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.

A Spectacular Dawn Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter Set For August 18th

“What are those two bright stars in the morning sky?”

About once a year we can be assured that we’ll start fielding inquires to this effect, as the third and fourth brightest natural objects in the sky once again meet up.

We’re talking about a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Venus. Venus has been dominating the dawn sky for 2014, and Jupiter is fresh off of solar conjunction on the far side of the Sun on July 24th and is currently racing up to greet it.

We just caught sight of Jupiter for the first time for this apparition yesterday from our campsite on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We’d just wrapped up an early vigil for Perseid meteors and scrambled to shoot a quick sequence of the supermoon setting behind a distant wind farm. Jupiter was an easy catch, first with binoculars, and then the naked eye, using brilliant Venus as a guide post.

The view looking eastward at dawn on August 18th, including a five degree telrad (red circles) and a one degree telescopic field of view (inset). Created using Stellarium.

And Jupiter will become more prominent as the week progresses, climaxing with a fine conjunction of the pair on Monday, August 18th. This will be the closest planet versus planet conjunction for 2014. At their closest — around 4:00 Universal Time or midnight Eastern Daylight Saving Time — Venus and Jupiter will stand only 11.9’ apart, less than half the diameter of a Full Moon. This will make the pair an “easy squeeze” into the same telescopic field of view at low power. Venus will shine at magnitude -3.9, while Jupiter is currently about 2 magnitudes or 6.3 times fainter at magnitude -1.8. In fact, Jupiter shines about as bright as another famous star just emerging into the dawn sky, Sirius. Such a dawn sighting is known as a heliacal rising, and the first recovery of Sirius in the dawn heralded the flooding of the Nile for the ancient Egyptians and the start what we now term the Dog Days of Summer.

To the naked eye, enormous Jupiter will appear to be the “moon” that Venus never had next weekend. The spurious and legendary Neith reported by astronomers of yore lives! You can imagine the view of the Earth and our large Moon as a would-be Venusian astronomer stares back at us (you’d have to get up above those sulfuric acid clouds, of course!)

Said conjunction is only a product of our Earthly vantage point. Venus currently exhibits a waxing gibbous disk 10” across — three times smaller than Jupiter — but Venus is also four times closer to Earth at 1.61 astronomical units distant. And from Jupiter’s vantage point, you’d see a splendid conjunction of Venus and the Earth, albeit only three degrees from the Sun:

Earth meets Venus, as seen from Jupiter on August 18th. Note the Moon nearby. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

How often do the two brightest planets in the sky meet up? Well, Jupiter reaches the same solar longitude (say, returns back to opposition again) about once every 13 months. Venus, however, never strays more than 47.1 degrees elongation from the Sun and can thus always be found in either the dawn or dusk sky. This means that Jupiter pairs up with Venus roughly about once a year:

A list
A list of Venus and Jupiter conjunctions, including angular separation and elongations (west=dawn, east=dusk) from now until 2020. Created by author.

Note that next year and 2019 offer up two pairings of Jupiter and Venus, while 2018 lacks even one. And the conjunction on August 27th, 2016 is only 4’ apart! And yes, Venus can indeed occult Jupiter, although that hasn’t happened since 1818 and won’t be seen again from Earth until – mark your calendars – November 22nd, 2065, though only a scant eight degrees from the Sun. Hey, maybe SOHO’s solar observing successor will be on duty by then…

Venus has been the culprit in many UFO sightings, as pilots have been known to chase after it and air traffic controllers have made furtive attempts to hail it over the years. And astronomy can indeed save lives when it comes to conjunctions: in fact, last year’s close pairing of Jupiter and Venus in the dusk sky nearly sparked an international incident, when Indian Army sentries along the Himalayan border with China mistook the pair for Chinese spy drones. Luckily, Indian astronomers identified the conjunction before shots were exchanged!

Earth strikes back...
Earth strikes back… firing a 5mw green laser at the 2013 conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. Photo by author.

Next week’s conjunction also occurs against the backdrop of Messier 44/Praesepe, also known as the “Beehive cluster”. It’ll be difficult to catch sight of M44, however, because the entire “tri-conjunction” sits only 18 degrees from the Sun in the dawn sky. Binocs or a low power field of view might tease out the distant cluster from behind the planetary pair.

And to top it off, the waning crescent Moon joins the group on the mornings of August 23rd and 24th, passing about five degrees distant. Photo op! Can you follow Venus up into the daytime sky, using the Moon as a guide? How about Jupiter? Be sure to block that blinding Sun behind a hill or building while making this attempt.

The Moon photobombs the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter on the weekend of August 23rd. Credit: Stellarium.

The addition of the Moon will provide the opportunity to catch a skewed “emoticon” conjunction. A rare smiley face “:)” conjunction occurred in 2009, and another tight skewed tri-conjunction is in the offering for 2056. While many national flags incorporate examples of close pairings of Venus and the crescent Moon, we feel at least one should include a “smiley face” conjunction, if for no other reason than to highlight the irony of the cosmos.

A challenge: can you catch a time exposure of the International Space Station passing Venus and Jupiter? You might at least pull off a “:/” emoticon image!

Don’t miss the astronomical action unfolding in a dawn sky near you over the coming weeks. And be sure to spread the word: astronomical knowledge may just well avert a global catastrophe. The fate of the free world lies in the hands of amateur astronomers!

When Good Meteor Showers Go Bad: Prospects for the 2014 Perseids

It’s that time of year again, when the most famous of all meteor showers puts on its best display.

Why are the Perseids such an all ‘round favorite of sky watchers?  Well, while it’s true that other annual meteor showers such as the Quadrantids and Geminids can exceed the Perseids in maximum output, the Perseids do have a few key things going for them. First, the shower happens in mid-August, which finds many northern hemisphere residents camping out under warm, dark skies prior to the start of the new school year. And second, unlike showers such as the elusive Quads which peak over just a few hours, the Perseids enjoy a broad span of enhanced activity, often covering a week or more.

Credit: JPL
The orientation of the orbital path of Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle and the position of the Earth on August 12th. Credit: JPL-Horizons.

These are all good reasons to start watching for Perseids now. Here’s the low down on the Perseid meteors for 2014:

The History: The Perseids are sometimes referred to as “The Tears of Saint Lawrence,” who was martyred right around the same date on August 10th, 258 A.D. The source of the shower is comet 109P Swift-Tuttle, which  was first identified as such by Schiaparelli in 1866. The comet itself visited the inner solar system again recently in 1992 on its 120 year orbit about the Sun, and rates were enhanced throughout the 1990s.

A 2013 Perseid pierces the plane of the Milky Way.
A 2013 Perseid pierces the plane of the Milky Way. Credit: Stephen Rahn.

Unlike most showers, the Perseids have a very broad peak, and observers and automated networks such as UKMON and NASA’s All Sky Camera sites have already begun to catch activity starting in late July.

Credit: The UK-MON network.
A pair of early 2014 Perseids recently captured by UKMON’s Wilcot station. Credit: The UK-MON network.

In recent years, the rates for the Perseids have been lowering a bit but are still enhanced, with ZHRs at 91(2010), 58(2011), 122(2012), and 109(2013). It’s also worth noting that the Perseids typically exhibit a twin peak maximum within a 24 hour span. The International Meteor Organization maintains an excellent page for quick look data to check out what observers worldwide are currently seeing. The IMO also encourages observers worldwide to submit meteor counts by location. Note that the phase of the Moon was near Full in 2011, with observing circumstances very similar to 2014.

The Prospects for 2014: Unfortunately, the 2014 Perseid meteors have a major strike going against them this year: the Moon will be at waning gibbous during its peak and just two days past Full illumination. This will make for short exposure times and light polluted skies. There are, however, some observational strategies that you can use to combat this: one is to place a large building or hill between yourself and the Moon while you observe — another is to start your morning vigil a few days early, before the Moon reaches Full. The expected Zenithal Hourly Rate for 2014 is predicted to hover around 90 and arrive around 00:15 to 2:00 UT on August 13th favoring Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Created by Author
The orientation of Earth’s shadow during the projected peak of the Perseids on August 13th at 00:15 Universal Time.  The positions where the Sun, Moon, and radiant of the Perseids are directly overhead are also noted. Created by Author.

The Radiant: It’s strange but true: meteor shower radiants wander slightly across the sky during weeks surrounding peak activity, due mostly to the motion of the Earth around the Sun. Because of this, the radiant of the Perseids is not actually in the constellation Perseus on the date that it peaks! At its maximum, the radiant actually sits juuusst north of the constellation that it’s named for on the border of Camelopardalis and Cassiopeia. This is a great pedantic point to bring up with your friends on your August meteor vigil… they’ll sure be glad that you pointed this out to ’em and hopefully, invite you back for next year’s Perseid watch.

The actual position of the radiant sits at 3 Hours 04’ Right Ascension and +58 degrees north declination.

Credit: Starry Night Education software.
The movement of the radiant of the Perseids. The sky is simulated for latitude 30 degrees north at 2:00 AM local on August 13th. Credit: Starry Night Education software.

Meteor-speak: Don’t know your antihelion from a zenithal hourly rate? We wrote a whole glossary that’ll have you talking meteors like a pro for Adrian West’s outstanding Meteorwatch site a few years back. Just remember, the crucial “ZHR” of a shower that is often quoted is an ideal extrapolated rate… light pollution, the true position of the radiant, observer fatigue and limited field of view all conspire to cause you to see less than this predicted maximum. The universe and its meteor showers are indeed a harsh mistress!

Observing: But don’t let this put you off. As Wayne Gretsky said, “You miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take,” and the same is true with meteor observing: you’re sure to see exactly zero if you don’t observe at all. Some of my most memorable fireball sightings over the years have been Perseids. And remember, the best time to watch for meteors is after local midnight, as the Earth is turned forward into the meteor stream. Remember, the car windshield (Earth) gets the bugs (meteors) moving down the summer highway…

Good luck, and let us know of those tales of Perseid hunting and send those meteor pics in to Universe Today!