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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
A bright fireball lit up skies over Michigan at 8:08 p.m. EST on Jan. 16, an event that was witnessed and reported by hundreds of observers, many who captured video of the bright flash.
Based on the latest data, the extremely bright streak of light in the sky was caused by a six-foot-wide space rock — a small asteroid. It entered Earth’s atmosphere somewhere over southeast Michigan at an estimated 36,000 mph and exploded in the sky with the force of about 10 tons of TNT. The blast wave felt at ground level was equivalent to a 2.0 magnitude earthquake.
The fireball was so bright that it was seen through clouds by our meteor camera located at Oberlin college in Ohio, about 120 miles away.
Events this size aren’t much of a concern. For comparison, the blast caused by an asteroid estimated to be around 65 feet across entering over Chelyabinsk, Russia, was equivalent to an explosion of about 500,000 tons of TNT and shattered windows in six towns and cities in 2013. Meteorites produced by fireballs like this have been known to damage house roofs and cars, but there has never been an instance of someone being killed by a falling meteorite in recorded history.
The Earth intercepts around 100 tons of meteoritic material each day, the vast majority are tiny particles a millimeter in diameter or smaller. These particles produce meteors are that are too faint to be seen in the daylight and often go unnoticed at night. Events like the one over Michigan are caused by a much rarer, meter-sized object. About 10 of these are seen over North America per year, and they often produce meteorites.
There are more than 400 eyewitness reports of the Jan. 16 meteor, primarily coming from Michigan. Reports also came from people in nearby states and Ontario, Canada, according to the American Meteor Society. Based on these accounts, we know that the fireball started about 60 miles above Highway 23 north of Brighton and travelled a little north of west towards Howell, breaking apart at an altitude of 15 miles. Doppler weather radar picked up the fragments as they fell through the lower parts of the atmosphere, landing in the fields between the township of Hamburg and Lakeland. One of the unusual things about this meteor is that it followed a nearly straight-down trajectory, with the entry angle being just 21 degrees off vertical. Normally, meteors follow a much more shallow trajectory and have a longer ground track as a result.
NASA’s Short-term Prediction Research and Transition Center reported that a space-based lightning detector called the Geostationary Lightning Mapper — “GLM” for short — observed the bright meteor from its location approximately 22,300 miles above Earth. The SPoRT team helps organizations like the National Weather Service use unique Earth observations to improve short-term forecasts.
GLM is an instrument on NOAA’s GOES-16 spacecraft, one of the nation’s most advanced geostationary weather satellites. Geostationary satellites circle Earth at the same speed our planet is turning, which lets them stay in a fixed position in the sky. In fact, GOES is short for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite. GLM detected the bright light from the fireball and located its exact position within minutes. The timely data quickly backed-up eyewitness reports, seismic data, Doppler radar, and infrasound detections of this event.
Much like the nation’s weather satellites help us make decisions that protect people and property on Earth, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office watches the skies to understand the meteoroid environment and the risks it poses to astronauts and spacecraft, which do not have the protection of Earth’s atmosphere. We also keep an eye out for bright meteors, so that we can help people understand that “bright light in the night sky.”
Marshall’s Meteoroid Environment Office’s very own Dr. Bill Cooke, created this graphic showing the idealized view through a telescope with an H-alhpa filter at maximum eclipse for 4 locations: Birmingham, which will experience a 93% eclipse, Atlanta, which will have 97% of the Sun covered, the 97% eclipse in Huntsville, and the 99.6% eclipse in Chattanooga, which shows only the tiniest sliver of Sun down on the bottom.
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.
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.
There was a very bright green fireball seen by hundreds of eyewitnesses surrounding Lake Michigan early this morning at 1:25:13 AM Central Time (February 6, 2017). The reports from these individuals and the video information from dash cameras and other cameras in the region indicate that the meteor originated 62 miles above West Bend, Wisconsin and moved northeast at about 38,000 miles per hour. It disrupted about 21 miles above Lake Michigan, approximately 9 miles east of the town of Newton. The explosive force of this disruption was recorded on an infrasound station in Manitoba, some 600 miles away – these data put the lower limit energy of the event at about 10 tons of TNT, which means we are dealing with a meteoroid – orbit indicates an asteroidal fragment – weighing at least 600 pounds and 2 feet in diameter. Doppler weather radar picked up fragments (meteorites) falling into Lake Michigan near the end point of the trajectory.
Ground track and Doppler radar signature (done by Marc Fries at NASA Johnson Space Center); an animation of the orbit and approach of the meteoroid is being prepared and should be available soon. We will continue to look at data as it comes in and revise the calculations if necessary.
The graphic below illustrates the five planets as they are visible, with the naked eye, from Huntsville, Alabama. It shows their positions in the sky around 6:30 AM during the week of January 18 and continuing for the next few days. Mercury will be close to the Sun, over in the East, and Jupiter will be over in the West, with Venus, Saturn, and Mars between the two. Pluto is near Mercury, but is invisible to the eye, requiring a telescope for viewing.
The last time an alignment such as this occurred was about 10 years ago. This pre-sunrise configuration will be similar for other northern latitudes.
In the graphic, the yellow line is the ecliptic, which is the plane of the Earth’s orbit. The orbits of the major planets lie close to this plane, which is why they appear close to the ecliptic in the night sky.
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.
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.