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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Composite image showing bright event located near Rosman, North Carolina.
There was a bright event seen across several Southeast states last night at 12:29:30 AM CDT (1:29:30 EDT). Based on the data we currently have, this object was not a meteor or fireball. Tracked by 5 NASA cameras in the SE, it is moving at roughly 14,500 miles per hour, which is too slow to be a meteor. As you can see in the video, it has also broken into multiple pieces, which, combined with the slow speed, indicates a possible reentry of space debris. There are over 120 eyewitness accounts on the American Meteor Society website (www.amsmeteors.org)
A fireball west of Jacksonville, FL on Saturday, Feb. 21st at 22:59:45 PM EST was detected by two all sky cameras, located in Melbourne, belonging to the Sky Sentinel Network.
The American Meteor Society has a write-up on this fireball at http://www.amsmeteors.org/2015/02/florida-fireball-with-boom/. There were over a hundred eyewitness reports, and the trajectory determined from these agrees fairly well with a crude triangulation performed using the Sky Sentinel videos. These videos and eyewitness reports indicate that the fireball started just east of Lake City and moved NE at about 40,000 miles per hour, burning up about 30 miles west of Jacksonville. The apparent brightness of the meteor permits a crude estimate of about a foot for the object’s diameter, with a weight around 100 pounds.
NASA places a high priority on tracking asteroids and protecting our home planet from them. In fact, the U.S. has the most robust and productive survey and detection program for discovering near-Earth objects (NEOs). NASA’s NEO Program at NASA Headquarters, Washington, manages and funds the search, study and monitoring of asteroids and comets whose orbits periodically bring them close to Earth. NASA is also pursuing an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) which will identify, redirect and send astronauts to explore an asteroid. Among its many exploration goals, the mission could demonstrate basic planetary defense techniques for asteroid deflection.