Space Station Sees Meteor over California Coast

The Expedition 59 crew on board the International Space Station captured this image of a meteor at 7:21:23 GMT on May 10, on a night pass over the Pacific Ocean and California coast. (Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center)
The Expedition 59 crew on board the International Space Station captured this image of a meteor at 7:21:23 GMT on May 10, on a night pass over the Pacific Ocean and California coast. (Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center)

Happy Solstice, Skywatchers

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!

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.
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. (NASA/Genna Duberstein)

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.

Here Comes the Sun… and Moon!

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.

During the equinoxes, both hemispheres receive equal amounts of daylight. (Image not to scale.)
During the equinoxes, both hemispheres receive equal amounts of daylight. (Image not to scale.) (NASA/GSFC/Genna Duberstein)

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.

When the Moon, on its orbit around Earth, reaches the point farthest from the Sun, we see a full Moon.
When the Moon, on its orbit around Earth, reaches the point farthest from the Sun, we see a full Moon. (NASA/GSFC/Genna Duberstein)

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

Perseids Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend

A live broadcast of the meteor shower from a camera in Huntsville, AL (if our weather cooperates!) will be available on NASA TV and the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook starting around 9 p.m. Eastern time (8 p.m. CT) and continuing until the early hours of August 13.

The Perseid meteor shower is here! Perseid meteors, caused by debris left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, began streaking across the skies in late July and will peak on August 12.

The Perseid meteor shower is often considered to be one of the best meteor showers of the year due to its high rates and pleasant late-summer temperatures. This year’s shower peak, however, has the added bonus of dark skies courtesy of an early-setting crescent Moon. Combine these ideal observing conditions and high rates (an average of 60 meteors per hour at the peak) with the fact that the best nights for viewing – August 11 to 12 and August 12 to 13 – occur on a weekend and you have a recipe for successfully viewing some celestial fireworks!

A Perseid meteor over Daytona Beach, FL.
A Perseid meteor over Daytona Beach, FL. Perseids are known for being bright and fast, traveling 132,000 mph. Image Credit: NASA/MEO.

When Should I Look?

Make plans to stay up late or wake up early the nights of August 11 to 12 and August 12 to 13. The Perseids are best seen between about 2 a.m. your local time and dawn.

If those hours seem daunting, not to worry! You can go out after dark, around 9 p.m. local time, and see Perseids. Just know that you won’t see nearly as many as you would had you gone out during the early morning hours.

How can you see the Perseids if the weather doesn’t cooperate where you are? A live broadcast of the meteor shower from a camera in Huntsville, AL (if our weather cooperates!) will be available on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook starting around 8 p.m. CT and continuing until the early hours of August 13. Meteor videos recorded by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network are also available each morning; to identify Perseids in these videos, look for events labeled “PER.”

Why Are They Called Perseids?

All meteors associated with one particular shower have similar orbits, and they all appear to come from the same place in the sky, called the radiant. Meteor showers take their name from the location of the radiant. The Perseid radiant is in the constellation Perseus. Similarly, the Geminid meteor shower, observed each December, is named for a radiant in the constellation Gemini.

Most of the meteors seen in this composite are Perseids.
Most of the meteors seen in this composite are Perseids. Notice how they all appear to be streaking from the same direction? The Perseids appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Perseus. Image Credit: NASA/MEO.

How to Observe Perseids

If it’s not cloudy, pick an observing spot away from bright lights, lay on your back, and look up! You don’t need any special equipment to view the Perseids – just your eyes.  (Note that telescopes or binoculars are not recommended.) Meteors can generally be seen all over the sky so don’t worry about looking in any particular direction.

While observing this month, not all of the meteors you’ll see belong to the Perseid meteor shower. Some are sporadic background meteors. And some are from other weaker showers also active right now, including the Alpha Capricornids, the Southern Delta Aquariids, and the Kappa Cygnids. How can you tell if you’ve seen a Perseid? If you see a meteor try to trace it backwards. If you end up in the constellation Perseus, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Perseid. If finding constellations isn’t your forte, then note that Perseids are some of the fastest meteors you’ll see!

Pro tip: Remember to let your eyes become adjusted to the dark (it takes about 30 minutes) – you’ll see more meteors that way. Try to stay off of your phone too, as looking at devices with bright screens will negatively affect your night vision and hence reduce the number of meteors you see!

Happy viewing!

Go Outside and See Mars!

35.8 million miles is definitely not what most of us would consider “close.” But in planetary terms, close is definitely relative! On July 31, Mars will be 35.8 million miles from Earth, which is the closest it has been to Earth in 15 years. What does this mean for sky watchers? It means the Red Planet will appear super bright, and with its orange-red color, will be hard to miss in the nighttime sky. From July 27-30, the point in Mars’ orbit will come closest to Earth, and will be closest to Earth before sunrise Eastern Time on July 31.

What defines a “close approach?” The minimum distance from the Earth to Mars is about 33.9 million miles and does not happen very often. Because Earth and Mars have elliptical orbits and are slightly tilted to each other, all close approaches are not equal. When Mars slowly approaches what astronomers call opposition, it and the Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth. Earth and Mars align in opposition about every two years (fun fact: this is why most NASA missions to the Red Planet are at least two years apart – to take advantage of the closer distance). Opposition to Mars is at its closest to the Sun every 15 to 17 years, when excellent views of the Red Planet from Earth can occur. This is what is happening on the early morning hours of July 31.

Mars is the fourth planet from the sun.
Mars is the fourth planet from the sun.
Image credit: NASA

Is 35.8 million miles the closest Mars has ever been to Earth? Nope. In 2003, Mars was 34.6 million miles from Earth and the closest it had been in nearly 60,000 years. This type of proximity won’t occur again until 2287. But, there will be another close approach in October 2020 when the distance between the Red Planet and Earth will be 38.6 million miles.

Now that we’ve gotten all of that out of the way, what does this mean for you, the novice astronomer or general sky-watcher? It means that if you have clear skies where you live, go outside on the overnight hours of July 30 or early morning hours of July 31 and look up. The planet will be brighter than usual and will have an orange or red haze. You can also look through a telescope. If weather is bad where you are, NASA will be streaming live from the Griffith Observatory.

Good luck and happy viewing!

Total Lunar Eclipse

By Mitzi Adams, NASA Marshall solar scientist

Last August, citizens and visitors to the United States of America had a rare opportunity to see a total solar eclipse, because the path of totality ranged from Oregon to South Carolina, essentially bisecting the country. But alas, the total lunar eclipse happening on Friday, July 27, will totally miss the United States. Being able to observe the Moon totally immersed in Earth’s shadow depends mostly on whether it is dark at the time the eclipse happens, so about half the Earth would be in the right place to see the eclipse, weather permitting of course. This time, residents of Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and parts of South America will be so lucky. In contrast, totality for a solar eclipse is very narrow and only a very small portion of Earth is in the shadow of the Moon. For the August 2017 eclipse, only those within an approximately 100 km (63 miles) wide path saw the Sun totally eclipsed.

So what happens when there is a lunar eclipse? Unlike the solar variety, Earth blocks the Sun for a lunar eclipse. For the lunar eclipse to happen, the Moon’s phase must be “full”, which means that the orbiting Moon is opposite the Sun, with Earth in between. When the Sun sets in the west, the Moon rises in the east — and this event happens once a “moonth” (or month). But a lunar eclipse does not happen every month. Why is that?

The Moon is seen here during the January 2018 lunar eclipse, setting in the western horizon, not yet in totality.
The Moon is seen here during the January 2018 lunar eclipse, setting in the western horizon, not yet in totality.
Image credit: NASA/Alphonse Sterling

Well, now we get into more tricky territory. Let’s try a thought experiment. Draw a line between the centers of the Sun, Earth, and Moon. This line is part of a plane that describes how Earth orbits the Sun, called the plane of the ecliptic. The Moon orbits Earth, only its orbit is tilted with respect to the plane of the ecliptic, sometimes the Moon is above the plane, sometimes it is below the plane. Only when the Moon’s orbit lines up with the ecliptic plane do we have a chance for an eclipse. If the phase of the Moon is “full” when this happens, we have a lunar eclipse. If the phase of the Moon is “new,” we have a solar eclipse. Sometimes the orbital planes do not line up exactly, in those cases, we would have partial eclipses.

Fred Espenak, click here for more info on Lunar Eclipse Geometry.

The July 27 eclipse is somewhat special because the length of totality will be the longest of this century at one hour, 43 minutes. Why? Several reasons. The Moon will be at apogee, or at the farthest distance from Earth (406,000 km or 252,000 mi) possible for our Moon. Objects in orbit around Earth move slower the farther away they are, which means it will take longer for the Moon to traverse the width of Earth’s shadow. In addition, the Moon will be almost exactly on that line that connects Sun, Earth, Moon, also increasing the length of time the Moon will spend in the umbral (darkest) part of Earth’s shadow. Finally, Earth reached its greatest distance from the Sun (aphelion) quite recently (July 6), meaning that Earth’s shadow on July 27 will be close to the largest it can be, adding even more distance (and time) to the Moon’s shadowy traverse.

This image is of the full Moon before the January 2018 lunar eclipse.
This image is of the full Moon before the January 2018 lunar eclipse.
Image credit: NASA Marshall/Alphonse Sterling

The partial phase of the eclipse will begin at 18:24 UT, with totality beginning at 19:30 UT (see the NASA time zone page for help with conversion to your local time and official U.S. time). Totality will be over at 21:13 UT and the partial phase ends at 22:19 UT. Viewing a lunar eclipse does not require a telescope or even special glasses; however, while waiting for totality to begin, which is marked by a reddish-brown color to the Moon, a telescope could be used to view two planets that are in the evening sky. Mars will be visible, and should be pretty bright since there is currently a dust storm covering the entire planet. So the telescope will not see any surface detail here, but the redness of the planet will contrast well with the reddish hue of a totally eclipsed Moon. Saturn will be visible to the west of Mars — and even binoculars will resolve the rings, but a telescope could provide more detail. For all observers, find the full Moon in the night sky, Mars will be close to and below (south of) the Moon, a bright reddish “star-like” object. For detailed information about this eclipse, click here.