Tag Archives: Meteroid Environment Office

Jupiter and Venus Conjunction

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On Tuesday, June 30, there will be a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. A conjunction is a celestial event in which two planets or a planet and the moon or a planet and a star appear close together in the night sky. Conjunctions have no real astronomical value, but they are nice to view. While conjunctions aren’t as rare as one might think, this conjunction of Jupiter and Venus will be more impressive than most.

The casual backyard observer may have noticed that these two planets have been moving closer together for the past few weeks. On June 30, they will be so close that one will be able to hold a finger up and cover both Jupiter and Venus at the same time. In reality, the planets are hundreds of millions of miles apart. On June 30, Venus is about 46 million miles from Earth, and Jupiter is 560 million miles from Earth. Looking up at the sky, Venus appears to be much brighter than Jupiter. That is only because Venus is so much closer to Earth. Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is actually over 11 times bigger than Venus, but it is dimmer when looking at the sky because of its great distance from our planet.

Typically the best conditions for stargazing involve a dark sky, so getting away from urban areas will make stars and faint objects like nebulae and galaxies more visible. The Jupiter and Venus conjunction will be easily bright enough to see from any location, even large cities. The best hours for viewing will be during evening twilight and up until 10:30 PM local time, when the planets will set behind the western horizon.cooke

NASA All Sky Fireball Network Watches the Skies

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A meteor streaks across the skies above Huntsville, Ala. (NASA)

The night sky is constantly changing. The Earth rotates and revolves about the sun, creating a backdrop of stars that is always in motion. The moon grows large in the sky, and then smaller again, in a seemingly endless cycle. Now and then, brilliant streaks of light can be seen in the night sky, there and gone again in a split second. These “shooting stars”, also called meteors, are seen when bits of rock and ice, the leftovers from voyaging comets and asteroids, enter the atmosphere and ablate, or burn up. These tiny travelers, and the light they produce, are the concern of the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office, or MEO, at the Marshall Space Flight Center which is responsible for understanding the meteoroid environment spacecrafts may encounter during missions.

To more closely track and study bright meteors called fireballs, the NASA All Sky Fireball Network watches the skies with six specialized black and white video cameras set up in four states scattered across the Southeast and Southwest. The network’s multiple cameras provide overlapping views of the night sky, thus able to detect the same fireball to allow calculation of its location, speed, and orbit. The network, established by the Meteoroid Environment Office in 2008, sees several multi-station meteors (those detected by more than one camera) each night. The resulting fireball data — in the form of images, movies, diagrams, and text files — is posted online daily. The office uses this data to construct models of the meteoroid environment, something very important to spacecraft designers.

With cameras now in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and New Mexico, the NASA All Sky Fireball Network plans to expand into North Carolina and beyond in 2012. The ultimate goal is a network of about 15 cameras in the United States in science centers, planetaria, and schools. To engage students, and promote STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines in the classroom, the MEO has created a workshop for educators with information about meteors, a description of the network, and suggestions for how to use the data in the classroom.


Leonids Meteor Shower Peaks Tonight!

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The annual Leonid meteor shower is expected to reach peak activity tonight, November 17, at about 10:40 p.m. EST. Leonid meteor showers occur when the Earth runs into a stream of small icy debris left behind by comet Tempel-Tuttle as it moves about the Sun.

The best viewing opportunity is tonight after midnight, when the constellation Leo rises above the eastern horizon. Leonids can be viewed any place on Earth except Antarctica — given the sky is clear.

“The moon is going to be a major interference, but we could see a rate of about 20 per hour,” said Bill Cooke, Lead of the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

For best meteor viewing Cooke suggests going to a location away from city lights, dressing warmly, and lie flat on your back and look straight up. No special viewing equipment needed —  just your eyes.

The Leonids occur each year in November.

At 1:45 am MST on November 17th,  NASA’s all sky camera at the New Mexico State University caught this image of a Leonid meteor streaking through the skies.