

An early snapshot of the activity for the 2016 Perseids. image credit: The International Meteor Organization.
An early snapshot of the activity for the 2016 Perseids. Image credit: The International Meteor Organization.

Observing the Perseids

The best instrument to observe the Perseids with is a pair of old fashioned, ‘Mk-1 eyeballs.’ Simply lay back, warm drink in hand, and watch. Remember, the quoted ZHR is an ideal rate that we all strive for, though there are strategies to maximize your chances of catching a meteor. Watching early in the morning when the radiant rides highest (around sunrise in the case of the Perseids), seeking out dark skies, and enlisting a friend to watch in an opposite direction can raise your hourly meteor count.

perseid meteor
An early Perseid captured by Chris-Lyons. Image credit and copyright: Chris Lyons.

Keep a pair of binoculars handy to examine any persistent glowing trains and lingering smoke trails from bright fireballs. Monitoring the FM band for the pings of accompanying radio meteors can add another dimension to an observation session. The ionized trail of a meteor can very occasionally reflect the signal of a distant radio station, bringing it through clear for a few seconds before fading out.

Also, keep an ear out for an even stranger phenomenon, as bright meteors are sometimes accompanied by a hissing or crackling sound. Long thought to be a psychological phenomenon, a team of Japanese astronomers managed to catch recordings of this strange effect during the 1988 Perseid meteors.

Imaging meteors is also pretty straight forward. Simply tripod mount a DSLR with a wide field lens, take some test exposures of the sky to get the ISO, f-stop and exposure combination just right, and begin taking exposures 30 seconds to five minutes long. An intervalometer can automate the process, freeing you up to kick back and watch the show.

Got science? Be sure to send those meteor counts into the International Meteor Organization (IMO) and watch their live updated graph as the shower progresses.

Also, be sure to tweet those meteor sightings to #Meteorwatch.

Lights in the Sky: Meteors, Reentry, or E.T.?

It happens a few times every year.

Last week, we poured our morning coffee, powered up our laptop and phone, and prepared to engage the day.

It wasn’t long before the messages started pouring in. ‘Bright fireball over the U.S. West Coast!’ ‘Major event lights up the California skies!’ and variations thereof. Memories of Chelyabinsk came immediately to mind. A bit of digging around ye ole web revealed video and a few authentic stills from the event.

Now, I always like to look these over myself before reading just what other experts might think. Chelyabinsk immediately grabbed our attention when we saw the first videos recording the shock wave of sound generated by the blast. ‘That sucker was close,’ we realized.

Thursday’s (Wednesday evening Pacific Time) event was less spectacular, but still interesting: the nighttime reentry of the Long March CZ-7 rocket body NORAD ID 2016-042E as it broke up over the U.S. West Coast.

How do we know this, and what do we look for? Is that flash a meteor, bolide, reentry or something stranger still?

Most good meteor footage comes from video recorders that are already up and running when the event occurs, to include security and dashboard cameras, and mobile phones already recording another event, such as a concert or game. How fast can YOU have your smartphone camera out and running? We only recently learned that a quick double tap of the home button will bring the camera on our Android to bear, no unlock needed.

If the event occurs on a Friday or Saturday night with lots of folks out on the town on a clear evening, we might see multiple captures come streaming-in of the event. Just such a fireball was witnessed over the United Kingdom on Friday evening, September 21st, 2012.

Likewise, the fakes are never far behind. We’ve seen ’em all, though you’re welcome to try and stump us. Such ‘meteor-wrongs’ that are commonly circulated as authentic are the reentry of Mir, the 1992 Peekskill meteor, Chelyabinsk, the reentry of Hayabusa, and screen grabs from the flick Armageddon… has anyone ever been fooled by this one?

Meteors generally have a very swift motion, and occur with a greater frequency as the observer rotates forward into the path of Earth’s motion around the Sun past local midnight. Remember, it’s the front of the windshield that picks up the bugs rolling down the highway.

Evening meteors, however, can have a dramatic slow, stately motion across the sky, as they struggle to catch up with the Earth. If they reach a brilliance of magnitude -14 — about one whole magnitude brighter than a Full Moon — said meteor is known as a bolide.

Sometimes, such a fireball can begin shedding fiery debris, in a dramatic display known as a meteor train or meteor precession. Such an event was witnessed over the northeastern United States on July 20th, 1860.

1860 meteor train. Painting by Frederic Church.
The 1860 meteor train. Painting by Frederic Church.

Bright meteors may exhibit colors, hinting at chemical competition. Green for nickel (Not kryptonite!) is typically seen. MeteoriteMen’s Geoffrey Notkin once told us a good rule of thumb: if you hear an accompanying sonic boom a few minutes after seeing a meteor, it’s close. Folks often think what they saw went down behind a hill or tree, when it was actually likely more than 50 miles distant — if it hit the ground at all.

Is that a meteor or a reentry? Reentries move slower still, and will shed lots of debris. Here’s what we’re looking at to judge suspect sighting as a reentry:

Heavens-Above: A great clearing house for satellite passes by location. One great tool is that Heavens-Above will generate a pass map for your location juxtaposed over a sky chart.

Aerospace Corp current reentries: Follows upcoming reentries of larger debris with refined orbits.

Space-Track: The U.S. Joint Space Operations Command’s tracking center for artificial objects in orbit around Earth. Access is available to backyard satellite spotters with free registration. The most accurate source for swiftly evolving orbital elements.

SeeSat-L: This message board always lights up with chatter whenever a possible reentry lights up the skies worldwide.

Stranger Skies

Bizarre sights await the keen eyed. A tumbling rocket booster can often flare in a manner similar to Iridium satellites. Satellites way out in geostationary orbit can flare briefly into naked eye visibility during ‘GEOSat flare season’ near the weeks surrounding either equinox.

Some gamma ray bursts, such as GRB 080319B flare up briefly above magnitude +6 into naked eye visibility from far across the Universe. As of yet, there’s never been a reliable observer sighting of such an event, though it should be possible… probably someone far back in humanity’s history witnessed just such a brief flash in the sky, pausing silently to wonder just what it was…

Kaboom! Image credit: NASA/Pi of the Sky.
Kaboom! Image credit: NASA/Pi of the Sky.

Going further back still, a nearby supernova or gamma-ray burst would leave a ghostly blue afterglow from Cerenkov radiation as it pummeled our atmosphere… though it would be a deadly planet-sterilizing indigo glow, not something you’d want to see. Thankfully, we live in the ‘Era of Mediocrity,’ safely outside of the 25-50 light year ‘kill zone’ for any potential supernova.

And what if those lights in the sky really were the vanguard of an alien invasion force? Well, if they really did land rayguns ablaze on the White House lawn, you’ll read it first here on Universe Today!

2016 Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower Peaks May 5-6

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks shortly before dawn on Friday and Saturday mornings. The radiant lies in Aquarius near the star Eta. Diagram: Bob King, source: Stellarium
The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks shortly before dawn on Thursday and Friday mornings. The radiant lies in Aquarius near the star Eta. Diagram: Bob King, source: Stellarium

Itching to watch a meteor shower and don’t mind getting up at an early hour? Good because this should be a great year for the annual Eta Aquarid (AY-tuh ah-QWAR-ids) shower which peaks on Thursday and Friday mornings May 5-6. While the shower is best viewed from tropical and southern latitudes, where a single observer might see between 25-40 meteors an hour, northern views won’t be too shabby. Expect to see between 10-15 per hour in the hours before dawn.

Most showers trace their parentage to a particular comet. The Perseids of August originate from dust strewn along the orbit of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which drops by the inner solar system every 133 years after “wintering” for decades just beyond the orbit of Pluto.

Photo of Haley's Comet crossing the Milky Way, taken by the Kuiper Airborne Observatory in New Zealand on April 8th/9th, 1986. Credit: NASA
Halley’s Comet crossing the Milky Way, taken by the Kuiper Airborne Observatory in New Zealand on April 8-9, 1986. Credit: NASA

The upcoming Eta Aquarids  have the best known and arguably most famous parent of all: Halley’s Comet. Twice each year, Earth’s orbital path intersects dust and minute rock particles strewn by Halley during its cyclic 76-year journey from just beyond Uranus to within the orbit of Venus.

Our first pass through Halley’s remains happens this week, the second in late October during the Orionid meteor shower. Like bugs hitting a windshield, the grains meet their demise when they smash into the atmosphere at 147,000 mph (237,000 km/hr) and fire up for a brief moment as meteors. Most comet grains are only crumb-sized and don’t have a chance of reaching the ground as meteorites. To date, not a single meteorite has ever been positively associated with a particular shower.

A bright, earthgrazer Eta Aquarids streaks across Perseus May 6, 2013. Because the radiant is low for northern hemisphere observers, earthgrazers - long, bright meteors that come up from near the horizon and have long-lasting trails. Credit: Bob King
A bright, earthgrazing Eta Aquarid streaks across Perseus and through the aurora on May 6, 2013. Because the radiant is low for northern hemisphere observers, earthgrazers – long, bright meteors that come up from near the horizon and have long-lasting trails. Credit: Bob King

The farther south you live, the higher the shower radiant will appear in the sky and the more meteors you’ll spot.  A low radiant means less sky where meteors might be seen. But it also means visits from “earthgrazers”. These are meteors that skim or graze the atmosphere at a shallow angle and take many seconds to cross the sky. Several years back, I saw a couple Eta Aquarid earthgrazers during a very active shower. One other plus this year — no moon to trouble the view, making for ideal conditions especially if you can observe from a dark sky.

From mid-northern latitudes the radiant or point in the sky from which the meteors will appear to originate is low in the southeast before dawn. At latitude 50° north the viewing window lasts about 1 1/2 hours before the light of dawn encroaches; at 40° north, it’s a little more than 2 hours. If you live in the southern U.S. you’ll have nearly 3 hours of viewing time with the radiant 35° high.

At some personal peril, I grabbed a photo of snow in the headlights while driving home in a recent storm. Meteors in a meteor shower appear to radiate from a point in the distance in identical fashion. Photo: Bob King
Meteors in a meteor shower appear to radiate from a point in the distance in identical fashion to the way snow or rain radiates from a point in front of your car when you’re driving. Credit: Bob King

Grab a reclining chair, face east and kick back for an hour or so between 3 and 4:30 a.m. An added bonus this spring season will be hearing the first birdsong as the sky brightens toward the end of your viewing session. And don’t forget the sights above: a spectacular Milky Way arching across the southern sky and the planets of Mars and Saturn paired up in the southwestern sky.

Meteor shower members can appear in any part of the sky, but if you trace their paths in reverse, they’ll all point back to the radiant. Other random meteors you might see are called sporadics and not related to the Eta Aquarids. Meteor showers take on the name of the constellation from which they originate.

Aquarius is home to at least two showers. This one’s called the Eta Aquarids because it emanates from near the star Eta Aquarii. An unrelated shower, the Delta Aquarids, is active in July and early August. Don’t sweat it if weather doesn’t cooperate the next couple mornings. The shower will be active throughout the weekend, too.

Happy viewing and clear skies!

NASA Says Indian Event Was Not Meteorite

Last Saturday, Feb. 6th, a meteorite reportedly struck a bus driver on the campus of the Bharathidasan Engineering College in southern India. Three students were also injured and several windows were shattered in some kind of explosion. Online videos and stills show a small crater left by the impact. If true, this would be the first time in recorded history a person was struck and killed by a meteorite.


Meteorite or …?

Call me skeptical. Since the purported meteorite weighed about 50 grams — just under two ounces — it would be far too small to cause an explosion or significant impact crater five feet deep and two feet wide as depicted in both video and still photos. There were also no reports of rumbles, sonic booms or sightings of a fireball streaking across the sky, sights and sounds associated with material substantial enough to penetrate the atmosphere and plunge to the ground. Shattered windows would indicate an explosion similar to the one that occurred over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February 2013. The blast wave spawned when the Russian meteorite fractured into thousands of pieces miles overhead pulverized thousands of windows with flying glass caused numerous injuries.


Another report of the “meteorite” fall out of India

According to a story that ran in The News Minute, a team led by the Indian Space Research Organization (IRSO) recovered an object 2 cm (3/4 inch) in width that weighed 50 grams and looked like a meteorite with “air bubbles on its rigid surface”. There’s also been chatter about meteor showers dropping meteorites to Earth, with various stories reporting that there no active meteor showers at the time of the driver’s death. For the record, not a single meteorite ever found has been linked to a shower. Dust and tiny bits of comets produce most shower meteors, which vaporize to fine soot in the atmosphere.

Now even NASA says that based on images posted online, the explosion is “land based” rather than a rock from space.

There have been close calls in the past most notably in Sylacauga, Alabama  On November 30, 1954 at 2:46 p.m. an 8.5 lb rock crashed through the roof of a home not far from that town, hit a radio console, bounced off the floor and struck the hand and hip of 31-year-old Ann Hodges who was asleep on the couch at the time. She awoke in surprise and pain thinking that a space heater had blown up. But when she noticed the hole in the roof and a rock on the floor, Hodges figured the neighborhood kids had been up to no good.

Dr. Moody James shows where Ann Hodges was struck in the hip by an 8.5 lb meteorite that crashed through her roof (right). The photos appeared in the Dec. 13, 1954 issue of Life magazine. Photo by Jay Leviton, Time & Life Pictures, Getty Images
Dr. Moody James shows where Ann Hodges was struck in the hip by an 8.5 lb meteorite that crashed through her roof (right). The photos appeared in the Dec. 13, 1954 issue of Life magazine. Photo by Jay Leviton, Time & Life Pictures, Getty Images

Fortunately her injuries weren’t serious. Ann became a sudden celebrity; her photo even appeared on the cover of Life magazine with a story titled “A Big Bruiser From The Sky”. In 1956 she donated the meteorite to the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa, where you can still see it to this day. A second meteorite from the fall weighing 3.7 lbs. was picked up the following day by Julius K. McKinney in the middle of a dirt road. McKinney sold his fragment to the Smithsonian and used the money to purchase a small farm and used car.

Claims of people getting hit by meteorites have been on the increase in the past few years with the growth of the social media. Some stories have been deliberately made up and none have been verified. This would appear to be another tall tale if only based upon the improbabilities. In the meantime I’ve dug around and discovered another story that’s more probable and may indeed be the truth, though I have no way as of yet to independently verify it.

Police at the college say that two of the school’s gardeners were burning materials from the garden when the fire inadvertently set off sticks of dynamite that had been abandoned “amid the rocks” when the college was first built. The driver, by the name of Kamaraj and another driver, Sultan, were drinking water nearby when they were hit by the shrapnel and flying glass. Kamaraj began bleeding and was rushed to a hospital but died on the way. More HERE.

In the meantime, we only hope officials get to the bottom of the tragic death.

The 2015 Geminids: Observing, History, Imaging, Prognostications and More

An early 2015 Geminid from the morning of December 9th. Image credit and copyright: Kevin Palmer

Author’s note: as of Thursday morning December 10th, the Geminids are already active. Canadian Meteor Orbit Radar (CMOR) has picked up a consistent stream of radio pings hailing from the constellation Gemini over the last few mornings, and reports of early Geminid activity seen by observers worldwide have been reported. If you’ve got clear skies this weekend over the next few mornings, don’t miss a sure-fire shower.

A grand finale meteor shower graces the skies of the Earth this weekend, as the December Geminid meteors reach their peak early Sunday morning into Monday. Continue reading “The 2015 Geminids: Observing, History, Imaging, Prognostications and More”

Viewing Guide to the 2015 Geminid Meteor Shower

A brilliant Geminid flashes below Sirius and Orion over Mount Balang in China. Credit: NASA/Alvin Wu

2015 looks like a fantastic year for the Geminids. With the Moon just 3 days past new and setting at the end of evening twilight, conditions couldn’t be more ideal. Provided the weather cooperates! But even there we get a break. With a maximum of 120 meteors per hour, the shower is expected to peak around 18:00 UT (1 p.m. EST, 10 a.m. PST) December 14th, making for two nights of approximately equal activity: Sunday night Dec. 13-14 and Monday night Dec. 14-15.  Continue reading “Viewing Guide to the 2015 Geminid Meteor Shower”

Hunting Unicorns: Is an Alpha Monocerotid Outburst Due in 2015?

What’s rarer than a unicorn? Perhaps, its spying a a elusive meteor outburst from the heart of one…

Ready for more meteor shower action? Thus far this season, we’ve covered the Orionids, Taurid fireballs, and the Leonid meteors… 

Up for one more? Well, this week’s offering is a bit chancy, but we ‘may’ be in for a minor outburst from a usually quiescent shower. On any given year, the Alpha Monocerotid meteors wouldn’t rate a second look.

Image credit:
A confirmed 2014 Alpha Monocerotid. Image credit: The United Kingdom Meteor Observation Network (UKMON)

First, however, a caveat is in order. Meteor showers never read prognostications and often prove to be fickle, and wild card meteor storms doubly so.

Not to be confused with the straight up Monocerotids which peak in early December, the Alpha Monocerotids are moderately active from November 15th through the 25th, with a soft peak on the 22nd. And though the radiant derives its name from the brightest star in the rambling constellation of Monoceros the Unicorn, the radiant is actually located at its peak at right ascension 7 hours 46 minutes and declination +00 degrees 24 minutes, just across the border in the constellation Canis Minor.

Image credit:
Another bright Alpha Moncerotid meteor under a bright Moon. Image credit: UKMON

The Alpha Monocerotids have a curious history. They first caught the keen eye of observers in 1925, when F.T. Bradley watching from rural Virginia noted 37 meteors over a 13 minute span. In the 20th century, small outbursts seemed to ply the skies around November 22nd on the fifth year of each decade, with brief outbursts seen in 1935 and 1985. NASA astronomer and SETI Institute research scientist Peter Jenniskens predicted a 1995 outburst, and as predicted, a brief 30 minute display greeted members of the Dutch Meteor Society based under dark skies in southern Spain. The shower had a brief 5-minute climax in 1995, with an extrapolated zenithal hourly rate of 420.

6AM local radiant. image credit
The location of the Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower radiant at 6AM local from about 30 degrees latitude north. Image credit: Stellarium

Prospects for the shower in 2015

As of this writing, a major outburst from the Alpha Monocerotids isn’t predicted for 2015… but you just never know. It’s always worth watching for an outburst on the night of November 21/22nd, especially in years ending in five.

In 2015, the Moon phase for the night of Saturday/Sunday November 21st/22nd is waxing gibbous and about 79% illuminated and setting at around 1:00 AM local, putting it safely out of view.

Image credit
The orientation of the Earth’s shadow, Moon, Sun and shower radiant at 4:00 UT, November 22nd. Image credit: Orbitron

The predicted peak for the 2015 Alpha Monocerotids is centered on 4:25 UT/11:25 PM EST as per the International Meteor Organization (IMO), favoring western European longitudes in a similar fashion as 1995 at dawn on Sunday, November 22nd.

Thus far, the source comet for the Alpha Monocerotids remains a mystery, though a prime contender is Comet C/1943 W1 van Gent-Peltier-Daimaca. Discovered during the Second World War, this comet has an undefined long period orbit, and reached perihelion 0.87 AU from the Sun on January 12th, 1944.

Jenniskens notes that orbital configurations of Jupiter and Saturn may play a role in the long term modification of meteor streams such as the Alpha Monocerotids. A fascinating discussion on predicting meteor outbursts and the evolution of meteor streams by Mr Jenniskens can be read here.

The stream seems to have a very brief burst of activity of less than an hour, reminiscent of the elusive January Quadrantids. The Alpha Monocerotid radiant sits highest in the sky at around 4 AM local, and the incoming speed of the meteors is a very respectable 65 kilometers a second, making for brief swift trails.

Meteor Watching and Reporting

But beyond just observing, many sky watchers choose to log what they see and report it. Meteor shower streams—especially obscure ones such as the Alpha Monocerotids—are often poorly understood, and observers provide a valuable service by counting and reporting the number of meteors seen over a particular period of time.

Image credit
NASA’s All-sky meteor network captures a fireball. Image credit: NASA’s All-Sky Fireball Network

Imaging meteors is as simple as setting up a DSLR on a tripod for wide angle shots, and taking repeated exposures of the sky. We generally take a few test shots to get the ISO/f-stop mix just right for the current sky conditions, then set our intervalometer to take repeated 30-second exposures while we visually observe. Aim about 45 degrees away from the radiant to catch meteors in profile, and check the camera lens periodically for morning dew. We generally keep a hair dryer handy to combat condensation under moisture-laden Florida skies.

Maybe a vigil for an Alpha Monocerotid outburst is an exercise in hunting unicorns… but watching an outburst would be an unforgettable sight. Perhaps, the Alpha Monocerotid stream is on the wane in the 21st century… or a new outburst is still in the wings, waiting to greet dawn residents of the Earth.

‘Explody’ Taurid Meteors Produce Persistent Trains

“The landscape was just at the verge of trying to silently explode with vibrant colors of red, gold and oranges,” said photographer Brad Goldpaint as he described the autumn view during his hike to Deadfall Basin in California to set up his cameras to try and capture a few Taurid meteors.

But the landscape wasn’t the only thing about to explode.

Later that night Brad captured a few “exploding” meteors that produced what are called persistent trains: what remains of a meteor fireball in the upper atmosphere as winds twist and swirl the expanding debris.

Brad created a time-lapse video from the event and slowed down the footage to highlight the trains.

Persistent trains 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.

Phil Plait still has the best description out there of what happens when persistent trains are produced:

As a meteoroid (the actual solid chunk of material) blasts through the air, it ionizes the gases, stripping electrons from their parent atoms. As the electrons slowly recombine with the atoms, they emit light — this is how neon signs glow, as well as giant star-forming nebulae in space. The upper-level winds blowing that high (upwards of 100 km/60 miles) create the twisting, fantastic shapes in the train.

The consensus among our Universe Today Flickr pool photographers who posted images of the Taurids this year is that the 2015 Taurids weren’t entirely remarkable. Most astrophotgraphers reported they saw one or two per hour. Here are a few more Taurid meteor shower images from our photographer friends:

A bright Taurid fireball on November 9, 2015. Credit and copyright: Mark Sansom.
A bright Taurid fireball on November 9, 2015. Credit and copyright: Mark Sansom.
Two Taurid meteors from the November 2015 shower, on November 10, 2015. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer.
Two Taurid meteors from the November 2015 shower, on November 10, 2015. Credit and copyright: Alan Dyer.
A bright Taurid meteor is reflected in a lake in Illinois. Credit and copyright: Kevin Palmer.
A bright Taurid meteor is reflected in a lake in Illinois. Credit and copyright: Kevin Palmer.