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

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.

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!

 

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!

Go Outside and See Mars!

35.8 million miles is definitely not what most of us would consider “close.” But in planetary terms, close is definitely relative! On July 31, Mars will be 35.8 million miles from Earth, which is the closest it has been to Earth in 15 years. What does this mean for sky watchers? It means the Red Planet will appear super bright, and with its orange-red color, will be hard to miss in the nighttime sky. From July 27-30, the point in Mars’ orbit will come closest to Earth, and will be closest to Earth before sunrise Eastern Time on July 31.

What defines a “close approach?” The minimum distance from the Earth to Mars is about 33.9 million miles and does not happen very often. Because Earth and Mars have elliptical orbits and are slightly tilted to each other, all close approaches are not equal. When Mars slowly approaches what astronomers call opposition, it and the Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth. Earth and Mars align in opposition about every two years (fun fact: this is why most NASA missions to the Red Planet are at least two years apart – to take advantage of the closer distance). Opposition to Mars is at its closest to the Sun every 15 to 17 years, when excellent views of the Red Planet from Earth can occur. This is what is happening on the early morning hours of July 31.

Mars is the fourth planet from the sun.
Mars is the fourth planet from the sun.
Image credit: NASA

Is 35.8 million miles the closest Mars has ever been to Earth? Nope. In 2003, Mars was 34.6 million miles from Earth and the closest it had been in nearly 60,000 years. This type of proximity won’t occur again until 2287. But, there will be another close approach in October 2020 when the distance between the Red Planet and Earth will be 38.6 million miles.

Now that we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, what does this mean for you, the novice astronomer or general sky-watcher? It means that if you have clear skies where you live, go outside on the overnight hours of July 30 or early morning hours of July 31 and look up. The planet will be brighter than usual and will have an orange or red haze. You can also look through a telescope. If weather is bad where you are, NASA will be streaming live from the Griffith Observatory.

Good luck and happy viewing!

Total Lunar Eclipse

By Mitzi Adams, NASA Marshall solar scientist

Last August, citizens and visitors to the United States of America had a rare opportunity to see a total solar eclipse, because the path of totality ranged from Oregon to South Carolina, essentially bisecting the country. But alas, the total lunar eclipse happening on Friday, July 27, will totally miss the United States. Being able to observe the Moon totally immersed in Earth’s shadow depends mostly on whether it is dark at the time the eclipse happens, so about half the Earth would be in the right place to see the eclipse, weather permitting of course. This time, residents of Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and parts of South America will be so lucky. In contrast, totality for a solar eclipse is very narrow and only a very small portion of Earth is in the shadow of the Moon. For the August 2017 eclipse, only those within an approximately 100 km (63 miles) wide path saw the Sun totally eclipsed.

So what happens when there is a lunar eclipse? Unlike the solar variety, Earth blocks the Sun for a lunar eclipse. For the lunar eclipse to happen, the Moon’s phase must be “full”, which means that the orbiting Moon is opposite the Sun, with Earth in between. When the Sun sets in the west, the Moon rises in the east — and this event happens once a “moonth” (or month). But a lunar eclipse does not happen every month. Why is that?

The Moon is seen here during the January 2018 lunar eclipse, setting in the western horizon, not yet in totality.
The Moon is seen here during the January 2018 lunar eclipse, setting in the western horizon, not yet in totality.
Image credit: NASA/Alphonse Sterling

Well, now we get into more tricky territory. Let’s try a thought experiment. Draw a line between the centers of the Sun, Earth, and Moon. This line is part of a plane that describes how Earth orbits the Sun, called the plane of the ecliptic. The Moon orbits Earth, only its orbit is tilted with respect to the plane of the ecliptic, sometimes the Moon is above the plane, sometimes it is below the plane. Only when the Moon’s orbit lines up with the ecliptic plane do we have a chance for an eclipse. If the phase of the Moon is “full” when this happens, we have a lunar eclipse. If the phase of the Moon is “new,” we have a solar eclipse. Sometimes the orbital planes do not line up exactly, in those cases, we would have partial eclipses.

Fred Espenak, click here for more info on Lunar Eclipse Geometry.

The July 27 eclipse is somewhat special because the length of totality will be the longest of this century at one hour, 43 minutes. Why? Several reasons. The Moon will be at apogee, or at the farthest distance from Earth (406,000 km or 252,000 mi) possible for our Moon. Objects in orbit around Earth move slower the farther away they are, which means it will take longer for the Moon to traverse the width of Earth’s shadow. In addition, the Moon will be almost exactly on that line that connects Sun, Earth, Moon, also increasing the length of time the Moon will spend in the umbral (darkest) part of Earth’s shadow. Finally, Earth reached its greatest distance from the Sun (aphelion) quite recently (July 6), meaning that Earth’s shadow on July 27 will be close to the largest it can be, adding even more distance (and time) to the Moon’s shadowy traverse.

This image is of the full Moon before the January 2018 lunar eclipse.
This image is of the full Moon before the January 2018 lunar eclipse.
Image credit: NASA Marshall/Alphonse Sterling

The partial phase of the eclipse will begin at 18:24 UT, with totality beginning at 19:30 UT (see the NASA time zone page for help with conversion to your local time and official U.S. time). Totality will be over at 21:13 UT and the partial phase ends at 22:19 UT. Viewing a lunar eclipse does not require a telescope or even special glasses; however, while waiting for totality to begin, which is marked by a reddish-brown color to the Moon, a telescope could be used to view two planets that are in the evening sky. Mars will be visible, and should be pretty bright since there is currently a dust storm covering the entire planet. So the telescope will not see any surface detail here, but the redness of the planet will contrast well with the reddish hue of a totally eclipsed Moon. Saturn will be visible to the west of Mars — and even binoculars will resolve the rings, but a telescope could provide more detail. For all observers, find the full Moon in the night sky, Mars will be close to and below (south of) the Moon, a bright reddish “star-like” object. For detailed information about this eclipse, click here.