Start the Year With Spark: See the Quadrantid Meteor Shower

The Quadrantid meteor shower, named for the obsolete constellation Quadran Muralis, will appear to stream from a point in the sky called the radiant (yellow star), located below the end of the Big Dipper’s handle and across from the bright, orange-red star Arcturus. The map shows the sky around 4 a.m. local time Tuesday, Jan. 3. The shower will be best between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., the start of dawn. Map: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to spend more time under the stars in 2017, you’ll have motivation to do so as soon as Tuesday. That morning, the Quadrantid (kwah-DRAN-tid) meteor shower will peak between 4 to about 6 a.m. local time just before the start of dawn. This annual shower can be a rich one with up to 120 meteors flying by an hour — under perfect conditions.

Those include no moon, a light-pollution free sky and most importantly, for the time of maximum meteor activity to coincide with the time the radiant is highest in the pre-dawn sky. Timing is everything with the “Quads” because the shower is so brief. Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through either a stream of dusty debris left by a comet or asteroid. With the Quads, asteroid 2003 EH1 provides the raw material — bits of crumbled rock flaked off the 2-mile-wide (~3-4 km) object during its 5.5 year orbit around the sun.

A Quadrantid fireball flares to the left of the Hyades star cluster and Jupiter in 2013. As Earth travels across the debris stream, bits and pieces of asteroid 2003 EH1 strike the atmosphere at nearly 100,000 mph (43 km/second) and vaporize while creating a glowing dash of light called a meteor. Credit: Jimmy Westlake via NASA

Only thing is, the debris path is narrow and Earth tears through it perpendicularly, so we’re in and out in a hurry. Just a few hours, tops. This year’s peak happens around 14 hours UT or 8 a.m. Central time (9 a.m. Eastern, 7 a.m. Mountain and 6 a.m. Pacific), not bad for the U.S. and Canada. The timing is rather good for West Coast skywatchers and ideal if you live in Alaska. Alaska gets an additional boost because the radiant, located in the northeastern sky, is considerably higher up and better placed than it is from the southern U.S. states.

Another Quadrantid fireball. Credit: NASA

The Quads will appear to radiate from a point in the sky below the Big Dipper’s handle, which stands high in the northeastern sky at the time. This area was once home to the now defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis (mural quadrant), the origin of the shower’s name. As with all meteor showers, you’ll see meteors all over the sky, but all will appear to point back to the radiant. Meteors that point back to other directions don’t belong to the Quads are called sporadic or random meteors.

The long-obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis represents the wall quadrant, a instrument once used to measure star positions. It was created by French astronomer Jerome Lalande in 1795. Credit: Johann Bode atlas

Off-peak observers can expect at least a decent shower with up to 25 meteors an hour visible from a reasonably dark sky. Peak observers could see at least 60 per hour. Tropical latitude skywatchers will miss most of the the show because the radiant is located at or below the horizon, but they should be on the lookout for Earthgrazers, meteors that climb up from below the horizon and make long trails as they skirt through the upper atmosphere.

Set your clock for 4 or 5 a.m. Tuesday, put on a few layers of clothing, tuck hand warmers in your boots and gloves, face east and have at it!  The Quads are known for their fireballs, brilliant meteors famous for taking one’s breath away. Each time you see one chalk its way across the sky, you’re witnessing the fiery end of an asteroid shard. As the crumble burns out, you might be fulfilling another resolution: burning away those calories while huddling outside to see the show.

 

 

Get Ready for the 2016 Perseids

perseid meteor

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

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

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

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

Moonset on the evening of August 11/12th:

Latitude versus Moonset ( in local daylight saving time)

20 degrees north – 1:30 AM

30 degrees north – 1:14 AM

40 degrees north – 0:56 AM

50 degrees north – 0:30 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observing the Perseids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese Fireball Freaks Out Las Vegas

Seeing a fireball erupt in the sky is not an unusual occurrence. Especially during late July, when the Delta Aquirid meteor shower is so near to peaking. At times like this, dozens of fiery objects can be observed streaking across the atmosphere. But on this occasion, the light show that was spotted over Las Vegas earlier this week had a stranger cause.

The fireball appeared on Wednesday July 27th, at around 9:30 p.m. (Pacific Time), and could be seen from California to Utah. News and videos of the fiery apparition were quickly posted on social media, where astronomers began to notice something odd. And as it turned out, it was NOT the result of a meteor shower, but was in fact was the second stage of a rocket hitting the atmosphere, courtesy of the Chinese National Space Agency.

Such was the conclusion of Phil Plait, an astronomer and writer for Slate. After seeing a video shot of the display, he took to Twitter to question the explanation that it was the result of the Delta Aquirids. Based on his observations, he asserted that the event was actually the result of space debris burning up in the atmosphere.

His posts encouraged Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, to do some checking. After looking into the matter, McDowell determined that the cause was a spent stage of a Chinese rocket falling back to Earth. As he posted on Twitter:

“Observation reports from Utah indicate the second stage from the first Chang Zheng 7 rocket, launched Jun 25, reentered at 0440 UTC.”

The Chang Zheng 7 is the latest in a line of Chinese rockets. It’s name translates to “Long March”, in honor of Mao’s forces marching into China’s interior during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). A liquid-fueled carrier rocket designed to handle medium to heavy payloads, this rocket was developed to replace the Chinese Space Agency’s Long March 2F crew-rated launch vehicle.

This rocket is expected to play a critical role in creation of the Chinese Space Station, and will serve as the launch vehicle for the Tianzhou robotic cargo spacecraft in the meantime. Monday, June 25th was the inaugural launch of the rocket, and after the second stage was spent, it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 04:36 UTC (9:36 p.m. Pacific Time) on Wednesday.

The 2nd stage then began to burn up as it moved across the sky from southwest to northeast, moving at speeds of 20,000 km/h (12,427 mph). It eventually disintegrated after becoming visible all across the south-western US, burning up at an altitude of about 100 km (62.13 mi). At this point, observers reported hearing a large boom, and many were fortunate enough to get the whole thing on video (as you can see from the ones included here).

While discarded space vehicles burn up in the atmosphere all the time, this was one of those rare occasions when the object happened to weight 6 metric tons (6.6 short tons)! We’re just fortunate that space launches are so rigorously planned so as to prevent them from causing accidents and extensive property damage, unlike certain meteorites that show up uninvited (looking at you Chelyabinsk meteor!)

TOTH: Slate

The Constellation Aries

Welcome back to constellation Friday! Today, in honor of our dear friend and contributor, Tammy Plotner, we examine the Aries constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. His treatise, known as the Almagest, would serve as the authoritative source of astronomy for over a thousand years to come. Since the development of modern telescopes and astronomy, this list has come to be expanded to include the 88 constellation that are recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) today.

Of these constellations, Aries – named in honor of the Ram from classical Greek mythology – is featured rather prominently. This faint constellation has deep roots, and is believed to date all the way back to the astrological systems of the ancient Babylonians. Positioned on the ecliptic plane, it is bordered by constellations of Perseus, Triangulum, Pisces, Cetus and Taurus, and is also the traditional home of the vernal equinox.

Continue reading “The Constellation Aries”

NASA Says Indian Event Was Not Meteorite

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


Meteorite or …?

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


Another report of the “meteorite” fall out of India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Miss the Geminids this Weekend, Best Meteor Shower of the Year

Wouldn’t it be nice if a meteor shower peaked on a weekend instead of 3 a.m. Monday morning? Maybe even showed good activity in the evening hours, so we could get our fill and still get to bed at a decent hour. Wait a minute – this year’s Geminids will do exactly that!

Before moonrise this Saturday night December 13th, the Geminids should put on a sweet display. The radiant of the shower lies near the bright pair of stars, Castor and Pollux. Source: Stellarium
Before moonrise this Saturday night December 13th, the Geminids should put on a sweet display. The radiant of the shower lies near the bright pair of stars, Castor and Pollux. Source: Stellarium

What’s more, since the return of this rich and reliable annual meteor shower occurs around 6 a.m. (CST) on Sunday December 14th, both Saturday and Sunday nights will be equally good for meteor watching. After the Perseids took a battering from the Moon last August, the Geminids will provide the best meteor display of 2014.  They do anyway! The shower’s been strengthening in recent years and now surpasses every major shower of the year.

The official literature touts a rate of 120 meteors per hour visible from a dark sky site, but I’ve found 60-80 per hour a more realistic expectation. Either way, what’s to complain?

The third quarter Moon rises around midnight Saturday and 1 a.m. on Monday morning. Normally, moonlight would be cause for concern, but unlike many meteor showers the Geminids put on a decent show before midnight. The radiant, the location in the sky from which the meteors will appear to stream, will be well up in the east by 9:30 p.m. local time. That’s a good 2-3 hours of meteor awesomeness before moonrise.

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

Shower watching is a total blast because it’s so simple. Your only task is to dress warmly and get comfortable in a reclining chair aware from the unholy glare of unshielded lighting. The rest is looking up. Geminid meteors will flash anywhere in the sky, so picking a direction to watch the shower isn’t critical. I usually face east or southeast for the bonus view of Orion lumbering up from the horizon.

Bring your camera, too. I use a moderately wide angle lens (24-35mm) at f/2.8 (widest setting), set my ISO to  800 or 1600 and make 30-second exposures. The more photos you take, the better chance of capturing a meteor. You can also automate the process by hooking up a relatively inexpensive intervalometer  to your camera and have it take the pictures for you.

As you ease back and let the night pass, you’ll see other meteors unrelated to the shower, too. Called sporadics, they trickle in at the rate of  2-5 an hour. You can always tell a Geminid from an interloper because its path traces back to the radiant. Sporadics drop down from any direction.

A Geminid fireball brighter than Venus streaks across the sky above New Mexico on Dec. 14, 2011. It was captured by an all-sky camera. Before disintegrating in the atmosphere the meteoroid was about 1/2 inch across. Credit: Marshall Space Flight Center, Meteoroid Environments Office, Bill Cooke
Captured by an all-sky camera, a Geminid fireball brighter than Venus streaks across the sky above New Mexico on Dec. 14, 2011. Before disintegrating in the atmosphere the meteoroid was about 1/2 inch across. Credit: Marshall Space Flight Center, Meteoroid Environments Office, Bill Cooke

Geminid meteors immolate in Earth’s atmosphere at a moderate speed compared to some showers – 22 miles per second (35 km/sec) – and often flare brightly. Green, red, blue, white and yellow colors have been recorded, making the shower one of the more colorful. Most interesting, the meteoroid stream appears to be sorted according to size with faint, telescopic meteors maxing out a day before the naked eye peak. Larger particles continue to produce unusually bright meteors up to a few days after maximum.

Most meteor showers are the offspring of comets. Dust liberated from vaporizing ice gets pushed back by the pressure of sunlight to form a tail and fans out over the comet’s orbital path. When Earth’s orbit intersects a ribbon of this debris, sand and gravel-sized bits of rock crash into our atmosphere at high speed and burn up in multiple flashes of meteoric light.

Phaethon sprouts a tail when close to the Sun seen in this image taken by NASA's STEREO Sun-observing spacecraft in 2012. Credit: Credit: Jewitt, Li, Agarwal /NASA/STEREO
Phaethon sprouts a tail (points southeast or to lower left) when close to the Sun in this image taken by NASA’s STEREO Sun-observing spacecraft in 2012. Credit: Credit: Jewitt, Li, Agarwal /NASA/STEREO

But the Geminids are a peculiar lot. Every year in mid-December, Earth crosses not a comet’s path but that of 3200 Phaethon (FAY-eh-thon), a 3.2 mile diameter (5.1 km)  asteroid. Phaethon’s elongated orbit brings it scorchingly close (13 million miles) to the Sun every 1.4 years. Normally a quiet, well-behaved asteroid, Phaethon brightened by a factor of two and was caught spewing jets of dust when nearest the Sun in 2009, 2010 and 2012. Apparently the intense heat solar heating either fractured the surface or heated rocks to the point of desiccation, creating enough dust to form temporary tails like a comet.

While it looks like an asteroid most of the time, Phaethon may really be a comet that’s still occasionally active. Periodic eruptions provide the fuel for the annual December show.

Most of us will head out Saturday or Sunday night and take in the shower for pure enjoyment, but if you’d like to share your observations and contribute a bit of knowledge to our understanding of the Geminids, consider reporting your meteor sightings to the International Meteor Organization. Here’s the link to get started.

And this just in … Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi will webcast the shower starting at 8 p.m. CST December 13th (2 a.m. UT Dec. 14) on his Virtual Telescope Project site.

Mind-blowing Meteor Shower on Mars During Comet Flyby, Say NASA Scientists

“Thousands of meteors per hour would have been visible — truly astounding to the human eye.” That’s Nick Schneider’s description of what you and I would have seen standing on Mars during Comet Siding Spring’s close flyby last month. “It would have been really mind-blowing,” he added. Schneider is instrument lead for MAVEN’s Imaging Ultraviolet Spectrograph (IUVS).

He and a group of scientists who work as lead investigators for instruments on the MAVEN and  Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft shared the latest results from the comet flyby during a media teleconference earlier today. There were many surprises. Would we expect anything less from a comet?

Here’s a summary of the results:

A very dusty ice ball – The comet’s dust tail and the amount of dust in its coma were much larger than expected, prompting Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division in Washington,  to remark: “It makes me very happy we hid them (the spacecraft) on the backside of Mars. That really saved them.” Siding Spring dumped several tons of fine dust into the Martian atmosphere prompting a spectacular meteor shower and possibly causing a yellow, twilight afterglow above the Curiosity landing site from vaporizing sodium atoms contained in the minerals. That, and dust in the mid-levels of the atmosphere at the time contributed to the rover’s difficulty in getting good photos of the comet itself. Scientists are still examining the images.

MAVEN's Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (IUVS) uses limb scans to map the chemical makeup and vertical structure across Mars' upper atmosphere. It detected strong enhancements of magnesium and iron from ablating incandescing dust from Comet Siding Spring. Credit: NASA
MAVEN’s Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (IUVS) uses limb scans to map the chemical makeup and vertical structure across Mars’ upper atmosphere. It detected strong enhancements of magnesium and iron from ablating incandescing dust from Comet Siding Spring. Credit: NASA
I'm not big into graphs either, but check out the heavy metal drama in this. On the left is the "before" scan from MAVEN's IUVS instrument; on the right, during the comet's close approach. The spike in magnesium from vaporizing comet dust is impressive. Ionized magnesium is the strongest spike with neutral and ionized iron on the left in smaller amounts. Both elements are common in meteorites as well as on Earth. Credit: NASA
I’m not big into graphs either, but check out the heavy metal drama going on here. On the left is the “before” scan from MAVEN’s IUVS instrument; on the right, during the comet’s close approach. The spike in magnesium from vaporizing comet dust is impressive. Ionized magnesium is the strongest spike with neutral and ionized iron on the left in smaller amounts. Both elements are common in meteorites as well as on Earth. Credit: NASA
Profiles showing spikes in the amounts of eight different metals detected in Mars' atmosphere during the flyby by MAVEN's Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS). The emissions faded with a short time. Credit: NASA
Profiles showing spikes in the amounts of eight different metals over time detected in Mars’ atmosphere by MAVEN’s Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS). The emissions faded within a short time, but chemicals from the comet will continue to interact with the Martian atmosphere over time. Credit: NASA

Chemistry of Mars’ atmosphere changed – Dust vaporized in the intense meteor shower produced a striking increase in the amount of magnesium, iron and others metals in Mars’ upper atmosphere. “We were pressed back in our chairs,” said Mike Schneider. The bombardment created a temporary new layer of comet-tainted air and may have acted as condensation nuclei for the formation of high-altitude clouds. MAVEN’s Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NGIMS) recorded huge spikes in the levels of eight different metals during the comet’s passage and then trailed off a day or so later. “They came to MAVEN as a free sample from no less than an Oort Cloud comet,” said Mehdi Benna, instrument scientist for MAVEN’s Neutral Gas and Ion Mass Spectrometer.

The MARSIS instrument on the Mars Express is a ground penetrating radar sounder used to look for subsurface water and ice. It can also make soundings of the ionosphere. It was used to see the new ionospheric layer formed by vaporizing comet dust on October 19th. Credit: ESA
The MARSIS instrument on the Mars Express is a ground penetrating radar sounder used to look for subsurface water and ice. It can also make soundings of the ionosphere. It was used to see the new ionospheric layer formed by vaporizing comet dust on October 19th. Credit: ESA
The Mars Express radar probed the ionosphere (upper atmosphere) at three different times. At top, before the comet arrived; middle, 7 hours later after the comet's closest approach and bottom, hours later after the comet had departed. The middle graph shows a strong signal (blue horizontal bar) from the creation of newly-ionized layer of the planet's lower atmosphere from hot, fast-moving comet dust. Credit: ESA
The Mars Express radar probed the ionosphere (upper atmosphere) at three different times. At top, before the comet arrived; middle, 7 hours later after the comet’s closest approach and bottom, hours later after the comet had departed. The middle graph shows a strong signal (blue horizontal bar) from the creation of a newly-ionized layer of the planet’s lower atmosphere from hot, fast-moving comet dust. Credit: ESA

 

Flaming comet dust creates new ionospheric layer – Comet dust slamming into the atmosphere at 125,000 mph (56 km/sec) knocked electrons loose from atoms in the thin Martian air  50-60 miles (80-100 km) high, ionizing them and creating a very dense ionization layer in the planet’s lower ionosphere seven hours after the comet’s closest approach. Normally, Mars ionosphere is only seen on the dayside of the planet, but even when the MARSIS instrument on Mars Express  beamed radio waves through the atmosphere on the nightside of the planet, it picked up a very strong signal.

54 red-filtered images of the comet's nucleus-coma taken by the MRO's HiRISE camera show changes in the flow of material leaving the comet. Credit: NASA
54 red-filtered, false-color images of the comet’s nucleus-coma taken by the MRO’s HiRISE camera show changes in the flow of material leaving the comet. Based on the photos, the comet’s nucleus spins once every 8 hours. Credit: NASA
The five closest photos made with the HiRISE camera show the combined light of the nucleus and coma. Scale is 140-meter per pixel at top and 177-meters at bottom. Scientists will further process these images to separate the nucleus from the coma. Credit: NASA
The five closest photos made with the HiRISE camera show the combined light of the nucleus and coma. Scale is 140-meter per pixel at top and 177-meters at bottom. Scientists will further process these images to separate the nucleus from the coma. Credit: NASA

Nucleus spins once during your work day – Comet Siding Spring’s icy core spins once every 8 hours and its irregular shape causes strong variations in the comet’s brightness. The comet’s size appears less certain  – at least for the moment – with estimates anywhere between a few hundred meters to 2 km (1.2 miles). More analysis on images taken by MRO’s HiRISE camera should narrow that number soon.

CRISM photo and spectrum of Comet Siding Spring. The spectrum is "flat", indicating we're seeing sunlight reflected off comet dust. The intriguing color variations in the image tell of dust particles of varying size leaving the nucleus. Credit: NASA
CRISM photo and spectrum of Comet Siding Spring. The spectrum is “flat”, indicating we’re seeing ordinary sunlight reflecting off comet dust. The intriguing color variations in the image tell us the comet’s spewing dust particles of many sizes. Credit: NASA

Dust motes of many sizes – Color variations across Siding Spring’s coma seen by Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) indicate it’s releasing dust particles of different sizes – big and little.

The scientists involved in the encounter couldn’t be happier with how the instruments functioned and the amount of hard data returned. Said Jim Green: “We are so lucky to observe this once-in-a-lifetime event.” How true when you consider that it takes about 8 million years for a comet from the Oort Cloud, that vast reservoir of frozen comets  extending nearly a light year from the Sun, to get here in the first place.  Nick Schneider put it another way:

“Not only is this a free sample of the Oort Cloud in Mars’ atmosphere, but it gives us a chance to learn more about Mars itself.”

If you’d like to listen in to the hour-long teleconference at any time, it’ll be up for the next week or so HERE.

Fear Not the Moon, Perseids Always a Great Show

Get ready for the darling of meteor showers this week — the Perseids. Who can deny their appeal? Not only is the shower rich with fiery flashes of meteoric light, but the meteors come in August when the weather’s couldn’t be more ideal. Peak activity is expected Tuesday night, Aug. 12-13, when up to 100 meteors an hour might be seen. 

Ah, but there’s a rub. This year the moon will be only two days past full and radiant enough to drown out the fainter shower members. We’re more likely to see something like 30 meteors an hour, maybe fewer. But all it takes is one bright meteoric flash to make it all worthwhile. Nothing gets the heart pumping like a bright Perseid and the anticipation of the next. 

While more meteors are surely more exciting, it’s not a number thing, but the experience of the raw event that makes all the difference.  Sure beats sitting in front of a computer screen or watching the latest rerun of The Big Bang Theory, right?

A fine Perseid flashes straight out of the radiant on August 12, 2013. The fuzzy-starry clump near the start of the trail is the Double Cluster. Credit: Bob King
A fine Perseid flashes straight out of the radiant on August 12 last year. The two bright dots above the start of the trail form the well-known Perseus Double Cluster. Credit: Bob King

Find a place away from glaring lights to allow your eyes to adapt to the darkness. That way you’ll see more meteors. While the Perseids spit out the occasional fireball, most shower members are going to be closer in brightness to the stars of the Big Dipper. Some leave “smoke” trails called meteor trains. They’re actually tubes of glowing air molecules created as the meteoroid particles speed through the atmosphere at 130,000 mph. Though ‘shooting stars’ can look surprisingly close by, they typically burn up 60-70 miles overhead.

Perseid meteors radiate from the constellation Perseus (hence the name) located a short distance below the “W” of Cassiopeia in the northeastern sky. To know for sure if you’ve seen the genuine item and not a random meteor, follow the trail backward — if it points toward the northeast, you’ve got a ringer! 

Perseid meteor ISS Ron Garan Aug13_2011
A remarkable orbital view of a Perseid (right, center) burning up in Earth’s atmosphere photographed by astronaut Ron Garan on Aug. 13, 2011. The star Arcturus is directly above the bright trail. Credit: Ron Garan / ISS Expedition 28 crew / NASA

You can watch for Perseids all week long, but peak activity begins Tuesday evening and continues through dawn Wednesday. The later you stay up, the more meteors you’ll spot because the radiant or point in the sky from which the meteors appear to radiate rises higher with every hour. The higher the radiant, the fewer meteors that get cut off by the horizon. 

Composite of bright Perseid meteors recorded by NASA all-sky cameras in 2011. Each is a grain of rock shed from the tail of comet 109P/ Swift-Tuttle. Every year in mid-August, Earth passes through the comet’s debris trail as it orbits around the sun. Any particles we smack into burn up as meteors about 60-70 miles overhead. Credit: NASA
Composite of bright Perseid meteors recorded by NASA all-sky cameras in 2011. Each is a grain of rock shed from the tail of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Every year in mid-August, Earth passes through the comet’s debris trail as it orbits around the sun. Credit: NASA

The observing equipment you were born with and a comfortable chair are all you need to make the most of the event. OK, it’s nice to have a friend along, too, to share the ‘wow’ moments and keep from falling asleep. Sometimes I’m too lazy to haul out a chair and instead sprawl out on the deck or grass. Others prefer their Perseids from a steaming hot tub.

A 2010 Perseid meteor streaks over the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT). Credit: ESO
A 2010 Perseid meteor streaks over the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). Credit: ESO

Left-behind sand, seed and pebble-sized particles from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle are responsible for all the fun. Discovered in 1862, the comet circles the sun every 120 years. Over millennia, 109P has left a stream of debris along its orbit, which the Earth passes through every year in mid-August. Comet grit hits our atmosphere like bugs smacking a car windshield and vaporize in a flashes of light or meteors.

Normally I’d recommend facing east or southeast to watch the shower, but with the moon dominating that direction, look off to the northeast, north or southwest to keep from getting zapped by that old devil moonlight. Even a little dark adaption will help boost your Perseid count. Once  situated, sit back, look up and enjoy each and every sparkler that drops from the sky.

And don’t forget to take in the big picture show rolling by. The sky’s a giant calendar that begins with the mid-summer constellations at nightfall and advances through the fall stars to the onset of winter with the rising of Orion at dawn. Let the months fall away as the Earth turns you toward the sun.  

Observing Alert – Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower Peaks This Week

With the southern Delta Aquarid meteor shower peaking tomorrow morning, the summer meteor-watching season officially begins. While not a rich shower from mid-northern latitudes, pleasant weather and a chance to see the flaming remains of a comet seem motivation enough to go out for a look. With a rate 10-15 per meteors an hour you’re bound to catch a few. 

The farther south you live, the better it gets. Observers in the southern hemisphere can expect double that number because the shower’s radiant will be much higher in the sky. Any meteors flashing south of the radiant won’t get cut off by the southern horizon like they do further north.

The annual shower gets its name from Delta Aquarii, a dim star in the dim zodiac constellation Aquarius. You don’t need to know the constellations to enjoy the show, but if you know the general direction of the radiant you’ll be able to tell shower members from the nightly sprinkle of random meteors called sporadics. If you can trace the path of a meteor backward toward Aquarius, chances are it’s an Aquarid.

A Southern Delta Aquarid meteor captured on July 30, 2013. Credit: John Chumack

There are actually two meteor showers in Aquarius active this time of year – the northern and southern Delta Aquarids. The northern version sprinkles fewer meteors and peaks in mid-August.

The Southern Deltas peak over the next two mornings – July 29 and 30 – but will be out all week. Both serve as a warm-up for the upcoming Perseid meteor shower that climaxes on August 12.

Tonight’s shower will suffer no interference from moonlight, making for ideal meteor watching. Unfortunately, Perseid rates will be reduced by a bright waning gibbous moon.

Don’t be surprised if you see a few Perseids anyway. The shower’s just becoming active. If you can draw a meteor’s trail back to the northeastern sky, it just might be a member. Read more about Perseid prospects from our own David Dickinson.

Meteors from Delta Aquarid meteor shower radiate from near the star Delta Aquarii not far from the bright star Fomalhaut in the Southern Fish low in the south before dawn. Stellarium
Meteors from Delta Aquarid meteor shower radiate from near the star Delta Aquarii not far from the bright star Fomalhaut in the Southern Fish low in the south before dawn. Stellarium

Nearly all meteor showers originate from clouds of sand to seed-sized bits of debris spewed by vaporizing comet ice as they swing near the sun. The Delta Aquarids may trace its origin to dust boiled off Comet 96P/Machholz.

The best time to watch the shower is in the early morning hours before dawn when the radiant rises in the south-southeastern sky above the bright star Fomalhaut. Try to get away from city lights. Point your lawn chair south and spend some time in heavenly contemplation as you wait for Aquarius to toss a few javelins of light your way.