About the Upcoming (maybe) Alpha Monocerotid Meteor Shower Outburst…

By: Bill Cooke
Lead, NASA Meteoroid Environment Office


The media is currently broadcasting the prediction of an outburst of the alpha Monocerotid meteor shower on the night of November 21. The researchers making the prediction, Dr. Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, have made calculations that indicate that there may be zenithal hourly rates as high as 400 to 1000 meteors per hour around 11:50 PM Eastern Standard Time (10:50 PM Central and 9:50 PM Mountain; you will note that I am not giving a Pacific time – more on that later). These are impressive numbers, generating lots of buzz in the media. I love meteor outbursts and storms, so I was initially quite excited – I mean, what’s there not to like about an impromptu display involving lots of meteors from a yet-to-be discovered comet?

But as the media inquiries increased, I began to wonder if all the attention is justified. Being a meteor shower forecaster, I am all too aware of the fact that such predictions (including mine), while pretty accurate on the timing, often estimate a shower intensity higher (factors of a few) than what actually takes place. So I decided to take a more detailed look, starting with some dumpster diving for old papers about this shower and making a few calculations of my own. That’s when the skepticism kicked in – I now think there is a pretty good chance there may be no outburst at all. And even if there is, it won’t be as impressive as many think. Allow me to share…

This map shows the total number of meteors observers in the United States can expect to see for this year’s alpha Monocerotid meteor shower, provided the rates are similar to the 1995 outburst.
This map shows the total number of meteors observers in the United States can expect to see for this year’s alpha Monocerotid meteor shower, provided the rates are similar to the 1995 outburst.

In Dr. Jenniskens and Lyytinen’s work, the Earth is forced to pass through the center of alpha Monocerotid meteor stream (AMOs for short) during the shower’s 1925 and 1935 outbursts. We have no idea if this actually happened, but it is a reasonable assumption if these outbursts were more intense than the last one in 1995. Based on this, they conclude that the AMOs are produced by a long period comet that takes about 500 years to orbit the Sun. IF this is right, then we should pass very close to the center of the meteor stream this year, missing it by a scant 15,000 miles. That’s just a tad closer than we got back in 1995, when the observed zenithal hourly rate was about 400 per hour. And it’s why the forecast rate is so high – closer means the same intensity or better.

However, the intensity of the outburst is very dependent on the size of the parent comet’s orbit. If it is much smaller, or larger, the distance from the stream center will be bigger, and there will not be any sky show, just the normal AMOs, puttering along with their normal rate of 3 or so meteors per hour. And since we have not yet discovered this mysterious parent comet, who knows how close the estimate of the orbit is to the actual? A good reason to step outside Thursday night, because the cool thing is that if an outburst does occur, we will have a pretty good idea of the orbit of this comet – not from observing the comet with telescopes, but by counting its debris as they burn up in our atmosphere.

The old papers I dug up also proved enlightening. I could find no meteor rate numbers for the 1925 outburst – just that it was short, with a fair number of meteors. The 1935 AMO outburst was observed in 2 places – a meteor observer in Begumpet, India and the commanding officer of a U.S. ship in the Philippines each reported seeing a total of just over 100 meteors in a 40 minute span of time. That’s nice, but it certainly is nowhere close to the spectacular rates produced by the Leonid and Draconid meteor storms of the 1900’s. A moderate outburst, yes, but not a meteor storm. Even fewer were seen in 1985, when one observer reported 36 meteors seen over 16 minutes of time. It is true that the calculated rates were in the hundreds per hour, but what matters to the average person is the total number of meteors they will see. Zenithal hourly rates give the theoretical rates for a perfect observer under perfect skies with the shower radiant straight overhead (something that never happens in reality), and while they may be a good way to scientifically measure meteor shower activity, they are poor indicators of what will actually be seen. The observer reports, however, do tell us what we might expect.

And then we come to 1995, the best-observed AMO outburst. Quite a few observers in Western Europe saw about 100 meteors over an hour’s time, consistent with the observations of the previous AMO outbursts. These data do not indicate that we were closer to the AMO stream center in 1925 and 1935, as Jenniskens and Lyytinen suggest; in fact, it appears that AMO outbursts are fairly constant with regard to numbers, with about 100 meteors seen over the less-than-an-hour duration of the outburst. At face value, this would mean no outburst. However, the numbers seeming to be not strongly dependent on distance is possibly good news; even if the researchers’ distance assumptions are wrong, we still may have a chance of a respectable, albeit short, outburst, provided Earth gets “close enough” to the stream center.

At the beginning of this post, I gave times for the predicted peak in the Eastern, Central, and Mountain time zones, but left out Pacific. That’s because the AMO radiant – the point in the constellation of Monocerotis from which the meteors appear to originate – is below the horizon at the peak time for locations west of Denver. That means people on the Pacific Coast will not see this outburst, even if their skies are clear. So if you live there and want to experience the shower, you need to go quite a bit east. If you do, please don’t blame me if the outburst is a no show; as I said, I am a bit skeptical. For the eastern United States, the radiant is not very high in the sky at the forecast peak time (about 23° in Orlando), which is unfortunate since the observed number of meteors is tied to the radiant altitude. The higher the radiant, the more meteors people see. So my computer savvy colleagues have generated this map, which shows the total numbers of meteors you can expect to see if the outburst is similar to that of 1995. Blue is good, red is worse, white means no meteors at all. The decrease in total expected meteors is pretty obvious as you move west

And of course, there is the weather. Remember, you need clear, dark skies to see meteors, and it looks like Mother Nature is going to be mean, with clouds forecast over much of the part of the U.S. that has a chance of observing the outburst. So, if you are gifted with good seeing, give yourself about 45 minutes to adjust to the dark – go out about 10:35 PM Eastern, 9:35 PM Central, or 8:35 PM Mountain. Lie flat on your back, look straight up, and enjoy looking at the night sky (maybe listen to some appropriate tunes, but don’t look at your cell phone, as the bright screen will ruin your night vision). If Jenniskens and Lyytinen are right, you might see some pieces of a comet that awaits discovery, burning up in the atmosphere 60 miles above your head.

That’s worth a couple of hours, I think. Even if there is no outburst, it doesn’t hurt to get out under the stars for a bit.

A Transit of Mercury Happens Nov. 11

The sky will put on a show Nov. 11 when Mercury journeys across the Sun. The event, known as a transit, occurs when Mercury passes directly between Earth and the Sun. From our perspective on Earth, Mercury will look like a tiny black dot gliding across the Sun’s face. This only happens about 13 times a century, so it’s a rare event that skywatchers won’t want to miss! Mercury’s last transit was in 2016.  The next won’t happen again until 2032!

“Viewing transits and eclipses provide opportunities to engage the public, to encourage one and all to experience the wonders of the universe and to appreciate how precisely science and mathematics can predict celestial events,” said Mitzi Adams, a solar scientist in the Heliophysics and Planetary Science Branch at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “Of course, safely viewing the Sun is one of my favorite things to do.”

This year’s transit will be widely visible from most of Earth, including the Americas, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, New Zealand, Europe, Africa, and western Asia. It starts at about 6:35 a.m. CST, but viewers in some areas, such as the West Coast, will have to wait until the Sun rises at their location to see the transit already in progress. Thankfully, this transit will last almost six hours, so there will be plenty of time to catch the show. At about 9:20 a.m. CST, Mercury’s center will be as close as it is going to get to the Sun’s.

Mercury’s tiny disk, jet black and perfectly round, covers a tiny fraction of the Sun’s blinding surface — only 1/283 of the Sun’s apparent diameter. So you’ll need the magnification of a telescope (minimum of 50x) with a solar filter to view the transit. Never look at the Sun directly or through a telescope without proper protection. It can lead to serious and permanent vision damage. Always use a safe Sun filter to protect your eyes!

Scientists have been using transits for hundreds of years to study the way planets and stars move in space. Edmund Halley used a transit of Venus in 1761 and 1769 to determine the absolute distance to the Sun. Another use of transits is the dimming of Sun or star light as a planet crosses in front of it. This technique is one way planets circling other stars can be found. Scientists can measure brightness dips from these other stars (or from the Sun) to calculate sizes of planets, how far away the planets are from their stars, and even get hints of what they’re made of.

NASA Meteor Cameras Get Weird for Halloween

As we head into the darker half of the year here in Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, astronomers at NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office are sharing eerie images from their meteor cameras. The specialized cameras are part of a network set up by the meteor team to observe and study fireballs — meteors brighter that the planet Venus. Here’s a look at the some of the birds, bugs and stranger things that have crept from the shadows into their view.

Creepy Crawler (bug on the camera dome)
Creepy Crawler (bug on the camera dome)
Nocturnal Creepy Crawler
Nocturnal Creepy Crawler
Reluctant Creepy Crawler
Reluctant Creepy Crawler
Hooded visitor from another space and time?
Hooded visitor from another space and time? (Taken by a camera in our sister camera network, located in Canada.)
Come a little closer
Come a little closer (bird on camera dome)
The Mind Flayer
The Mind Flayer (spider on camera dome)

Images and video of fireballs from the cameras are available for anyone to download from NASA’s All-Sky Fireball Network. For a complete album of our favorite eerie images from the cameras, visit Marshall’s Flickr gallery.

International Observe the Moon Night 2019

Heads up, skywatchers! Did you know there’s a night set aside each year to celebrate and observe our Moon? International Observe the Moon Night has been held annually since 2010. This year it’s Saturday, Oct. 5.

This year also offers an opportunity to celebrate lunar exploration at a time when we are preparing to land American astronauts, including the first woman and the next man, on the Moon by 2024. Through the NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, we will use innovative new technologies and systems to explore more of the Moon than ever before, and use that knowledge to take the next giant leap, sending astronauts to Mars.

If you live in or near Huntsville, Alabama, you can join our local Moon celebration Saturday, from 5:30-8:30 p.m. CDT at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Davidson Center for Space Exploration. The event is organized and hosted by the Planetary Mission Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. This year’s event will include lunar and solar system exploration exhibits and more hands-on activities than ever. Members of the public are invited to attend, and it is free! Don’t live in Huntsville? No worries! There are events held worldwide and you can find a list of them here.

Can’t get to an event this weekend? You can still go outside no matter where you live and look at our incredible neighbor. For a list of Moon phases and other cool Moon facts, check out the NASA Science Earth’s Moon page.

And happy Moon-gazing, skywatchers!

Out With the Harvest, In With the Hunt

The International Observe the Moon Night is happening Oct. 5!

In the wake of the beautiful Harvest Moon seen Sept. 14, Earth’s satellite now enters its waning phase, shrinking slice by slice into a visible semicircle as the rotating Earth spins around the Sun and its shadow is cast past us onto the Moon.

This period of waxing or waning is commonly known as a “gibbous” period, a term meaning “convex” or “rounded.” The term originated in the 15th century, though the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it was first applied to describe the Moon in 1690.

Gradually, over the coming month, the Moon will cycle toward its next full period – the Hunter’s Moon, also known as the Blood Moon or Sanguine Moon, due in mid-October. Various Native American tribes gave the Moon this name to reflect the falling leaves of autumn and the fattening of deer and other animals to prepare for the winter to come.

Speaking of coming events, the International Observe the Moon Night is happening Oct. 5! Learn more about NASA’s plans and how you can join in the fun here.

Look for the Harvest Moon this Weekend

Take a moment this weekend to gaze at the beautiful Harvest Moon! The Moon will appear full Thursday night through Sunday morning. Early Saturday morning, Sept. 14, will mark the actual full Moon.

The Harvest Moon gets its name from agriculture. In the days before electric lights, farmers across the Northern Hemisphere depended on bright moonlight to extend the workday beyond sunset. It was the only way they could gather their ripening crops in time for market. The full Moon closest to the autumnal equinox became “the Harvest Moon,” and it was always a welcome sight.

The term became further entrenched in popular culture thanks to a 1903 pop tune called “Shine on Harvest Moon.”

A Harvest Moon inflated by the moon illusion — a common phenomenon with full moons seen close to the horizon, where familiar Earth objects such as trees or buildings lend the Moon a false sense of size — is simply beautiful to view, but even more so to the farmers gathering their crops in on those cool autumn evenings.

Perseids Peak August 11-13

The Perseid meteor shower is here! Perseid meteors, caused by debris left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, began streaking across the skies in late July and will peak on the night of August 12.

The Perseid meteor shower is often considered to be one of the best meteor showers of the year due to its high rates and pleasant late-summer temperatures. This year’s shower, however, has unfortunate circumstance of having a full Moon right at the shower peak, reducing the meteor rates from over 60 per hour down to 15-20 per hour. But the Perseids are rich in bright meteors and fireballs, so it will still be worth going out in the early morning to catch some of nature’s fireworks.

Perseid meteor streaks over sky
A Perseid meteor over Daytona Beach, FL. Perseids are known for being bright and fast, traveling 132,000 mph. Image Credit: NASA/MEO

WHEN SHOULD I LOOK?

Make plans to stay up late or wake up early the nights of August 11 to 12 and August 12 to 13. The Perseids are best seen between about 2 a.m. your local time and dawn. On the night of the 11th, the Moon will set around 3 AM, giving you about an hour of dark sky to catch the shower. However, the rates will be lower than on the peak, so don’t expect more than 20 per hour, even without the Moon. On the night of the peak (August 12-13) you will only have a scant few minutes of dark sky between moon set and twilight – not much time to see Perseids.

If those hours seem daunting, not to worry! You can go out after dark, around 9 p.m. local time, and see Perseids. Just know that you won’t see nearly as many as you would had you gone out during the early morning hours.

How can you see the Perseids if the weather doesn’t cooperate where you are? A live broadcast of the meteor shower from a camera in Huntsville, AL (if our weather cooperates!) will be available on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook starting around 8 p.m. ET and continuing until the early hours of August 13. Meteor videos recorded by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network are also available each morning; to identify Perseids in these videos, look for events labeled “PER.”

WHY ARE THEY CALLED PERSEIDS?

All meteors associated with one particular shower have similar orbits, and they all appear to come from the same place in the sky, called the radiant. Meteor showers take their name from the location of the radiant. The Perseid radiant is in the constellation Perseus. Similarly, the Geminid meteor shower, observed each December, is named for a radiant in the constellation Gemini.

Perseid meteor shower
Most of the meteors seen in this composite are Perseids. Notice how they all appear to be streaking from the same direction? The Perseids appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Perseus. Image Credit: NASA/MEO

HOW TO OBSERVE PERSEIDS

If it’s not cloudy, pick an observing spot away from bright lights, lay on your back, and look up! You don’t need any special equipment to view the Perseids – just your eyes.  (Note that telescopes or binoculars are not recommended.) Meteors can generally be seen all over the sky so don’t worry about looking in any particular direction.

While observing this month, not all of the meteors you’ll see belong to the Perseid meteor shower. Some are sporadic background meteors. And some are from other weaker showers also active right now, including the Alpha Capricornids, the Southern Delta Aquariids, and the Kappa Cygnids. How can you tell if you’ve seen a Perseid? If you see a meteor try to trace it backwards. If you end up in the constellation Perseus, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Perseid. If finding constellations isn’t your forte, then note that Perseids are some of the fastest meteors you’ll see!

Pro tip:  Remember to let your eyes become adjusted to the dark (it takes about 30 minutes) – you’ll see more meteors that way. Try to stay off of your phone too, as looking at devices with bright screens will negatively affect your night vision and hence reduce the number of meteors you see!

Happy viewing!

Space Station Sees Meteor over California Coast

The Expedition 59 crew on board the International Space Station captured this image of a meteor at 7:21:23 GMT on May 10, on a night pass over the Pacific Ocean and California coast. (Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center)
The Expedition 59 crew on board the International Space Station captured this image of a meteor at 7:21:23 GMT on May 10, on a night pass over the Pacific Ocean and California coast. (Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center)

Happy Solstice, Skywatchers

It’s the first day of summer here in the Northern Hemisphere, and the first of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Why the difference? It’s all about Earth’s tilt!

During the solstices, Earth reaches a point where its tilt is at the greatest angle to the plane of its orbit, causing one hemisphere to receive more daylight than the other.
During the solstices, Earth reaches a point where its tilt is at the greatest angle to the plane of its orbit, causing one hemisphere to receive more daylight than the other. (NASA/Genna Duberstein)

Earth’s axis is an imaginary pole going right through the center of Earth from “top” to “bottom.” Earth spins around this pole, making one complete turn each day. That is why we have day and night, and why every part of Earth’s surface gets some of each.

Earth’s axis is always tilted 23.5˚ with respect to the Sun. Today, the north pole is tipped toward the Sun, and the south pole is tipped away from the Sun. The northern summer solstice is an instant in time when the north pole of the Earth points more directly toward the Sun than at any other time of the year.

The solstice—meaning “sun stands still” in Latin—occurs at 10:54 a.m. CDT.

Here Comes the Sun… and Moon!

Happy equinox, Earthlings! March 20 marks the spring equinox, one of two seasonal markers in Earth’s year-long orbit when the Sun appears to shine directly over the equator, and daytime and nighttime are nearly equal lengths–12 hours–everywhere on the planet.

During the equinoxes, both hemispheres receive equal amounts of daylight. (Image not to scale.)
During the equinoxes, both hemispheres receive equal amounts of daylight. (Image not to scale.) (NASA/GSFC/Genna Duberstein)

It’s the start of astronomical spring in the Northern Hemisphere, meaning more sunlight and longer days. From here until the beginning of fall, daytime will be longer than nighttime as the Sun travels a longer, higher arc across the sky each day, reaching a peak at the start of summer. It’s just the opposite in the Southern Hemisphere, where March 20 marks the fall equinox.

What’s more? The first full Moon of spring will rise tonight, lighting the skies on the equinox. Usually, a full Moon arrives a few days to weeks before or after the equinox. It’s close, but not a perfect match. Tonight’s full Moon, however, reaches maximum illumination less than four hours after the equinox. There hasn’t been a comparable coincidence since the spring equinox in 2000.

When the Moon, on its orbit around Earth, reaches the point farthest from the Sun, we see a full Moon.
When the Moon, on its orbit around Earth, reaches the point farthest from the Sun, we see a full Moon. (NASA/GSFC/Genna Duberstein)

And because the Moon is near perigee, it qualifies as a supermoon–the third and final of 2019. It’s not a big supermoon, so you won’t really be able to see the difference between this full Moon and any other one with your eyes. But keep an keep an eye on the Moon as it rises and creeps above the eastern skyline. A low-hanging Moon can appear strangely inflated. This is the Moon illusion at work.

Super or seemingly not, it’s a rare celestial coincidence to usher in springtime.