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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“The second supermoon of 2019 happened Feb. 19. The third of 2019 will happen March 19. But what’s a supermoon? We asked NASA astronomer Mitzi Adams what’s really going on here. Here’s her answer!”
Like the orbits of all bodies in the solar system, the Moon’s orbit around Earth is not circular, it has an oval or elliptical shape, with Earth slightly offset from the center. As a result, there are two distance extremes of each orbit: closest approach, known as perigee, and the farthest, or apogee. When the Moon is at closest approach and within a day or so of being full, it is called a supermoon because the Moon will be at its brightest and largest.
For the supermoon on Feb.19, the Moon will be full only six hours after it reaches the perigee distance of its orbit, making it the brightest and largest full Moon of the year. A supermoon also occurred in January with a slightly more distant perigee, a mere 362 miles (583 kilometers) farther away, but 14 hours after the full Moon. However, January’s supermoon included a total lunar eclipse seen in all of North and South America. The third and last supermoon of the year will happen March 19, when the perigee distance will be reached a day and five hours before the full Moon (see the table below for details).
Time Before or After Full Moon
222,043 miles (357,344 km)
15 hours after
221,681 miles (356,761 km)
6 hours before
223,308 miles (359,380 km)
1 day, 5 hours before
To watch tonight’s supermoon, or any full Moon, simply look for the Moon to rise in the east as the Sun sets in the west. The Moon will look extremely large when it rises and sets. This “Moon illusion” happens when the Moon is close to the horizon and there are objects within our line of sight such as trees or buildings. Because these relatively close objects are in front of the Moon, our brain is tricked into thinking the Moon is much closer to the objects that are in our line of sight. At Moon rise or set, it only appears larger than when it is directly overhead because there are no nearby objects with which to compare it. You can check this. When the Moon rises, hold a coin at arm’s length so that the coin covers the Moon. Repeat this throughout the evening and you will see that the Moon’s size does not change.
As it rises on Feb. 19, the Moon will be in the constellation of Leo. However, since the Moon is so bright, you may have trouble seeing the bright star Regulus, which is at the end of the “backwards question mark” that makes Leo easy to spot.
Looking more or less directly overhead, you could see the famous constellation Orion the Hunter with bright stars Betelgeuse, a reddish star, and Rigel, a bluish star. With a telescope or binoculars, you might be able to pick out the Orion nebula just below the belt stars of Orion, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka.
To the west of Orion you should be able to spot reddish Mars.
As we observe this supermoon, keep in mind that 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of a great technological feat – humans travelled to the Moon, walked on its surface and returned safely to Earth. Twelve people walked on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two, but let us not forget the other ten: Alan Bean, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Edgar D. Mitchell, Alan Shepard, Dave Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Eugene “Gene” Cernan and Harrison Schmitt. These men, along with the command module pilots Michael Collins, Dick Gordon, Stu Roosa, Al Worden, Ken Mattingly, Ron Evans and the multitudes of support staff back on Earth, fulfilled a dream of exploring our nearest neighbor in space. As NASA and its commercial and international partners plan to return the Moon over the next decade with a long-term continued presence, the list of Moon walkers will surely include women, as well.
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.
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.
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.