Fireball lights up the sky over Salt Lake City

A bright meteor flew through the skies over northern Utah on Saturday morning, later raining down meteorites over the Great Salt Lake.

Residents of the Salt Lake City area were startled by loud booms at 8:30 a.m. MDT on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. Eyewitnesses saw a fireball in the sky, 16 times brighter than the full Moon.

GOES 17 Geostationary Lightning Mapper detection of the Aug. 13, 2022, fireball over northern Utah.
GOES 17 Geostationary Lightning Mapper detection of the Aug. 13, 2022, fireball over northern Utah. Credits: NOAA

Approximately 22,000 miles out in space, NOAA’s Geostationary Lightning Mappers (GLM) onboard the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) 17 and 18 detected the meteor, which was first seen 50 miles over West Valley City. However, it is difficult to pinpoint its exact trajectory.

“Daytime fireballs are very tough to analyze,” said Bill Cooke, lead of NASA’s Meteoroid Environments Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “There are few eyewitness sightings of the fireball and videos posted on social media are difficult to calibrate without stars in the background.”

The meteor was first seen 50 miles over West Valley City, Utah, moving to the northwest at 39,000 miles per hour. The object broke apart above the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake.
The meteor was first seen 50 miles over West Valley City, Utah, moving to the northwest at 39,000 miles per hour. The object broke apart above the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake. Credits: NASA

After traveling northwest at 39,000 miles per hour, the object – a piece of an asteroid about 2 feet across – broke apart above the eastern shore of the lake. “One meteorite has been recovered from the lake shore,” said Cooke. “There are probably more, but I would expect the vast majority fell into the water.”

NASA studies meteoroid environments in space to protect astronauts and satellites in space. NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office prepares meteoroid forecasts for missions like Artemis I, the first integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System rocket, and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Artemis I launch is currently targeted for Aug. 29.

For more information on NASA’s All Sky Fireball Network, visit:

https://fireballs.ndc.nasa.gov 

To follow and share meteor updates, visit:

https://www.facebook.com/NasaMeteorWatch

By Hannah Maginot

Perseids Meteor Shower on the Way

The Perseids are back! Well… sort of.

Usually bringing one of the most vivid annual meteor showers visible in Earth’s night sky, commonly delivering 50-100 “shooting stars” per hour at its height, the Perseids will peak Aug. 12 and 13. There’s just one problem: the full Moon.

A shower of Perseid meteors lights up the sky in 2009 in this NASA time-lapse image.
A shower of Perseid meteors lights up the sky in 2009 in this NASA time-lapse image. (NASA/JPL)

“Sadly, this year’s Perseids peak will see the worst possible circumstances for spotters,” said NASA astronomer Bill Cooke, who leads the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “Most of us in North America would normally see 50 or 60 meteors per hour,” he said, “but this year, during the normal peak, the full Moon will reduce that to 10-20 per hour at best.”

The Moon is so much brighter than anything else in the night sky, and it will wash out all, but the very brightest Perseids as they streak through our atmosphere and burn up far overhead.

As the full Moon subsides, the Perseids will begin to wane Aug. 21-22 and cease completely by Sept. 1. They’re the debris remnants of Comet Swift-Tuttle, a lumbering “snowball” composed of ice, rock, and dust, which orbits our Sun every 133 years. The comet itself was last visible to us in 1992 and won’t pass our way again until 2125.

How far back sightings of the Perseids actually go remains a matter of some contention, Cooke said. The comet itself wasn’t identified until 1862, but the meteor shower was seen over medieval Europe. The annual event came to be known as “the Tears of St. Lawrence,” named for the last of seven Roman church deacons martyred by the emperor Valerian in August of the year 258.

So, this is probably not the best year to make a special trip in order to see the Perseids, but, if you find yourself outside between midnight and dawn on Aug. 13, don’t forget to look up anyway.  Because you never know – you might just catch one of the bright Perseid meteors that defies the glare of the Moon. Also, the occasional early Perseid can streak across the sky as much as a week beforehand.

If you want to know what else is in the sky for August, check out the latest “What’s Up” video from Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

by Rick Smith

Meteor Showers to Bookend Overnight Skywatching Opportunities in May

As the spring season continues, May could prove to be of great interest for stargazers and space enthusiasts – with a pair of potentially active meteor showers opening and closing the month.

“Meteors aren’t uncommon,” Bill Cooke said, who leads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “Earth is bombarded every day by millions of bits of interplanetary detritus speeding through our solar system.”

A meteor mosaic comprised of 99 images, using a blue filter, of the Eta Aquariids observed during the early morning hours
A meteor mosaic comprised of 99 images, using a blue filter, of the Eta Aquariids observed during the early morning hours from April 30 to May 8, 2013.
Credits: NASA All Sky Fireball Network

Most particles are no bigger than dust and sand. Hitting the upper atmosphere at speeds up to 45 miles per second, they flare and burn up. On any given night, the average person can see from 4 to 8 meteors per hour. Meteor showers, however, are caused by streams of comet and asteroid debris, which create many more flashes and streaks of light as Earth passes through the debris field.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for space enthusiasts to get out and experience one of nature’s most vivid light shows,” Cooke said.

Eta Aquariids (May 5-6)

First up, on the night of May 5 and early hours of May 6, around 3:00 am CDT, is the eta Aquariid shower, caused by the annual encounter with debris from Halley’s comet – remnants of the comet’s tour through the solar system once every 75 or 76 years. Its radiant – or the point in the night sky from which the meteor shower appears to originate – is the constellation Aquarius. The shower is named for the brightest star in that constellation, eta Aquarii.

A 2013 eta Aquariid composite
A 2013 eta Aquariid composite from a camera used in New Mexico.
Credits: NASA Meteoroid Environment Office

Until Halley’s comet is next visible from Earth in 2061, only the eta Aquariids – and their fall counterpart, the Orionid meteor shower, which is visible each October – mark the passage of this solar system visitor.

“It will be interesting to see if the rates are low this year, or if we will get a spike in numbers before next year’s forecast outburst,” Cooke said.

The annual meteor shower has the best rates for those in the Southern Hemisphere, but even in the Northern Hemisphere, if weather conditions are right, there is a possibility of seeing up to 30 meteors per hour. The waxing crescent Moon will set before the eta Aquariid radiant gets high in the sky, leaving dark skies for what should be an excellent show. Best viewing happens after 3 AM local time, so get up early.

Tau Herculids (May 30-31)

A possible newcomer this year is the tau Herculid shower, forecast to peak on the night of May 30 and early morning of May 31.

Back in 1930, German observers Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann discovered a comet known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, or “SW3, which orbited the Sun every 5.4 years. Being so faint, SW3 wasn’t seen again until the late 1970s, seeming pretty normal until 1995, when astronomers realized the comet had become about 600 times brighter and went from a faint smudge to being visible with the naked eye during its passage. Upon further investigation, astronomers realized SW3 had shattered into several pieces, littering its own orbital trail with debris. By the time it passed our way again in 2006, it was in nearly 70 pieces, and has continued to fragment further since then.

If it makes it to us this year, the debris from SW3 will strike Earth’s atmosphere very slowly, traveling at just 10 miles per second – which means much fainter meteors than those belonging to the eta Aquariids. But North American stargazers are taking particular note this year because the tau Herculid radiant will be high in the night sky at the forecast peak time. Even better, the Moon is new, so there will be no moonlight to wash out the faint meteors.

“This is going to be an all or nothing event. If the debris from SW3 was traveling more than 220 miles per hour when it separated from the comet, we might see a nice meteor shower. If the debris had slower ejection speeds, then nothing will make it to Earth and there will be no meteors from this comet,” Cooke said.

Learn more about meteors and meteorites. Also, if you want to know what else is in the sky for May, check out the latest “What’s Up” video from Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Enjoy all this month has to offer as you watch the skies!

by Rick Smith

December Solstice Brings Winter, Summer Seasons

In meteorology, Earth’s winter season for the Northern Hemisphere and summer season for the Southern Hemisphere began on Dec. 1, 2021. However, the December solstice brings in the astronomical winter and summer seasons, respectively, for the two hemispheres of our planet. This will happen on Dec. 21 at 15:59 UTC, which is 9:59 a.m. CST in the United States.

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

Solstices come twice a year. For the Northern Hemisphere, the summer (June) solstice occurs around June 20-21, and the winter (December) solstice happens around Dec. 21-22. At the solstice, the Sun’s path appears farthest north or south, depending on which half of the planet you’re on. Seasons change on Earth because the planet is slightly tilted on its axis as it travels 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.

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

Although the tilt of the Earth as compared to the plane of its orbit around the Sun is more or less constant (23.5˚), at the December solstice, the Northern Hemisphere receives the most indirect sunlight, causing cooler temperatures. The Southern Hemisphere receives the most direct sunlight, causing warmer temperatures, so it is summer there.  At the June solstice, this effect reverses and the Northern Hemisphere receives the most direct sunlight, causing warmer temperatures, and the Southern Hemisphere receives the most indirect sunlight, causing cooler temperatures.

The December solstice brings the shortest day and longest night of the year for locations in the northern half of the globe, like the U.S., while the southern half of the globe is experiencing its longest day and shortest night. Therefore, all locations north of the equator see daylight shorter than 12 hours and all locations south see daylight longer than 12 hours.

After the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the days will get longer and the nights shorter until the summer solstice on June 21, 2022, when things reverse.  The March equinox on March 20, 2022, will mark the beginning of the astronomical spring season and the September equinox on September 22, 2022, will mark the beginning of astronomical fall.

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 in England and the Torreon in Machu Picchu, Peru, to follow the Sun’s annual progress and predict its movements.

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

No matter where you are on Earth’s globe – this is your time to celebrate this seasonal change!

by Lance D. Davis  

Geminid Meteor Shower: NASA to Livestream Annual Highlight of December Skies

Every December we have a chance to see one of our favorite meteor showers – the Geminids. The shower is currently active until Dec. 17 and will peak on the night of Dec. 13 into the morning of Dec. 14, making those hours the best time for viewing the meteor shower.

Geminids
All meteors appear to come from the same place in the sky, which is called the radiant. The Geminids appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Gemini, hence the name “Geminids.” The graphic shows the radiants of 388 meteors with speeds of 35 km/s observed by the NASA Fireball Network in December 2020. All the radiants are in Gemini, which means they belong to the Geminid shower. Credit: NASA

The Geminids are caused by debris from a celestial object known as 3200 Phaethon, whose origin is the subject of some debate. Some astronomers consider it to be an extinct comet, based on observations showing some small amount of material leaving Phaethon’s surface. Others argue that it has to be an asteroid because of its orbit and its similarity to the main-belt asteroid Pallas.

Whatever the nature of Phaethon, observations show that the Geminids are denser than meteors belonging to other showers, enabling them to get as low as 29 miles above Earth’s surface before burning up. Meteors belonging to other showers, like the Perseids, burn up much higher.

The Geminids can be seen by most of the world. Yet, it is best viewed by observers in the Northern Hemisphere. As you enter the Southern Hemisphere and move towards the South Pole, the altitude of the Geminid radiant – the celestial point in the sky where the Geminid meteors appear to originate – gets lower and lower above the horizon. Thus, observers in these locations see fewer Geminids than their northern counterparts.

Besides the weather, the phase of the Moon is a major factor in determining whether a meteor shower will have good rates during any given year. This is because the moonlight “washes out” the fainter meteors, resulting in sky watchers seeing the fewer bright ones. This year, the Moon will be almost 80% full at the peak of the Geminids, which isn’t ideal for our highly regarded meteor shower. Nevertheless, that bright Moon is expected to set around 2:00 a.m. wherever you are located, leaving a couple of hours for meteor watching until twilight.

“Rich in green-colored fireballs, the Geminids are the only shower I will brave cold December nights to see,” said Bill Cooke, lead for NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, located at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

NASA will broadcast a live stream of the shower’s peak Dec. 13-14 via a meteor camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, (if our weather cooperates!), starting at 8 p.m. CST on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.

Meteor videos recorded by the All Sky Fireball Network are also available each morning to identify Geminids in these videos – just look for events labeled “GEM.”

Learn more about the Geminids below:


Why are they called the Geminids?

All meteors associated with a shower have similar orbits, and they all appear to come from the same place in the sky, which is called the radiant. The Geminids appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Gemini, hence the name “Geminids.”

How fast are Geminids?

Geminids travel 78,000 mph (35 km/s). This is over 1000 times faster than a cheetah, about 250 times faster than the swiftest car in the world, and over 40 times faster than a speeding bullet!

How to observe the Geminids?

If it’s not cloudy, get away from bright lights, lie on your back, and look up. Remember to let your eyes get adjusted to the dark – you’ll see more meteors that way. Keep in mind, this adjustment can take approximately 30 minutes. Don’t look at your cell phone screen, as it will ruin your night vision!

Meteors can generally be seen all over the sky. Avoid watching the radiant because meteors close to it have very short trails and are easily missed. When you see a meteor, try to trace it backwards. If you end up in the constellation Gemini, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Geminid.

Observing in a city with lots of light pollution will make it difficult to see Geminids. You may only see a handful during the night in that case.

When is the best time to observe Geminids?

The best night to see the shower is Dec. 13/14. Sky watchers in the Northern Hemisphere can go out in the late evening hours on Dec. 13 to see some Geminids, but with moonlight and radiant low in the sky, you may not see many meteors.

Best rates will be seen when the radiant is highest in the sky around 2:00 a.m. local time, including the Southern Hemisphere, on Dec. 14. The Moon will set around the same time. Therefore, observing from moonset until twilight on Dec. 14 should yield the most meteors.

You can still see Geminids on other nights, before or after Dec. 13-14, but the rates will be much lower. The last Geminids can be seen Dec. 17.

How many Geminids can observers expect to see Dec. 13/14?

Realistically, the predicated rate for observers in the northern hemisphere is closer to 30-40 meteors per hour. Observers in the Southern Hemisphere will see fewer Geminids than those in the northern hemisphere – perhaps 25% of rates in the Northern Hemisphere.


Although this year’s conditions are not the best for viewing the Geminid meteor shower, it will still be a good show to catch in our night skies.

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

Happy viewing stargazers!

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

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

It’s All About Mars in October

by Lance D. Davis

NASA is developing a path for an exciting journey to Mars – a rich destination for scientific discovery and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. This month of October brings an amazing night-sky view of the Red Planet.

Mars is currently visible, reaching its highest point in the sky around midnight. Earth’s closest neighbor is also at its brightest and will remain that way well into November.

Two illustrations contrasting Mars’ position when it reaches opposition and conjunction. During opposition, like in October 2020, Earth passes near Mars – which is easily visible and bright. During conjunction, Mars and Earth are far from each other, so Mars appears small and faint.
Two illustrations contrasting Mars’ position when it reaches opposition and conjunction. During opposition, like in October 2020, Earth passes near Mars – which is easily visible and bright. During conjunction, Mars and Earth are far from each other, so Mars appears small and faint. Credit: NASA

Right now, Mars is the third brightest object in Earth’s night. The Moon and Venus are the two brightest objects, and usually Jupiter is third. But for this season, Mars is passing close enough to Earth to outshine Jupiter. This great visibility of Mars coincides with an event known as opposition, which happens every two years and two months.

Opposition occurs when the orbit of a planet, such as Mars, takes it near the Earth. Just like runners passing each other on a track, the faster, inner planets, such as Earth, can approach and overtake slower-moving outer planets like Mars. When the planets pass each other during this opposition, Mars’ proximity means it will appear larger and brighter in our sky. Because the Sun, Earth, and Mars are lined up during this passing, Mars will rise at sunset, having a high overhead at midnight. This is the closest the Red Planet will come to Earth for the next 15 years, or until September 2035.

At its furthest, Mars reaches about 250 million miles (400 million km) from Earth. During the October opposition, it will be as close as 40 million miles (60 million km) – nearly seven times closer. Although Mars will still look like a bright star to the unaided eye, it will grow dramatically in size when seen in a telescope. This year, Mars’ closest approach to Earth happens just a week before the opposition on Oct. 13, giving the Red Planet its biggest, apparent size of the 2020’s.

When it comes to observing Mars around opposition, telescopes will show more of the planet’s details, such as dark and light regions on Mars’ surface, and the prominent south polar ice cap, which will be tilted towards the Earth. Due to the turbulence of our atmosphere, these details can be hard to see, especially in smaller telescopes.

Many amateur astronomers use a color video camera attached to their telescope, running special software that selects the best frames to stack into a single image. This helps in negating the blurring caused by the air.

The most striking thing about Mars’ appearance – whether seen with the naked eye or through a telescope – is its red color. This color is caused by iron in the rocks on Mars’ surface – the same thing that causes the red color in sandstone formations in the southwestern US.

So, when you spot Mars, keep your eye on it and enjoy its fiery, red brightness!

 

Perseids Peak: Watch Best Meteor Shower of the Year!

By Emily Clay

The Perseid meteor shower is here! With Comet NEOWISE making its way out of the solar system, it is time for a celestial show caused by a different comet. Perseid meteors, caused by debris left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, began streaking across the skies in late July and will peak in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 12.

In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. The Perseids show up every year in August when Earth ventures through trails of debris left behind by an ancient comet. Image
In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. The Perseids show up every year in August when Earth ventures through trails of debris left behind by an ancient comet. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

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 the unfortunate circumstance of the Moon phase—last quarter—impeding the view of the shower peak, reducing the visible meteors 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 the night of Aug. 11 or wake up early the morning of Aug. 12. The Perseids are best seen between about 2 a.m. your local time and dawn. The Moon rises at around midnight, so its brightness will affect the peak viewing window. However, even though the Moon’s phase and presence will keep the frequency of visible meteors lower, there is still nearly one meteor every two minutes during the peak!

If those hours seem daunting, not to worry! You can go out after dark, around 9 p.m. local time, and see a few 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 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, (if our weather cooperates!) will be available on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook starting around 8 p.m. CDT on Aug. 11 and continuing until sunrise on Aug. 12. 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 because of their small fields of view.) 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!

See Comet NEOWISE! A Once-in-a-Lifetime Event

For Comet Vocabulary, please read to the end of the post.


For most, early July is when most people living in the United States look to the skies to watch dazzling firework shows. However, this month there is a different kind of show happening in the sky.

Comet Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) was only discovered a few months ago on March 27 by NASA’s NEOWISE telescope and has quickly become a popular solar system visitor. Its popularity is warranted, however, as it is the brightest comet since Comet Hale-Bopp that passed by Earth 23 years ago in 1997.

The graphic shows the comet as seen from Huntsville, Friday, July 17 at 9 PM. Look almost due northwest, 15 degrees above the horizon. The comet will be below the stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper, and about as bright (magnitude 3). Binoculars should give a really spectacular view!
The graphic shows the comet as seen from Huntsville, Friday, July 17 at 9 PM. Look almost due northwest, 15 degrees above the horizon. The comet will be below the stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper, and about as bright (magnitude 3). Binoculars should give a really spectacular view!

Comet nuclei are cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust that orbit the sun. They can range in size from a few miles to tens of miles wide, and the nucleus of NEOWISE measures about 3 miles across. When these comets approach the sun, their frozen bodies start to sublimate, and they spew dust and gasses in a tail that can span millions of miles.

Comet NEOWISE made its harrowing close approach to the sun, known as its perihelion, on July 3, and it is now zooming past the Earth on its way back out of the solar system. NEOWISE will make its closest approach (64 million miles) to Earth on July 22, but the best viewing window is happening right now until July 19.

NEOWISE can be seen with the naked eye, but for an even better viewing experience, binoculars or even a telescope is recommended. As for which to choose, binoculars are your current best option. “Definitely use binoculars for now – the tail of NEOWISE is at least 7 degrees long, which is much bigger than the field of view of most telescopes,” said Bill Cooke, lead of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center. “Binoculars will allow you to see the whole thing, whereas a telescope only shows a tiny part.”

To see NEOWISE, start looking in the northwestern sky about an hour after sunset. The comet will be below the stars that make up the bowl of the Big Dipper and shining nearly as brightly at a magnitude 3. If you are an early riser, you can still see NEOWISE about an hour before sunrise in the northeastern horizon until the end of the week.

You need a clear view of the horizon to see this comet. Beaches, fields, and areas with higher elevations are all great observation spots. In areas with more light pollution, binoculars may be necessary for viewing. This is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event, as NEOWISE won’t be visiting again for 6,800 years!

Learn more about comets at NASA’s Solar System Exploration website.

For comet-related, kid-friendly activities, visit NASA Science Space Place.

Top 5 viewing tips for Comet NEOWISEComet Vocabulary

Comet – Made up of ice, dust and gas which form a coma and sometimes a visible tail when it is orbiting close to the sun

Nucleus – The head of the comet, which is made up of ice and frozen gas that vaporizes to form the coma and the tail

Sublimate – The transition of a substance directly from the solid to the gas state, without passing through the liquid state

Perihelion – The point where an object orbiting the sun is closest to the sun

Magnitude – The units used to describe brightness of astronomical objects. The smaller the numerical value, the brighter the object is