Auroras, Lyrid meteor shower make for an exciting week ahead

The Sun photographed in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory this morning still shows the coronal hole that will influence Earth's space weather tonight. Credit: NASA

The Sun photographed in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory this morning still shows the coronal hole that will influence Earth’s space weather tonight. Credit: NASA

We’re in for some sky excitement the next couple nights. Tonight there’s a fair chance for northern lights as blustery solar winds
arrive from another coronal hole at the Sun.

Forecasters are calling for a G1 or minor geomagnetic storm that’s expected to kick in this
afternoon and last into the early morning hours Wednesday. With the moon only a crescent, we’ll have dark skies for aurora watching. Look for that telltale twilight-like glow in the northern sky at nightfall as a tip-off that a display is in progress.

NASA used an all-sky camera to photograph multiple Lyrids during the 2014 shower. Credit: NASA

NASA used an all-sky camera to photograph multiple Lyrids during the 2014 shower. Credit: NASA

Then, starting Wednesday and continuing through Thursday morning the annual Lyrid meteor will salt and pepper the sky with meteors. We’ve waited more than three months since the January Quadrantids for a meteor shower to return, so I’m looking forward to this one.

The Lyrids fly from the general direction of the bright star Vega which comes up in the northeastern sky around 11 p.m. local time this week. The Big Dipper can help you find it. Source: Stellarium

The Lyrids fly from the general direction of the bright star Vega which comes up in the northeastern sky around 11 p.m. local time this week. The Big Dipper can help you find it. Source: Stellarium

Like the first flowers, the Lyrids return every April with a peak rate of 10-25 meteors per hour. They originate or radiate from a point in the sky about an outstretched fist southwest of bright Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp.

Even though the radiant actually lies in neighboring Hercules, the shower’s always been associated with Lyra (Lyrids) both because of Vega’s dominance and the original, loosey goosey borders of the constellations. Before 1930, the borders of the 88 constellations were vague and the Lyrids were close enough to Lyra to assume its name. Had the shower turned up after the International Astronomical Union precisely defined borders, we’d be calling them the Herculids!

Lyra and Hercules border one another with the actual radiant located in Hercules. Source: Stellarium

Lyra and Hercules border one another with the actual radiant located in Hercules. Source: Stellarium

Although not a big-time shower like the August Perseids, this should be a good year for the Lyrids. You can start watching around 11 o’clock local time Wednesday night (April 22) when Vega climbs above the treeline in the northeastern sky. Rates will increase through the night and peak around 4 a.m.-5 a.m. when the radiant is highest in the sky just before dawn.

The sky facing east-southeast around 3 a.m. local time Thursday April 23. A perfect time to catch the Lyrids!

The sky facing east-southeast around 3 a.m. local time Thursday April 23. A perfect time to catch the Lyrids! Created with Stellarium

Dress warmly, pack a hot beverage and get comfy in a reclining chair. Or a hot tub. In which case, don’t dress warmly. Those are my mantras for any meteor shower. Even though Lyrids will radiate from a particular direction, they can show up anywhere in the sky. Early in the evening, you’re best to face east. Prefer the early morning? Face southeast.

We see a meteor shower when Earth passes through a comet debris stream. Every April, we pass through material shed by Comet Thatcher. Illustration: Bob King

We see a meteor shower when Earth passes through a comet debris stream. Every April, we pass through material shed by Comet Thatcher. Illustration: Bob King

Like many meteor showers, the Lyrids are the flotsam and jetsam of comets. You’ve been reading about all the dust released by Rosetta’s comet as it’s warmed by the Sun. Comets that cross Earth’s path put that dust to good use. As we speed into the debris sputtered from their nuclei, the particles strike our atmosphere and incinerate in a blaze of light to make a meteor.

C/1861 G1 (Thatcher), which takes roughly 415 years to make one orbit around the Sun, is responsible for the Lyrids. Every so often we pass through a thick filament of dust deposited by Thatcher and get treated to an outburst of Lyrids with numbers reaching more than 100 per hour. That’s expected to happen in 2040 and 2041, so stick around.

Weekend ‘Quads’ meteor shower a case of bad timing … but have faith

A long-trailed Quadrantid meteor captured on January 4, 2012 over Dayton, Ohio. Credit: John Chumack

It will take determination to see the annual Quadrantid meteor shower this weekend especially for U.S. observers. The annual blizzard of meteors – up to 120 per hour – rivals the Geminids and Perseids. Sadly, it has a very narrow peak that occurs around 8 p.m. (CST) Saturday night Jan. 3, just one night before full moon this year. Not only will the moon spoil the show, the radiant or point in the sky from which the meteors stream, won’t rise into view for many locations until around 11 o’clock local time – several hours past maximum.

The Quandrantids are named for an obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis which once occupied the space below the Big Dipper’s handle. If you live in the northern U.S. the radiant pokes above the treeline around 11 p.m. Skywatchers in the southern states will have to wait till after midnight.

The Quads radiant stands about 10° high in the north-northeastern sky around 11 p.m. local time Saturday night from the northern U.S. and midnight from the southern states. The radiant is the spot in the sky from which the meteors will appear to radiate. The higher it rises, the more meteors become visible. Source: Stellarium

So the roulette wheel spins. Some years, the ball lands on new moon and we cash out with a big bag of meteors; other years the ball falls into the full moon slot.

Observers in Europe and Africa will fare better. There the the radiant will be well placed in the northeastern sky around 2 a.m. (peak hour) in the British Isles and 4 a.m. in Sweden. No matter where you live, everyone will have to contend with moonlight which is expected to reduce meteor counts to no more than 50 per hour. That’s still a decent show, much better than many of the year’s regular showers like the Lyrids or Orionids.

A Quadrantid meteor cuts a path across the sky to the right of the Big Dipper’s handle. Credit: Stephen Bockhold

So you might think after reading this that there’s no point in bothering to look at the Quads. You would be wrong. Even with everything working against us, the shower’s rich enough we might see up to 20 per hour from the U.S. Don’t forget the earthgrazers! These are meteors that streak from the radiant when it’s just below or near the horizon. They fly practically parallel to the atmosphere and last for many seconds as they travel across a great swath of the sky.

To make the best of the Quads, set aside at least a half-hour of viewing time. That’s one less half-hour in front of the TV. Set up a reclining chair facing north and snuggle under a blanket or sleeping bag to keep warm. I’d suggest looking from about 9 p.m. to midnight local time as as a good compromise between radiant height and shower maximum. You never know. The experts could be off a little bit and the meteors could peak a little earlier or later than expected.

Most meteor showers originate from dust and small rocks left by comets as they orbit around the Sun. As Earth travels through the debris stream, each bit of material flames to incandescence when it strikes our atmosphere at speeds of tens of thousands of miles an hour.

Orbit of “rock comet” 2003 EH1. Every year in early January, Earth passes through debris spalled off the asteroid and we see the Quadrantid meteor shower. Credit: NASA/JPL

Like the Geminids, the Quadrantids originate instead from an asteroid. Its “parent”, 2003 EH1, was discovered in 2003 by the Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Object Search (LONEOS). The 1.8-mile-wide (3 km) asteroid may actually be what’s now called a “rock comet”, a new kind of object being discussed by astronomers.

A rock comet is essentially an asteroid with an orbit that takes it close enough to the Sun for solar heating to scorch dusty debris right off its rocky surface. Rock comets could thus grow comet-like tails that produce meteor showers on Earth. More typical comets are made of mostly ice embedded with dust. Heat from the Sun vaporizes the ice and releases the dust to form coma and tail.

Have fun and by all means stay warm as you watch the first big astronomical event of the new year this Saturday night-Sunday morning.

Gaga for the Geminids – 2014’s best meteor shower fires up this weekend

The Geminids peak on both Saturday and Sunday nights this weekend December 13-14. The radiant – where the meteors appear to stream from – lies near Castor and Pollux in Gemini and rises high enough by 9:30 p.m. local time to begin shower watching. Source: Stellarium

Get ready for the year’s best meteor shower. The reliable, rich and colorful Geminids will climax on not one but two nights. Even better, it all happens this weekend before midnight. No arising at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday.

A bright Geminid slices the sky in this time exposure taken on December 13, 2012. Each meteor represents a vaporized fragment of dust or rock lost by asteroid 3200 Phaethon, the Geminids’ parent. Credit: Bob King

Most sources will tell you that we’ll see up to 120 meteors per hour, but 60-80 is more realistic from light polluted location. I’ll take it. That’s plenty of meteors to take the sting out of stepping into the cold. Maximum occurs on Sunday morning at 6 a.m. but that’s near dawn and the moon will be up – not ideal conditions for viewing. That’s why Saturday and Sunday evenings are best.

The Geminids radiate from near the twin bright stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini. Most major meteor showers don’t really get going until the morning hours because their radiants either haven’t risen or are still too low before midnight. The Geminid radiant on the other hand climbs high enough by 9:30 in the evening to cast a nice spread of meteors before moonrise.

Oh yes, the moon. It rises around midnight Saturday night and 1 a.m. Monday morning. Its light will cut into meteor counts, but since Gemini’s well up in the east before moonrise, we have 2-3 hours of great meteor watching under dark skies.

See what I mean – this shower’s ideal for family viewing since you don’t have to be up too late. It’s also the richest shower of the year, having surpassed the more familiar August Perseids some years ago. Now all we have to do is hope for good weather.

Unlike most meteor showers, which originate with dust spewed by comets, the Geminids are tiny pieces of asteroid 3200 Phaethon, sometimes called a “rock comet”. Here it sprouts a tenuous tail (points to lower left) when near the Sun in this image taken by NASA’s STEREO Sun-observing spacecraft in 2012. Credit: Credit: Jewitt, Li, Agarwal /NASA/STEREO

Observing a meteor shower requires no special equipment outside of a warm coat, heavy gloves, insulated boots, electric sock warmers, hand warmers and one of those plug-in Amish fireplaces. Just kidding of course, but not about the gloves, jacket and boots! Aw, chuck it all and just watch from a hot tub.

I like to lay back in a recliner under a blanket to stay warm and comfortable. A little hot cocoa or tea doesn’t hurt either. Face east or south between 10 and midnight from a reasonably dark sky location and you’re certain to see at least a few Geminids.

The Perseids and many other meteor showers are the spawn of comets. Earth plows through the dust left by vaporizing comet ices and it burns up in the atmosphere as meteors. Every year in mid-November we travel across the orbit of Comet Temple-Tuttle and wow to the Leonids.

Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi will webcast live coverage of the Geminid meteor shower this weeked. Click image for details. Credit: Gianluca Masi

Not so with our featured shower. It and the January Quadrantids are the only major showers with asteroid parents. 3200 Phaethon, a 3.2 mile-wide asteroid that comes surprisingly close to the Sun (13 million miles) and orbits it every 1.4 years, is mama and papa to the Geminids.

Long observed to be nothing more than an inert space rock, in the late 2000s astronomers watched in amazement as Phaethon developed a short, dusty tail.

It’s thought that the intense solar heat during closest approach fractures or pulverizes rocks or it may even open up a pocket of ice long covered by debris. Perhaps Phaethon is an extinct comet or a hybrid mix of ice and rock.

I hope you have clear skies at least one night this weekend. If you do or don’t, you can always check out Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi’s Geminids webcast starting at 8 p.m. CST December 13th (2 a.m. UT Dec. 14) on his Virtual Telescope Project site.

Set the alarm and boil the tea, it’s time for the Orionid meteor shower

The Orionids peak Tuesday and Wednesday mornings Oct. 21-22 next week when an observer might see 20-25 meteors an hour from a dark sky. They’ll appear to radiate above Betelgeuse in northern Orion. Source: Stellarium

The coming week’s menu features a meteoric tossed salad of Taurid fireballs crossing paths with the annual Orionid meteor shower. While the Taurids are a broad, sparse stream coming in dribs and drabs throughout October and November, the Orionids peak on the mornings of October 21-22. Expect to see 20 meteors an hour emanating from a point of sky above the bright star Betelgeuse in the hunter’s shoulder.

Each streak of light you see signals the incineration of a flake of Halley’s Comet, the parent comet of the Orionids. Every year in late October, Earth cuts across Halley’s orbit and bits of dust shed by the comet from previous passes near the sun burn up as they strike the upper atmosphere at speeds of around 148,000 mph.

Composite of a recent Orionid meteor shower taken with an all-sky camera. Credit: NASA

It’s been a couple years since I’ve seen the shower due to clouds or moonlight, but to the patient observer they’re thrilling to watch. Orionids are extremely fast – most tear across the sky in a second or less. Don’t even bother to alert your observing companions if you see one. It’ll be long gone even as the words leave your mouth, though if you’re lucky, some meteors will leave glowing trails of ionized air or even a curl of cosmic smoke (dust) in their wakes.

“The Orionid meteor shower is not the strongest, but it is one of the most beautiful showers of the year,” says Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

Composite photo of an Orionid meteor shower taken a few years ago. The constellation Orion is seen at lower right center. Credit: SLOOH

This year’s shower won’t be compromised by moonlight either. It may even be enhanced by it. On Tuesday morning, a fingernail crescent will attempt to steal the show as it rises in the east at the start of morning twilight. Which brings us to the best time to view the Orionids.

I’ve drawn the map above for 2 a.m. local time. That’s when the radiant is high enough in the sky for a good show to begin, but the hours just before dawn are a tad better as the radiant point is higher yet. The ideal time would be from 3-6 a.m. Find a place where light pollution is at a minimum and set up facing south-southeast for the best view. A comfy reclining chair and blanket or sleeping bag will help you stay relaxed and warm. It is almost November after all!

Trick or treat – time for the Halloween fireballs!

A Taurid fireball photographed Oct. 28, 2005 by Hiroyuki Lida of Toyama, Japan. At top is the constellation Orion and his three Belt stars. Credit: Hiroyuki Lida

We don’t normally associate October with big meteor showers. That’s reserved for the August Perseids and December Geminids. But just in time for Halloween, this month offers some tasty treats.

October is Taurid fireball season with two separate showers radiating from in and near the constellation Taurus the Bull. Both make for weak displays with counts of 10 or fewer meteors an hour. But what they lack in number they make up in brilliance. While most shower meteors originate from sand to peanut-sized rocks, the Taurids have a large proportion of larger pebble pieces. When the big stuff burns up overhead, it produces bright fireballs.

Both showers are spawned by material left behind by Comet 2P/Encke which orbits the sun once every 3.3 years – one of the shortest known. When Earth intersects the debris stream the rocks strike the atmosphere fast enough to completely vaporize as flashes of light called meteors.

The Taurids are a pair of small showers that trace back to Comet 2P/Encke. They’re active all this month and next and appear to radiate from Taurus the Bull. The radiants slowly travel from west to east across the sky during that time – I’ve marked where they are in early November. Source: Stellarium

The Southern Taurids are active now through late October with the Northern Taurids taking over around Halloween and carrying the ball through November. Because of the unusually large proportion of fireballs from these dual showers, the American Meteor Society (AMS) notes an increase in the number of fireball reports from September through November each year.

Comet Encke and the trail of dust and debris it leaves behind in its orbit photographed by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Some of that material burns up in Earth’s atmosphere as Taurid meteors. Credit: NASA

Taurids travel slower than most meteor streams because Comet Encke’s tight little orbit only reaches into the asteroid belt. Since they don’t have as far to “fall” as they return to Earth’s vicinity, they’re not traveling as fast as some other showers like the Perseids, whose parent comet strays into remote space 51 times Earth’s distance from the sun.

Because of how Earth and the Taurid stream encounter each other, the Taurids play catch-up as they approach Earth somewhat from behind rather than head-on. Combined with their slower-than-usual speeds, they hit the atmosphere at only 61,000 mph (98,000 km/hr). OK, that’s still darn fast but more than twice as slow as the familiar Perseid meteors.

9-hour composite image of the Taurid meteor shower taken on November 4-5, 2008 taken with an all-sky camera in Walker County, Georgia. Credit: NASA

While you probably won’t make a one-night vigil for the Taurids as you would richer showers, be on the lookout for bright meteors this fall.

Taurus rises in the evening hours in the east, so you can start watching from about 10 o’clock all the way to dawn. If you spot a meteor and can trace it backward toward the direction of the Seven Sisters or Pleiades star cluster, chances are you’ve spotted the flaming farewell of a piece of Encke’s Comet.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at another October meteor shower, this one originating from Halley’s Comet called the Orionids. Stay tuned.

How were the Perseids from your house last night?

Of five Perseids, only one was caught by the camera. It was an unusual meteor that flared twice before burning out. It almost looks like it skipped across the atmosphere like a stone skipping on water. Credit: Bob King

I set the alarm for 2:15 and spent an hour with the Perseids this morning. How many meteors flashed by? Oh, five. But every one was like winning the lottery.

The graph above shows the ZHR (Zenithal Hourly Rate), which is the number of Perseids an observer would see under a very dark sky with the radiant of the shower at the top of the sky. Counts are shown through 9 p.m. CDT Aug. 12. The trend toward maximum is obvious. Times are Universal Time. Subtract 4 hours for EDT, 5 for CDT, 6 for MDT and 7 for PDT. Credit: IMO

The low number was surprising given that magnitude 4 stars were readily visible. On the up side, all of those I saw were bright and moved incredibly fast like sparks from an arc welder. Preliminary data from the International Meteor Organization shows a peak around 55 meteors an hour yesterday evening (Aug. 12, U.S. time). Counts for the early morning hours still aren’t in yet, so final numbers and shower peak time may change.

Self-portrait with Perseids around 3:15 this morning. Perfect weather, friendly moonlight and cricket song made for a pleasant outing. At top you can see Auriga and the Hyades in Taurus. Credit: Bob King

A reminder that the Perseids will continue to fire off meteors through the remainder of the week, although at a declining rate. With the moon rising later each night, viewing conditions will improve, so be on the lookout for more flaming comet flakes.

Don’t wait – go out now to see the Perseid meteor shower

The annual Perseid meteor shower radiates from a point in the constellation Perseus just below the W of Cassiopeia. Rates are usually around 100-120 meteors per hour from a dark, moonless sky at peak. This map shows the sky facing east around midnight Aug. 12-13. Stellarium

The beloved Perseid meteor shower peaks next Tuesday night August 12-13, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to go out right now for a look. Why? Two good reasons.

First, Earth has already entered the meteor stream formed by dust and grit left in the wake of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. I can attest to this. While hardly trying, I spotted a half dozen Perseids after moonset this morning. Second, the nearly full moon will compromise the shower when it’s at its best.

Composite of bright Perseid meteors recorded by NASA all-sky cameras in 2011. Each is a grain rock shed from the tail of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Every year in mid-August, Earth passes through the comet’s debris trail as it orbits around the sun. Any particles we smack into burn up as meteors some 60-70 miles overhead. Credit: NASA

Between now and Friday morning, the moon will set before the start of dawn, leaving skywatchers a dark, moonless window of meteor watching. You might be surprised and see more than you expected. I did.

Come August 12, when the number of meteors peak, a nearly full moon will be up all night compromising the fainter meteors. That doesn’t mean you should abandon viewing that night. Just be aware that you’ll probably see closer to 30 per hour instead of the higher number.

The moon, two days past full, will brighten the sky during the Perseid peak. This view shows the sky facing east around midnight Aug. 12-13. Stellarium

If you’re OK with losing a little sleep sometime in the next few nights, set the alarm for 2-3 a.m., face east or south and relax for an hour under the sky as the Perseids fly by.

Camelopardalid meteor shower targets the moon too – watch for impact flashes

To monitor the moon for possible impacts from the Camelopardalid meteor shower, focus your attention on the speckled area in the darkened upper half of the moon Saturday morning. Impacts may flare to magnitude +8-9. Credit: Bill Cooke

Our favorite orbital partner the moon will join us for the hoped-for Camelopardalid meteor shower Friday night-Saturday morning May 23-24. While any shards of comet debris will flash to incandescence in Earth’s atmosphere, particles striking the airless moon will appear as faint flashes of light when they smack the lunar rocks and vaporize.

Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office suggests that anyone with a telescope should monitor the moon until dawn. The meteor shower is expected to peak in Earth’s skies around 2 a.m. CDT (3 a.m. Eastern, 1 a.m. Mountain and midnight Pacific). On the moon, activity is possible between 9:30 p.m. CDT Friday night through 6 a.m. Saturday morning (2:30-11 a.m. Greenwich Time) with a peak from 1-3 a.m. CDT (6-8 a.m. Greenwich).

The crescent moon and Venus in the eastern sky Saturday morning May 24 around 4 a.m. local time. Stellarium

East Coast skywatchers are favored as the moon is up in the eastern sky around the time of maximum. But the time spread means that anyone from Western Europe across the U.S. could potentially spot a flash. You’ll need a 4-inch or larger telescope magnifying between 40-100x. Higher powers aren’t necessary as they restrict the field of view.

I can’t say how easy it would be to catch one but it will take patience and attention. That’s why the favored method for capturing views of lunar impacts is a video camera hooked up to a telescope set to automatically track the moon. That way you can kick back and examine your results later in the light of day. Seeing a meteor hit live would truly be the experience of a lifetime.

Video frame grab of an earlier meteorite impact on the moon. Impacts look like stars that flash and then quickly disappear. Credit: NASA

As a crescent, much of the moon will be in shadow – perfect for checking for flashes which would otherwise impossible to spot on the brilliant, sunlit crescent. Earthlight will faintly illuminate the remaining 2/3 of the moon, making for a nice dark backdrop against which to see any meteorite strikes.

If you’re into photography and plan to shoot stills or video of the meteor shower and lunar impacts, Brook Brooke Boen ( at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center would love to hear from you. Please send any images or video to her e-mail. Your observations will help astronomers better understand the birth and evolution of this brand new meteor shower.

The sky is falling! Surprise meteor shower may strike Saturday morning

A brand new meteor shower shooting 100 and potentially as many as 400 meteors an hour may radiate from the dim constellation Camelopardalis below the North Star Saturday morning May 24. This map shows the sky facing north around 2 a.m. from the central U.S. Saturday.  Stellarium

Get ready for what could be the most awesome meteor shower of the year. On Saturday morning May 24 between 1 and 4 a.m. skywatchers across much of North America are in prime position to witness the birth of a brand new meteor shower – the Camelopardalids. At least 100 meteors per hour and possibly as many as 400 meteors per hour are expected with a peak viewing time around 2 a.m. Central Daylight Time. Short but sweet!

If predictions by meteor experts Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and Esko Lyyttinen of Finland hold true, that morning, Earth will pass through multiple filaments of sand and pebble-sized debris trails boiled off comet 209P/LINEAR during previous passages near the sun during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The comet was only discovered in 2004 by the Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) automated sky survey. Unlike Comet Hale-Bopp and the late Comet ISON that swing by the sun once every few thousand years or million years, this one drops by every 5.1 years.

When closest at perihelion, 209P/LINEAR passes some 90 million miles from the sun. At the far end of its orbit it’s about Jupiter’s distance from the sun. In 2012, during a relatively close pass of that planet, Jupiter perturbed its orbit, bringing the comet and its debris trails to within 280,000 miles (450,000 km) of Earth’s orbit, close enough to spark a meteor shower.

When a comet nears the sun, heat vaporizes dust-laden ices from the comet’s nucleus. The solar wind ‘blows’ the dust particles into a tail which spread out along the comet’s orbit. Under the right circumstances, as with returning comet 209P/LINEAR, Earth can pass through the debris stream and we see a meteor shower as comet grit burns up in the atmosphere.

This time around, the comet itself will fly just 5 million miles from Earth on May 29 a little more than 3 weeks after perihelion, making it the 9th closest comet encounter ever observed.

You’d think this close pass would make 209P a bright sight, but it’s only predicted to reach magnitude +11, faint enough to require an 8-inch or larger telescope to see. Most likely the comet is either very small or producing dust at a very low rate or both.

Next week I’ll post maps here on how to find it. For the moment, 209P/LINEAR glows dimly at around magnitude +14 and visible in large amateur telescopes. As it speeds from the Big Dipper south to Crater the Cup over the next couple weeks, we’ll be watching it closely. Check here for updates if the comet experiences any hiccups.

The shaded area shows where the shower will be visible on May 23-24. North of the red line, the moon (a thick crescent) will be up during shower maximum around 2 a.m. CDT May 24. Click for more details. Credit: Mikhail Maslov

Meteors from 209P/LINEAR are expected to be bright and slow with speeds around 40,000 mph compared to an average of 130,000 mph for the Perseids. Most shower meteoroids are minute specks of rock, but the Camelopardalids (Cam-el-o-PAR-duh-lids) – let’s just call them ‘Cams’ –  contain a significant number of particles larger than 1mm, big enough to flare as fireballs.

Viewers in the northern half of the U.S. and southern Canada have the best seats for watching the potential shower because the radiant is midway up in the northern sky during peak viewing time Saturday morning. For points farther north, all-night twilight will blot out the fainter meteors. For observers in the far southern U.S. the radiant will be low in the northern sky, reducing meteor counts.

There’s always the chance the shower won’t materialize, so prepare yourself for that possibility. At worst we may see zero meteors, but even the most conservative estimates predict a show at least as good as the Perseids and Geminids, two of the strongest showers of the year.

But if you’re an optimist – and what skywatcher can’t afford not to be? – plan to be out before the peak and face north in a comfortable lawn chair. Bring a friend and share a cup of your favorite hot drink while you watch this ultimate wild card event.

Shower observing times across Canada and U.S.:

* Eastern Daylight Time 1:30-5 a.m. with the peak around 3 a.m.

* Central Daylight Time 12:30-4 a.m. with a 2 a.m. peak

* Mountain Daylight Time 11:30-3 a.m. with a 1 a.m. peak

* Pacific Daylight Time 10:30-2 a.m. with a peak at midnight

The dark “finger” represents streams of dust and rocks left behind by 209P/LINEAR during passes made from 1803 to 1924. Earth is shown intersecting the debris on May 23-24, 2014. Click for more details. Credit: Dr. Jeremie Vaubaillon

If it’s cloudy or you’re not in the sweet zone for viewing, the SLOOH will cover comet 209P/LINEAR live on the Web with its telescopes on the Canary Islands starting at 5 p.m. CDT (6 p.m. EDT, 4 p.m. MDT and 3 p.m. PDT) May 23 Follow-up live coverage of the new meteor shower starts at 10 p.m. CDT. The broadcast will feature astronomer Bob Berman of Astronomy Magazine; viewers can ask questions during the comet show by using hashtag #slooh.

Astrophysicist Gianluca Masi will also have a live feed of the comet at the Virtual Telescope Project website scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. CDT (8 p.m. Greenwich Time) May 22. A second meteor shower live feed will start at 12:30 a.m. CDT (5:30 a.m. Greenwich Time) Friday night/Saturday morning May 24.

No matter what, you’re covered. Later this week I’ll update with a forecast and fresh comet photos and observations. Cross your fingers!

May’s Eta Aquarid meteor shower hails from Halley’s Comet

The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is active in early May and peaks before dawn on Tuesday and Wednesday May 6-7 this year. Watch for it before the start of morning twilight in the eastern sky. Created with Stellarium

Active right now but peaking on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings May 6-7, the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower likewise peaks our interest in its origin. Most showers trace their parentage to a particular comet. The Perseids of August originate from dust strewn along the orbit of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which drops by the inner solar system every 133 years after “wintering” for decades just beyond the orbit of Pluto.

Halley’s Comet photographed in May 1986 during its last go-round the sun. Dust particles boiled off the comet when near the sun are left behind in its orbit. Every May, Earth encounters the stream and we see the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. Halley’s next approach to Earth happens in the summer of 2061. Credit: Bob King

The upcoming Eta Aquarids (AY-tuh ah-QWAR-ids) have the best known and arguably most famous parent of all: Halley’s Comet. Twice each year, Earth’s orbital path intersects dust and minute rock particles strewn by Halley during its cyclic 76-year journey from just beyond Uranus to within the orbit of Venus.

Our first pass through Halley’s remains happens this week, the second in late October during  the Orionid meteor shower. Like bugs hitting a windshield, the grains meet their demise when they smack the atmosphere at 42 miles per second (68 km/sec) and fire up for a brief moment as meteors.

The farther south you live, the higher the shower radiant will appear in the sky and the more meteors you’ll see. For southern hemisphere observers this is one of the better showers of the year with rates around 30-40 meteors per hour. No moon mars the view, making conditions ideal.

Vintage painting of a fireball meteor flashing across the sky. While the Eta Aquarids aren’t known for their fireballs, the meteors are swift and white.

From mid-northern latitudes the radiant or point in the sky from which the meteors will appear to originate is low in the southeast before dawn. At latitude 50 degrees north the viewing window lasts about 1 1/2 hours; 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.

Expect to see 5-10 meteors per hour during the hour or two before the start of dawn Wednesday May 7. Face east for the best view and relax in a reclining chair. An added bonus this spring season will be hearing the first birdsong as the sky brightens toward the end of your viewing session.

A modern photographic depiction of Eta Aquarid meteors from May 2012. Credit: John Chumack

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. Meteor showers take on the name of the constellation from which they originate.

Aquarius sports at least two showers. This one’s called the Eta Aquarids because it emanates from near the star Eta Aquarii. An unrelated shower, the Delta Aquarids, is active in July and early August.

Happy viewing and clear skies!