The 2015 Perseids: Weather Prospects, Prognostications and More

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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.

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The terrestrial situation at the projected peak of the 2015 Perseids. Image credit: NOAA/Dave Dickinson

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!

Perseid radiant
The flight of the Perseid radiant through August. Image credit: Dave Dickinson/Stellarium

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.

Weather and cloud cover prospects for the mornings of August 12th and August 13th. Image credit: NOAA
Weather and cloud cover prospects for the mornings of August 12th and August 13th. Image credit: NOAA

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:

And if you’re counting meteors, don’t forget to report ‘em to the International Meteor Organization and tweet ‘em out under hashtag #Meteorwatch.

Good luck and good meteor hunting!

Here Comes the Weekend Leonid Meteor Shower!

November 2013 offers a chance to catch a dependable meteor shower, albeit on an off year. The Leonid meteors are set to reach their annual peak this coming weekend on Sunday, November 17th. We say it’s an off-year, but not that it should discourage you from attempting to catch the Leonids this weekend in the early dawn.

Projections for 2013 suggest a twin-peaked maximum, with the first peak arriving on November 17th at 10:00 UT/5:00 AM EST favoring North America, and the second one reaching Earth on the same date six hours later at 16:00 UT/11:00, favoring the central Pacific.

Unfortunately, the Full Moon also occurs the on very date that the Leonids peak at 10:16 AM EST/ 15:16UT, right between the two peaks! This will definitely cut down on the number of meteors you’ll see in the early AM hours.

That’s strike one against the 2013 Leonids. The next is the curious sporadic nature of this shower. Normally a minor shower with a zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) in the range of 10-20 per hour, the Leonids are prone to great storms topping a ZHR of 1,000+ every 33 years. We last experienced such an event in 1998 and 1999, and we’re now approaching the mid-point lull between storms in the 2014-2016 time frame.

An early Leonid meteor captured last week from the United Kingdom Meteor Observing Network's Church Crookham station. (Credit: UKMON/Peter-Campbell-Burns).
An early Leonid meteor captured last week from the United Kingdom Meteor Observing Network’s Church Crookham station. (Credit: UKMON/Peter-Campbell-Burns).

Still, this is one shower that’s always worth monitoring. The source of the Leonids is Comet 55p/Tempel-Tuttle, which is on a 33-year orbit and is due to reach perihelion again in 2031.

Note that the Leonids have also continued to show enhanced activity in past years even when the Moon was a factor:

2012- ZHR=47.

2011- ZHR=22, Moon=8% waning gibbous.

2010- ZHR=40, 86% waxing gibbous.

2009- ZHR=79.

2008-70 ZHR=72% waning gibbous

We even managed to observe the Leonid meteors from Vail, Arizona in 2002 and 2005, on years when the Moon was nearly Full.

Now, for the good news. The Leonids have a characteristic r value of 2.5, meaning that they produce a higher than normal ratio of fireballs. About 50-70% of Leonid meteors are estimated to leave persistent trains, a good reason to keep a pair of binoculars handy. And hey, at least the 2013 Leonids peak on the weekend, and there’s always comet’s ISON, X1 LINEAR, 2P/Encke and R1 Lovejoy to track down to boot!

A 2002 Leonid captured over Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. (Credit: NASA/MSFC/MEO/Bill Cooke).
A 2002 Leonid captured over Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. (Credit: NASA/MSFC/MEO/Bill Cooke).

Here’s a few tips and tricks that you can use to “beat the Moon” on your Leonid quest. One is to start observing now, on the moonless mornings leading up to the 17th. You’ll always see more Leonid meteors past local midnight as the radiant rises to the northeast. This is because you’re standing on the portion of the Earth turning forward into the meteor stream. Remember, the front windshield of your car (the Earth) always collects the most bugs (meteors). Observers who witnessed the 1966 Leonid storm reported a ZHR in excess of thousands per hour, producing a Star Trek-like effect of the Earth plowing through a “snowstorm” of meteors!

The radiant of the Leonids sits in the center of the backwards question mark asterism of the “Sickle” in the astronomical constellation Leo (hence name of the shower).

You can also improve your prospects for seeing meteors by blocking the Moon behind a building or hill. Though the Leonids will appear to radiate from Leo, they can appear anywhere in the sky. Several other minor showers, such as the Taurids and the Monocerotids, are also active in November.

Meteor shower photography is simple and can be done with nothing more than a DSLR camera on a tripod. This year, you’ll probably want to keep manual exposures short due to the Full Moon and in the 20 seconds or faster range. Simply set the camera to a low f-stop/high ISO setting and a wide field of view and shoot continuously. Catching a meteor involves luck and patience, and be sure to examine the frames after a session; every meteor I’ve caught on camera went unnoticed during observation! Don’t be afraid to experiment with different combinations to get the sky conditions just right. Also, be sure to carry and extra set of charged camera batteries, as long exposures combined with chilly November mornings can drain DSLR batteries in a hurry!

A Woodcut print depicting the 1933 Leonids as seem from Niagara Falls. (Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domian).
A Woodcut print depicting the 1933 Leonids as seem from Niagara Falls. (Wikimedia Commons image in the Public Domain).

The Leonids certainly have a storied history, dating back to before meteors where understood to be dust grains left by comets. The 1833 Leonids were and awesome and terrifying spectacle to those who witnessed them up and down the eastern seaboard of the U.S. In fact, the single 1833 outburst has been cited as contributing to the multiple religious fundamentalist movements that cropped up in the U.S. in the 1830s.

We witnessed the 1998 Leonids from the deserts of Kuwait while stationed at Al Jabber Air Base. It was easily one of the best meteor displays we ever saw, with a ZHR reaching in access of 500 per hour before dawn. It was intense enough that fireballs behind us would often light up the foreground like camera flashes!

Reporting rates and activity for meteor showers is always fun and easy to do — its real science that you can do using nothing more than a stopwatch and your eyes. The International Meteor Association is always looking for current meteor counts from observers. Data goes towards refining our understanding and modeling of meteor streams and future predictions. The IMO should also have a live ZHR graph for the 2013 Leonids running soon.

Have fun, stay warm, send those Leonid captures in to Universe Today, and don’t forget to tweet those meteors to #Meteorwatch!