Lyrids Peak for Earth Day

April has already been an active month for celestial events and it is about to get even better with the Lyrid meteor shower beginning April 19. Just in time for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the Lyrids will peak on April 22 during the predawn hours.

A new Moon this year will make way for good viewing of the Lyrids, leaving the sky dark. While rates of Lyrids per hour can be low, they are also known to produce bright fireballs, and this year we are expecting rates of up to 15 meteors per hour.

Composite image of Lyrid and not-Lyrid meteors over New Mexico from April, 2012. Image via NASA/ MSFC/ Danielle Moser.
Composite image of Lyrid and not-Lyrid meteors over New Mexico from April, 2012. Image via NASA/ MSFC/ Danielle Moser.

The Lyrids are pieces of space debris that originate from the comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher. They are one of the oldest known meteor showers, having been observed for over 2,700 years. Their radiant, or point in the sky from which they appear and where they get their name, is in the constellation Lyra. The Lyrids appear to come from the vicinity of one of the brightest stars in the night sky – Vega. Vega is one of the easiest stars to spot, even in light-polluted areas.

“This will actually be a good year for the Lyrids and it is exciting the peak is on Earth Day and in the middle of International Dark Sky Week,” said Bill Cooke, lead of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “While the Lyrids aren’t as prolific as other meteor showers like the Perseids or Geminids, they usually do produce some bright fireballs, and since the Moon will be nearly invisible April 22, rates should be about as good as it gets for this shower.”

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, NASA plans to observe Earth Day virtually this year, and will highlight the agency’s many contributions to sustaining and improving our home planet with a week of online events, stories and resources. With the Lyrids peaking on April 22, the day is shaping up to be full of observations and science, including the “NASA Science Live” broadcast airing at 3 p.m. EDT. The special Earth Day episode will explore important discoveries about our home planet, advances in green technology and aircraft.

Not only do the Lyrids coincide with Earth Day this year, the shower also falls (pun intended!) during International Dark Sky Week which begins April 19 and goes to April 26. This international observance focuses on preserving and protecting our night sky and the wonders that comes with it.

For more about NASA’s Earth Day plans, visit NASA’s Earth Day website.

For more on meteor showers, visit the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.

Rare Sights for Spring

As spring blooms in the Northern Hemisphere, here’s what’s happening in the night sky!

Venus
On April 3, Venus will pass near a star cluster known as the Pleiades. Also known as the Seven Sisters or M45, the Pleiades lies about 400 light years away from Earth, toward the constellation of the Bull — or Taurus.

Last year as Venus passed close to the Pleiades on June 9, the planet was five degrees south of the star cluster — 20 times farther away than it will be this year. Next year, Venus will be close to the star cluster once more on April 9 — this time at four degrees south of the Seven Sisters. This 2021 passing will be 16 times farther away than the 2020 event.

This year, viewers will have the rare chance at a brilliant view of Venus on April 3. With the naked eye, you will see something similar to the illustration below. However, the best view will be achieved through a pair of binoculars. Don’t miss your shot — Venus won’t make another appearance this close to the Pleiades until 2028!

This illustration -- generated by Bill Cooke using SkySafari Pro software -- captures what the naked eye might see as Venus passes through the Pleiades April 3, 2020.
This illustration — generated by Bill Cooke using SkySafari Pro software — captures what the naked eye might see as Venus passes through the Pleiades April 3, 2020.

Supermoon
We will have a Full Moon on April 7 at 9:35 p.m. CDT, at which time the Moon will be near to its perigee — or the point in its orbit that it is closest to Earth. This proximity will provide the largest appearance of the Moon for the whole year, commonly called a supermoon.

With the Artemis Program, NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. We will collaborate with our commercial and international partners and establish sustainable exploration by 2028. Until that day arrives, the supermoon will put us all a bit closer (physically) to our goal!

Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS
NASA astronomer Tiffany Clements recently captured the below image of Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS using a wide field telescope in New Mexico. Discovered at the end of December 2019 by an automated sky survey searching for Earth-approaching asteroids, this comet could brighten enough to be visible by late May or early June. However, comets are notoriously unpredictable, so stay tuned!

Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS (Credits: NASA/Tiffany Clements)
Comet C/2019 Y4 ATLAS (Credits: NASA/Tiffany Clements)

Go Outside and See the Geminids!

With the holidays right around the corner, most of us are in gift-giving mode… and one of our favorite gifts every December is the Geminid meteor shower!

This year, the peak is during the overnight hours of December 13 and into the morning of December 14. If you can’t catch the Geminids on Friday night, no worries — viewing should still be good on the night of December 14 into the early morning hours of the 15th.

The Geminids are pieces of debris from an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. Earth runs into Phaethon’s debris stream every year in mid-December, causing meteors to fly from the direction of the constellation Gemini – hence the name “Geminids.”

Under dark, clear skies, the Geminids can produce up to 120 meteors per hour. But this year, a bright, nearly full moon will hinder observations of the shower. Observers can hope to see up to 30 meteors per hour.

Meteor
A Geminid streaks across the sky in this photo from December 2019. Image Credit: NASA

HOW CAN YOU SEE THE GEMINIDS?

Weather permitting, the Geminids can best be viewed from around midnight to 4 a.m. local time. The best time to see them is around 2 a.m. your local time on December 14. This time is when the Geminid radiant is highest in your night sky. The radiant is the celestial point in the sky from which the paths of meteors appear to originate.

The higher the radiant rises into the sky, the more meteors you are likely to see.

Find the darkest place you can and give your eyes about 30 minutes to adapt to the dark. Avoid looking at your cell phone, as it will disrupt your night vision. Lie flat on your back and look straight up, taking in as much sky as possible. You should soon start to see Geminid meteors!

As the night progresses, the Geminid rate will increase. If you see a meteor, try to trace it backwards. If you end up in the constellation Gemini, there is a good chance you’ve seen a Geminid. The Geminids are best observed in the Northern Hemisphere, but no matter where you are in the world (except Antarctica), some Geminids will be visible.

Good luck and happy viewing!

A Transit of Mercury Happens Nov. 11

The sky will put on a show Nov. 11 when Mercury journeys across the Sun. The event, known as a transit, occurs when Mercury passes directly between Earth and the Sun. From our perspective on Earth, Mercury will look like a tiny black dot gliding across the Sun’s face. This only happens about 13 times a century, so it’s a rare event that skywatchers won’t want to miss! Mercury’s last transit was in 2016.  The next won’t happen again until 2032!

“Viewing transits and eclipses provide opportunities to engage the public, to encourage one and all to experience the wonders of the universe and to appreciate how precisely science and mathematics can predict celestial events,” said Mitzi Adams, a solar scientist in the Heliophysics and Planetary Science Branch at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “Of course, safely viewing the Sun is one of my favorite things to do.”

This year’s transit will be widely visible from most of Earth, including the Americas, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, New Zealand, Europe, Africa, and western Asia. It starts at about 6:35 a.m. CST, but viewers in some areas, such as the West Coast, will have to wait until the Sun rises at their location to see the transit already in progress. Thankfully, this transit will last almost six hours, so there will be plenty of time to catch the show. At about 9:20 a.m. CST, Mercury’s center will be as close as it is going to get to the Sun’s.

Mercury’s tiny disk, jet black and perfectly round, covers a tiny fraction of the Sun’s blinding surface — only 1/283 of the Sun’s apparent diameter. So you’ll need the magnification of a telescope (minimum of 50x) with a solar filter to view the transit. Never look at the Sun directly or through a telescope without proper protection. It can lead to serious and permanent vision damage. Always use a safe Sun filter to protect your eyes!

Scientists have been using transits for hundreds of years to study the way planets and stars move in space. Edmund Halley used a transit of Venus in 1761 and 1769 to determine the absolute distance to the Sun. Another use of transits is the dimming of Sun or star light as a planet crosses in front of it. This technique is one way planets circling other stars can be found. Scientists can measure brightness dips from these other stars (or from the Sun) to calculate sizes of planets, how far away the planets are from their stars, and even get hints of what they’re made of.

NASA Meteor Cameras Get Weird for Halloween

As we head into the darker half of the year here in Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, astronomers at NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office are sharing eerie images from their meteor cameras. The specialized cameras are part of a network set up by the meteor team to observe and study fireballs — meteors brighter that the planet Venus. Here’s a look at the some of the birds, bugs and stranger things that have crept from the shadows into their view.

Creepy Crawler (bug on the camera dome)
Creepy Crawler (bug on the camera dome)
Nocturnal Creepy Crawler
Nocturnal Creepy Crawler
Reluctant Creepy Crawler
Reluctant Creepy Crawler
Hooded visitor from another space and time?
Hooded visitor from another space and time? (Taken by a camera in our sister camera network, located in Canada.)
Come a little closer
Come a little closer (bird on camera dome)
The Mind Flayer
The Mind Flayer (spider on camera dome)

Images and video of fireballs from the cameras are available for anyone to download from NASA’s All-Sky Fireball Network. For a complete album of our favorite eerie images from the cameras, visit Marshall’s Flickr gallery.

International Observe the Moon Night 2019

Heads up, skywatchers! Did you know there’s a night set aside each year to celebrate and observe our Moon? International Observe the Moon Night has been held annually since 2010. This year it’s Saturday, Oct. 5.

This year also offers an opportunity to celebrate lunar exploration at a time when we are preparing to land American astronauts, including the first woman and the next man, on the Moon by 2024. Through the NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program, we will use innovative new technologies and systems to explore more of the Moon than ever before, and use that knowledge to take the next giant leap, sending astronauts to Mars.

If you live in or near Huntsville, Alabama, you can join our local Moon celebration Saturday, from 5:30-8:30 p.m. CDT at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s Davidson Center for Space Exploration. The event is organized and hosted by the Planetary Mission Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. This year’s event will include lunar and solar system exploration exhibits and more hands-on activities than ever. Members of the public are invited to attend, and it is free! Don’t live in Huntsville? No worries! There are events held worldwide and you can find a list of them here.

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.

And happy Moon-gazing, skywatchers!

Ask an Astronomer: What’s a Supermoon?

“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).

Date Perigee Distance Time Before or After Full Moon
Jan. 21 222,043 miles (357,344 km) 15 hours after
Feb. 19 221,681 miles (356,761 km) 6 hours before
March 19 223,308 miles (359,380 km) 1 day, 5 hours before
A total lunar eclipse accompanied the first in a trilogy of supermoons in 2019.
A total lunar eclipse accompanied the first in a trilogy of supermoons in 2019. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Joe Matus

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.

Regulus
Credit: Stellarium

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.

Great Nebula in Orion
Credit: Stellarium

To the west of Orion you should be able to spot reddish Mars.

Mars
Credit: Stellarium

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.

A good resource for more information on supermoons may be found here: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/moons/earths-moon/what-is-a-supermoon/.

Constellation screenshots are from Stellarium, a planetarium software package that is accompanied by a GNU General Public License

Mitzi Adams is a solar scientist in the Heliophysics and Planetary Science Branch at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Fireball Leaves Persistent Train over Western Skies

Well over 100 people in California, Nevada, Arizona and Oregon observed a fireball at 5:35 p.m. PST Dec. 19. This event was unusual not for the brightness of the fireball—similar to that of a crescent Moon—but for the persistent train left behind after the object ablated. This persistent train lasted for minutes (compared to the one second duration of the fireball) and was caused by sunlight reflecting off dust particles left behind by the meteoroid as it broke apart in Earth’s atmosphere. Upper atmosphere winds distorted the train over time, giving it a curvy, “corkscrew” appearance.

An analysis of the eyewitness accounts indicates that the meteor first became visible at an altitude of 48 miles over the Pacific Ocean some 50 miles west of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Moving west of south at 63,000 miles per hour, it managed to survive only a second or so before ablating and breaking apart at an altitude of 34 miles above the ocean.

“Ocean track” showing the path of the fireball.
“Ocean track” showing the path of the fireball.

For videos and images of this event and the persistent train, visit the American Meteor Society website.

Get Ready Stargazers: The Geminids Are Coming!

The second week of December heralds the beginning of the strongest meteor shower of the year – the Geminids. It’s a good time to bundle up, go outside and watch one of Mother Nature’s best sky shows!

The Geminids are active every December, when Earth passes through a massive trail of dusty debris shed by a weird, rocky object named 3200 Phaethon. The dust and grit burn up when they run into Earth’s atmosphere in a flurry of “shooting stars.”

Phaethon’s nature is debated. It’s either a near-Earth asteroid or an extinct comet, sometimes called a rock comet. There is another object – an Apollo asteroid named 2005 UD – that is in a dynamically similar orbit to Phaethon, prompting speculation that the two were once part of a larger body that split apart or collided with another asteroid.

Most shower meteors are shed by comets when their orbits take them into the inner Solar System, but the Geminids may be the debris from this long-ago breakup or collision event. When you consider that the Geminid meteor stream has more mass than any other meteor shower, including the Perseids, whatever happened back then must have been pretty spectacular.

So what do potential Geminid watchers need to do this year?

It’s pretty simple, actually. The nearly First Quarter Moon sets around 10:30 p.m. local time, so wait until then to go out – the light from the Moon washes out the fainter meteors, which are more numerous. Find the darkest place you can, and give your eyes about 30 minutes to adapt to the dark. Avoid looking at your cell phone, as it will mess up your night vision. Lie flat on your back and look straight up, taking in as much sky as possible. You will soon start to see Geminid meteors. As the night progresses, the Geminid rate will increase, hitting a theoretical maximum of about 100 per hour around 2 a.m.

Bear in mind, this rate is for a perfect observer under perfect skies with Gemini straight overhead. The actual number for folks out in the dark countryside will be slightly more than 1 per minute. Folks in suburbs will see fewer, 30 to 40 per hour depending on the lighting conditions. And those downtown in major cities will see practically nothing – even though the Geminids are rich in beautiful green fireballs, the lights of New York, San Francisco, or Atlanta will blot even them out. Dark clear skies are the most important ingredient in observing meteor showers.

Comet Wirtanen has a light blue hue in this image taken by NASA astronomer Bill Cooke using an iTelescope widefield 90 mm refractor and color CCD camera Nov. 29 at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia.

And while you’re scanning the sky for Geminids, you might notice a small, faint “ghostly” green patch in the constellation of Taurus – that’s Comet 46P/Wirtanen, which will be making its closest approach to Earth (7 million miles) for the next 20 years. We are actually going to have a comet visible to the unaided eye this holiday season!

Graphic showing the locations of the Geminid radiant and Comet 46P/Wirtanen for 35 degrees north latitude at 10:30 p.m. on the night of the Geminid peak (December 13).

Comets are notoriously unpredictable beasts, but if Wirtanen continues to follow its current brightening trend, it may reach a peak magnitude of around +3 (about as bright as a star in the handle of the Little Dipper) a couple of days past the Geminid peak, on December 16. Binoculars or a small telescope are good for taking a peak at Wirtanen, so bring them along for your night of Geminid watching. A green comet to complement the green fireballs!

International Observe the Moon Night

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.International Observe the Moon Night 2018 graphic

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.

Full moon.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.

Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot of the first lunar landing mission, poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during an Apollo 11 extravehicular activity (EVA) on the lunar surface. 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.