The Perseids are on the Rise!

It’s time again for one of the biggest meteor showers of the year! The Perseids are already showing up in our night skies—and when they peak in mid-August, it’s likely to be one of our most impressive skywatching opportunities for a while.

Perseid Meteor image
In this 30 second exposure taken with a circular fish-eye lens, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Our meteor-tracking cameras spotted their first Perseid on July 26, but your best chance to see them will start the night of Aug. 11. With the crescent moon setting early, the skies will be dark for the peak viewing hours of midnight (local time) to dawn on Aug. 12.

Perseid activity
This chart shows expected levels of Perseid activity for July and August 2021, relative to the peak on Aug. 11-13, ignoring the effects of the Sun, Moon, and clouds. All times are in UTC. Credits: (NASA/MEO/Bill Cooke)

If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, and far away from light pollution, you might spot more than 40 Perseids an hour! (If you’re in a city, you may only see a few every hour; skywatchers in the Southern Hemisphere will also see fewer Perseids, with none visible below about 30 degrees south latitude.) The night of Aug. 12-13 will be another great opportunity to see the Perseids: with a full Moon (and lower meteor activity) during the Perseids’ peak in 2022 and a waning crescent high in the sky for 2023, this might be your best chance to do some summer skywatching for a few years.

Find somewhere comfortable, avoiding bright lights as much as possible (yes, including your phone), and give your eyes some time to adjust to the dark—up to half an hour if you can. The Perseids will appear as quick, small streaks of light: they get their name because they look like they’re coming from the direction of the constellation Perseus (near Aries and Taurus in the night sky), but Perseids in that area can be hard to spot from the perspective of Earth. So just look up and enjoy the show!

If you can’t see the Perseids where you live, join NASA to watch them on social media! Tune in overnight Aug. 11-12 (10 PM–5 AM CDT; 3–10 AM UTC) on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to look for meteors with space fans from around the world. If skies are cloudy the night of Aug. 11, we’ll try again the same time on Aug. 12-13. Our livestream is hosted by the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which tracks meteors, fireballs, and other uncommon sights in the night sky to inform the public and help keep our astronauts and spacecraft safe.

Where do the Perseids *actually* come from?

The Perseids are fragments of the comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits between the Sun and beyond the orbit of Pluto once every 133 years. Every year, the Earth passes near the path of the comet, and the debris left behind by Swift-Tuttle shows up as meteors in our sky. (Don’t worry, there’s no chance that we’ll run into the actual comet anytime soon.)

Where can I go to learn more?

We’ve got some great space-rock lessons for students, starting with the biggest question: what’s the difference between an asteroid and a meteor? Our NASA Space Place site also has a kid-friendly introduction to meteor showers in general. If you’re looking for something a little more hands-on, try this asteroid-building classroom activity—or, for an older audience, learn how to describe rocks like a NASA scientist.

And, if you want to know what else is in the night sky this month, check out the video below from Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s monthly “What’s Up” video series:

Happy skywatching!

by Brice Russ

See the Strawberry Moon – 2021’s Last Supermoon!

Our planet’s natural satellite – better known as the Moon – will appear opposite the Sun and fully illuminated on June 24, 2021, at 18:40 UTC, which is 1:40 p.m. CDT (UTC-5). This full Moon is quite special for two reasons: it’s a Strawberry Moon and the last supermoon of the year!

The Strawberry Moon marks the last full Moon of spring or the first full Moon of summer. Towards the end of June, the Moon usually sits in a lower position in the sky and shines through more of our atmosphere. Because of this, our Moon can sometimes give off a pinkish hue.

supermoon
A supermoon rises behind the U.S. Capitol, Monday, March 9, 2020, in Washington. Credits: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Surprisingly, the name likely has more to do with the time of the year it occurs than its unusual pink shade. Some Native American tribes referred to this full moon as the Strawberry Moon because it signaled a time for gathering ripening strawberries and other fruits.

A supermoon occurs when a full Moon coincides with the Moon’s closet approach to Earth in its elliptical orbit, a point known as perigee. During every 27-day orbit around Earth, the Moon reaches both its perigee, about 226,000 miles from Earth, and its farthest point, or apogee, about 251,000 miles from Earth.

Although supermoon is not an official astronomical term, it’s typically used to describe a full Moon that comes within at least 90% of perigee. In this phase, the Moon appears larger and brighter than usual. A new Moon can also be a supermoon. However, we typically do not see a new Moon since it is between Earth and the Sun, and therefore not illuminated.

If you’re in the daylight at the time of the Super Strawberry Moon, look for a better view during its moonrise, which is about 20 minutes after sunset, local time.

The Super Strawberry Moon will be the last of four supermoons for 2021. Supermoons only happen three to four times a year, and always appear consecutively. The last three supermoons occurred on May 26, April 27, and March 28.

Skywatchers, please enjoy the sunset in the west, and if you look toward the east, you may notice the subtle pink hue of our Super Strawberry Moon!

by Lance D. Davis

June Solstice Brings Summer, Winter Seasons

The June solstice gives us the green light to welcome the summer season in the Northern Hemisphere and winter season in the Southern Hemisphere. This happens June 21, 2021, at 03:32 UTC, but for us in North America, that’s June 20 at 10:32 p.m. CDT (UTC-5).

In meteorology, summer begins on June 1. Yet, June 21 is perhaps the most widely recognized day when summer starts in the northern half of our planet and winter starts in the southern half. This astronomical beginning of the summer season and long-held, universal tradition of celebrating the solstice have allowed us to treasure this time of warmth and light.

Summer solstice explanation
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. Credits: NASA/Genna Duberstein

Along with marking the beginning of summer, this will also be the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. We will begin to see early dawns, long days, late sunsets, and short nights. On the solstice, our Sun will reach its highest point as it crosses the sky. Meanwhile, south of the equator, winter will begin!

The ancient cultures knew that the Sun’s path across the sky, length of daylight, and location of the sunrise and sunset all shifted in a regular way throughout the year. Additionally, people built monuments, like Stonehenge, to follow the Sun’s annual progress, to worship the Sun, and to predict its movements.

Earth's seasons
Click to view larger. Credit: NASA/Space Place

Today, we celebrate the solstice as an astronomical event caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and its motion in orbit around the Sun.

Earth’s axis may be imagined as an imaginary pole going right through the center of our planet 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 doesn’t orbit upright; its axis is always tilted 23.5˚ with respect to the Sun-Earth line, which is why we have seasons. During the June solstice compared to any other time of the year, the north pole is tipped more directly toward the Sun, and the south pole is tipped more directly away from the Sun. As a result, all locations north of the equator see days longer than 12 hours and all locations south see days shorter than 12 hours.

Enjoy the new season – whichever half of the globe you’re in!

by Lance D. Davis

May’s Full Moon Comes with Supermoon Eclipse

As we approach month’s end, there is not one, not two, but three celestial events happening with our Moon!

The Moon will be located on Earth’s opposite side from the Sun and fully illuminated May 26, 2021, at 6:13 a.m. CDT. This Full Moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Flower Moon because this was the time of year when spring flowers appeared in abundance.

Compared to other Full Moons in 2021, the Flower Moon will have the nearest approach to Earth, making it appear as the closet and largest Full Moon of the year. This is what is commonly referred to as a “supermoon”. Yet, it’s not just bringing brightness and size. May’s supermoon is also bringing a “super power” to change its color, and the color is red!

A telescopic visualization of the 2021 total lunar eclipse.
A telescopic visualization of the 2021 total lunar eclipse.
Credits: NASA’s Scientifc Visualization Studio

Mars is most commonly known as the Red Planet. But have you ever witnessed our own planet’s Moon turn red? If you haven’t, you’ll get your chance with this year’s only total lunar eclipse also happening May 26! It’s been nearly two and a half years since the last one.

A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes completely through the Earth’s dark shadow, or umbra. During this type of eclipse, the Moon will gradually get darker, taking on a rusty or blood-red color. The color is so striking that lunar eclipses are sometimes called Blood Moons.

The total eclipse phase will be visible near moonset in the western United States and Canada, all of Mexico, most of Central America and Ecuador, western Peru, and southern Chile and Argentina. The eclipse can be seen in its entirety in eastern Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, including Hawaii. Unlike a solar eclipse, you won’t need special glasses to view this lunar eclipse, just go outside and keep your head to the sky!

“Folks in Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands will get to see the entirety of this eclipse – it will be quite a show for them,” said Bill Cooke, Lead, NASA Meteoroid Environments Office.

The eclipse is set to begin May 26 at 1:46 a.m. PDT, with the Moon entering the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow at 2:45 a.m. Part of it will remain in the umbra until 5:53 a.m. To catch totality – the period when all of the Moon’s surface is blanketed by the Earth’s dark shadow – look up between 4:11 and 4:26 a.m.

We haven’t had a total lunar eclipse occur with a supermoon in almost six years, and the next total lunar eclipse won’t happen over North America until May 2022.

Enjoy this spectacle of the sky!

by Lance D. Davis

Flights are Complete! Mission Success!

After two days of experimenting in weightlessness, a team of researchers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center have their feet firmly planted on the ground.

The team spent April 28 and 29 on parabolic flights with ZERO-G in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The flight — which achieves various levels of microgravity by performing maneuvers known as parabolas — provided the team with an opportunity to study the formation of potentially destructive amyloid fibrils, or protein clusters, like those found in the brain tissue of patients battling neurodegenerative diseases. The experiment, called the ring-sheared drop, was developed by Marshall and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York.

Marshall materials science engineer, Ellen Rabenberg, has supported the project for nearly five years. After two flights on ZERO-G’s modified Boeing 727 — G Force One — in 2016 and 2020, she supported the payload from the ground this year. As ground support, she was responsible for preparing and installing the equipment for flight.

parabolic flight on Flight Aware's live map
Marshall’s ground support team tracked the parabolic flight on Flight Aware’s live map while G Force One performed 30 parabolas. (Flight Aware)

To track the flight in real time, Rabenberg followed the live updates on Flight Aware. Over the course of approximately two hours each day, she monitored the map as G Force One completed 30 parabolas.

Now, Rabenberg and her colleagues will analyze the data gathered in flight and determine next steps for their payload.

Parabolic Pre-flight Checklist

How do you prepare for weightlessness? A team of researchers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has been doing so in preparation of their April 28 and 29 parabolic flights with ZERO-G in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Marshall's parabolic flight crew
The Marshall team exits the G Force One after the first day of parabolic flights. (NASA)
So what is on their parabolic pre-flight checklist?

An easily digestible breakfast
The flight team is served a doctor-recommended breakfast of bagels, fruit, and juice — all of which digest quickly and easily to provide fuel for their bodies as they experience periods of variable gravity.

Proper attire
Fort Lauderdale is a subtropical climate with warm and humid conditions in the spring. Participants wear light, comfortable clothing and closed toed shoes for movement in the hangar, on the ramp, and on the aircraft. Each flyer wears a ZERO-G flight suit, which enables ease of movement in air.

A COVID-19 test
All non-vaccinated participants are tested for COVID-19 daily to ensure safety of all parties.

Identification
Just like a typical commercial flight, each individual must complete a TSA check before boarding the aircraft. They must present a valid driver’s license, passport, or other TSA-approved identification.

Once all the pre-flight boxes are checked, the team will board a modified Boeing 727 — named G Force One — to execute their experiment in a weightless environment.

Marshall's flight team completes a TSA check before boarding G Force One.
Marshall’s flight team completes a TSA check before boarding G Force One. (NASA)

While in the air, the team will test an experiment known as the Ring-Sheared Drop. Developed by Marshall and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York, the experiment will study the formation of potentially destructive amyloid fibrils, or protein clusters, like those found in the brain tissue of patients battling neurodegenerative diseases — such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

To track the flight path as it performs parabolas, check out Flight Aware.

For more updates on the flight, the team, and the experiment, continue to follow Watch the Skies blog in the coming week.

Ring-Sheared Drop Team Prepares for Zero-G Flight 

A team of researchers from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is preparing to take flight and evade gravity in pursuit of science.

Team members are traveling to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to test an experiment known as the Ring-Sheared Drop. Developed by Marshall and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, New York, the experiment will study the formation of potentially destructive amyloid fibrils, or protein clusters, like those found in the brain tissue of patients battling neurodegenerative diseases — such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The Ring-Sheared Drop team boards G Force One
The Ring-Sheared Drop team boards G Force One in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with their equipment. (NASA)

In Earth-based experiments, researchers determined that amyloid fibrils may be created by shear flow, or the difference in flow velocity between adjacent layers of a liquid. In the case of ground experiments, that formation is affected by the presence of container walls and by convection, or the circular motion that occurs when warmer liquid rises while cooler liquid descends.

The goal now is to conduct experiments in microgravity — in a containerless reactor — where the liquid specimens form spherical drops, containing themselves via surface tension. Researchers will “pin” a droplet of liquid between two rings and cultivate amyloid fibrils for study.

The experiment was initially launched to the International Space Station in 2019. However, when the experiment failed, efforts began on Earth to improve the testing apparatus for future testing. Now, before the equipment is ready for another trip to the space station, the team will “practice” pinning liquid drops on a parabolic flight.

The research team installs their experimental hardware on G Force One
The research team installs their experimental hardware on G Force One in preparation for April 28, 29 parabolic flights. (NASA)

How exactly is weightlessness reached? A modified Boeing 727 — named G-Force One — achieves periods of variable gravity through a series of maneuvers called parabolas. The team will be able to interact with their hardware in zero gravity for 22 seconds at a time.

NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, within the Space Technology Mission Directorate, makes these experiment flights possible by facilitating rapid demonstration of promising technologies for space exploration, discovery, and results benefit life on Earth.

The program matures capabilities needed for NASA missions and commercial applications while strategically investing in the growth of the U.S. commercial spaceflight industry.

The Ring-Sheared Drop team is scheduled to fly with their hardware April 28 and 29 on a parabolic flight managed by Zero G of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Continue to follow NASA’s Watch the Skies blog in the coming weeks for the latest updates on the team, the parabolic flight, and the results of the Ring-Sheared Drop experiment.

Earth Day: NASA Celebration, Lyrids to Peak

Earth Day – also known as the birth of the modern environmental movement – is Thursday, April 22, 2021. It began in 1970, giving a voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet. The celebration is widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world, with more than a billion people participating annually in support of preserving the health and beauty of our planet.

In observance of Earth Day, NASA will host a virtual event April 21-24 to show how we are #ConnectedByEarth with a week of online events, stories, and resources. The event platform will feature live presentations by NASA scientists, as well as interactive chats with Earth science experts. Visitors can explore the connections between Earth’s atmosphere, water cycle, forests, fields, cities, ice caps, and climate through videos and interactive science content, a kid-friendly fun zone, a scavenger hunt, hundreds of downloadable resources, and more. Some content also will be available in Spanish.

Earth Day
This Earth Day, NASA highlights science and technology that is helping us all live more sustainably on our home planet and adapt to natural and human-caused changes. Credits: NASA

On Earth Day at 11 a.m. EDT, NASA will host a special live conversation with Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes and five people living and working in space: NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Dr. Shannon Walker, and Mark Vande Hei; and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The event will air live on NASA Television, the NASA app, and the agency’s website. Learn more about NASA’s Earth Day plans and free online registration.

After several months of a meteor drought in 2021, we also have the annual Lyrid meteor shower coming up on Earth Day. The Lyrids will peak in the predawn hours of Earth Day (April 22). If you miss the peak, the wee hours of the following morning (April 23) offer another chance to see this shower, though the number of meteors will be down about 30% from the night of the 21st/22nd.

Lyrid and not-Lyrid meteors over New Mexico
Composite image of Lyrid and not-Lyrid meteors over New Mexico from April, 2012. Credits: NASA/ MSFC/ Danielle Moser

Observers in the Northern Hemisphere will see the most Lyrids, with the best time to watch between midnight and dawn. Although you’ll see a fairly bright Moon in the evening sky, it will set before the shower peaks near dawn. Peak rates for the Lyrids are around 10-20 meteors per hour. The meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Lyra, but they can appear anywhere in the sky, which is why it is important to lie on your back and take in as much sky as possible.

The Lyrids is among the oldest of known meteor showers, with records going back for 2,700 years or more. It is produced by dust particles left behind by Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which was discovered in 1861. The shower runs annually from April 16-25.

For more on meteor showers, visit the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.

Happy Earth Day and meteor watching!

by Lance D. Davis

March Equinox Brings 2 Seasons: Spring, Autumn

The March equinox – also called the vernal equinox – is the beginning of the spring season in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn season in the Southern Hemisphere. It arrives on March 20, 2021, at 09:37 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) or 4:37 a.m. CDT (Central Daylight Time).

illustration of the March (spring) and September (fall or autumn) equinoxes
An illustration of the March (spring) and September (fall or autumn) equinoxes. During the equinoxes, both hemispheres receive equal amounts of daylight. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

During this equinox, the Sun will shine directly on the equator with nearly equal amounts of day and night, about 12 hours. Throughout the world, the Northern and Southern hemispheres will get equal amounts of daylight.

Click to view larger. Credit: NASA/Space Place

The equinoxes and solstices are caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and ceaseless motion in orbit. Think of an equinox as happening on the imaginary dome of our sky, or as an event that happens in Earth’s orbit around the Sun.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the March equinox will bring us earlier sunrises, later sunsets, softer winds, and budding plants. With the opposite season, south of the equator, there will be later sunrises, earlier sunsets, chillier winds, and dry, falling leaves.

If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, start watching the Sun as it sets just a bit farther north on the horizon each evening until the summer solstice. Also, enjoy the warmer weather and extended daylight!

Sky Watching Highlights for February 2021

Do you want to see some sky watching highlights in February 2021? Find Mars all month after sunset, especially on the night of Feb. 18 for NASA’s planned rover landing. Then, watch the Moon glide across the Winter Circle before it pays a visit to the bright stars of the constellation Gemini. Check out the video below produced by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to learn more!