When Good Showers Turn Bad: The 2016 Leonids

Leonid Meteor

A flash of light recently reminded us of the most stunning sight we ever saw.

We managed to catch an early Leonid meteor this past Saturday morning while waiting for the new Chinese space station Tiangong-2 to pass over southern Spain. The Leonids are active this week, and although the light-polluting just past Super Moon lurks nearby, we’ve learned to never ignore this shower, even on an off year.

First though, here’s a rundown on what’s up with the Leonids in 2016:

The Leonid meteors are expected to peak on the night of Thursday, November 17th into the morning of Friday, November 18th. The shower is active for a 25 day span from November 5th to November 30th and though the Leonids can vary with an Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of thousands of meteors per hour, and short outbursts briefly topping hundreds of thousands per hour, in 2016, the Leonids are expected to produce a maximum ideal ZHR of only 10 to 15 meteors per hour. The radiant of the Leonids is located at right ascension 10 hours 8 minutes, declination 21.6 degrees north at the time of the peak, in the Sickle or backwards Question Mark asterism of the astronomical constellation of Leo the Lion.

The rising radiant of the Leonids versus the nearby waning gibbous Moon. image credit: Stellarium.
The rising radiant of the Leonids versus the nearby waning gibbous Moon. Image credit: Stellarium.

The source of the Leonids is periodic Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle.

Now, for the bad news. The Moon is an 82% illuminated, waning gibbous phase at the peak of the Leonids, making 2016 an unfavorable year for this shower. In fact, the Moon is located just 42 degrees from the shower’s radiant in the nearby constellation of Gemini at the shower’s peak on Friday morning. In previous years, the Leonids produced a ZHR numbering in the 15-20 per hour. The estimated ZHR last topped 100 in 2008.

The Leonid meteors strike the Earth at a moderate/fast velocity of 71 km/s, and produce many fireballs with an r value of 2.5.

The Leonids are notorious for producing storms of epic proportions every 33 years. This last occurred in years surrounding 1999, and isn’t expected to occur again until around 2032. Some older observers still remember the great Leonid meteor storm over the southwestern United States in 1966, and the U.S. East Coast witnessed a massive storm in 1833.

A woodcut engraving depicting the 1833 Leonids over Niagara Falls. Public Domain image.
A woodcut engraving depicting the 1833 Leonids over Niagara Falls. Public Domain image.

We can attest to what the Leonids are capable of. We saw an amazing display from the shower in 1998 from Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait, with an estimated rate of around 900 per hour towards dawn. When a shower edges towards a zenithal hourly rate of 1,000, you’re seeing meteors every few seconds, with fireballs lighting up the desert night.

And it is possible to defeat the waning gibbous Moon. Though the Moon is near the zenith as seen from the mid-northern latitudes in the early AM hours (the best time to watch the shower,) its almost always possible to view the shower with the Moon blocked behind a house or hill… unless you have the bad luck of viewing from latitude 20 degrees north, where the Moon crosses directly through the zenith on Friday morning.

But take heart, as we’re past the halfway mark in 2014, headed to the Leonid ‘storm years’ of the early 2030s.

Don’t miss the 2016 Leonids… if for no other reason, to catch a flash of storms to come.

MESSENGER Spies a Meteor Shower… on Mercury

Leonid meteor storms. Taurid meteor swarms. Earth is no stranger to meteor showers, that’s for sure. Now, it turns out that the planet Mercury may experience periodic meteor showers as well.

The news of extraterrestrial meteor showers on Mercury came out of the annual Meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society currently underway this week in National Harbor, Maryland. The study was carried out by Rosemary Killen of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, working with Matthew Burger of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland and Apostolos Christou from the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland.  The study looked at data from the MErcury Surface Space Environment Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft, which orbited Mercury until late April of this year. Astronomers published the results in the September 28th issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

Micrometeoroid debris litters the ecliptic plane, the result of millions of years of passages of comets through the inner solar system. You can see evidence of this in the band of the zodiacal light visible at dawn or dusk from a dark sky site, and the elusive counter-glow of the gegenschein.

The orbit of comet 2P Encke. Image credit: NASA/JPL
The orbit of comet 2P Encke. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Researchers have tagged meteoroid impacts as a previous source of the tenuous exosphere tails exhibited by otherwise airless worlds such as Mercury. The impacts kick up a detectable wind of calcium particles as Mercury plows through the zodiacal cloud of debris.

“We already knew that impacts were important in producing exospheres,” says Killen in a recent NASA Goddard press release. “What we did not know was the relative importance of comet streams over zodiacal dust.”

This calcium peak, however, posed a mystery to researchers. Namely, the peak was occurring just after perihelion—Mercury orbits the Sun once every 88 Earth days, and travels from 0.31 AU from the Sun at perihelion to 0.47 AU at aphelion—versus an expected calcium peak predicted by researchers just before perihelion.

Image credit:
STEREO A catches sight of comet 2P Encke. Image credit: NASA/STEREO

A key suspect in the calcium meteor spike dilemma came in the way of periodic Comet 2P Encke. Orbiting the Sun every 3.3 years—the shortest orbit of any known periodic comet—2P Encke has made many passages through the inner solar system, more than enough to lay down a dense and stable meteoroid debris stream over the millennia.

With an orbit ranging from a perihelion at 0.3 AU interior to Mercury’s to 4 AU, debris from Encke visits Earth as well in the form of the November Taurid Fireballs currently gracing the night skies of the Earth.

The Encke connection still presented a problem: the cometary stream is closest to the orbit of Mercury about a week later than the observed calcium peak. It was as if the stream had drifted over time…

Image credit:
Comet 2P Encke, captured by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins/APL/SW Research Institute

Enter the Poynting-Robertson effect. This is a drag created by solar radiation pressure over time. The push on cometary dust grains thanks to the Poynting-Robertson effect is tiny, but it does add up over time, modifying and moving meteor streams. We see this happening in our own local meteor stream environment, as once great showers such as the late 19th century Andromedids fade into obscurity. The gravitational influence of the planets also plays a role in the evolution of meteor shower streams as well.

Researchers in the study re-ran the model, using MESSENGER data and accounting for the Poynting-Robertson effect. They found the peak of the calcium emissions seen today are consistent with millimeter-sized grains ejected from Comet Encke about 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. That grain size and distribution is important, as bigger, more massive grains result in a smaller drag force.

Image credit: Kevin Palmer
A 2015 Taurid meteor. Image credit: Kevin Palmer

This finding shows the role and mechanism that cometary debris plays in exosphere production on worlds like Mercury.

“Finding that we can move the location of stream to match MESSENGER’s observations is gratifying, but the fact that the shift agrees with what we know about Encke and its stream from independent source makes us confident that the cause-and-effect relationship is real, says Christou in this week’s NASA Goddard press release.

Launched in 2004, MESSENGER arrived at Mercury in March 2011 and orbited the world for over four years, the first spacecraft to do so. MESSENGER mapped the entire surface of Mercury for the first time, and became the first human-made artifact to impact Mercury on April 30th, 2015.

The joint JAXA/ESA mission BepiColombo is the next Mercury mission in the pipeline, set to leave Earth on 2017 for insertion into orbit around Mercury on 2024.

An interesting find on the innermost world, and a fascinating connection between Earth and Mercury via comet 2P Encke and the Taurid Fireballs.

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!