‘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.

Spectacular Breakup of WT1190F Seen by Airborne Astronomers

Clouds hampered observations from the ground in Sri Lanka during the re-entry of WT1190F overnight, but a team of astronomers captured spectacular images of the object from a high-flying plane over the Indian Ocean very close to the predicted time of arrival. 

Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center will operate eleven staring cameras with a wider field of view, including two spectographic cameras, to catch the reentry if pointing efforts fail. Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA
Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center is shown here before the flight setting up the eleven staring cameras with a wider field of view, including two spectographic cameras, to catch the reentry.  Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA

The International Astronomical Center (IAC) and the United Arab Emirates Space Agency hosted a rapid response team to study the re-entry of what was almost certainly a rocket stage from an earlier Apollo moon shot or the more recent Chinese Chang’e 3 mission. In an airplane window high above the clouds, the crew, which included Peter Jenniskens, Mike Koop and Jim Albers of the SETI Institute along with German, UK and United Arab Emirates astronomers, took still images, video and gathered high-resolution spectra of the breakup.


Video and still imagery of WT1190F’s Reentry November 13, 2015

The group of seven astronomers hoped to study WT1190F’s re-entry as a  test case for future asteroid entries as well as improve our understanding of space debris behavior. Photos and video show the object breaking up into multiple pieces in a swift but brief fireball. From the spectra, the team should be able to determine the object’s nature — whether natural or manmade.

Wide view of the colorful fireball created when WT1190F burned up in Earth's atmosphere. Credit:
Wide view of the colorful fireball and breakup when WT1190F struck Earth’s atmosphere. More than 20 cameras were used to record the event. Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA
Animation made on Nov. 12 when WT1190F was still in one piece in orbit about Earth. Credit: Marco Langbroek
Animation from photos made on Nov. 12 when WT1190F was still in one piece in orbit about the Earth. Credit: Marco Langbroek
Gulfstream 450 business jet, sponsored by United Arab Emirates and coordinated by Mohammad Shawkat Odeh from the International Astronomical Center, Abu Dhabi. There are only five windows available to observe the object. The observation teams comprise:
Flying observatory. This Gulfstream 450 business jet, sponsored by United Arab Emirates and coordinated by Mohammad Shawkat Odeh from the International Astronomical Center, Abu Dhabi, was used by the team to observe and record the re-entry. Only five windows were available to make observations. Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA
SETI Institute staring cameras used for wide field observations of the re-entry. Credit:
SETI Institute “staring cameras” used for wide field observations of the re-entry. Credit: IAC/UAE Space Agency/NASA/ESA

Asteroid? Rocket Stage? Whatever it is, WT1190F Plunges to Earth Tonight

No one’s 100% certain what WT1190F is — asteroid or rocket stage — but we are certain it will light up like a Roman candle when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere around 6:20 Universal Time (12:20 a.m. CST) tomorrow morning Nov. 13. 


Animation by Jost Jahn of WT1190F’s final hours as it races across the sky coming down off the coast of Sri Lanka

As described in an earlier story at Universe Today, an object discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey on Oct 3rd and temporarily designated WT1190F is expected to burn up about 60 miles (100 km) off the southern coast of Sri Lanka overnight. The same team observed it twice in 2013. Based upon the evolution of its orbit, astronomers determined that the object is only about six feet (2-meters) across with a very low density,  making it a good fit for a defunct rocket booster, possibly one used to launch either one of the Apollo spacecraft or the Chinese Chang’e 3 lander to the Moon.

Below a plot of the last three orbits of WT1190F. The small red circle is the earth. The big green circle is the orbit of the moon, just to give some scale to the chart (click on it for a bigger version).
Below a plot of the last three orbits of WT1190F. The small red circle is the Earth. For scale, the large green circle is the orbit of the Moon. Notice that its final orbit takes straight into Earth. Credit: Bill Gray / Project Pluto

Additional observations of WT1190F have been made in the past few days confirming its re-entry later tonight. Checking the latest predictions on Bill Gray of Project Pluto’s page, the object will likely be visible from Europe about an hour before “touchdown”. To say it will be moving quickly across the sky is an understatement. Try about 3 arc minutes per second or 3° a minute! Very tricky to find and track something moving that fast.

Three 90-second exposures showing WT1190F zipping across the Rosette Nebula taken on Nov. 11, 2015 at the Konkoly Observatory in Hungary. Credit: Krisztián Sárneczky
Three 90-second exposures showing WT1190F zipping across the Rosette Nebula taken on Nov. 11, 2015 at the Konkoly Observatory in Hungary. Credit: Krisztián Sárneczky

58 minutes later, in the minute of time from 6:18 to 6:19 UT,  WT1190F will move one full hour of right ascension and plummet 34° in declination while brightening from magnitude +8 to +4.5. If you’d like to attempt to find and follow the object, head over to JPL’s Horizons site  for the latest ephemerides and orbital elements. At the site, make sure that WT1190F is in the Target Body line. If not, click Change and search for WT1190F in the Target Body field at the bottom of the window.

WT1190F Re-Entry Trajectory – Data courtesy of Bill Gray, Project Pluto
WT1190F re-Entry Trajectory. The object is expected to break up and fall harmlessly into the ocean. Credit: Bill Gray, Project Pluto

You’ll find updates at Bill Gray’s site. According to the most recent positions, the object will pass almost exactly in front of the Sun shortly before plunging into the ocean. Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, is expected to get the best views.

Because the mystery object’s arrival has been fairly well publicized, I hope to update you with a full report and photos first thing tomorrow morning. Like many of you, I wish I could see the show.

From a Roar to a Purr: Prospects for the 2015 November Leonid Meteors

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.

Image credit: Stellarium
The orientation of the Earth and the relative positions of the Sun, Moon and the Leonid meteor radiant on November 17th at 4:00 UT. Image credit: Stellarium

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.

Image credit:
A composite of the 2014 Leonids. Image credit: Alan Dyer/Amazing Sky Photography

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.

Image credit: Stellarium
A simulated ‘Leonid storm.’ Note the true position of the radiant in the center of the backwards ‘?’ asterism is slightly offset.  Image credit: Stellarium

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.

A late season Leonid meteor from 2014. Image credit: The UK Monitoring network (UKMON)
A late season Leonid meteor from 2014. Image credit: The UK Monitoring network (UKMON)

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.

A 1799 woodcut depicting the Leonids at sea. Image credit: Public Domain
A 1799 woodcut depicting the Leonids at sea. Image credit: Public Domain

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:

ZHR=15 +/-4 (2014)

Mostly washed out by the near-Full Moon (2013)

ZHR=47 +/-11 (2012)

ZHR=22 +/-3 (2011)

ZHR=32+/-4 (2010)

  • Report those Leonid sightings to the International Meteor Organization, and also be sure to Tweet em to #Meteorwatch
  • Got an image of a Leonid meteor? Send ‘em in to Universe Today at our Flickr Forum… we just might feature it in an after-action round up!

A Halloween Season ‘Taurid Meteor Swarm’ on Tap for 2015?

Asteroid 2015 TB145 isn’t the only cosmic visitor paying our planet a trick-or-treat visit over the coming week. With any luck, the Northern Taurid meteor shower may put on a fine once a decade show heading into early November.

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.

The motion of the radiant of the Northern Taurid meteors from mid-October through mid-November. Image credit: Stellarium
The motion of the radiant of the Northern Taurid meteors from mid-October through mid-November. The shower typically peaks around November 12th annually. Image credit: Stellarium

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.

A 2014 Taurid. Image credit and copyright: Brian who is called Brian
A 2014 Taurid. Image credit and copyright: Brian who is called Brian

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.

The path of the stream isn’t fully understood, and that is where volunteer observations can come in handy. The International Meteor Organization is always looking for reports from skilled observers, as is the American Meteor Society (AMS).

Image Credit:
The light curve of the suspected Taurid that hit the Moon on Nov 7th. Image Credit: NASA

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…

Bright Meteor 4th November 2013 from Richard Fleet on Vimeo.

More to come on that. Keep watching the skies, and don’t forget to tweet those Northern Taurid fireball sightings and images to #Meteorwatch!

-Got an image of a Northern Taurid fireball? Send ‘em in to Universe Today for our Flickr forum… we may just feature your pic in an after action round up!

Kick Back, Look Up, We’re In For a GREAT Perseid Meteor Shower

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.

The author tries his best to enjoys this year's moon-drenched Perseids from the "astro recliner". Credit: Bob King
The author takes in last year’s moon-drenched Perseids from a recliner. Credit: Bob King

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.

The Perseids appear to radiate from spot below the W of Cassiopeia in the constellation Perseus, hence the name "Perseids". Source: Stellarium
The Perseids appear to radiate from spot below the W of Cassiopeia in the constellation Perseus, hence the shower’s name. This map shows the sky facing northeast around 12:30 a.m. local time August 13. Source: Stellarium

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.

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 driving a car in a snowstorm. The motion of the car (Earth) creates the illusion of  meteors radiating from a point in the sky ahead of the observer. Credit: Bob King

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.

A bright fireball breaking to pieces near Yellow Springs, Ohio. Meteors are really tubes of ionized air energized by the passage of comet bits. Credit: John Chumack
A bright fireball breaking to pieces near Yellow Springs, Ohio. Meteors are really tubes of ionized air energized by the passage of comet bits. Credit: John Chumack

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.

Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle captured during its last pass by Earth on Nov. 1, 1992. A filament of dust deposited by the comet in 1862 may cause a temporary spike in activity on Aug. 12 around 18:39 UT. Credit: Gerald Rhemann
Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle seen during its last pass by Earth on Nov. 1, 1992. A filament of dust deposited by the comet in 1862 may cause a temporary spike in activity around 18:39 UT on August 12. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

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!

A Perseid meteor streaks across the northeastern sky two Augusts ago. This year's shower will peak on the night of August 12-13 with up to 100 meteors per hour visible from a dark sky. Credit: Bob King
A Perseid meteor streaks across the northeastern sky two Augusts ago. Give the shower an hour’s worth of your time – you won’t be disappointed. Credit: Bob King

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.

The 2015 Lyrid Meteors Peak Tomorrow Night!

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.

The radiant for the 2015 Lyrids as seen from 40 degrees north latitude at local midnight. Credit: Stellarium.
The radiant for the 2015 Lyrids as seen from 40 degrees north latitude at local midnight. Credit: Stellarium.

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 orientation of the Sun, Moon, and the Lyrid radiant at the expected peak of the shower at 24UT/20EDT April 22nd. credit: Stellarium
The orientation of the Sun, Moon, and the Lyrid radiant at the expected peak of the shower at 24UT/20EDT April 22nd. credit: Stellarium

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.

A 2014 Lyrid fireball. Credit: The UK Meteor Network
A 2014 Lyrid fireball. Credit: The UK Meteor Network

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.

A composite view of the 2012 Lyrids plus sporadic meteors. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser
A composite view of the 2012 Lyrids plus sporadic meteors. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser

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!

A Night-Sky Timelapse You Don’t Want to Miss

It’s an old story: a couple leave their jobs, sell everything, and live in motorhome to capture footage and imagery of the night sky.

Wait… what?

This unique story is exactly what Brad and Marci Goldpaint did. They left their jobs and traveled throughout the western US in an RV to begin educating the public about the damaging effects of light pollution. They wanted to help reconnect people with the simple beauty of the night sky and have been teaching photography workshops and gathering footage for a new timelapse called “Illusion of Lights: A Journey into the Unseen.”

With breathtaking scenes and soaring music, this video “introduces you to the concept of movement and time that visually explores our night skies,” says Brad on Vimeo.

We’ve featured images and timelapses from Brad before, and he shared how the sudden loss of his mother caused him to reassess his goals and priorities. Since 2009 he’s been working on outdoor photography and has now dedicated his work to sharing images of the night sky with others.

For this timelapse, Brad said he “spent countless nights traversing in the dark, carrying heavy camera equipment, and braving the dark unseen.” He dealt with lightning storms, dangerous winds, and up-close encounters with bears and other wildlife. Sometimes, after spending days hiking to a remote location and with optimistic weather reports, Mother Nature showed up and ruined his opportunity to get the shot.

A few highlights: at about 2:00 there is an exploding meteor with a persistent train that is stunning. You’ll also see strange lights on Mount Rainier. Brad explained these lights are from people climbing the mountian at night in hopes of reaching the summit by sunrise the following day. The white lights you see are from their headlamps. “Can you imagine climbing up a mountain in the middle of the night?” he asks?

Another still from "Illusions of Light." Credit and copyright: Brad Goldpaint Photography.
Another still from “Illusions of Light.” Credit and copyright: Brad Goldpaint Photography.

For more about this film see their website.

Illusion of Lights: A Journey into the Unseen from Goldpaint Photography on Vimeo.

Did a House-Sized Meteorite Create This Mysterious Circle in Antarctica?

Endless blinding white ice as far as the eye can see. This is the common scene from the window of planes delivering researchers to Antarctica. However, this is not always the case. While there are mountain ranges and valleys, for a recent research expedition, a large ringed structure came into view on the King Baudouin ice shelf as they were beginning aerial surveys.

Geophysicist Christian Mueller with the Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Germany, was looking out the window of an instrument laden plane when the previously unknown ringed formation, 2000 meters (1.24 miles) in diameter, came into view. Looking into research publications, he found evidence that this may be a meteorite impact event from 2004.

Research team members from Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany embark from a landing site at Princess Elisabeth, Antarctica. They discovered something totally unexpected - a large ringed formation on a nearby ice shelf.  (Credit: AWI)
Research team members from Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany embark from a landing site at Princess Elisabeth, Antarctica. They discovered something totally unexpected – a large ringed formation on a nearby ice shelf. (Credit: AWI)

The discovery occurred on December 20th from the AWI Polar 6 aircraft as they were flying over the Princess Ragnhild Coast. The formation is located on the King Baudouin Ice Shelf not far from their landing site at Princess Elizabeth station.

Two studies were found in the literature by the researchers which pointed to a possible impact event over east Antarctica in 2004. Triangulation of infrasound monitoring data pointed to the area where the ringed formation is located. The infrasound monitoring sites are located worldwide and primarily used to detect nuclear testing events. On February 15, 2013, the same type of data was used to better understand the asteroid explosion over Chelyabinsk, Russia.

Location of the ring formation on the ice shelf off the Antarctic continent. The site is on the King Baudouin Ice Shelf. (Map Credits: Google Maps, NOAA)
Location of the ring formation on the ice shelf off the Antarctic continent. The site is on the King Baudouin Ice Shelf. (Map Credits: Google Maps, NOAA)

The second study involved local observations. A separate set of researchers, located at Davis Station, an Australian base off the coast of east Antarctica, reported seeing a dust trail in the upper atmosphere during the same time.

Researcher Mueller stated in the AWI provided video, “I looked out of the window, and I saw an unusual structure on the surface of the ice. There was some broken ice looking like icebergs, which is very unusual on a normally flat ice shelf, surrounded by a large, wing-shaped, circular structure.” Altogether, the AWI researchers said that they make the claim “without any confidence.” They intend to request funding to make followup studies to determine its origin.

Cheryl Santa Maria, of the Digital Reporter, also reported that there are survey images showing this structure that date back 25 years. Furthermore, a story by LiveScience quoted Dr. Peter Brown of Centre of Planetary Science and Exploration at the University of Western Ontario as stating that the size of a meteorite is roughly 5 to 10% of the impact crater’s diameter. This would indicate an impactor about 100 meters in size and much larger than the estimated size of the event as estimated by infrasound data from 2004.

The infrasound data estimated that the asteroid was probably the size of a house, about 10 meters (33 feet) across. In contrast, the asteroid that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, had an estimated size of 20 meters. Dr. Brown was quoted as expressing doubt that the formation is an impact site. The effects of a 100 meter object would have been much more distinctive and likely more readily detected by researchers located in eastern Antarctica. Thus, reporting of the ring formation by the AWI researchers is bringing to light additional information and comments from experts that raises doubts. Follow up studies will be necessary to determine the true origins of the ringed structured.

Work Those Quads: Our Guide to the 2015 Quadrantid Meteors

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.

Jan 4th 3AM local. Starry Night Education Software.
The rising radiant of the Quads on the morning of January 4th at 3AM local. Note that the Moon and Jupiter are on the scene as well. Created using Starry Night Education software.

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).

Quads 2UT. Credit: Orbitron
The orientation of the Earth’s shadow at the predicted peak of the Quads on January 4th,  2:00 UT. Credit: Orbitron.

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.

Photo by author
Avast: ye ole Mural Quadrant spied at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon. Photo by author.

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.

Stellarium
The approximate realm of the “Mural Quadrant” overlaid on modern day constellations. Credit Stellarium.

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.

What the heck is a Mural Quadrant?
What the heck is a Mural Quadrant? Like everything he did, Tycho Brahe super-sized his quadrant, depicted here. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Previous years for the Quadrantids have yielded the following Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) maximums as per the International Meteor Organization:

2011= 90

2012= 83

2013= 137

2014= +200

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.

2003 Credit and Copyright: Frankie Lucena.
A 2003 south bound Quad nabbed from Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico (Yes, that’s the Southern Cross!) Credit and Copyright: Frankie Lucena.

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!