Astronomers are excited about the possibility of a new meteor shower May 30-31. And that excitement has sparked a lot of information about the tau Herculids. Some has been accurate, and some has not.
We get excited about meteor showers, too! But sometimes events like this don’t live up to expectations – it happened with the 2019 Alpha Monocerotid shower, for example. And some astronomers predict a dazzling display of tau Herculids could be “hit or miss.”
So, we’re encouraging eager skywatchers to channel their inner scientists, and look beyond the headlines. Here are the facts:
On the night of May 30 into the early morning of May 31, Earth will pass through the debris trails of a broken comet called 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, or SW3.
The comet, which broke into large fragments back in 1995, won’t reach this point in its orbit until August.
If the fragments from were ejected with speeds greater than twice the normal speeds—fast enough to reach Earth—we might get a meteor shower.
Spitzer observations published in 2009 indicate that at least some fragments are moving fast enough. This is one reason why astronomers are excited.
If a meteor shower does occur, the tau Herculids move slowly by meteor standards – they will be faint.
Observers in North America under clear, dark skies have the best chance of seeing a tau Herculid shower. The peak time to watch is around 1am on the East Coast or 10pm on the West Coast.
We can’t be certain what we’ll see. We can only hope it’s spectacular.
Most stargazers will have a prime viewing opportunity to see the planets Mars and Jupiter draw incredibly close in the predawn sky on the nights of May 27-30.
The two planets will appear 20 degrees or so above the horizon in the eastern-southeastern sky, against the constellation Pisces, approximately 45 minutes before local sunrise. This Mars-Jupiter conjunction will be visible, barring local weather issues, in the predawn hours each morning from May 27 to May 30. The conjunction will peak at 3:57 a.m. CDT on May 29.
“Planetary conjunctions traditionally have been more the stuff of astrology than serious astronomy, but they never fail to impress during observations, particular when the gas giants are involved,” said Mitzi Adams, an astronomer and researcher at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
During such a conjunction, two planets appear close together in Earth’s night sky. In the case of Earth’s solar system, conjunctions happen frequently because our sister planets travel around the Sun in a fairly similar ecliptic plane, often appearing to meet in our night sky despite being millions of miles away from one another.
At their closest point, Mars and Jupiter will be separated by no more than 0.6 degrees. Astronomers routinely use degrees to measure the angular distance between objects in the night sky. To observers on the ground, the distance between the two planets will be no more than the width of a raised finger, with Mars appearing just to the lower right of the massive gas giant.
It might be necessary to use binoculars or a telescope to spot Mars clearly, said Alphonse Sterling, a NASA astronomer who works with Adams at Marshall. But he noted that observers should have no trouble identifying Jupiter, even with unaided eyes.
“We anticipate Jupiter will shine at a magnitude of -2.2,” Sterling said. “Mars, in comparison, will have a magnitude of just 0.7.”
The brightness of celestial bodies is measured according to their magnitude value, a number which decreases as brightness increases. A negative value indicates the planet or moon is easy to see in the night sky, even with ambient light from one’s surroundings.
Mars and Jupiter are millions of miles away from us, of course – more than 136 million miles will separate Earth and Mars at the time of the conjunction, with Jupiter nearly four times further away. Even so, Jupiter will be the far brighter of the two. With its planetary diameter of around 4,200 miles, Mars is dwarfed by the massive Jovian giant, which has a diameter of about 89,000 miles. Being so much smaller, Mars reflects far less sunlight.
Mars also orbits the Sun more quickly, spinning eastward in our night sky fast enough to leave its lumbering gas-giant counterpart behind. Mars will catch up to Jupiter again and pass it during another conjunction in August 2024.
Adams and Sterling look forward to spotting the planetary conjunction.
“It’s thrilling to look up and recognize that these two worlds represent the breadth of NASA’s planned and potential goals for science and exploration,” Adams said. “As NASA prepares to send the first human explorers to the planet Mars, the possibilities could be virtually limitless for groundbreaking science discoveries among Jupiter’s fascinating moons.”
“This conjunction brings together two vastly different worlds, which both hold incredible promise to help us better understand our solar system, humanity’s place in the cosmos, and where we may be headed as a species,” Sterling added.
“Get outside before sunrise on May 29 and see them for yourself – and imagine all we’ve yet to learn from them,” he added.
Enjoy this celestial event as you watch the skies!
In meteorology, the fall season begins on Sept. 1, however, the September (or fall) equinox gives us the green light to welcome the astronomical fall season in the Northern Hemisphere (and astronomical spring season in the Southern Hemisphere). This happens Sept. 22, 2021, at 19:21 UTC, which is 2:21 p.m. CDT for us in North America.
Along with marking the beginning of astronomical fall, the Sun will be exactly above Earth’s equator, moving from north to south, making day and night nearly equal in length – about 12 hours – throughout the world.
At the North Pole, over the upcoming days, the Sun will sink below the horizon for a kind of twilight from now until sometime in October when it will be completely dark, according to NASA solar scientist Mitzi Adams. Spring twilight at the North Pole begins a few weeks before the vernal, or spring, equinox in March, when the Sun rises above the horizon again.
This only happens twice in Earth’s year-long trip around the Sun. The rest of the year, the Sun shines unevenly over the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. That’s because Earth’s axis is tilted with respect to the Sun-Earth plane. But on these special days – the spring and fall equinoxes – the Sun shines almost equally on the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
In the Northern hemisphere, the September equinox marks the start of a period bringing us later sunrises and earlier sunsets. We will also feel cooler days with chillier winds, and dry, falling leaves.
The people of ancient cultures used the sky as a clock and calendar. They knew that the Sun’s path across the sky, length of daylight, and location of sunrise and sunset all shifted in a regular way throughout the year. Additionally, earlier civilizations built the first observatories, like Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, and the Intihuatana stone in Machu Picchu, Peru, to follow the Sun’s annual progress.
Today, we celebrate the equinox as an astronomical event caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and its motion in orbit around the Sun.
Enjoy the new season – whichever side of the globe you’re on!
This month we’ll get to see a Full Moon on Aug. 22, 2021, known by some early Native American tribes of the northeastern United States, as the Sturgeon Moon. The name was given to the Moon because the large sturgeon fish of the Great Lakes, and other major lakes, were more easily caught at this time of year. But that’s not all! We also get to see a Blue Moon!
We’ve all heard the phrase “once in a Blue Moon,” which usually refers to something that rarely happens. Blue Moons do sometimes happen in Earth’s night sky, giving rise to this phrase. But what is a Blue Moon?
Well, we have two kinds of Blue Moons – monthly and seasonal.
A monthly Blue Moon is the second Full Moon in a calendar month with two Full Moons. Then, there’s a seasonal Blue Moon – the third Full Moon of an astronomical season that has four Full Moons.
In astronomy, a season is the period of time between a solstice and equinox, or vice versa. Each season – winter, spring, summer or fall – lasts three months and usually has three Full Moons, occurring about 30 days apart. Because June’s Full Moon came just a few days after the June (Summer) solstice, we will see four Full Moons in the current summer season, which ends at the September equinox on Sept. 22.
The third Full Moon – our seasonal Blue Moon – will happen on Aug. 22. All Full Moons are opposite the Sun, as viewed from Earth, rising fully illuminated at local time around sunset and setting around sunrise.
Perhaps you’re wondering if the Moon ever actually takes on a blue color. Well, Blue Moons that are blue in color are extremely rare and have nothing to do with the calendar or the Moon’s phases; they don’t have to be Full Moons either. When a blue-colored Moon happens, the blue color is the result of water droplets in the air, certain types of clouds, or particles thrown into the atmosphere by natural catastrophes, such as volcanic ash and smoke. Also, blue-colored Moons in photos are made using special blue filters for cameras or in post-processing software.
In 1883, an Indonesian volcano called Krakatoa produced an eruption so large that scientists compared it to a 100-megaton nuclear bomb. Ash from the Krakatoa explosion rose as high into the atmosphere as 80 kilometers (50 miles). Many of these ash particles can be about 1 micron in size, which could scatter red light and act as a blue filter, resulting in the Moon appearing blue.
Blue-colored Moons appeared for years following the 1883 eruption. Many other volcanoes throughout history, and even wildfires, have been known to affect the color of the Moon. As a rule of thumb, to create a bluish Moon, dust or ash particles must be larger than about 0.6 micron, which scatters the red light and allows the blue light to pass through freely. Having said all of that, what we call a Blue Moon typically appears pale grey, white or a yellowish color – just like the Moon on any other night.
Generally, Blue Moons occur every 2 to 3 years. Our last Blue Moon was on Oct. 31, 2020 – the night of Halloween. Mars was red and very large, since it was closer to Earth, and it was seen in the sky near the Blue Moon. Coincidently, this year’s Blue Moon will appear near planets again, but this time Jupiter and Saturn! We won’t see another Blue Moon until August 2023.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
“The second supermoon of 2019 happened Feb. 19. The third of 2019 will happen March 19. But what’s a supermoon? We asked NASA astronomer Mitzi Adams what’s really going on here. Here’s her answer!”
Like the orbits of all bodies in the solar system, the Moon’s orbit around Earth is not circular, it has an oval or elliptical shape, with Earth slightly offset from the center. As a result, there are two distance extremes of each orbit: closest approach, known as perigee, and the farthest, or apogee. When the Moon is at closest approach and within a day or so of being full, it is called a supermoon because the Moon will be at its brightest and largest.
For the supermoon on Feb.19, the Moon will be full only six hours after it reaches the perigee distance of its orbit, making it the brightest and largest full Moon of the year. A supermoon also occurred in January with a slightly more distant perigee, a mere 362 miles (583 kilometers) farther away, but 14 hours after the full Moon. However, January’s supermoon included a total lunar eclipse seen in all of North and South America. The third and last supermoon of the year will happen March 19, when the perigee distance will be reached a day and five hours before the full Moon (see the table below for details).
Time Before or After Full Moon
222,043 miles (357,344 km)
15 hours after
221,681 miles (356,761 km)
6 hours before
223,308 miles (359,380 km)
1 day, 5 hours before
To watch tonight’s supermoon, or any full Moon, simply look for the Moon to rise in the east as the Sun sets in the west. The Moon will look extremely large when it rises and sets. This “Moon illusion” happens when the Moon is close to the horizon and there are objects within our line of sight such as trees or buildings. Because these relatively close objects are in front of the Moon, our brain is tricked into thinking the Moon is much closer to the objects that are in our line of sight. At Moon rise or set, it only appears larger than when it is directly overhead because there are no nearby objects with which to compare it. You can check this. When the Moon rises, hold a coin at arm’s length so that the coin covers the Moon. Repeat this throughout the evening and you will see that the Moon’s size does not change.
As it rises on Feb. 19, the Moon will be in the constellation of Leo. However, since the Moon is so bright, you may have trouble seeing the bright star Regulus, which is at the end of the “backwards question mark” that makes Leo easy to spot.
Looking more or less directly overhead, you could see the famous constellation Orion the Hunter with bright stars Betelgeuse, a reddish star, and Rigel, a bluish star. With a telescope or binoculars, you might be able to pick out the Orion nebula just below the belt stars of Orion, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka.
To the west of Orion you should be able to spot reddish Mars.
As we observe this supermoon, keep in mind that 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of a great technological feat – humans travelled to the Moon, walked on its surface and returned safely to Earth. Twelve people walked on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two, but let us not forget the other ten: Alan Bean, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Edgar D. Mitchell, Alan Shepard, Dave Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Eugene “Gene” Cernan and Harrison Schmitt. These men, along with the command module pilots Michael Collins, Dick Gordon, Stu Roosa, Al Worden, Ken Mattingly, Ron Evans and the multitudes of support staff back on Earth, fulfilled a dream of exploring our nearest neighbor in space. As NASA and its commercial and international partners plan to return the Moon over the next decade with a long-term continued presence, the list of Moon walkers will surely include women, as well.
Did you know there is a night set aside each year to observe Earth’s closest celestial neighbor, the Moon? International Observe the Moon Night has been held annually since 2010 and is a worldwide celebration of the Moon and lunar science. Each year, the celebration is held in September or October when the Moon is in the first quarter because it is visible in the afternoon and early evening hours when most events are held.
If you live in or near Huntsville, Alabama, you can join our local celebration Saturday, Oct. 20, from 5:30-8:30 p.m. CDT at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Davidson Center. The event is hosted by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’s Planetary Missions Program. Members of the public are encouraged to attend and it is free. The event will include lunar and solar system exploration exhibits and a variety of hands-on activities for children and adults. Don’t live in Huntsville? No worries! There are events held worldwide and you can find a list of them here.
As you are gearing up for your own International Observe the Moon Night celebration, check out these fun facts about the Moon.
The Moon is Earth’s satellite and orbits the Earth at a distance of about 384,000 km or 239,000 miles.
The Moon makes a complete orbit around the Earth in 27 Earth days. The Moon keeps the same side or face, towards the Earth during its orbit.
More than 100 spacecraft have been launched to explore the Moon. It is the only celestial body beyond Earth visited by human beings.
Astronauts brought back a total of 842 pounds of lunar rocks and soil to Earth.
The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon will be next summer on July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the Moon, followed by Buzz Aldrin.
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.