Astronomers are excited about the possibility of a new meteor shower May 30-31. And that excitement has sparked a lot of information about the tau Herculids. Some has been accurate, and some has not.
We get excited about meteor showers, too! But sometimes events like this don’t live up to expectations – it happened with the 2019 Alpha Monocerotid shower, for example. And some astronomers predict a dazzling display of tau Herculids could be “hit or miss.”
So, we’re encouraging eager skywatchers to channel their inner scientists, and look beyond the headlines. Here are the facts:
On the night of May 30 into the early morning of May 31, Earth will pass through the debris trails of a broken comet called 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, or SW3.
The comet, which broke into large fragments back in 1995, won’t reach this point in its orbit until August.
If the fragments from were ejected with speeds greater than twice the normal speeds—fast enough to reach Earth—we might get a meteor shower.
Spitzer observations published in 2009 indicate that at least some fragments are moving fast enough. This is one reason why astronomers are excited.
If a meteor shower does occur, the tau Herculids move slowly by meteor standards – they will be faint.
Observers in North America under clear, dark skies have the best chance of seeing a tau Herculid shower. The peak time to watch is around 1am on the East Coast or 10pm on the West Coast.
We can’t be certain what we’ll see. We can only hope it’s spectacular.
The Geminids are widely recognized as the best annual meteor shower a stargazer can see, occurring between Dec. 4 to Dec. 17. We will broadcast a live stream of the shower’s peak Dec. 14-15 (changed dates from 13-14 due to weather) from a meteor camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, (if our weather cooperates!) from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. CST on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.
The parent of the Geminids is 3200 Phaethon, which is arguably considered to be either an asteroid or an extinct comet. When the Earth passes through trails of dust, or meteoroids, left by 3200 Phaethon, that dust burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, creating the Geminid meteor shower.
The Geminid rate will be even better this year, as the shower’s peak overlaps with a nearly new moon, so there will be darker skies and no moonlight to wash out the fainter meteors. That peak will happen on the night of Dec. 13 into the morning of Dec. 14, with some meteor activity visible in the days before and after. Viewing is good all night for the Northern Hemisphere, with activity peaking around 2:00 a.m. local time, and after midnight for viewers in the Southern Hemisphere.
Why are they called the Geminids?
All meteors associated with a shower have similar orbits, and they all appear to come from the same place in the sky, which is called the radiant. The Geminids appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Gemini, hence the name “Geminids.”
How fast are Geminids?
Geminids travel 78,000 mph (35 km/s). This is over 1000 times faster than a cheetah, about 250 times faster than the swiftest car in the world, and over 40 times faster than a speeding bullet!
How to observe the Geminids?
If it’s not cloudy, get away from bright lights, lie on your back, and look up. Remember to let your eyes get adjusted to the dark – you’ll see more meteors that way. Keep in mind, this adjustment can take approximately 30 minutes. Don’t look at your cell phone screen, as it will ruin your night vision!
Meteors can generally be seen all over the sky. Avoid watching the radiant because meteors close to it have very short trails and are easily missed. When you see a meteor, try to trace it backwards. If you end up in the constellation Gemini, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Geminid.
When is the best time to observe Geminids?
The best night to see the shower is Dec. 13/14. The shower will peak around 01:00 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). Sky watchers in the Northern Hemisphere can see Geminids starting around 7:30 – 8:00 p.m. local time on Dec. 13, with rate of meteors increasing as 2 a.m. approaches. In the Southern hemisphere, good rates will be seen between midnight and dawn local time on Dec. 14. Geminid watchers who observe from midnight to 4 a.m. should catch the most meteors.
How many Geminids can observers expect to see Dec. 13/14?
Realistically, the predicated rate for observers in the northern hemisphere is closer to 60 meteors per hour. This means you can expect to see an average of one Geminid per minute in dark skies at the shower peak. Observers in the southern hemisphere will see fewer Geminids than their northern hemisphere counterparts – perhaps 25% of rates in the northern hemisphere, depending on their latitude.
Where will NASA stream the Geminids meteor shower?
We will broadcast a live stream of the shower’s peak Dec. 13-14 from a meteor camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, (if our weather cooperates!) from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. CST on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.
Meteor videos recorded by the All Sky Fireball Network are also available each morning to identify Geminids in these videos – just look for events labeled “GEM.”
There’s an extra special treat coming Earth’s way – a Blue Moon on the night of Oct. 31 for Halloween.
What is a Blue Moon?
According to modern folklore, it is a phenomenon where a Full Moon appears twice in one calendar month. Typically, each month has only one, as Full Moons occur about 29 days apart.
Our first Full Moon of the month – known as a Harvest Moon – occurred on Oct. 1. This is a name given to the Full Moon happening closest to the autumnal equinox – the first day of fall. The Blue Moon coming up is respectively known as the Hunter’s Moon. Rising in the early evening, the Hunter’s Moon was given its name because it provided plenty of moonlight for hunters to gather meat for the long winter ahead.
While the informal phrase “once in a Blue Moon” refers to something that rarely happens, the same definition rings true for the skies this Halloween. These moons are of significance because they only come every two or three years. In fact, the last Blue Moon occurred on March 31, 2018.
Contrary to its name, a Blue Moon has nothing to do with the Moon having a blue hue. However, very rarely there are actual blue-tinted Moons due to particles thrown into the atmosphere by natural catastrophes. In 1883, an Indonesian volcano called Krakatoa had an eruption so large that it was compared by scientists to a 100-megaton nuclear bomb. Lots of ash from the Krakatoa explosion rose into the atmosphere. Many of these ash particles were about 1 micron in size, which could scatter red light and act as a blue filter. This resulted in the Moon appearing blue.
Blue-colored Moons appeared for years following the 1883 eruption. Many other volcanos and even wildfires throughout history have been known to affect the color of the moon. As a rule of thumb, in order to create a bluish Moon, dust or ash particles must be larger than ~0.6 microns, which is the wavelength of red light. Having said that, what we call a Blue Moon appears pale grey and white – just like the Moon on any other night. Having a second Full Moon in one given month does not change its color.
October’s Blue Moon, however, will be the first Blue Moon to appear on Halloween since 1944. This moon occurred one month following the introduction of the Aggregat 4, or the V-2 rocket. This rocket was the first vehicle capable of reaching the edge of space. In years following, the Apollo Saturn V became its direct descendant.
As we approach October 2020’s Blue Moon, the Artemis Generation prepares to explore the Moon’s surface from a lunar base. NASA’s Artemis program is named after the twin sister to Apollo, the Sun god in Greek mythology, and she is known as the goddess of the Moon. There hasn’t been this much momentum to return to the Moon’s surface since the Apollo missions.
The next Halloween Blue Moon will occur in 2039. By then, the Artemis Generation will hopefully look at Mars from that same lunar base – perhaps passing the torch to an Ares Generation bound for the Red Planet.
NASA is developing a path for an exciting journey to Mars – a rich destination for scientific discovery and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. This month of October brings an amazing night-sky view of the Red Planet.
Mars is currently visible, reaching its highest point in the sky around midnight. Earth’s closest neighbor is also at its brightest and will remain that way well into November.
Right now, Mars is the third brightest object in Earth’s night. The Moon and Venus are the two brightest objects, and usually Jupiter is third. But for this season, Mars is passing close enough to Earth to outshine Jupiter. This great visibility of Mars coincides with an event known as opposition, which happens every two years and two months.
Opposition occurs when the orbit of a planet, such as Mars, takes it near the Earth. Just like runners passing each other on a track, the faster, inner planets, such as Earth, can approach and overtake slower-moving outer planets like Mars. When the planets pass each other during this opposition, Mars’ proximity means it will appear larger and brighter in our sky. Because the Sun, Earth, and Mars are lined up during this passing, Mars will rise at sunset, having a high overhead at midnight. This is the closest the Red Planet will come to Earth for the next 15 years, or until September 2035.
At its furthest, Mars reaches about 250 million miles (400 million km) from Earth. During the October opposition, it will be as close as 40 million miles (60 million km) – nearly seven times closer. Although Mars will still look like a bright star to the unaided eye, it will grow dramatically in size when seen in a telescope. This year, Mars’ closest approach to Earth happens just a week before the opposition on Oct. 13, giving the Red Planet its biggest, apparent size of the 2020’s.
When it comes to observing Mars around opposition, telescopes will show more of the planet’s details, such as dark and light regions on Mars’ surface, and the prominent south polar ice cap, which will be tilted towards the Earth. Due to the turbulence of our atmosphere, these details can be hard to see, especially in smaller telescopes.
Many amateur astronomers use a color video camera attached to their telescope, running special software that selects the best frames to stack into a single image. This helps in negating the blurring caused by the air.
The most striking thing about Mars’ appearance – whether seen with the naked eye or through a telescope – is its red color. This color is caused by iron in the rocks on Mars’ surface – the same thing that causes the red color in sandstone formations in the southwestern US.
So, when you spot Mars, keep your eye on it and enjoy its fiery, red brightness!
International Observe the Moon Night is a worldwide public event encouraging observation, appreciation and understanding of our Moon and its connection to NASA exploration and discovery.
This is a great time to celebrate the Moon with enthusiasts and curious people all over Earth as excitement grows about NASA’s Artemis program, which will send the next man and first woman to the Moon.
Since 2010, the celebration has occurred annually in September or October when the Moon is around first quarter – a great phase for excellent viewing opportunities.
You can join NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for a live planetarium show Saturday, Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m. CDT – available online to everyone via YouTube and Facebook. Interviews with planetary and citizen scientists will also be included.
This virtual event is brought to you by the Planetary Missions Program Office at Marshall and U.S. Space & Rocket Center.
Whether it’s outdoors, at home, online, or wherever you may be, you are encouraged to be a part of International Observe the Moon Night. Please remember to follow your local health and safety guidelines.
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.
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!
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.
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.
With the holidays right around the corner, most of us are in gift-giving mode… and one of our favorite gifts every December is the Geminid meteor shower!
This year, the peak is during the overnight hours of December 13 and into the morning of December 14. If you can’t catch the Geminids on Friday night, no worries — viewing should still be good on the night of December 14 into the early morning hours of the 15th.
The Geminids are pieces of debris from an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. Earth runs into Phaethon’s debris stream every year in mid-December, causing meteors to fly from the direction of the constellation Gemini – hence the name “Geminids.”
Under dark, clear skies, the Geminids can produce up to 120 meteors per hour. But this year, a bright, nearly full moon will hinder observations of the shower. Observers can hope to see up to 30 meteors per hour.
HOW CAN YOU SEE THE GEMINIDS?
Weather permitting, the Geminids can best be viewed from around midnight to 4 a.m. local time. The best time to see them is around 2 a.m. your local time on December 14. This time is when the Geminid radiant is highest in your night sky. The radiant is the celestial point in the sky from which the paths of meteors appear to originate.
The higher the radiant rises into the sky, the more meteors you are likely to see.
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 disrupt your night vision. Lie flat on your back and look straight up, taking in as much sky as possible. You should soon start to see Geminid meteors!
As the night progresses, the Geminid rate will increase. If you see a meteor, try to trace it backwards. If you end up in the constellation Gemini, there is a good chance you’ve seen a Geminid. The Geminids are best observed in the Northern Hemisphere, but no matter where you are in the world (except Antarctica), some Geminids will be visible.
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.