Lyrid meteor shower graces the planet on Earth Day

A bright Lyrid meteor streaks across the northwestern sky in this photo taken during the last peak on April 22, 2013. Credit: John Chumack

We celebrate Earth Day this upcoming Tuesday, a time to reflect on how each of us can better our environment. It also happens to be the peak of the annual Lyrid meteor shower.

The Lyrids reliably shoot from the sky every mid to late April, peaking overnight April 21-22 this year. I’ve seen the Lyrids on a couple occasions and can vouch that it’s a reliable though not particularly rich meteor shower. Normal rates are 10 to 20 meteors per hour, but light from the last quarter moon will reduce this year’s count to 5-10 per hour.

This map shows the sky facing east around 12:30 a.m. Tuesday morning April 22 when the radiant will be lower but still up before moonrise. Stellarium

The greatest number of meteors are seen when the radiant, the point in the sky from which they appear to stream, is highest. That occurs just before dawn Tuesday morning. But because the moon doesn’t rise until 2-2:30 a.m., you might do just as well catching the Lyrids from midnight till 2. The radiant will be moderately high in the east and the sky still dark.

The Lyrid radiant is much higher around 4 a.m. when the moon will also be up. Skywatchers take note! The moon will be very close to the third magnitude star Beta Capricorni. Those living in the western half of the U.S. will see it covered up or occulted by the moon around 4:30 a.m. MDT / 3:30 a.m. PDT. The event will be visible in 10x binoculars and small telescopes. Stellarium

While the Lyrids implies an association with the constellation Lyra, home to the brilliant star Vega, the meteors shoot from a location in eastern Hercules 7 degrees southwest of Vega. Each one you see is small bit of dust or rock left behind by Comet Thatcher which last appeared in 1861 and won’t again until 2276.

Voyager 1, which has crossed into interstellar space, is traveling at 38,000 miles an hour or about 1/3 the speed of a Lyrid meteor. Credit: NASA

Each April, Earth passes through Thatcher’s stream of debris and we see the pieces flare as meteors when they strike the air overhead.

Their average speed is 105,000 mph (169,000 km/hr). That’s almost 3 times faster than the current fastest moving spacecraft in the solar system, Voyager 1, at 38,000 mph (61,000 km/hr).

Not a major shower, the Lyrids still occasionally surprise with fireballs and rich outbursts of meteors. Counts were much higher than normal in 1803, 1849, 1850, 1884, 1922, 1945, and 1982. Both Ludwig von Beethoven and famous astronomer William Herschel were around for the 1803 Lyrids which topped out at more than 500 per hour!

NASA’s All Sky Fireball Network detected more than 30 Lyrids as bright as Venus on the nights around the shower’s peak last April 22. Their orbits, shown here in green, neatly intersect the Earth (red splat). “The purple ellipse is the orbit of Comet Thatcher,” adds Bill Cooke, lead scientist for the Office. “The orbits of the comet and the meteoroids match up nicely.” Credit: NASA

To watch the shower, either take the ‘early shift’ from midnight-2:30 a.m. and face east or dare to challenge the moon between 2 and dawn when Hercules and Vega are high in southern sky. I usually spice up my meteor watching with a look through the telescope at the bright planets. Mars shines due south now around midnight with Saturn further off to the southeast.

One final note. The moon will be very close to the star Beta in Capricornus Tuesday morning. Take a look at it in binoculars. If you live in the western half of the U.S., Beta will be occulted by the moon around 4:30 a.m. Mountain time, 3:30 a.m. Pacific. Midwesterners might still see it in bright twilight around 5:30 a.m. with a small telescope. Look immediately to the left of east of the moon’s bright edge.

Invite a friend to join you, boil up some tea and relax under the stars. Every meteor you see is a gift.

Catch some Quadrantids! Year’s first meteor shower peaks tomorrow morning

Watch for the Quads to radiant from a point in northern Bootes below the handle of the Big Dipper tomorrow morning. Stellariu

Tomorrow morning before dawn will be the best time to catch the very first meteor shower of the new year. The Quadrantids, named for the one-time constellation Quadrans Muralis, located below the handle of the Big Dipper, is one the most reliable showers of 2014. While the constellation’s now obsolete and erased from modern sky maps, its name lives on in fiery sparks of meteoric light. Pity the shower rains down at the coldest time of the year.

Ideally, you might see from 60-200 “Quads” per hour, when the shower’s very sharp peak coincides with the radiant being high in the northeastern sky for your location. This year the peak happens around 1:30 p.m. January 3, not exactly ideal for North and South American observers but perfect for folks living in the Middle East and Russia. Numbers will probably be less than half that for western hemisphere skywatchers.

Quadrans Muralis represents the wall quadrant, a instrument once used to measure star positions. Credit: Johann Bode atlas

Don’t let it bring you down. We’ll still see a good show tomorrow morning between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m as meteors emanate from the shower radiant located about a fist below the end of the Big Dipper’s handle in the northeastern sky. No moon will cast its glare to compromise the view. I’d suggest dressing warmly and relaxing in a sleeping bag on a reclining chair. Face to the east or north for the best view. The later you’re up, the more Quads you’ll see as the clock ticks closer to the daytime shower maximum.

A beautiful Quadrantid meteor captured over Duluth near the Big Dipper (partly outlined) a couple years back. Credit: Stephen Bockhold

Quadrantids are slower than other major showers like the August Perseids and December Geminids with speeds around 25 miles per second (41 km/sec). You’ll know you’re seeing a Quad if you can trace its trail back to the northeastern sky below the Dipper.

Peter Jenniskens, senior research scientist at NASA’s SETI Institute, traces the Quads’ origin to the asteroid 2003 EH1, a likely extinct or occasionally active comet. Its orbital characteristics agree well with the paths of our cold weather friends.

Bundle up! Geminid meteor shower peaks this Friday night

The annual Geminid meteor shower will peak Friday night – Saturday morning Dec. 13-14. Geminids can appear anywhere in the sky but if trace their trails backwards they’ll lead back to one point in the sky in Gemini called the radiant. Random meteors not connected with the shower are called sporadics. Stellariumf

This past week we touched on the resurgence of the Andromedid meteor shower and learned that Comet ISON may even gift us with dusty sprinkles next month. These one-off meteor blasts are certainly worth following, but if it’s reliability and numbers you’re looking for, the Geminids are your shower. No speculating here. No maybes. From a dark sky, anywhere from 60-120 Geminids an hour will zip past starting Friday night through dawn Saturday.

Composite photo of many Geminids plus a few sporadic meteors from Dec. 13-14, 2010. Credit: John Chumack

Every year in mid-December, Earth’s orbital path crosses that of 3200 Phaethon (FAY-eh-thon), a 3.2 mile diameter (5.1 km)  asteroid with an orbit takes it only 13 million miles from the sun every 1.4 years – almost three times closer than Mercury. That has consequences as we’ll soon see.

Most meteor showers are the offspring of comets, which drop dust and small rocks along their orbits after getting roasted by the sun. Phaethon’s sometimes referred to as a “rock comet”. Normally a quiet, well-behaved asteroid, Phaethon brightened by a factor of two and was caught spewing jets of dust when nearest the sun in 2009, 2010 and 2012. Apparently the intense heat of the sun either fractured the surface or heated rocks to the point of desiccation, creating enough dust to form temporary tails like a comet.

While it may look like an asteroid most of the time, Phaethon may really be a comet that’s still occasionally active. Either way, this originator of the Geminids produces a reliable meteor shower.

While many will opt to view the Geminids during more convenient evening hours Friday, others will want the darkest skies possible. This map shows the sky facing west around 5 a.m. Saturday Dec. 14 after moonset. Stellarium

This year the Geminids will be at their best overnight Dec. 13-14 with maximum activity forecast for around 8 p.m. CST (2 a.m. Greenwich time Dec. 14) Friday night. At that time, the radiant will be low or will not have risen for western hemisphere skywatchers, but that shouldn’t be a problem – the shower’s active all night. The later it gets, the more meteors you’ll see as the radiant rises ever higher in the sky.

There are two times for viewing the Geminids. You can go out around 9 or 10 Friday evening and face east toward brilliant Jupiter in Gemini, which by good fortune shines close to the shower radiant. Because the bright, waxing gibbous moon will be out, its light will cut the number of meteors you’ll see about in half. That’s why it’s a good idea to hide the moon from view if you can, so its glare isn’t a bother.

If you want to see more Geminids, you can set your alarm for just before 5 a.m. That’s when the moon sets and leaves about an hour of dark sky before the start of morning twilight. Because of the much later hour, the Earth will have “rotated” Gemini and Jupiter into the western sky. Just take that lawn chair and turn it to face the south-southwest for the best view.

Video still of a train or trail left by a bright meteor from the video “Left by a Fireball”. The Big Dipper is seen at left. Credit: Babak Tafreshi

The Geminids are medium-speed meteors, hitting the atmosphere at 70 miles overhead at 35 km/sec and often leave chalky-white “trains” or streaks of what looks like glowing smoke when they burn up. If you get one that lingers a while, consider examining it with binoculars. Sometimes you’ll see swirls and loops in the fading train.

The Geminids are now the richest annual meteor shower, even beating out the August Perseids. Their only drawback? They happen at the coldest time of year. So layer up, heat up the coffee and don’t let the cold rob you of what should be one of 2013′s astronomical highlights.

Comet ISON update Dec. 10 – Meteor shower in the offing?

One of the last spacecraft photos of Comet ISON. It was taken with NASA’s STEREO-A probe on Dec. 6, 2013. This image was compiled using 11 photos stacked atop each other to improve the comet’s visibility. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA / Toni Scarmato

Comet ISON has left the eyes of spacecraft for the moment and now challenges amateur and professional astronomers from the ground. To date, there has been only one positive observation by an amateur astronomer in Spain and a couple “maybes”. Many have tried to see and photograph the comet’s faint remains, but none have been successful.

The sky facing east 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours before sunrise for mid-northern latitude skywatchers. The comet’s position is shown daily and marked every 3 days. Stars plotted to mag. 6. Guide stars are labeled: Oph = Ophiuchus, Her = Hercules, Ser = Serpens and CrB = Corona Borealis. Click for a large version. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

Tomorrow morning, ISON climbs to 15 degrees altitude in the morning sky before the onset of twilight. That’s high enough for someone with a fast telephoto lens or fast, wide-field telescope to make a long time exposure without haze and dawn interfering. Photos taken with typical narrower fields of view through telescopes haven’t shown the faintest trace of a nucleus or condensation at the location of ISON’s core. Wide fields might still succeed.

Frame grab from solarsystemcope.com/ison shows Comet ISON (now a debris cloud) later this month when making its closest approach to Earth of 40 million miles. It’s orbit is inclined 62 degrees to the horizontal, taking it high above Earth’s plane.

I’ve been asked whether Earth will get dusted by ISON’s dusty cloud of debris as it passes our planet on the outbound leg of its journey. The answer is almost certainly “no”. There are several reasons why. First, the debris passes far above the Earth’s orbit even at its closest approach on Dec. 26, when what’s left of the comet will be nearly directly above our planet and 40 million miles away. That’s farther than Venus and even farther than Mars during its closest approaches. I’ve read catastrophic talk ISON raining hell fire on Earth. Not gonna happen. Not even meteor fire – at least from the breakup.

Second, while the debris cloud will certainly expand and enlarge, the comet leftovers will continue to travel along the same general path as ISON. They won’t suddenly veer off and make a beeline for Earth. They carry much of the original momentum and direction as the comet that created them.

Comet ISON photographed from the International Space Station on Nov. 23. You can see the twilight glow along the Earth’s limb at bottom and part of the spacecraft in the foreground. Credit: NASA

We also have to consider that as the cloud continues to expand it will rapidly thin. While it’s true a comet’s coma (not the “hard” inner nucleus) can expand to the size of the sun and tails can reach 300 million miles (500 million km) or longer, the amount of material involved spread over those distances is vanishingly small. We’ve passed through at least one comet’s tail (Halley in 1910) with no meteor shower or other ill effects to show for it.

Comets can be powder puffs though, that’s for sure. Even as long ago as January, when ISON was at Jupiter’s distance from the sun, NASA’s Swift spacecraft found it spewing dust at 112,000 lbs. a minute. While our planet’s highly unlikely to get an outbound meteor shower, we may encounter some of ISON’s inbound flotsam and jetsam come mid- January.

Illustration showing Earth encountering Comet ISON dust in mid-January 2014. Credit and copyright: Paul Wiegert

Meteor researcher Paul Wiegert of the University of Western Ontario has been using a computer to model the trajectory of dust ejected by Comet ISON and predicts that starting about January 12 and continuing for several evenings, we stand a chance of a meteor shower from material released well before perihelion.

The dust particles will strike Earth’s atmosphere at around 125,000 mph (56 km/sec), but because they’ll be so tiny, it’s unlikely we’ll actually see anything.

Illustration showing Earth passing through dual debris streams left in the path of Comet ISON in January. Credit: Paul Wiegert / NASA

“Instead of burning up in a flash of light, they will drift gently down to the Earth below,” said Wiegert. In a fascinating twist, Earth will encounter not one but two dust streams from Comet ISON. Dust released by the comet and headed in toward the sun will pepper one side of Earth, while a second stream, blown back from the comet’s former head by sunlight, will pelt the other side.

ISON dust settling into the upper atmosphere may even serve as sites for water vapor to condense and form high-altitude, blue-colored noctilucent clouds.

As we approach the potential shower date, I’ll provide additional information. A possible radiant for the shower is in the Bootes-Draco part of the sky, which in January rises in the northeast not long after midnight. Sure, we may see nothing, but wouldn’t it be cool if ISON made its final appearance as daggers of light right here so close to home?

Fireball in a paperclip? Why Perseids pack a punch

A bright Perseid meteor caught by video over Ohio Sunday morning Aug. 4. Credit: John Chumack

Thought I’d tease you with a recent photo of a bright Perseid meteor. It was taken at dawn on Aug. 4 at Chumack Observatory using a video camera. Click HERE to see a movie of highlights from the video feed. You might be surprised at how little it takes to make a spectacle when it comes to meteors.

The Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on the the mornings of August 12 and 13, produces meteors ranging in brightness from telescopic to brighter than Venus. Traveling at 41 miles per second (66 km) guarantees a lot of bang for your buck. At that speed even a small grain can create a brilliant streak of light when it slams into the atmosphere.

To give you an idea, here’s a table comparing meteoroid size and brightness for Perseid meteor shower members (source M. Campbell-Brown, P. Brown). The brightness estimates are for meteors hitting the atmosphere directly overhead at an altitude of 62 miles (100 km). Weights are in grams; one ounce weighs 28.3 grams:

* 1/1,000 gram (weight of the smallest snowflake or seven grains of fine sand) = magnitude 3 or one brightness level fainter than the Big Dipper stars
* 1/100 gram (four grains uncooked rice) = magnitude 0.5 or similar to the bright star Vega
* 1/10 gram (a toothpick) =  -2 magnitude or a little fainter than Jupiter
* 1 gram (the cap of a pen, metal paperclip) = -4 magnitude and similar to Venus
* 10 grams (a pencil or two nickels) = -7 magnitude and bright as the thick crescent moon

Vintage lithograph of a meteor flaring over the countryside. Entering Perseids meteoroids that reach fireball status can weigh as little as a gram.

Perseids are zippy. Slower meteors like the Geminids that light up December nights  are breeze in at a mere 22 miles per second (35 km). A 1/10 gram Geminid meteoroid shines weakly at 3rd magnitude compared to a similar-sized Perseid. That’s at least part of the reason why the Perseids are famous for their fireballs - meteors the equal of Venus or brighter.

Speedy motion (kinetic energy) is transformed into the energy that creates the light streak and vaporizes the cookie-crumb meteoroid. Faster-moving meteoroids possess more kinetic energy and flare more brightly. Now you can see why even the small and meek can wow us skywatchers.

Comet Lemmon passes near the star Beta Cephei on August 6. While it has faded over the summer, Lemmon remains the current brightest comet visible from the northern hemisphere. Click for full size. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

While we’re on meteors, it’s good to remember that most originate as dust boiled off comets by the sun. The Perseids originate from Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle which swings around the sun every 133 years. Each August, Earth passes through the comet’s orbit; any bits of Swift-Tuttle in our path get fried by our atmosphere.

No bright comet currently graces the August sky. Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon remains the best of the bunch, still shining at a respectable 10.5 magnitude; it looks like a fuzzy blob with a short southward-pointing tail in 8-inch and larger telescopes.

Amateur astronomer Rolando Ligustri recently took a beautiful portrait of Lemmon as it passed near the star Beta in Cepheus the King. The image reminds us of the dynamic process that cycles meteors to Earth’s skies by way of dust shed from comet tails.

June Arietids – the invisible meteor shower you just might see

You might just see a few meteors from the combined Arietids and Zeta Perseid showers that peak Friday and Saturday mornings. This map shows the sky facing northeast at dawn for the mid-section of the U.S. Created with Stellarium

I’ve never seen an Arietid meteor and chances are you haven’t either. Peaking on June 7-8, the Arietid (AIR-ee-uh-tid) meteor shower is one of the strongest of the year with a maximum rate of 50-80 per hour. But there’s a rub. The shower radiant, the point in the sky from which the meteors appear to radiate, is near the sun and best seen during daylight hours. When was the last time you saw meteors in daylight?

Early scientific exploration of the sky in radio waves at Jodrell Bank Observatory in 1945. Credit: Jodrell Bank, University of Manchester

If you’re wondering how anyone could discover a meteor shower when the sun is out, it’s impossible unless your eyes can see radio waves. The Arietids were first “seen” in 1947 by operators of radio equipment at Jodrell Bank Observatory in England. Meteors leave trails of ionized gases when they rip through our upper atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour and briefly make ideal reflectors of radio waves.

You can even hear them yourself by tuning to a “blank” spot between stations on an FM radio and listening for sudden bursts of talk or music when the meteor trail boosts a neighboring station into audibility. Click HERE for simple instructions if you’d like to give it a try.

The Arietids are joined by a second daytime shower at the same time by the Zeta Perseids, a smaller shower, to guarantee a couple busy days of meteor-listening — and potential meteor-watching —  on and around June 7-8. Most meteor showers are tied to a particular comet, since they’re swarms of dusty detritus left behind in a comet’s wake as it travels ’round the sun. When Earth intersects the stream, tiny comet bits slam into the atmosphere, heat up to 3,000 F or more and self-immolate in glowing streaks we call meteors. Occasionally a shower’s parent can be an asteroid as in the case of the January Quadrantid meteor shower. It’s suspected that the asteroid 2003 EH1 may be a extinct comet.

Most meteors are comet dust striking at the atmosphere at speeds so high, they vaporiz in a blaze of light. This is a meteor from the Leonid shower in 2001. Photo: Bob King

No one’s certain of the Arietids’ parentage. Likely candidates include the near-Earth asteroid 1566 Icarus and Comet 96P/Machholz, both of which have orbits that resemble the shower’s.

After ignoring May’s Eta Aquarid meteor shower for years because of its very low radiant at dawn, I was pleasantly surprised by the many meteors I saw when I happened to catch the shower at maximum on May 6 this year. Circumstances are only slightly worse for the Arietids. That’s why I think it’s worth your while to check out this shower tomorrow (Friday) and Saturday morning(June 7-8). Face east and start watching an hour or two before the start of dawn and continue your vigil until the sky brightens in the east.

The lesser Zeta Perseids are also active, adding to the fun. Since the two shower radiants are close to each other in the sky, it may be hard to tell which you’re seeing. No matter. Any fiery streaks you can trace back toward the east-northeast horizon will likely be one or the other.

Earth-grazing meteor photographed by Manuel Conde of Barcelona, Spain.

Whenever a radiant is near the horizon, many of the meteors approaching us do so at a very shallow angle almost horizontal to the Earth’s atmosphere. From our perspective they travel slowly and last a much longer time than do meteors striking the air at a steeper angle, typical for radiants that are higher in the sky.

Astronomers use the poetic “Earth-grazers” to describe them. Having seen a handful of these unique beauties during the May Aquarid shower, I’m hungry for more. Since the Arietids / Zeta Perseids also originate low in the sky, we should expect similar sights Friday and Saturday mornings.

Eta Aquarid meteor shower from Halley’s Comet peaks this weekend

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks tomorrow morning May 5. This map shows the sky facing east at dawn for mid-northern latitudes. The shower radiant (red) is near the star Eta in the constellation Aquarius to the right of the Great Square of Pegasus. The crescent moon and Comet Lemmon, visible in binoculars, will also join the scene tommorow. Stellarium

Up for another early morning meteor shower? Then get ready for the Eta Aquarids (AY-tuh ah-QWAR-ids) which peak tomorrow in the quiet hours before dawn. This is a fairly big event for southern hemisphere observers who might see up to one meteor a minute during tomorrow morning’s maximum. The radiant or point in the sky from which the meteors will appear to originate is much higher for southern latitudes. Morning twilight also begins later allowing for more viewing time.

The higher the radiant, the more meteors. A low radiant means most of a shower’s meteors are out of view, streaking away below the horizon. At latitude 50 degrees north the viewing window lasts 1 1/2 hours with the radiant low in the southeastern sky; at 40 degrees north, it’s a little more than 2 hours. If you live in the southern U.S. you’ll have nearly 3 hours of viewing time with the radiant 35 degrees high.

Shower meteors are typically small bits of rock or dust left behind by a comet. When the material hits the atmosphere, it heats the air to glow and we see a meteor.

Across the middle north latitudes expect to see about 10 very fast meteors an hour. Eta Aquarids, which are the dusty remains of numerous visits of Halley’s Comet to the inner solar system, tear across the sky at over 147,000 mph (237,000 km/hr). Slower meteors are often yellow or orange; these will flare white as they’re incinerated by the atmosphere.

Earth crosses Halley’s orbit twice a year. Each time, bits of the comet collide with our atmosphere and burn up. In mid-October we’ll encounter Halley’s orbit again and re-visit the comet’s dust trail as the Orionid meteor shower.

Tomorrow morning the crescent moon will also be out – it eases up over the tree line about the time dawn begins – and a special guest, Comet Lemmon, located about one “fist” to the moon’s left. While visible in binoculars as a dim, fuzzy patch of light, a telescope should show the comet’s bright head and diffuse tail. The radiant is located near the star Eta Aquarii well to the right of the familiar Great Square of Pegasus.

Halley’s Comet – source or parent of both the Eta Aquarid and Orionid meteor showers. Credit: NASA

Meteor shower members can appear in any part of the sky, but if you trace their paths in reverse, they’ll all point back to the radiant. Other random meteors you might see are called sporadics and not related to the Eta Aquarids.

For most mid-northern sky watchers, the best time to watch will be about 2 1/2-3 hours before sunrise. (Find your sunrise time HERE). Even if Aquarius is very low or hasn’t risen yet, you can still catch a few meteors before twilight brightens the sky. You might even get lucky and spot an Earth-grazer, a slow-moving meteor skimming the upper atmosphere nearly parallel to the ground. They’re best seen around the time the radiant rises. Keep an eye out for them.

The Eta Aquarid shower has a broad peak, so if it’s cloudy tomorrow, try again on Monday or Tuesday. You’re likely to catch at least a few. All you need for equipment are your eyes, a comfy lawnchair and a reasonably dark sky. Face east or south for the best view. Good luck!

Comet Lemmon’s back plus Earth may get peppered with Comet ISON dust

Comet PANSTARRS glides through the W of Cassiopeia at nightfall in late April. Look low in the northwestern sky about 1 1/2-2 hours after sunset to find it. Moonlight might render the comet invisible in binoculars, but a small telescope will still show it. This map shows the sky facing northwest around 9:30 p.m. local time. Created with Stellarium

As Comet PANSTARRS gallops off into the sunset of deep space, we anticipate the arrival of another fine binocular comet – C/2012 F6 Lemmon. Some of you might recall this comet from earlier in the year, when it reached naked eye brightness for sky watchers in the southern hemisphere and grew a long, ribbon-like tail.

After months of having it as their own, Lemmon will soon appear in the dawn sky near the Great Square of Pegasus at the end of this month in the northern hemisphere. Predictions indicate it might be visible with the naked eye from a dark, rural locale, but there’s no question we’ll see it in binoculars and small telescopes.

Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon photographed through a 12-inch telescope from Namibia on April 21. Exposure time was 3 minutes. Notice the short dust tail and long, blue electrically-charged ion tail. Click to see more of Rhemann’s comet photos. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

Next week I’ll post a map and directions on how to find it. On May 6, a thin crescent moon will pass a short distance south of Lemmon, providing a helping hand. Comet PANSTARRS will still be out in May and though very faint in binoculars, a small telescope will show it.

I hate to go cometless for very long, so Lemmon’s arrival is welcome. Of course Comet ISON is the year’s BIGGEST celebrity. Circumstances are much better for it than PANSTARRS. ISON will pass very close to the sun in late November, be cooked into a brilliant object and develop a long tail.

Comet ISON is “rounding the corner” in Gemini the Twins this month and still very faint. It’s currently lies beyond the outer edge of the asteroid belt some 400 million miles from Earth. The Swift observation is described below. Credit: NASA

An ideal comet encounter is one where the object first passes very close to the sun then zooms by Earth soon after. This two-birds-with-one-stone trajectory allows us to see the comet near peak brightness and in its full finery. That’s exactly what will happen with ISON.

Views of Comet PANSTARRS were somewhat compromised because it receded from Earth after closest approach to the sun. It also didn’t help that the comet was more than twice as far away (101 million miles / 163 million km) when nearest Earth compared to ISON’s 40 million miles (64 million km) on Dec. 26.

On Nov. 28 Comet ISON will pass only 680,000 above the sun’s surface. Less than month later, it flys by Earth at a distance of 40 million miles. Credit: NASA

All this assumes that ISON won’t bust to bits in the intense heat it will experience during its face-to-face with the sun on Nov. 28. Back on Jan. 30, NASA’s Swift spacecraft aimed its powerful, multi-wavelength eyes at the comet when it was still near Jupiter. Even at that distance, solar heating vaporized enough ice for ISON to spew out 112,000 lbs. (51 kg) of dust a minute.

This is a tiny bit of comet dust captured by a high-flying airplane mission. The particles from ISON are similar in size – about 1/8000 of a inch across. Credit: NASA

Meteor researcher Paul Wiegert of the University of Western Ontario, who’s been using a computer to model the trajectory of dust ejected by Comet ISON, predicts that some of that dust could end up on Earth.

Less than three weeks after closest approach to our planet, Earth will pass through a flurry of the powdery stuff lofted our way by the gentle pressure of sunlight. At the same time, we’ll encounter the dust stream trailing behind ISON and headed toward the sun. Wiegert calls the double-whammy “unprecedented”.

If his forecast is correct, the dust, traveling at 125,000 mph (201,000 km/hr), will pepper Earth’s atmosphere for several days around Jan. 12, 2014. While you might expect to see a meteor shower, chances are slim; the particles are so small, they’ll slow to stop instead of getting fried as meteors by air friction. Still, you never know – maybe a few of the bigger ones will show as meteors.

Noctilucent clouds photographed from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

As the grit drifts gently down over the months and years, it’s possible it may serve as seeds or “nuclei” for the formation of noctilucent clouds, those eerie, skeletal blue clouds visible from northern locations during the summer months. For clouds to form, water vapor needs some form of dust or grit to latch onto and grow into crystals and droplets.


For a nice visual summary of the Comet ISON dust prediction, check out this video.

Noctilucent clouds, shining in late twilight when all other clouds have gone dark, are nearly as high as the lower limit of the aurora borealis (60 miles / 96 km). While it’s only speculative, it’s possible that bits of Comet ISON may someday contribute to their formation. Wouldn’t that be just too cool?

Don’t miss this weekend’s Lyrid Meteor Shower

The best time to see the Lyrid meteor shower is early Monday morning April 22 after moonset and before dawn. Shower members will appear to shoot from a spot in the sky near Vega in the constellation Lyra, hence the name. This map shows the sky around 3:30 a.m. facing southeast. Created with Stellarium

It’s been practically forever since our last meteor shower. Anyone here recall the early January Quadrantids? After a dry spell of more than 3 months, the Lyrid shower finally steps up to bat. Welcome as a spring shower, they peak this weekend with maximum meteor counts expected late Sunday night through dawn Monday.

Unlike the August Perseids and December Geminids, the Lyrid shower is not a blockbuster. With rates of 10-20 meteors per hour, we might call it modest at best. The shower will appear to originate from a point in the sky southwest of the bright star Vega in the Summer Triangle figure.

While you can look for meteors earlier in the night – say after 11 p.m. when Vega and the Lyrid radiant first come up in the eastern sky – moonlight will drown out the fainter meteors. Photo: Bob King

Moonlight comes into play during this year’s Lyrids. The waxing gibbous moon sets in the wee hours before dawn, leaving only a 1-2 hour window of dark skies.

The good news? That’s the same time the Lyrid meteor radiant, the point in the sky from which the shower members appear to radiate, is highest.

If you’re game for a look, head out Monday morning April 22 from about 3:30 to 5 a.m. toting a proper cup of tea or coffee. Make sure you’re bundled up for the weather and get cozy in a reclining lawn chair under a blanket or sleeping bag. Some meteor watchers prefer just watching spread-eagled on the ground. Face south or east and enjoy the grand vista of the summer stars and the fun surprise of an occasional meteor.

A bit of Comet Thatcher burning up in the atmosphere as a meteor shot from the window of the International Space Station over the Caribbean Sea April 21, 2012. Credit: NASA

While the late winter and spring constellations grace the evening sky, if you’re out before dawn, the Earth will have rotated those has-beens off to western horizonland. In the east and south, behold Scorpius, Sagittarius and the Summer Triangle.

Lyrids are the dusty, pebbly debris left behind by Comet Thatcher, discovered by American amateur astronomer A.E. Thatcher in 1861. Every spring for at least the past 2,700 years, Earth has passed through the trail, thrilling countless sky watchers with the sight of flaming dust and grit.

Heated by their passage near the sun, comets shed gas, ice, dust particles and rocks. If the comet’s orbit intersects Earth’s some of material strikes our atmosphere and we see a meteor. Credit: National Science Foundation

Lyrid meteors strike the upper atmosphere 60 miles overhead at better than 107,000 mph (173,000 km/sec) and burn up in eye-catching flashes. Typical meteoroids – the name given to meteors before they hit the atmosphere – range in size from grains of sand to walnuts. The bigger they are, the brighter.

While Lyrid numbers are modest, the shower occasionally surprises as it did in 687 B.C. when the Chinese reported “stars fell like rain.” More recently in 1982, a brief burst of 90 meteors per hour was observed.

So you never know. The only way to find out what the Lyrids will be up to in 2013 is to be there.

Yet another meteor shower coming Thursday?

Meteors from the new shower, if any, would emerge from a radiant in the constellation Pisces located directly below the Square of Pegasus. This view shows the sky looking south around 6-7 p.m. local time this week. Credit: NASA

NASA Science News just put out a press release about a possible new meteor shower that will light up the skies the same time as this week’s Geminids. It doesn’t have a name yet, but it does have a parent comet – 46P/Wirtanen.

“Dust from this comet hitting Earth’s atmosphere could produce as many as 30 meteors per hour,” said Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

Combined with the Geminids, this Thursday night could be the best meteor-watching night of the year. If the shower materializes. Comet Wirtanen orbits every 5.4 years, reaching its closest point to the sun just inside Earth’s orbit. We’ve come close to the bits of dust and rock released by the comet, but have never entered the stream directly.

Dust released by Comet Wirtanen, seen as the yellow-green colors, is released along the comet’s orbit. Some of it may show up as meteors Thursday night. Credit: Max-Planck-Institut for Aeronomie, courtesy T. Credner, J. Jockers, T.Bonev . Click for more information.

Computer models run by Russian forecaster Mikhail Maslov show that this time we very well might. He predicts as many as four stream crossings between Dec. 10th and 14th. The best time is Thursday night (same as the Geminids) but earlier, at nightfall.

You’ll be able to tell the potential new shower meteors apart from the smattering of early-evening Geminids by their much slower speed and direction. Any “Piscids” will radiate from Pisces high in the southern sky, while the Geminids will track back to the eastern sky.

This is all very exciting news. Two good meteor showers on the same night?  Looks like we’ll be putting sleep on the back burner again!