The Greatest Meteor Show of All Time

By Bill Cooke

At NASA, we get very excited about many astronomical events — to name just a few, the return of Halley’s Comet back in 1985/86; the impact of the fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in 1992; the Leonid meteor storms of 1998, 1999, 2001 and 2002; and, of course, the upcoming total solar eclipse on Aug. 21 of this year.

Some of these events get blown a bit out of proportion. A classic example is that every time Mars comes to opposition (closest approach to Earth), the internet reverberates with the very false statement that Mars will appear as large as the Moon at that time. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as Mars, at its very closest to Earth, appears only 1/70th the apparent diameter of the Moon.

This year we have a new one — reports are circulating that this year’s Perseids will be the “brightest shower in recorded human history,” lighting up the night sky and even having some meteors visible during the day. We wish this were true… but no such thing is going to happen.

In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

For one thing, the Perseids never reach storm levels (thousands of meteors per hour). At best, they outburst from a normal rate between 80-100 meteors per hour to a few hundred per hour. The best Perseid performance of which we are aware occurred back in 1993, when the peak Perseid rate topped 300 meteors per hour. Last year also saw an outburst of just over 200 meteors per hour.

This year, we are expecting enhanced rates of about 150 per hour or so, but the increased number will be cancelled out by the bright Moon, the light of which will wash out the fainter Perseids. A meteor every couple of minutes is good, and certainly worth going outside to look, but it is hardly the “brightest shower in human history.” The Leonid meteor storms of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s were much more spectacular, and had rates 10 times greater than the best Perseid display.

So, if not this year’s Perseid shower, what was the greatest meteor show of all time? I think many meteor researchers would give that award to the 1833 Leonids, which had rates of tens of thousands, perhaps even 100,000, meteors per hour. During a good Perseid shower under ideal conditions, you can see about one meteor per minute. Now imagine yourself being back in 1833, on the night of Nov. 12. Looking outside, you would see something like 20 to 30 meteors PER SECOND. No wonder we read accounts like this one from South Carolina (Chambers, A Handbook of Descriptive and Practical Astronomy, Volume 1, 1889):

“Upwards of 100 lay prostrate on the ground…with their hands raised, imploring God to save the world and them. The scene was truly awful; for never did rain fall much thicker than the meteors fell towards the Earth; east, west, north and south, it was the same.”

Now, THAT’s a meteor shower. The 1833 storm had a profound effect on those that witnessed it; it also gave birth to modern meteor science. Those of us who study meteors dream of such a display happening sometime within our lifetimes.

But it won’t be caused by this year’s Perseids.

Cooke leads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

 

Quadrantid Meteor Over North Georgia

NASA’s All Sky cameras captured this image of a Quadrantid meteor overnight, the meteor was moving at 93,000 miles per hour. This 1 inch diameter member of the Quadrantid meteor shower leaves a brilliant streak in the north Georgia skies before burning up 44 miles above Earth’s surface. The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks overnight on January 4.quadrantid

Bright Fireball Detected by 6 NASA All Sky Cameras

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We have received numerous reports concerning a bright fireball that occurred over Georgia at 5:33:55 PM CST (6:33:55 PM EST). All 6 NASA all sky meteor cameras in the Southeast picked up the meteor at an altitude of 50 miles above the town of Georgia (SE of Atlanta). From its brightness, it is estimated that this piece of an asteroid weighed at least 150 pounds and was over 16 inches in  diameter. It entered the atmosphere at a steep angle and moved almost due south at a speed of 29,000 miles per hour. The NASA cameras tracked it to an altitude of 17 miles above the town of Locust Grove, where it had slowed to a speed of 9000 miles per hour, at which point the meteor ceased producing light by burning up. It is possible that fragments of this object survived to reach the ground as meteorites.

A more detailed analysis will be performed tomorrow and further details will follow if this analysis still indicates the possibility of a meteorite fall.

Ground track, still images from the cameras, and a movie from the NASA camera located in Cartersville, Georgia attached.

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Join NASA’s Geminid Meteor Shower Tweet Chat on December 13-14

The Geminid meteor shower peaks on the night of December 13 through the morning of December 14. Geminid rates can get as high as 100 per hour, with many fireballs visible in the night sky. Best viewing is just before dawn.

NASA Tweet Chat: Observe the Geminid Meteor Shower
On the night of December 13, astronomer Bill Cooke from the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will answer questions about the Geminid meteor shower via a live tweet chat. To ask questions, simply use the #askNASA or @NASA_Marshall. Cooke, Rhiannon Blaauw and Danielle Moser will be available to answer questions between the hours of 10 p.m. CST, beginning the evening of December 13, until 2 a.m. December 14 CST.

How to View the Geminid meteor shower
The best opportunity to see the Geminid Meteor shower is during the dark pre-dawn hours of December 14.

For optimal viewing find an open sky – because Geminid meteors come across the sky from many all directions.

Lie on the ground and look straight up into the dark sky. Again, it is important to be far away from artificial lights. Remember, your eyes can take up to thirty minutes to adjust to the darkness, so allow plenty of time for your eyes to adjust

About the Geminids
Geminids are pieces of debris from an object called 3200 Phaethon. Long thought to be an asteroid, Phaethon is now classified as an extinct comet. Basically it is the rocky skeleton of a comet that lost its ice after too many close encounters with the sun. Earth runs into a stream of debris from 3200 Phaethon every year in mid-December, causing meteors to fly from the constellation Gemini. When the Geminids first appeared in the early 19th century, shortly before the U.S. Civil War, the shower was weak and attracted little attention. There was no hint that it would ever become a major display.

Nature's 'light show' is how NASA describes the Geminid meteor shower - a meteor flash is seen here with an aurora borealis shimmer in Norway
Nature’s ‘light show’ is how NASA describes the Geminid meteor shower – a meteor flash is seen here with an aurora borealis shimmer in Norway

Five Fun Facts for the 2015 Geminid Meteor Shower

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#1. The Geminid meteor shower can be seen from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Because they are pieces of an asteroid, Geminid meteoroids can penetrate deeper into Earth’s atmosphere than most other meteor showers, creating beautiful long arcs viewable for 1-2 seconds. Click the image to view a Geminid in action.

Marshall Space Flight Center will host a live Tweet Chat from 10 p.m. Dec. 13, until 2 a.m. on Dec. 14. Meteor experts Dr. Bill Cooke, Danielle Moser and Rhiannon Blaauw, all from NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, located at Marshall, will stay up late answering questions via Twitter. NASA followers interested in joining the online conversation can tweet their meteor questions to the Marshall Twitter account, @NASA_Marshall, or simply tag their tweets with #askNASA.

Geminids-2

#2. Geminids are pieces of debris from an object called 3200 Phaethon. It was long thought to be an asteroid, but is now classified as an extinct comet.

Phaethon’s eccentric orbit around the sun brings it well inside the orbit of Mercury every 1.4 years. Traveling this close to the sun blasts Phaethon with solar heat that may boil jets of dust into the Geminid stream. Of all the debris streams earth passes through each year, the Geminid shower is the most massive. When we add up the amount of dust in this stream, it outweighs other streams by factors of 5 to 500. Click the image to view a Geminid in action.

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#3. Because they are usually bright, many people say Geminid meteors show color. In addition to glowing white, they have been described as appearing yellow, green, or blue.

Geminid meteoroids hit earth’s atmosphere traveling 78,000 mph or 35 km/s. That may sound fast, but it is actually somewhat slow compared to other meteor showers.

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#4. Geminids are named because the meteors seem to radiate from the constellation of Gemini. The shower lasts a couple of weeks, with meteors typically seen Dec. 4-17, peaking near Dec 13-14. Click the image to view a Geminid in action.

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#5. The Geminids started out as a relatively weak meteor shower when first discovered in the early 19th century. Over time, it has grown into the strongest annual shower, with theoretical rates above 120 meteors per hour.

 

The Taurid Swarm is Upon Us!

Every year from September-November, the Earth passes through a broad stream of debris left by Comet Encke.  The dust associated with the comet hits the Earth’s atmosphere at 65,000 mph and burns up, creating the Taurid meteor shower.  Most years the shower is weak, and only a few Taurid meteors can be seen each night.  Other years, the Taurids can put on a show.

This year, the Taurids may be more active than usual.

Bright Taurid fireballs may be more numerous this year, according to some scientists.  Known as the Taurid “swarm,” these bright meteors are created when the Earth runs into a group of pebble-sized fragments from the comet that then burn up in the atmosphere.

“The annual Taurid meteor shower is going on right now, and we are seeing steady activity in our meteor cameras,” said Bill Cooke, lead for the NASA Meteoroid Environments Office. “Individuals should not be surprised if they see a bright meteor or fireball over the next few nights.”

Taurid meteors can be seen any time the constellation Taurus is above the horizon during the months of September, October, and November. The best time to look for Taurids is after midnight, when Taurus is high in the sky, and when the sky is dark and clear, with no moonlight to mask the fainter meteors.  Given the behavior of past Taurid swarms, increased fireball activity may be seen during the last week of October and the first two weeks of November.

A bright Taurid fireball recorded by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network station in Tullahoma, Tennessee in 2014.
A bright Taurid fireball recorded by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network station in Tullahoma, Tennessee in 2014.
A bright Taurid fireball recorded by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network station in Cartersville, Georgia in 2012.
A bright Taurid fireball recorded by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network station in Cartersville, Georgia in 2012.
A bright Taurid fireball recorded by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network station in Cartersville, Georgia in 2013.  The bright orb is the Moon.
A bright Taurid fireball recorded by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network station in Cartersville, Georgia in 2013. The bright orb is the Moon.

Draconid Meteor Shower Peaks October 8

A Draconid disappears behind a tree in this image taken by a Canadian all sky camera (Credit: UWO Meteor Physics Group)..
A Draconid disappears behind a tree in this image taken by a Canadian all sky camera (Credit: UWO Meteor Physics Group)..

The Draconids are an “occasional” shower – they are either in outburst, with a fair number of meteors, or are so few the casual observer would not notice them. Rates this year are expected to be about 10 per hour on the night of October 8 into the early morning of the 9th, most of them faint. The moon phase is favorable for the Draconid peak, so a sharp eyed observer may be able to spot a few during the course of the evening. The faintness of the Draconids is due in part to the fact that they are very slow for meteors, about 40,000 mph. As a consequence, it takes a larger Draconid to produce enough light to be really noticable (the brightness of a meteor is related to both its size and speed), and there are few of those unless the shower is in outburst, which is forecast to happen in 2018.

The next meteor shower is the Orionids on the night of October 21 into the morning of the 22. Rates are predicted to be about 20 per hour, and the gibbous Moon should set by 1 AM, permitting good viewing just before dawn when the rates will be at their highest

Meteor Over Alabama Brighter than Crescent Moon

On September 16, at 8:22:25 PM local time, NASA meteor cameras in north Georgia and western North Carolina detected a bright fireball over middle Alabama. First seen at an altitude of 45 miles above Paul M. Grist State Park, near Selma, Alabama, the 6 inch diameter chunk of asteroid moved east at a speed of 38,000 miles per hour before burning up some 28 miles above northern Elmore County. At its most intense, the meteor was even brighter than a crescent Moon.

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Perseids in the Skies over Marshall Space Flight Center

A composite image combines about 120 meteor images taken by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network station at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. on August 13, 2015.  The majority of the meteors are Perseids. Danielle Moser of the Meteoroid Environment Office compiled the composite image.MAX_20150813_01