See the Red Planet in July 2020

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is planned to launch this summer, sending the Perseverance rover and the first-ever Mars helicopter to the Red Planet. So, if you’re a Mars exploration fan, this month is a great time to spot Mars yourself. Check out the video below produced by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to learn more.

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!

About the Upcoming (maybe) Alpha Monocerotid Meteor Shower Outburst…

By: Bill Cooke
Lead, NASA Meteoroid Environment Office


The media is currently broadcasting the prediction of an outburst of the alpha Monocerotid meteor shower on the night of November 21. The researchers making the prediction, Dr. Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, have made calculations that indicate that there may be zenithal hourly rates as high as 400 to 1000 meteors per hour around 11:50 PM Eastern Standard Time (10:50 PM Central and 9:50 PM Mountain; you will note that I am not giving a Pacific time – more on that later). These are impressive numbers, generating lots of buzz in the media. I love meteor outbursts and storms, so I was initially quite excited – I mean, what’s there not to like about an impromptu display involving lots of meteors from a yet-to-be discovered comet?

But as the media inquiries increased, I began to wonder if all the attention is justified. Being a meteor shower forecaster, I am all too aware of the fact that such predictions (including mine), while pretty accurate on the timing, often estimate a shower intensity higher (factors of a few) than what actually takes place. So I decided to take a more detailed look, starting with some dumpster diving for old papers about this shower and making a few calculations of my own. That’s when the skepticism kicked in – I now think there is a pretty good chance there may be no outburst at all. And even if there is, it won’t be as impressive as many think. Allow me to share…

This map shows the total number of meteors observers in the United States can expect to see for this year’s alpha Monocerotid meteor shower, provided the rates are similar to the 1995 outburst.
This map shows the total number of meteors observers in the United States can expect to see for this year’s alpha Monocerotid meteor shower, provided the rates are similar to the 1995 outburst.

In Dr. Jenniskens and Lyytinen’s work, the Earth is forced to pass through the center of alpha Monocerotid meteor stream (AMOs for short) during the shower’s 1925 and 1935 outbursts. We have no idea if this actually happened, but it is a reasonable assumption if these outbursts were more intense than the last one in 1995. Based on this, they conclude that the AMOs are produced by a long period comet that takes about 500 years to orbit the Sun. IF this is right, then we should pass very close to the center of the meteor stream this year, missing it by a scant 15,000 miles. That’s just a tad closer than we got back in 1995, when the observed zenithal hourly rate was about 400 per hour. And it’s why the forecast rate is so high – closer means the same intensity or better.

However, the intensity of the outburst is very dependent on the size of the parent comet’s orbit. If it is much smaller, or larger, the distance from the stream center will be bigger, and there will not be any sky show, just the normal AMOs, puttering along with their normal rate of 3 or so meteors per hour. And since we have not yet discovered this mysterious parent comet, who knows how close the estimate of the orbit is to the actual? A good reason to step outside Thursday night, because the cool thing is that if an outburst does occur, we will have a pretty good idea of the orbit of this comet – not from observing the comet with telescopes, but by counting its debris as they burn up in our atmosphere.

The old papers I dug up also proved enlightening. I could find no meteor rate numbers for the 1925 outburst – just that it was short, with a fair number of meteors. The 1935 AMO outburst was observed in 2 places – a meteor observer in Begumpet, India and the commanding officer of a U.S. ship in the Philippines each reported seeing a total of just over 100 meteors in a 40 minute span of time. That’s nice, but it certainly is nowhere close to the spectacular rates produced by the Leonid and Draconid meteor storms of the 1900’s. A moderate outburst, yes, but not a meteor storm. Even fewer were seen in 1985, when one observer reported 36 meteors seen over 16 minutes of time. It is true that the calculated rates were in the hundreds per hour, but what matters to the average person is the total number of meteors they will see. Zenithal hourly rates give the theoretical rates for a perfect observer under perfect skies with the shower radiant straight overhead (something that never happens in reality), and while they may be a good way to scientifically measure meteor shower activity, they are poor indicators of what will actually be seen. The observer reports, however, do tell us what we might expect.

And then we come to 1995, the best-observed AMO outburst. Quite a few observers in Western Europe saw about 100 meteors over an hour’s time, consistent with the observations of the previous AMO outbursts. These data do not indicate that we were closer to the AMO stream center in 1925 and 1935, as Jenniskens and Lyytinen suggest; in fact, it appears that AMO outbursts are fairly constant with regard to numbers, with about 100 meteors seen over the less-than-an-hour duration of the outburst. At face value, this would mean no outburst. However, the numbers seeming to be not strongly dependent on distance is possibly good news; even if the researchers’ distance assumptions are wrong, we still may have a chance of a respectable, albeit short, outburst, provided Earth gets “close enough” to the stream center.

At the beginning of this post, I gave times for the predicted peak in the Eastern, Central, and Mountain time zones, but left out Pacific. That’s because the AMO radiant – the point in the constellation of Monocerotis from which the meteors appear to originate – is below the horizon at the peak time for locations west of Denver. That means people on the Pacific Coast will not see this outburst, even if their skies are clear. So if you live there and want to experience the shower, you need to go quite a bit east. If you do, please don’t blame me if the outburst is a no show; as I said, I am a bit skeptical. For the eastern United States, the radiant is not very high in the sky at the forecast peak time (about 23° in Orlando), which is unfortunate since the observed number of meteors is tied to the radiant altitude. The higher the radiant, the more meteors people see. So my computer savvy colleagues have generated this map, which shows the total numbers of meteors you can expect to see if the outburst is similar to that of 1995. Blue is good, red is worse, white means no meteors at all. The decrease in total expected meteors is pretty obvious as you move west

And of course, there is the weather. Remember, you need clear, dark skies to see meteors, and it looks like Mother Nature is going to be mean, with clouds forecast over much of the part of the U.S. that has a chance of observing the outburst. So, if you are gifted with good seeing, give yourself about 45 minutes to adjust to the dark – go out about 10:35 PM Eastern, 9:35 PM Central, or 8:35 PM Mountain. Lie flat on your back, look straight up, and enjoy looking at the night sky (maybe listen to some appropriate tunes, but don’t look at your cell phone, as the bright screen will ruin your night vision). If Jenniskens and Lyytinen are right, you might see some pieces of a comet that awaits discovery, burning up in the atmosphere 60 miles above your head.

That’s worth a couple of hours, I think. Even if there is no outburst, it doesn’t hurt to get out under the stars for a bit.

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!

Out With the Harvest, In With the Hunt

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.

Look for the Harvest Moon this Weekend

Take a moment this weekend to gaze at the beautiful Harvest Moon! The Moon will appear full Thursday night through Sunday morning. Early Saturday morning, Sept. 14, will mark the actual full Moon.

The Harvest Moon gets its name from agriculture. In the days before electric lights, farmers across the Northern Hemisphere depended on bright moonlight to extend the workday beyond sunset. It was the only way they could gather their ripening crops in time for market. The full Moon closest to the autumnal equinox became “the Harvest Moon,” and it was always a welcome sight.

The term became further entrenched in popular culture thanks to a 1903 pop tune called “Shine on Harvest Moon.”

A Harvest Moon inflated by the moon illusion — a common phenomenon with full moons seen close to the horizon, where familiar Earth objects such as trees or buildings lend the Moon a false sense of size — is simply beautiful to view, but even more so to the farmers gathering their crops in on those cool autumn evenings.