Meteor Showers to Bookend Overnight Skywatching Opportunities in May

As the spring season continues, May could prove to be of great interest for stargazers and space enthusiasts – with a pair of potentially active meteor showers opening and closing the month.

“Meteors aren’t uncommon,” Bill Cooke said, who leads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “Earth is bombarded every day by millions of bits of interplanetary detritus speeding through our solar system.”

A meteor mosaic comprised of 99 images, using a blue filter, of the Eta Aquariids observed during the early morning hours
A meteor mosaic comprised of 99 images, using a blue filter, of the Eta Aquariids observed during the early morning hours from April 30 to May 8, 2013.
Credits: NASA All Sky Fireball Network

Most particles are no bigger than dust and sand. Hitting the upper atmosphere at speeds up to 45 miles per second, they flare and burn up. On any given night, the average person can see from 4 to 8 meteors per hour. Meteor showers, however, are caused by streams of comet and asteroid debris, which create many more flashes and streaks of light as Earth passes through the debris field.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for space enthusiasts to get out and experience one of nature’s most vivid light shows,” Cooke said.

Eta Aquariids (May 5-6)

First up, on the night of May 5 and early hours of May 6, around 3:00 am CDT, is the eta Aquariid shower, caused by the annual encounter with debris from Halley’s comet – remnants of the comet’s tour through the solar system once every 75 or 76 years. Its radiant – or the point in the night sky from which the meteor shower appears to originate – is the constellation Aquarius. The shower is named for the brightest star in that constellation, eta Aquarii.

A 2013 eta Aquariid composite
A 2013 eta Aquariid composite from a camera used in New Mexico.
Credits: NASA Meteoroid Environment Office

Until Halley’s comet is next visible from Earth in 2061, only the eta Aquariids – and their fall counterpart, the Orionid meteor shower, which is visible each October – mark the passage of this solar system visitor.

“It will be interesting to see if the rates are low this year, or if we will get a spike in numbers before next year’s forecast outburst,” Cooke said.

The annual meteor shower has the best rates for those in the Southern Hemisphere, but even in the Northern Hemisphere, if weather conditions are right, there is a possibility of seeing up to 30 meteors per hour. The waxing crescent Moon will set before the eta Aquariid radiant gets high in the sky, leaving dark skies for what should be an excellent show. Best viewing happens after 3 AM local time, so get up early.

Tau Herculids (May 30-31)

A possible newcomer this year is the tau Herculid shower, forecast to peak on the night of May 30 and early morning of May 31.

Back in 1930, German observers Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann discovered a comet known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, or “SW3, which orbited the Sun every 5.4 years. Being so faint, SW3 wasn’t seen again until the late 1970s, seeming pretty normal until 1995, when astronomers realized the comet had become about 600 times brighter and went from a faint smudge to being visible with the naked eye during its passage. Upon further investigation, astronomers realized SW3 had shattered into several pieces, littering its own orbital trail with debris. By the time it passed our way again in 2006, it was in nearly 70 pieces, and has continued to fragment further since then.

If it makes it to us this year, the debris from SW3 will strike Earth’s atmosphere very slowly, traveling at just 10 miles per second – which means much fainter meteors than those belonging to the eta Aquariids. But North American stargazers are taking particular note this year because the tau Herculid radiant will be high in the night sky at the forecast peak time. Even better, the Moon is new, so there will be no moonlight to wash out the faint meteors.

“This is going to be an all or nothing event. If the debris from SW3 was traveling more than 220 miles per hour when it separated from the comet, we might see a nice meteor shower. If the debris had slower ejection speeds, then nothing will make it to Earth and there will be no meteors from this comet,” Cooke said.

Learn more about meteors and meteorites. Also, if you want to know what else is in the sky for May, check out the latest “What’s Up” video from Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Enjoy all this month has to offer as you watch the skies!

by Rick Smith

Perseids Peak: Watch Best Meteor Shower of the Year!

By Emily Clay

The Perseid meteor shower is here! With Comet NEOWISE making its way out of the solar system, it is time for a celestial show caused by a different comet. Perseid meteors, caused by debris left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, began streaking across the skies in late July and will peak in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 12.

In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. The Perseids show up every year in August when Earth ventures through trails of debris left behind by an ancient comet. Image
In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. The Perseids show up every year in August when Earth ventures through trails of debris left behind by an ancient comet. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

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, however, has the unfortunate circumstance of the Moon phase—last quarter—impeding the view of the shower peak, reducing the visible meteors from over 60 per hour down to 15-20 per hour. But the Perseids are rich in bright meteors and fireballs, so it will still be worth going out in the early morning to catch some of nature’s fireworks.

WHEN SHOULD I LOOK?

Make plans to stay up late the night of Aug. 11 or wake up early the morning of Aug. 12. The Perseids are best seen between about 2 a.m. your local time and dawn. The Moon rises at around midnight, so its brightness will affect the peak viewing window. However, even though the Moon’s phase and presence will keep the frequency of visible meteors lower, there is still nearly one meteor every two minutes during the peak!

If those hours seem daunting, not to worry! You can go out after dark, around 9 p.m. local time, and see a few 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 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, (if our weather cooperates!) will be available on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook starting around 8 p.m. CDT on Aug. 11 and continuing until sunrise on Aug. 12. 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.

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 because of their small fields of view.) 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!

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.

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.

Heads Up, Earthlings! Watch the Skies Is Getting a Reboot.


By Kevin Matyi

Want to find out more about this year’s total solar eclipse — like what totality means and why the path of totality is so much smaller than the overall eclipse? Wonder how long it takes photons from the sun to reach Earth? Curious about dark matter and what we know about it? All are possibilities in the newly revamped Watch the Skies blog.

Hello and welcome back! We will be posting content more regularly, although it will be somewhat changed from before. You can look forward to new articles explaining different astronomy topics, breaking down complex science and jargon in a way that people can understand.

We’ll kick things off this week with some solar eclipse science. So come back then to learn more about just how wonderful and strange our universe can get!

Credit: ESO/José Francisco Salgado

Kevin Matyi is a summer intern in the Office of Communications at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Get Ready for the 2016 Geminids!

The Geminids are a meteor shower that occurs in December every year. The best night to see the shower is Dec. 13 into the early hours of Dec. 14. The Geminid meteor shower is caused by a stream of debris left by the asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. When the Earth passes through the trails of dust every December left by 3200 Phaethon, we see the Geminid meteor shower as the dust (meteoroids) burn up in Earth’s atmosphere creating meteors. Geminids travel through Earth’s atmosphere at 78,000 mph and burn up far above the surface.

To observe the Geminids (if it’s not cloudy), get away from bright lights, lay on your back and look up. Let your eyes get adjusted to the dark – you will see more meteors that way. Meteors can generally be seen all over the sky so don’t look in one particular direction. This year’s shower is also on the same night as a full (super) moon so viewing the shower will be more difficult. If you see a meteor, try and trace it backwards. If you end up in the constellation Gemini, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Geminid.

Given clear weather and dark skies, the Geminid meteor shower can be seen by most of the world, though it is best viewed by observers in the northern hemisphere. This year’s bright moon will wash out all but the brightest Geminids, reducing the rate you can see them significantly. You can expect to see an average of one Geminid every few minutes in dark skies at the shower peak in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, the Geminid radiant does not climb very high about the horizon, so observers will see fewer Geminids than their northern counterparts. Most of North America will miss the traditional peak, but because the Geminid activity is broad, good rates will be seen between 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 13 and dawn local time on the morning of Dec. 14. The most meteors should be visible around 2:00 a.m. local time on Dec. 14.

At 2 p.m. CT/3 p.m. ET, engineers & scientists from NASA’s Meteor Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will answer questions on the Geminids during a Reddit Ask Me Anything.

If you are in an area with cloudy skies, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will broadcast footage of the shower (pending clear skies here) starting at 8 p.m. Dec. 13 until 6 a.m. on Dec. 14 on Marshall’s Ustream account. You can also see Geminid meteors on NASA’s All Sky Fireball network page. Follow’s NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office on Facebook for information on meteor showers and fireballs throughout the year.
GeminidMeteorShower2012_JeffDai950 (1)

Geminid Meteor Shower to Peak Dec 13; NASA Experts to Answer Questions Dec. 12

geminid_all_sky_

The annual Geminid meteor shower will peak during the overnight hours of Dec. 13-14, with best viewing typically around 2 a.m. To learn why meteors and comets are important to NASA, the public is invited to join a live Reddit Ask-Me-Anything event at 2 p.m. Dec. 12. Answering your questions will be NASA meteor experts Bill Cooke, Danielle Moser and Rhiannon Blaauw, all from NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. For viewers experiencing clouds, meteor shower footage will be broadcast live from 8 p.m. Dec. 13 until 6 a.m. on Dec. 14 on Marshall’s Ustream account. Social media followers interested in joining the online conversation can tweet questions to Marshall’s Twitter account or share Geminid images by uploading them to the Geminid Meteor photo group on Marshall’s Flickr account.

Bright Fireball Seen Over New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio

A very bright fireball seen over New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania at 4:45:17 EST this morning, February 17th. It was captured by three NASA cameras. The video came from a NASA camera located at Allegheny Observatory near Pittsburgh, PA. The other two cameras are located at Hiram College and Oberlin College, both in northern Ohio.

fireball2_17

Join Us For the May Camelopardalids!

Step outside and take a look at the skies on the evening of May 23 into the early morning of May 24. Scientists are anticipating a new meteor shower, the May Camelopardalids. No one has seen it before, but the shower could put on a show that would rival the prolific Perseid meteor shower in August. The Camelopardalids shower would be dust resulting from a periodic comet, 209P/LINEAR.

“Some forecasters have predicted a meteor storm of more than 200 meteors per hour,” said Bill Cooke, lead for NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “We have no idea what the comet was doing in the 1800s. The parent comet doesn’t appear to be very active now, so there could be a great show, or there could be little activity.”

The best time to look is during the hours between 06:00 and 08:00 Universal Time on May 24, or between 2-4 a.m. EDT. That’s when forecast models say Earth is most likely to encounter the comet’s debris. North Americans are favored because their peak occurs during nighttime hours while the radiant is high in the sky.

On the night of May 23-24, NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke will host a live web chat from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. EDT. Go to this page to learn more about the May Camelopardalids, to get information about the live chat and to view the live Ustream view that will be available during the chat.

 camel

Perseids Already Lighting Up The Night

Here is a video of a bright Perseid seen by our all-sky camera located at PARI (NC) in the early morning hours of July 30. Several Perseids have already been detected and they are not set to peak for over a week! The nights of August 11-12 and 12-13 will be the best time to observe, but check out fireballs.ndc.nasa.gov regularly to see how many have already been detected by our all-sky cameras!