Camelopardalid meteor show more a trickle than a storm

A bright Camelopardalid meteor flashes across the sky near the Cassiopeia-Andromeda border this morning (May 24). Credit: Bob King

I could have stayed up all night. Wait a minute, I did. On the way home after hours of meteor watching I stopped the car on the empty road and got out to admire the crescent moon. It was 3:30 and already dawn brightened the northeast sky.

A long-trailed Cam tears across the Milky Way inside the Summer Triangle asterism late last night May 23. Credit: Bob King

From e-mails, online reports and my own 3-hour vigil staring into one of the most beautiful star-studded skies in months, the ‘Cams’ weren’t the spectacle we anticipated. Many skywatchers sacrificed sleep to stand outside in the small hours of the morning and saw at best a handful. Some none at all.

The train from the near-fireball Cam seen at 12:34 a.m. CDT this Saturday morning. The five bright stars outlining the W of Cassiopeia are seen at right. Credit: Bob King

One of our readers aptly called it a ‘meteor sprinkle’. At first I thought we were in for the real deal when a near-fireball meteor blazed from the radiant to the right of Cassiopeia at 12:34 CDT. If this was the start of the shower, what a way to begin! Tinted orange like a fall maple and traveling very slowly, the meteor left a trail (called a train in meteor lingo) that lasted more than 20 minutes.

Not only did I have plenty of time to make a half dozen 2.5 minute time exposures of the expanding train but also got to view it in my telescope. The ghostly snake was definitely one of the coolest temporary nebulas I’ve ever seen.

Sequence of photos showing the expanding and fading train over the next 15 minutes. Credit: Bob King

Trains form when a meteoroid’s hypersonic velocity through the upper atmosphere ionizes or excites the atoms in the air along the object’s path. Soon enough the atoms take back their electrons, releasing light in the process. We see all this subatomic tit for tat as a bright streak that slowly fades from view. Trains expand and change shape depending on the vagaries of upper atmospheric winds. Absolutely fascinating to watch.

Like many of you I kept vigil for the next few hours, hoping for more Cams as the rising Milky Way became ever more spectacular. But the shower really never showered. I saw 10 total plus a few sporadic (random) meteors. Nearly all were slow-movers as predicted; the brighter ones were tinted yellow and orange.

Contrary to predictions, I saw more meteors before the expected 2 a.m. CDT (7 UT) peak. The hour from 2-3 a.m. proved anti-climactic. Before turning in for the night, one ‘farewell Cam’ flashed above the North Star just about the time the first robin burst into song.

Before starting my meteor watch I checked out the shower’s parent comet 209P/LINEAR. It’s a rare treat indeed to have the ‘mother ship’ nearby the same time its progeny dart to Earth. The comet had brightened a bit and even showed a tiny tail visible in 12-inch and larger telescopes.

A strange aurora-like trail drifts across the northwestern sky below the Big Dipper this morning. The starlike object at its center moved northward during the time exposure and looks like a streak inside the cloud. Credit: Bob King

While the Camelopardalids disappointed many I bet those who did go out got some mental refreshment just from sky gazing. I know I did … and a little bit more. Around 1 a.m. I looked over my shoulder toward Leo and the Big Dipper and nearly stumbled to the ground. What looked like a huge meteor train 15-20 degrees long drifted across a cloudless sky. In its center was a bright disk of light about the size of the moon and in the center of that a starlike object.

The trail, likely connected to the launch of a new Japanese mapping satellite expands and fades minutes later. You never know what you might see when you look up at night. Credit: Bob King

Quickly I reset the camera and got a couple shots off as the apparition drifted at slow-satellite speed to the north. The ray fanned out and lingered like a lone beam of northern lights for the next 10 minutes. Fortunately I wasn’t abducted. This morning I learned that the sight was connected to fuel dump after the launch of a Japanese mapping satellite.

I’ll update the blog later today or tomorrow with more information about the shower as it becomes available. And a little sleep wouldn’t hurt either.

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!

Lyrid meteor shower update / Potential meteor storm coming in May

Composite photo showing multiple Lyrid meteors on the night of April 21-22, 2014 from Chile. Seen from the equator and the southern hemisphere the constellation Lyra is “upside down” compared to the northern view. Credit: Yuri Beletsky

I confess that I didn’t go out to look at this year’s Lyrid meteor shower because of other commitments. Seeing Yuri Beletsky’s photo makes me I wish I had. Beletsky took the picture – a composite image – from Chile, where the constellation Lyra scoops low in the northern sky compared to its much higher position as seen from the northern hemisphere.

Yet the photo records a nice number of Lyrids just the same. Naturally, it didn’t hurt that he was watching from the Atacama Desert, home to some of the darkest skies on Earth. Still, like you and I, Yuri had to contend with moonlight. He called the shower “amazing”.

Checking in with the International Meteor Organization “quick look” meteor shower results, I see that a peak of 20 meteors was recorded NOT in the early morning hours of April 22 but rather very early that evening around 8 p.m. CDT. While East Coasters may have caught a snippet of maximum activity, it was still daylight for the rest of the U.S. European observers got the best views.

The Lyrids truly open up the meteor observing season with showers following at regular intervals in the months ahead. Next up are the Eta Aquarids, the spawn of Halley’s Comet, which peak in early May with no moon in the way.

Comet 209P/LINEAR on April 14, 2014. It’s currently very faint at around magnitude 17. Material shed by the comet during passes between 1898-1919 may spawn a rich meteor shower overnight May 23-24 according to meteor specialists Peter Jenneskins of the SETI Institute and Esko Lyytinen of the Finnish Fireball Working Group. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes, Martino Nicolini

But all the year’s meteor offerings may pale next to the Camelopardalids, a new shower predicted to cast as many as 200-400 meteors per hour across the sky from a radiant near the North Star on the morning of May 24.

The display is connected to an unusually close approach of the comet 209P/LINEAR to Earth. The comet, discovered in Feb. 2004 by the Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project in New Mexico, will pass about 5 million miles (8 million km) from Earth, putting it in 9th place on the list of closest comet approaches ever.

On that May morning, we’re expected to pass through a dusty tendril of the comet’s debris and get treated to a jolly display of meteors from the constellation Camelopardalis the Giraffe. Predicted to last only a few hours, observers in the U.S. and Canada will have the best seats in the house.

The meteors are expected to be bright and very slow moving. And that pesky moon? It will be a waning crescent low in the southeastern sky and hardly a bother. Sounds like a winner to me. I’ll have more about this unique event as we approach the big night.

Norwegian skydiver has close shave with falling meteorite – and gets video!


Complete video/story of the possible meteorite that flew by Norwegian skydiver Anders Helstrup. You’ll see the meteor in real time at 1:54 and in slo-mo at 4:25.

Thought you’d like to see this remarkable video of what may be the first-ever recording of a meteorite tumbling through the sky right in front of a human being! Norwegian skydiver Anders Helstrup didn’t even know he’d recorded it with the two cameras fixed to the back and front of his helmet during the dive made back in 2012, but upon later review, he discovered a fast-moving, apple-sized rock flying through the footage.

While you’ve no doubt seen pictures and videos of meteors streaking through the atmosphere, no one has ever recorded the next-to-impossible “dark flight” phase of a meteorite. Somewhere between 9 and 12 miles (15-20 km) high, most incoming meteoroids slow down, cool and cease to make the air glow. From here, they continue to drop until reaching speeds of 200-400 mph before striking the Earth. While that sounds fast,consider that a typical meteoroid first enters the atmosphere between 25,000 and 160,000 mph!

A frame from the video showing the possible meteorite tumbling rapidly by within feet of Anders Helstrup. Had he jumped a second or two earlier he would most likely have been killed by the speeding stone. Credit: NRK

While it’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility to capture a falling, non-luminous meteor on camera, the odds are extremely remote. That’s why many think the story and video are either a monumental April Fools’ joke or a deliberate hoax. Hard to blame them with all the goofy stuff spun as truth on the Web.

However, the staff at Universe Today got in touch with Norwegian physicist Pal Brekke. He confirmed that the story was true and kept secret for two years so Helstrup and a small band of scientists and meteorite hunters could track the meteorite down. Using the videos, they calculated a trajectory and possible landing locations. Unfortunately, the fall area is wooded and braided by streams. Lots of places for a meteorite to hide from curious eyes.

After two years of hunting and coming up short, the video was released in hopes of recruiting more people to the effort. Skeptics would argue instead that scientists fell for a good story and are wasting their time looking.

Frame grab from the video showing geology professor describing the possible meteorite. The fractured side faces to the left. The pale gray color could be a clean break to the lighter interior of the stone or covered with a thin coating of secondary fusion crust. Credit: NRK

In the video (above) by Norwegian broadcaster NRK, geologist Hans Amundsen had no doubt it was a meteorite based on appearance alone. The stone has one flat side, likely due to fracturing seconds earlier in its flight, and the other half is rounded from heating and melting due to air friction. A fracture also implies there might be more than one fragment out there.

Morton Bilet, Norwegian meteorite expert, organized a search near Rena in eastern Norway where the object fell. Bilet is “100% certain” the video is not a fake, but whether it’s a space rock or something else, neither he nor anyone else knows for sure. Hopefully more searches are planned for this spring. For more information, photos and graphics check out the Norwegian Meteorite Society and NRK

Frame grab from a security camera video of the largest piece (circled) of last year’s Russian fireball falling into Chebarkul Lake. Click for a video, and be sure to also see the video below.

UPDATE April 4: While not photographed by a human being, I’d almost forgotten about the security camera video of the final moments of dark flight of the largest hunk of the Chelyabinsk meteorite crashing into the ice on Chebarkul Lake recorded last Feb. 15.
Video of clips of the Russian meteorite fall Feb. 15, 2013. Go to 10:30 to see a quick view of the meteorite falling into the lake.

Two monster meteors flare and boom over Minnesota and Midwest

A spectacular fragmenting fireball described by some as as bright as the sun crosses the sky in this frame grab from a security camera video at 5:44 p.m. Dec. 26 in North Liberty, Iowa. Click to watch video.

The sky’s been rumbling with two bright fireball sightings in Minnesota across the Midwest this past week. On Dec. 26 a monster fireball that garnered more than 1,050 reports on the American Meteor Society’s website turned night into day across parts of Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. The fireball traveled from east to west and flashed into view in late twilight around 5:45 p.m.

Map showing the possible trajectory of the Dec. 26, 2013 fireball over Iowa. It was also seen from parts of Missouri, Kansas and other states.  Click for more info and updates. Credit: Mike Hankey / AMS

Although many people witnessed the the meteor there were no reports of sounds associated with the event. No so with the second fireball.

That one came out of nowhere (not strictly true – most originate from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter) around 10:30 p.m. Friday Dec. 27.

Of the 96 sightings so far reported, 29 people heard associated explosions and booms, likely signs that pieces of the original meteoroid survived the searing heat and pressure of atmospheric entry and landed as meteorites. Here’s how Justin D. of Brainerd, Minn. described it:

Map with green markers showing sightings of the Dec. 27 fireball. Although seen in neighboring states most reports were from Minnesota with explosive sounds heard in the north central part of the state.  The meteor traveled along an approximately south to north direction. Credit: LunarMeteoriteHunter / Google Earth

“While driving at night I witnessed the sky in north central Minnesota start flickering in the clouds as if there was lightening, and then the clouds started turning light blue, purple, pink, bright orange, and then from horizon to horizon went bright white and then reversed. Lasted about 4-6 seconds, I slowed down and rolled down my window and also focused on driving when an enormous boom followed a short time later. Reminded me of video from last years Russian meteor.”

Brightness estimates of this fireball run the gamut from the equivalent of a half moon to as brilliant as the sun. If you’d like to report sighting either (or any) fireball, please fill out an AMS report form.

A Missouri Highway Patrol trooper driving south of Sedalia, Missouri spotted the Dec. 26 fireball and activated his dash cam. Watching the video took me back to February’s huge fireball in Chelyabinsk, Russia. Click to see for yourself.

Marc Fries of Galactic Analytics, an organization which provides real-time information to on meteorite falls to scientists, hunters and meteorite collectors, reports that some of the Doppler weather radars in the upper Midwest picked up “returns” or reflections from possible falling meteorites from the Dec. 26 fireball.

Meanwhile the National Weather Service of Duluth, Minn. noted on its Facebook page that “KDLH Doppler radar has picked up on several objects that appear to be meteors, moving quickly from east-to-west across the sky” in the Brainerd Lakes area.

Unfortunately no TV or security camera videos have turned up for the Dec. 27 fireball. That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this – to seek more information. If you had a camera running that evening or know someone who did, please contact Mike Hankey (mike.hankey@gmail.com) at the AMS and Dirk Ross at the Latest Worldwide Meteor/Meteorite News. Video, especially from multiple angles, can help scientists determine the meteoroid’s orbit and where any fragments may have landed.

If meteorites fell, I’m envisioning black rocks on snow. Sounds like an easy hunt right? Except that any potential celestial stones would likely fall in deep snow now blanketing the woods and fields. We can hope that the Doppler information will help pinpoint a fall location that hunters can explore in the spring. Or maybe kids will scrounge up an unusual black rock when looking for eyes for their snowman.

Fireball explodes over Columbus, Ohio – 2nd Midwestern light show in 2 days


Video of the fireball and its lingering trail over Ohio Friday night Sept. 27 caught on NASA’s All-Sky Cameras operated by Bill Cooke

Last night around 11:30 p.m EDT., sky watchers living in at least 14 states were treated to one of the most spectacular fireballs ever. It was the second major Midwestern fireball in two days. The first lit up skies across Missouri, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Ohio Thursday morning around 7:05 a.m. CDT.


Thursday early morning fireball across the Midwest

Within hours, the Thursday fireball quickly became the American Meteor Society’s 2nd most reported of all time with over 730 reports. Friday night’s fireball will likely overtake that with 450 reports reviewed and more than 400 pending.

Last night’s meteor blazed a trail almost directly over the city of Columbus, Ohio speeding through the upper atmosphere from east to west at more than 114,000 mph (227,000 km/hr). Observers describe a brilliant blue ball and yellow-orange tail; some heard sonic booms and concussions.

Ground track of Friday night’s fireball over Ohio. Credit: Bill Cooke, NASA

Based on its brightness, Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office estimates the meteoroid’s size at around 3 feet (1-meter) across. I’m crossing my fingers meteorites might eventually be found on the ground.

More on the fireballs HERE and HERE.


Report on a hand-sized meteorite that fell in Brazil on Monday

Far from Ohio, an actual meteorite landed with a loud noise in a homeowner’s front yard in Vicencia, Pernambuco, Brazil on Monday Sept. 23. The TV video footage shows the new arrival. To read the story in the garbled language of your choice (use Google Translate) and view much clearer photos, click HERE.

Spectacular Mexico meteor recalls Great Daylight Fireball of 1972


Video of the Aug. 21, 2013 Mexican daylight fireball. No sounds were heard by eyewitnesses

On the afternoon of Aug. 21 a fireball strikingly reminiscent of the Great Daylight Fireball of 1972  streaked across the sky near San Luis Potosi in central Mexico. Fortunately, a few people caught its passage with video cameras and cellphones.


Another video of the fireball taking from a moving car

Since there’ve been no reports of falling meteorites, it’s possible the space rock responsible for the spectacular display either skipped off the atmosphere and returned to outer space or fragmented and disintegrated.

A fireball similar to the Mexican one streaked over Wyoming on August 10, 1972 and came as close as 35 miles before skipping back into space. See video below. Credit and copyright: Antarctic Search for Meteorites program, Case Western Reserve University, James M. Baker

The meteor’s speed is amazing. My hunch is in the neighborhood of 40-50,000 mph (56-80,000 km/hr) based upon a similar daylight fireball that etched a chalky streak above the Grand Tetons in Wyoming on Aug. 10, 1972.  A tiny asteroid estimated at 10-32 feet (3-10 meters) in diameter entered Earth’s atmosphere over Utah at 50,000 mph that afternoon and traveled some 2,000 miles to a point over central Alberta, Canada. There it bid a fond farewell and returned to space. Easy come, easy go.


Video of the Great Fireball of 1972

Like a rock skipped on a pond, the truck-sized meteoroid briefly skimmed the rarified air 35 miles (57 km) above Earth surface and “landed” back in space to continue an orbit around the sun. To this day, the object known as US19720810, remains an Earth-crosser, though its orbit was changed by the close encounter. The burned and bruised space rock last passed near the planet in August 1997.

How do we know so much about an object that dashed by so briefly so long ago? Beginning in the early 1970s the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has kept an eye on missile launches and the like using classified satellites equipped with infrared sensors. These space based eyes also routinely record brilliant fireballs and exploding meteoroids in Earth’s atmosphere.

Path of the 1972 fireball adapted from an illustration by Donna Wolke

The 1972 atmospheric impact was the first fireball to be recorded with the new technology. Later analysis showed it was an Apollo-class asteroid first detected at an altitude of about 45 miles (73 km). It dipped as low as 33 miles (53 km) over the Idaho-Montana border before climbing back out of the atmosphere and into space. The entire passage lasted about 100 seconds.

Apollos are Earth-crossing asteroids. The February 15 Russian Chelyabinsk meteor fireball also belonged to the Apollo class. Astronomers have found about 240 of an estimated 2,000 of the largest Earth-grazers, those one kilometer or larger. The bad news (or good news if you like fireballs) is there are about 80 million Apollo-ettes buzzing around out there.

For the latest on the Mexico meteor including more videos, click over to Dirk Ross’s fab Latest Worldwide Meteor / Meteorite News.

** Bright fireball update: A major fireball brighter than the half moon blazed over the southeastern U.S. at about 2:27 a.m. CDT Aug. 28. Sonic booms were heard, and it’s likely meteorites from the breakup of the object reached the ground near Cleveland, Tennessee. Click HERE for photos, a video and updated info.

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.

Grab this free meteor e-book in time for the Perseids

Front page of the new Sky and Telescope e-book titled “Shooting Stars: The history, art and science of meteor-watching. Copyright: Sky and Telescope

Sky and Telescope magazine has published a handy e-book on meteors you can download HERE for free. The 8-page, well-illustrated guide has lots of interesting historical background on the upcoming Perseid meteor shower plus sections on meteor terminology, estimating sky darkness and prospects for this year’s shower.

Take a read and consider contributing your own naked eye meteor observations to the International Meteor Organization. More information how to do it HERE.

Beautiful mornings for skywatchers; Perseid meteor shower warming up

This morning’s lunar crescent through the branches of a spruce tree. The crescent is lit by the sun; the remainder by light reflected from the Earth to the moon and back again. Credit: Bob King

Is there a more peaceful experience than standing under a dawning sky with a crescent moon to greet your gaze? I hope you’ve had a clear morning recently to follow the march of the moon toward the trio of Jupiter, Mars and Mercury.

View to the east 50 minutes before sunrise this morning shows the moon and a beautiful planet lineup. Credit: Bob King

For skywatchers in across North America the International Space Station started up a round of bright passes at dawn last week and will continue through the third week of August. Add in the first  Perseid meteors and there’s always something to see in the greatest wilderness that ever was – the night sky.

A 2-minute time exposure caught the International Space Station traveling to the southeast to the right of the moon (overexposed) and Jupiter. Click photo to find when the station is visible over your town. Credit: Bob King

The Perseid shower will peak on Monday morning August 12 with 60-80 meteors per hour expected from a dark location. After the Geminids of December, this is the best meteor shower of the year and the most easily watched. No need for a heavy parka in August. Just put on a sweater and relax in the recliner or hot tub as hot bits of Comet Swift-Tuttle race to oblivion overhead. We’ll have more on the shower and what to expect in a few days.

Perseid meteors appear to radiate for a point in the sky just below the W of Cassiopeia in the constellation Perseus the Hero. Watch for early arrivals tonight through next week. Created with Stellarium

Like many meteor showers, it’s a good idea to watch for early arrivals a few days in advance. I saw a Perseid two nights ago and have heard reports of several nice fireballs. Characteristic of the shower, many meteors leave streaks or what astronomers call “trains”. These may look like dust trails but they’re glowing “tubes” of ionized air molecules.

I leave you with our good friend Orion the Hunter peeking over the eastern horizon about 75 minutes before sunrise this morning. Can you find the famed trio of stars that form his Belt? Credit: Bob King

The meteoroid – what a bit of comet grit is called before it becomes a meteor – plows into the air at many thousands of miles per hour, energizing the molecules. Upon return to their rest states, each gives off a brief flash of light contributing to the evanescent train.