Northern Lights Travel South

On Oct. 24, 2011, the Northern Lights glowed over North Alabama, visible even though the skies were bright from city lights.


Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are unusual so far south — the colorful, 20-minute display was a rare sighting caused by a recent solar storm. This video was captured by the color allsky camera at the Automated Lunar and Meteor Observatory, or ALaMO, at the Marshall Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Evaporated Comet

A meteor and the barred spiral galaxy NGC-2903 grace the top of this October 14 image of an area of space near the head of the constellation Leo. The meteor and the galaxy were purely coincidental, as it is what is not visible in the image that is important. Two telescopes operated by astronomers at the Marshall Space Flight Center just stopped scanning the skies for Comet Elenin, which began fading and breaking apart back in August. Its close approach to the Sun on September 10 apparently caused the comet to disintegrate even further, into  objects so small they are unable to be seen by ground-based telescopes like the 20″ instrument which took this picture. An anticlimatic end to the so-called “Comet of Doom”, with only empty space to mark its close approach (22 million miles) to Earth.


By the way, the galaxy NGC-2903 is 30 million light years distant from our own Milky Way.


Photo credit: Rhiannon Blaauw, Rob Suggs


One Night, Five Meteor Showers

On the night of Oct. 15-16, NASA’s All-sky camera network saw meteors from five different meteor showers! October is known to be a busy month in the world of meteor showers, but even five is an unusually high number.


 The last meteor seen in the early morning skies over Huntsville, Ala., on the night of the Oct. 15-16.


To see videos of these meteors, and others, go to and select 20111016 on the left panel. In addition to those five shower meteors, eight sporadic or background  meteors were detected. The five showers were: Delta Aurigids, or DAU, October Ursa Majorids, or OCU, Chi Taurids, or CTA, Orionids , or ORI, and Eta Geminids, or EGE. See the list at the end of this post for more information on each shower.


The only shower mentioned above that would be worth observing for yourself is the Orionids. The Orionids peak this Friday evening — the night of Oct. 21-22 — and are best viewed anytime after midnight. They are one of the last showers of the year that may have favorable weather to lie outside all night. If you are in Northern Alabama, October evenings are still quite pleasant for stargazing. Luckily for you the moon won’t be too much of a problem. Only a small fraction of the moon is illuminated, unlike many major meteor showers this year whose rates were considerably hampered because the light from a full moon washed them out.


Delta Aurigids, or DAU: Active from Sept. 20 — Oct. 16, peaking on Oct. 3 with only two meteors per hour. Velocity of 143,000 miles/hour. The Delta Aurigids are not a well-known shower thus any observations refine the information we know about them.


October Ursa Majorids, or OCU: Active from Oct. 12-19, peaking on Oct. 15. Velocity of 119 miles/hour. This is a very minor shower rates of less than one per hour. Radiant — where the meteors appear to come from — is in Ursa Major.


Chi Taurids, or CTA:  Active from Oct. 10 — Nov. 10, peaking on Nov. 3. Velocity approximately 94,000 miles/hour. This is also a shower that has very little known about it. It was recently discovered in a survey to find minor meteor showers using a meteor radar (Brown et al, 2010).


Orionids, or ORI: Active from Oct. 2 — Nov. 7, peaking on Oct. 21 with rates up to 25 per hour. Velocity of 150,000 miles/hour. Radiant is in the constellation Orion.


Eta Geminids, or EGE:  Active from Oct. 14-27.  Peaking on Oct. 18 with rates of three per hour. These are fast-moving meteors that average at 157,000 miles/hour. Eta Geminids are often confused with Orionids since their velocity and peaks are similar.


Brown, P., Wong, D.K., Weryk, R.J., Wiegert, P.

A meteoroid stream survey using the Canadian Meteor Orbit Radar II: Identification of minor showers using a 3D wavelet transform

Icarus 207 (2010) 66–81.



Credits: NASA/MSFC/Meteoroid Environment Office/Rhiannon Blaauw, Bill Cooke


Sunset at the ALaMO

A new color all-sky camera has opened its eyes at the ALaMO, or Automated Lunar and Meteor Observatory, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Watch its inaugural video below, showing sunset fade into evening at the Marshall Center on Oct. 5, 2011. The time-lapse video spans about 2:28 hours, and the Moon is the object that emerges at the lower left side to cross the sky so brightly.


The ALaMO consists of two observatory domes, a 15-meter, or 50-foot, tower with a roll-off roof and an operations center with laboratory space. A 14-inch Ritchey-Chrétien telescope resides in the tower, and a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain in one of the two observation domes.


Check out this curious short-term visitor, seen on Oct. 6, 2011. 




A Spectacular Double-Shot

A wide field meteor camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center recorded this spectacular meteor breaking up in Earth’s atmosphere on Sept. 30, 2011, 8:37 p.m. EDT. Also visible is a star-like object moving slowly toward the upper middle of the field of view — the upper stage of the Zenit booster that launched the Russian Cosmos 2219 intelligence satellite back in 1992. Orbiting 500 miles above Earth, this empty rocket body can get bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye.   

Credit: Meteoroid Environment Office/Bill Cooke