The news of extraterrestrial meteor showers on Mercury came out of the annual Meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society currently underway this week in National Harbor, Maryland. The study was carried out by Rosemary Killen of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, working with Matthew Burger of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland and Apostolos Christou from the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland. The study looked at data from the MErcury Surface Space Environment Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft, which orbited Mercury until late April of this year. Astronomers published the results in the September 28th issue of Geophysical Research Letters.
Micrometeoroid debris litters the ecliptic plane, the result of millions of years of passages of comets through the inner solar system. You can see evidence of this in the band of the zodiacal light visible at dawn or dusk from a dark sky site, and the elusive counter-glow of the gegenschein.
Researchers have tagged meteoroid impacts as a previous source of the tenuous exosphere tails exhibited by otherwise airless worlds such as Mercury. The impacts kick up a detectable wind of calcium particles as Mercury plows through the zodiacal cloud of debris.
“We already knew that impacts were important in producing exospheres,” says Killen in a recent NASA Goddard press release. “What we did not know was the relative importance of comet streams over zodiacal dust.”
This calcium peak, however, posed a mystery to researchers. Namely, the peak was occurring just after perihelion—Mercury orbits the Sun once every 88 Earth days, and travels from 0.31 AU from the Sun at perihelion to 0.47 AU at aphelion—versus an expected calcium peak predicted by researchers just before perihelion.
A key suspect in the calcium meteor spike dilemma came in the way of periodic Comet 2P Encke. Orbiting the Sun every 3.3 years—the shortest orbit of any known periodic comet—2P Encke has made many passages through the inner solar system, more than enough to lay down a dense and stable meteoroid debris stream over the millennia.
With an orbit ranging from a perihelion at 0.3 AU interior to Mercury’s to 4 AU, debris from Encke visits Earth as well in the form of the November Taurid Fireballs currently gracing the night skies of the Earth.
The Encke connection still presented a problem: the cometary stream is closest to the orbit of Mercury about a week later than the observed calcium peak. It was as if the stream had drifted over time…
Enter the Poynting-Robertson effect. This is a drag created by solar radiation pressure over time. The push on cometary dust grains thanks to the Poynting-Robertson effect is tiny, but it does add up over time, modifying and moving meteor streams. We see this happening in our own local meteor stream environment, as once great showers such as the late 19th century Andromedids fade into obscurity. The gravitational influence of the planets also plays a role in the evolution of meteor shower streams as well.
Researchers in the study re-ran the model, using MESSENGER data and accounting for the Poynting-Robertson effect. They found the peak of the calcium emissions seen today are consistent with millimeter-sized grains ejected from Comet Encke about 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. That grain size and distribution is important, as bigger, more massive grains result in a smaller drag force.
This finding shows the role and mechanism that cometary debris plays in exosphere production on worlds like Mercury.
“Finding that we can move the location of stream to match MESSENGER’s observations is gratifying, but the fact that the shift agrees with what we know about Encke and its stream from independent source makes us confident that the cause-and-effect relationship is real, says Christou in this week’s NASA Goddard press release.
Launched in 2004, MESSENGER arrived at Mercury in March 2011 and orbited the world for over four years, the first spacecraft to do so. MESSENGER mapped the entire surface of Mercury for the first time, and became the first human-made artifact to impact Mercury on April 30th, 2015.
The joint JAXA/ESA mission BepiColombo is the next Mercury mission in the pipeline, set to leave Earth on 2017 for insertion into orbit around Mercury on 2024.
An interesting find on the innermost world, and a fascinating connection between Earth and Mercury via comet 2P Encke and the Taurid Fireballs.
A November rain hails from the Sickle of the Lion.
Hot on the heels of the October Orionids and the Halloween fireballs of the Taurid meteors comes the Leonid meteor shower. On most years, the Leonids are a moderate shower, with hourly local rates reaching around 20. Once every 33 years, however, the Leonids are responsible for putting on one of the greatest astronomical shows ever witnessed, producing a grand storm with a zenithal hourly rate topping thousands per hour.
Prospects for 2015
First, the bad news. 2015 isn’t forecast to be a ‘storm year’ for the Leonids, though that shouldn’t stop a vigilant observer from watching. The good news is, we’re just about midway betwixt the storm years of 1998-99 and 2031-32. The Leonids intensify once every 33 years, and if the increased activity seen in the late 1990s was any indication, we’d bet we’ll start seeing a pickup in rates from the Leonids in the late 2020’s or so. The good news for 2015, however, is that the peak for the Leonids occur on November 18th at around 4:00 Universal Time (UT)/ (11:00 PM EST on November 17th). This places the waxing crescent Moon out of the picture, just a day before reaching First Quarter phase. New Moon for November 2015 occurs on November 11th at 17:47 UT/12:47 PM EST.
Fun fact: the August Perseids, November Leonids and the December Geminid meteor showers are spaced out on the calendar in such a way that, when the Moon phase is favorable for one shower on a particular year, it is nearly always favorable across all of them.
The Leonids are mildly active from November 6th through November 30th, and though the above prediction for activity in 2015 favors European longitudes at dawn, some predictions have the peak arriving up to seven hours early this year.
The Leonids are the dusty remnants laid down by periodic comet 55P Tempel-Tuttle on its 33-year path through the inner solar system. The Leonids are fast-movers, hitting the Earth nearly head-on in the dawn. You can see this in the relative position of the radiant, which rises in mid-November around 11PM local, and reaches the zenith around 6AM local time.
Often bluish in color, the Leonids hit the Earth’s atmosphere at over 70 km/sec… almost the fastest theoretical speed possible. For best results, watch for Leonids to spike in activity close to local dawn.
The Leonids have a storied history, going back 902 AD report from Arabic annals of the ‘Year of Stars.’ The Great Meteor Storm of 1833 dazzled (and terrified) residents of the eastern seaboard of the United States, and the spectacle not only inspired astronomer Denison Olmsted to pioneer studies into the fledgling field of meteor shower science, but has been attributed to adding fervor to many of the religious revivalist movements that sprang up in the 1830s in the United States as well.
The last outburst from the Leonids that reached such an apocalyptic scale was in 1966, when observers across the southwestern United States reported hourly rates approaching an amazing ZHR=144,000. Witnesses that remember this spectacle say it produced an illusion reminiscent of the Star Trek ‘warp speed’ effect, as Earth rammed headlong into the dense Leonid meteor stream.
Our own personal encounter with a Leonid meteor storm in 1998 from the dark desert skies of Kuwait wasn’t quite that intense, but thrilling to see nonetheless. Rates neared one every few seconds towards sunrise, with several fireballs punctuating the action, lighting up the desert floor. Here, as US coalition forces were on the verge of unleashing what would become Operation: Desert Fox over Iraq, the Universe was putting on a fireworks show of its own.
The Leonid meteor storms are the stuff of astronomical legend, a once in a lifetime event. Ever since we witnessed just what the Leonids are capable of, we never miss this annual shower, as we remember one night back in 1998, and look forward to the storms of 2032.
Here’s what the Leonids have been doing on previous recent years:
About once a decade, the Northern Taurid meteor stream puts on a good showing. Along with its related shower the Southern Taurids, both are active though late October into early November.
Specifics for 2015
This year sees the Moon reaching Full on Tuesday October 27th, just a few days before Halloween. The Taurid fireballs, however, have a few things going for them that most other showers don’t. First is implied in the name: the Northern Taurids, though typically exhibiting a low zenithal hourly rate of around 5 to 10, are, well, fireballs, and thus the light-polluting Moon won’t pose much of a problem. Secondly, the Taurid meteor stream is approaching the Earth almost directly from behind, meaning that unlike a majority of meteor showers, the Taurids are just as strong in the early evening as the post midnight early morning hours. As a matter of fact, we saw a brilliant Taurid just last night from light-polluted West Palm Beach in Florida, just opposite to the Full Moon and a partially cloudy sky.
In stark contrast to the swift-moving Orionids from earlier this month, expect the Taurid fireballs to trace a brilliant and leisurely slow path across the night sky, moving at a stately 28 kilometre per second (we say stately, as the October Orionids smash into our atmosphere at over twice that speed!)
Ever since the 2005 event, the Northern Taurids seemed to have earned the name as “The Halloween Fireballs” in the meme factory that is the internet. It’s certainly fitting that Halloween should have its very own pseudo-apocalyptic shower. The last good return for the Northern Taurids was 2005-2008, and 2015 may see an upswing in activity as well.
Obviously, something interesting has to be occurring on Comet 2P Encke—the source of the two Taurid meteor streams—to shed the pea-sized versus dust-sized material seen in the Southern and Northern Taurids. With the shortest orbital period 3.3 years of all periodic comets known, the Taurid meteor stream—like Encke itself—follows a shallow path nearly parallel to the ecliptic plane.
Discovered in 1822 by astronomer Johann Encke, Comet 2P Encke has been observed through many perihelion passages over the last few centuries, and passes close to Earth once 33 years, as it last did in 2013.
What constitutes a ‘meteor swarm?’ As with many terms in meteoritics, no hard-and-fast definition of a true ‘meteor swarm’ exists. A meteor storm is generally quoted as having a zenithal hourly rate greater than 1000. Expect activity to be broad over the next few weeks, and the Taurid fireballs always have the capacity to produce the kind of brilliant events captured by security cams and dashboard video cameras that go viral across ye ole Internet.
Watching for fireballs is a thrilling pursuit. These may often leave persistent glowing meteor trails in their wake. We caught the 1998 Leonids from the dark sky deserts of Kuwait, and can attest to the persistence of glowing fireball trails from this intense storm, sometimes for minutes. Again, the 2015 Taurids aren’t expected to reach that level of intensity, though the ratio of fireballs to faint meteors will be enhanced.
There’s even been evidence for a recorded meteorite strike related to the northern Taurid fireballs back in 2015 on the dark limb of the Moon as well, a rare event indeed.
After a slow summer, Fall meteor shower activity is definitely heating up. And though 2015 is an off year for the November Leonids, we’re now almost midway between the 1998-99 outbursts, and the possibility of another grand meteor storm in the early 2030s. And another obscure wildcard shower known as the Alpha Monocerotids may put on a surprise showing in November 2015 as well…
Have you been looking up the past few nights, trying to see the Perseid Meteor Shower? Many of our readers have been turning their eyes — and cameras — to the skies, with spectacular results. This year’s Perseids were predicted to be one of the best ever, since there has been little to no moonlight to upstage the shower. As you can see from the images here, many astrophotographers were able to capture fast and bright meteors, and even some that left persistent trains.
Remember, tonight (Wednesday, August 12, 2015) is projected to be the peak, so if you’ve got clear skies, take advantage of this opportunity to see a great meteor shower. You can find out how and when to see them in our previous detailed articles by our in-house observing experts David Dickinson and Bob King.
And enjoy the view from our readers in this gallery of 2015 Perseids:
Prolific night sky photographer John Chumack near Dayton, Ohio put together this video of 81 Perseid meteors he captured on August 12, 2015 with his Automated low light -Meteor Video Camera Network:
If you are clouded out, you can still enjoy the shower. NASA TV will be tracking the Perseids live on Wednesday, August 12 starting at 10PM EDT/02:00 UT:
The venerable ‘old faithful of meteor showers’ is on tap for this week, as the August Perseids gear up for their yearly performance. Observers are already reporting enhanced rates from this past weekend, and the next few mornings are crucial for catching this sure-fire meteor shower.
First, here’s a quick rundown on prospects for 2015. The peak of the shower as per theoretical modeling conducted by Jérémie Vaubaillon projects a broad early maximum starting around Wednesday, August 12th at 18:39 UT/2:39 PM EDT. This favors northeastern Asia in the early morning hours, as the 1862 dust trail laid down by Comet 109P Swift-Tuttle — the source of the Perseids — passes 80,000 km (20% of the Earth-Moon distance, or about twice the distance to geostationary orbit) from the Earth. This is worth noting, as the last time we encountered this same stream was 2004, when the Perseids treated observers to enhanced rates up towards 200 per hour. Typically, the Perseids exhibit a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 80-100 per hour on most years.
This translates into a local peak for observers worldwide on the mornings of August 12th and 13th. Comet 109P Swift-Tuttle orbits the Sun once every 120 years, and last reached perihelion in 1992, enhancing the rates of the Perseids throughout the 1990s.
Don’t live in northeast Asia? Don’t despair, as meteor showers such as the Perseids can exhibit broad multiple peaks which may arrive early or late. Mornings pre-dawn are the best time to spy meteors, as the Earth has turned forward into the meteor stream past local midnight, and rushes headlong into the oncoming stream of meteor debris. It’s a metaphor that us Floridians know all too well: the front windshield of the car gets all the bugs!
Weather prospects — particularly cloud cover, or hopefully, the lack of it — is a factor on every observer’s mind leading up to a successful meteor hunting expedition. Fortunately here in the United States southeast, August mornings are typically clear, until daytime heating gives way to afternoon thunder storms. About 48 hours out, we’re seeing favorable cloud cover prospects for everyone in the CONUS except perhaps the U.S. northeast.
The Moon is also under 48 hours from New on Wednesday, allowing for dark skies. This is the closest New Moon to the peak of the Perseids we’ve had since 2007, and it won’t be this close again until 2018.
Fun fact: the August Perseids, October Orionids, November Leonids AND the December Geminids are roughly spaced on the calendar in such a way that if the Moon phase is favorable for one shower on a particular year, it’ll nearly always be favorable (and vice versa) on the others as well.
Sky watchers have observed the annual Perseid meteors since antiquity, and the shower is often referred to as ‘The Tears of Saint Lawrence.’ The Romans martyred Saint Lawrence on a hot grid iron on August 10th, 258 AD. The radiant crosses from the constellation Perseus in early August, and sits right on the border of Cassiopeia and Camelopardalis on August 12th at right ascension 3 hours 10’ and declination +50N 50.’ Technically, the shower should have the tongue-twisting moniker of the ‘Camelopardalids’ or perhaps the ‘Cassiopeiaids!’
The last few years have seen respectable activity from the Perseids:
2014- ZHR = 68 (Full Moon year)
2013- ZHR = 110
2012- ZHR = 120
2011- ZHR = 60 (Full Moon year)
2010- ZHR = 90
You can see the light-polluting impact of the nearly Full Moon on the previous years listed above. Light pollution has a drastic effect on the number of Perseids you’ll see. Keep in mind, a ZHR is an ideal rate, assuming the radiant is directly overhead and skies are perfectly dark. Most observers will see significantly less. We like to watch at an angle about 45 degrees from the radiant, to catch meteors in sidelong profile.
Imaging the Perseids is as simple as setting up a DSLR on a tripod as taking long exposures of the sky with a wide angle lens. Be sure to take several test shots to get the combination of f-stop/ISO/and exposure just right for current sky conditions. This year, we’ll be testing a new intervalometer to take automated exposures while we count meteors.
Clouded out? NASA TV will be tracking the Perseids live on Wednesday, August 12th starting at 10PM EDT/02:00 UT:
Remember, you don’t need sophisticated gear to watch the Perseids… just a working set of ‘Mark-1 eyeballs.’ You can even ‘hear’ meteor pings on an FM radio on occasion similar to lightning static if you simply tune to an unused spot on the dial. Sometimes, you’ll even hear a distant radio station come into focus as it’s reflected off of an ionized meteor trail:
Every year in mid-August, Earth plows headlong into the debris left behind by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Slamming into our atmosphere at 130,000 mph, the crumbles flash to light as the Perseid meteor shower. One of the world’s most beloved cosmic spectacles, this year’s show promises to be a real crowd pleaser.
Not only will the Moon be absent, but the shower maximum happens around 3 a.m. CDT (8 UT) August 13 — early morning hours across North America when the Perseid radiant is highest. How many meteors will you see? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-100 meteors per hour. As always, the darker and less light polluted your observing site, the more zips and zaps you’ll see.
Find a place where there’s as few stray lights as possible, the better to allow your eyes to dark-adapt. Comfort is also key. Meteor showers are best enjoyed in a reclining position with as little neck craning as possible. Lie back on a folding lawn chair with your favorite pillow and bring a blanket to stay warm. August nights can bring chill and dew; a light coat and hat will make your that much more comfortable especially if you’re out for an hour or more.
I’m always asked what’s the best direction to face. Shower meteors will show up in every corner of the sky, but can all be traced backwards to a point in Perseus called the radiant. That’s the direction from which they all appear to stream out of like bats flying out of a cave.
Another way to picture the radiant it is to imagine driving through a snowstorm at night. As you accelerate, you’ll notice that the flakes appear to radiate from a point directly in front of you, while the snow off to the sides streams away in long trails. If you’re driving at a moderate rate of speed, the snow flies past on nearly parallel paths that appear to focus in the distance the same way parallel railroad tracks converge.
Now replace your car with the moving Earth and comet debris for snow and you’ve got a radiant and a meteor shower. With two caveats. We’re traveling at 18 1/2 miles per second and our “windshield”, the atmosphere, is more porous. Snow bounces off a car windshield, but when a bit of cosmic debris strikes the atmosphere, it vaporizes in a flash. We often think friction causes the glow of meteors, but they’re heated more by ram pressure.
The incoming bit of ice or rock rapidly compresses and heats the air in front of it, which causes the particle to vaporize around 3,000°F (1,650°C). The meteor or bright streak we see is really a hollow “tube” of glowing or ionized air molecules created by the tiny rock as its energy of motion is transferred to the surrounding air molecules. Just as quickly, the molecules return to their rest state and release that energy as a spear of light we call a meteor.
Imagine. All it takes is something the size of a grain of sand to make us look up and yell “Wow!”
Speaking of size, most meteor shower particles range in size from a small pebble to beach sand and generally weigh less than 1-2 grams or about what a paperclip weighs. Larger chunks light up as fireballs that shine as bright as Venus or better. Because of their swiftness, Perseids are generally white and often leave chalk-like trails called trains in their wakes.
This year’s shower is special in another way. According to Sky and Telescope magazine, meteor stream modeler Jeremie Vaubaillon predicts a bump in the number of Perseids around 1:39 p.m. (18:39 UT) as Earth encounters a debris trail shed by the Comet Swift-Tuttle back in 1862. The time favors observers in Asia where the sky will be dark. It should be interesting to see if the prediction holds.
How To Watch
Already the shower’s active. Go out any night through about the 15th and you’ll see at least at least a handful of Perseids an hour. At nightfall on the peak night of August 12-13, you may see only 20-30 meteors an hour because the radiant is still low in the sky. But these early hours give us the opportunity to catch an earthgrazer — a long, very slow-moving meteor that skims the atmosphere at a shallow angle, crossing half the sky or more before finally fading out.
I’ve only seen one good earthgrazer in my earthly tenure, but I’ll never forget the sight. Ambling from low in the northeastern sky all the way past the southern meridian, it remained visible long enough to catch it in my telescope AND set up a camera and capture at least part of its trail!
The later you stay up, the higher the radiant rises and the more meteors you’ll see. Peak activity of 50-100 meteors per hour will occur between about 2-4 a.m. No need to stare at the radiant to see meteors. You can look directly up at the darkest part of the sky or face east or southeast and look halfway up if you like. You’re going to see meteors everywhere. Some will arrive as singles, others in short burst of 2, 3, 4 or more. I like to face southeast with the radiant off to one side. That way I can see a mix of short-trailed meteors from near the radiant and longer, graceful streaks further away just like the snow photo shows.
If there’s a lull in activity, don’t think it’s over. Meteor showers have strange rhythms of their own. Five minutes of nothing can be followed by multiple hits or even a fireball. Get into the feel of the shower as you sense spaceship Earth speeding through the comet’s dusty orbit. Embrace the chill of the August night under the starry vacuum.
April showers bring May flowers, and this month also brings a shower of the celestial variety, as the Lyrid meteors peak this week.
And the good news is, 2015 should be a favorable year for the first major meteor shower of the Spring season for the northern hemisphere. The peak for the shower in 2015 is predicted to arrive just after midnight Universal Time on Thursday April 23rd, which is 8:00 PM EDT on the evening of Wednesday April 22nd. This favors European longitudes right around the key time, though North America could be in for a decent show as well. Remember, meteor showers don’t read forecasts, and the actual peak can always arrive early or late. We plan to start watching tonight and into Wednesday and Thursday morning as well. April also sees a extremely variable level of cloud cover over the northern hemisphere, another reason to start your meteor vigil early on if skies are clear.
Another favorable factor this year is the phase of the Moon, which is only a slender 20% illuminated waxing crescent on Wednesday night. This means that it will have set well before local midnight when the action begins.
The source of the Lyrid meteors is Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which is on a 415 year orbit and is expected to come back around again in 2276 A.D. 1861 actually sported two great comets, the other being C/1861 J1, also known as the Great Comet of 1861.
The Lyrids typically exhibit an ideal Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 15-20 per hour, though this shower has been known to produce moderate outbursts from time to time. In 1803 and 1922, the Lyrids produced a ZHR of 100 per hour, and in recent times, we had an outburst of 250 per hour back in 1982. Researchers have tried over the years to tease out a periodicity for Lyrid outbursts, which seem erratic at best. In recent years, the Lyrids hit a ZHR of 20 (2011), 25 (2012), 22 (2013), and 16 last year in 2014.
Keep in mind, we say that the ZHR is an ideal rate, or what you could expect from the meteor shower with the radiant directly overhead under dark skies: expect the actual number of meteors observed during any shower to be significantly less.
The radiant for the Lyrids actually sits a few degrees east of the bright star Vega across the Lyra border in the constellation Hercules. They should, in fact, be named the Herculids! In mid-April, the radiant for the April Lyrids has already risen well above the northeastern horizon as seen from latitude 40 degrees north at 10 PM local, and is roughly overhead by 4 AM local. Several other minor showers are also active around late April, including the Pi Puppids (April 24th), the Eta Aquarids (May 6th), and the Eta Lyrids (May 9th). The constellation of the Lyre also lends its name to the June Lyrids peaking around June 6th.
The April Lyrids are intersecting the Earth’s orbit at a high 80 degree angle at a swift velocity of 49 kilometres per second. About a quarter of the Lyrid meteors are fireballs, leaving bright, persistent smoke trains. It’s a good idea to keep a set of binoculars handy to study these lingering smoke trails post-passage.
The Lyrids also have the distinction of having the longest recorded history of any known meteor shower. Chinese chronicles indicate that “stars dropped down like rain,” on a late Spring night in 687 BC.
Observing a meteor shower requires nothing more than a set of working ‘Mark-1 eyeballs’ and patience. The International Meteor Organization always welcomes reports of meteor counts from observers worldwide to build an accurate picture of evolving meteor debris streams. You can even hear meteor ‘pings’ via FM radio.
Expect the rate to pick up past local midnight, as the Earth plows headlong into the oncoming meteor stream. Remember, the front of the car gets the love bugs, an apt analogy for any Florida resident in mid-April.
Catching a photograph of a Lyrid or any meteor is as simple as plopping a DSLR down on a tripod and doing a series of 30 second to several minute long time exposures. Use the widest field of view possible, and aim the camera off at about a 45 degree angle from the radiant to catch the meteors sidelong in profile. Be sure to take a series of test shots to get the ISO/f-stop combination set for the local sky conditions.
Don’t miss the 2015 Lyrids, possibly the first good meteor shower of the year!
Quick… what’s the only major meteor shower named after a defunct constellation? If you said the January Quadrantids, you’d be correct, as this often elusive but abrupt meteor shower is set to peak this coming weekend early in 2015.
And we do mean early, as in the night of January 3rd going into the morning of January 4th. This is a bonus, as early January means long dark nights for northern hemisphere observers. But the 2015 Quadrantids also has two strikes going against them however: first, the Moon reaches Full just a day later on January 5th, and second, January also means higher than average prospects for cloud cover (and of course, frigid temps!) for North American observers.
Don’t despair, however. In meteor shower observing as in hockey, you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.
Sorry for the sports analogy. The radiant for the Quadrantids is located in the modern day constellation of Draco near the Hercules-Boötes border at a right ascension 15 hours, 18 minutes and declination +49.5 degrees north. This puts it very near the +3.3 magnitude star Iota Draconis (Edasich).
In 2015, bets are on for the Quadrantids to peak centered on 2:00 UT January 4th (9:00 PM EST on the 3rd), favoring northern Europe pre-dawn. The duration for the Quadrantids is short lived, with an elevated rate approaching 100 per hour lasting only six hours in duration. Keep in mind, of course, that it’ll be worth starting your vigil on Saturday morning January 3rd in the event that the “Quads” kick off early! I definitely wouldn’t pass up on an early clear morning on the 3rd, just in case skies are overcast on the morning of the 4th…
Due to their high northern radiant, the Quadrantids are best from high northern latitudes and virtually invisible down south of the equator. Keep in mind that several other meteor showers are active in early January, and you may just spy a lingering late season Geminid or Ursid ‘photobomber’ as well among the background sporadics.
Moonset on the morning of the 4th occurs around 6 AM local, giving observers a slim one hour moonless window as dawn approaches. Blocking the Moon out behind a building or hill when selecting your observing site will aid you in your Quadrantid quest.
Antonio Brucalassi made the first historical reference to the Quadrantids, noting that “the atmosphere was traversed by… falling stars” on the morning of January 2nd, 1825. It’s interesting to note that the modern day peak for the Quads has now drifted a few days to the fourth, due mostly to the leap year-induced vagaries of our Gregorian calendar. The early January meteor shower was noted throughout the 19th century, and managed to grab its name from the trendy 19th century constellation of Quadrans Muralis, or the Mural Quadrant. Hey, we’re lucky that other also-rans, such as Lumbricus the ‘Earthworm’ and Officina Typograhica the ‘Printing Office’ fell to the wayside when the International Astronomical Union formalized the modern 88 constellations in 1922. Today, we know that the Quadrantids come from 2003 EH1, which is thought to be an extinct comet now trapped in the inner solar system on a high inclination, 5.5 year orbit. Could 2003 EH1 be related to the Great Comet of 1490, as some suggest? The enigmatic object reached perihelion in March of 2014, another plus in the positive column for the 2015 Quads.
The Quadrantid meteor stream has certainly undergone alterations over the years as a result of encounters with the planet Jupiter, and researchers have suggested that the shower may go the way of the 19th century Andromedids and become extinct entirely in the centuries to come.
Don’t let cold weather deter you, though be sure to bundle up, pour a hot toddy (or tea or coffee, as alcohol impacts the night vision) and keep a spare set of batteries in a warm pocket for that DSLR camera, as cold temps can kill battery packs quicker than you can say Custos Messium, the Harvest Keeper.
And though it may be teeth-chatteringly cold where you live this weekend, we actually reach our closest point to the Sun this Sunday, as Earth reaches perihelion on January 4th at around 8:00 UT, just 5 hours after the Quads are expected to peak. We’re just over 147 million kilometres from the Sun at perihelion, a 5 million kilometre difference from aphelion in July. Be thankful we live on a planet with a relatively circular orbit. Only Venus and Neptune beat us out in the true roundness department!
…and no, you CAN’T defy gravity around perihelion, despite the current ill conceived rumor going ‘round ye ole net…
And as a consolation prize to southern hemisphere observers, the International Space Station reaches a period of full illumination and makes multiple visible passes starting December 30th until January 3rd. This happens near every solstice, with the December season favoring the southern hemisphere, and June favoring the northern.
So don’t let the relatively bad prospects for the 2015 Quadrantids deter you: be vigilant, report those meteor counts to the IMO, send those meteor pics in to Universe Today and tweet those Quads to #Meteorwatch. Let’s “party like it’s 1899,” and get the namesake of an archaic and antiquated constellation trending!
Now in its seventh year of compilation and the second year running on Universe Today, we’re proud to feature our list of astronomical happenings for the coming year. Print it, bookmark it, hang it on your fridge or observatory wall. Not only is this the yearly article that we jokingly refer to as the “blog post it takes us six months to write,” but we like to think of it as unique, a mix of the mandatory, the predictable and the bizarre. It’s not a 10 ten listicle, and not a full-fledged almanac, but something in between.
A rundown of astronomy for 2015: There’s lots of astronomical action to look forward to in the coming year. 2015 features the minimum number of eclipses that can occur, two lunars and two solars. The Moon also reaches its minimum standstill this coming year, as its orbit runs shallow relative to the celestial equator. The Moon will also occult all naked eye planets except Saturn in 2015, and will occult the bright star Aldebaran 13 times — once during every lunation in 2015. And speaking of Saturn, the rings of the distant planet are tilted an average of 24 degrees and opening to our line of sight in 2015 as they head towards their widest in 2018.
Finally, solar activity is trending downwards in 2015 after passing the sputtering 2014 maximum for solar cycle #24 as we now head towards a solar minimum around 2020.
Our best bets: Don’t miss these fine celestial spectacles coming to a sky near YOU next year:
– The two final total lunar eclipses in the ongoing tetrad, one on April 4th and September 28th.
– The only total solar eclipse of 2015 on March 20th, crossing the high Arctic.
– A fine dusk pairing of the bright planets Jupiter and Venus on July 1st.
– Possible wildcard outbursts from the Alpha Monocerotid and Taurid meteors, and a favorable New Moon near the peak of the August Perseids.
– Possible naked eye appearances by comet Q2 Lovejoy opening 2015 and comet US10 Catalina later in the year.
– The occultation of a naked eye star for Miami by an asteroid on September 3rd.
– A series of fine occultations by the Moon of bright star Aldebaran worldwide.
The rules: The comprehensive list that follows has been lovingly distilled down to the top 101 astronomical events for 2015 worldwide. Some, such as lunar eclipses, are visible to a wide swath of humanity, while others, such as many of the asteroid occultations or the sole total solar eclipse of 2015 happen over remote locales. We whittled the list down to a “Top 101” using the following criterion:
Meteor showers: Must have a predicted ZHR greater than 10.
Conjunctions: Must be closer than one degree.
Asteroid occultations: Must have a probability ranking better than 90 and occult a star brighter than magnitude +8.
Comets: Must reach a predicted brightness greater than magnitude +10. But remember: comets don’t always read prognostications such as this, and may over or under perform at whim… and the next big one could come by at any time!
Times quoted are geocentric unless otherwise noted, and are quoted in Universal Time in a 24- hour clock format.
These events are meant to merely whet the appetite. Expect ‘em to be expounded on fully by Universe Today as they approach. We linked to the events listed where possible, and provided a handy list of resources that we routinely consult at the end of the article.
Got it? Good… then without further fanfare, here’s the top 101 astronomical events for 2015 in chronological order:
13- “Shallow point” (also known as the minor lunar standstill) occurs over the next lunation, as the Moon’s orbit reaches a shallow minimum of 18.1 degrees inclination with respect to the celestial equator… the path of the Moon now begins to widen towards 2025.
It’s nice to know that not everyone around the world was plagued by clouds, dense fog, driving rain and snowstorms like we had in Minnesota during this year’s Geminid Meteor Shower (and all that weather was within one 24-hour period!) In fact, some astrophotographers were able to capture some stunning views of the Geminids, like this absolutely gorgeous shot of a meteor over Mt. Fuji in Japan.
“I’ve captured Fuji with meteors many times in the past,” said photographer Yuga Kurita. “So I went ambitious this time. I tried to capture Fuji and a meteor reflected in Lake Saiko with a standard focal length lens. When I saw this meteor, I was absolutely stunned.”
See more Geminids from around the world, below:
Astrophotographer Mary Spicer shared these four meteor shots, and added, “Over about 90 minutes we saw a total of 61 meteors, 57 of which were Geminids and 6 were fireballs.”
A timelapse movie taken by Michael Mauldin of the clouds and stars over Liberty Hill, Texas on Saturday, December 13, 2014. Two Geminid meteors are captured (each frame is frozen for a few seconds so you can see them):
While the above photo doesn’t have any meteors, it still garners a place in this post because astrophotographer Sergio Garcia Rill was waiting and hoping to capture some. Alas, writes Rill on Flickr, “While I had good enough luck to get some relatively clear skies for the Geminids meteor shower I think I wasn’t fortunate enough to catch any meteors on camera. I saw about a dozen meteors with my eyes, and a couple in the direction my cameras were pointing, but they probably weren’t strong enough to get captured with the settings I had.”