Spectacular fireball over Pittsburgh / Juvenile moon alert

Pittsburgh fireball February 17

A fireball meteor at least as bright as the full moon flared over the Pittsburgh region around 4:50 a.m. Eastern time Tuesday morning. The object, detected by three NASA meteor cameras, was moving at a speed of 45,000 miles per hour. Based on its brightness, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office estimated the object at 2 feet across with a weight of 500 pounds. Something like a very heavy TV falling out of the sky.

“I’ve seen many meteor showers and this wasn’t anything like that. Instead of crossing the upper atmosphere, this feel almost directly down and brighter than any thing I’ve ever seen of this nature,” reported John D. of Elyria, Ohio. “It looked so big that my son and I expected to hear or see an impact.”

Based on data from pictures taken by multiple cameras, an orbit for the Pittsburgh fireball could be made. Originating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, it came a long way to get to PA.Copyright David L. Clark, prepared by NASA MEO

Based on pictures taken by multiple cameras, NASA scientists determined an orbit for the Pittsburgh fireball. Originating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, it came a long way to get to PA. Copyright David L. Clark, prepared by NASA MEO

“The entire landscape was lit up like daytime. Startling experience. I was very fortunate to be looking out window at the time.” So wrote Robert M. of Clarion, Penn. in his report to the American Meteor Society’s fireball reporting website.

Map showing reported sightings of the fireball. To date, 125 reports have been received. Credit: AMS

Map showing reported sightings of the fireball. To date, 125 reports have been received. Credit: AMS

NASA’s cameras first spotted the meteor at an altitude of 60 miles northwest of Pittsburgh and last saw it 13 miles above Kittanning, northeast of Pittsburgh. Around 13 miles altitude, the meteoroid entered its “dark flight” phase, when the air slowed it down enough to drop in free fall.

When we see a meteor, we don’t actually see the object itself but rather a brilliant “tube” of ionized air caused by the rock’s incredibly speedy passage through the atmosphere. Once a meteoroid loses sufficient speed, it no longer has the energy to ionize or make the air glow around it and falls in dark flight.

Earth seen from the perspective of the meteoroid moments before it entered our atmosphere to become a fireball. Click to see the movie. Credit:

Earth seen from the perspective of the meteoroid moments before it entered our atmosphere to become a fireball. Click to see the movie. Credit: Copyright David L. Clark, prepared by NASA MEO

Some people heard sonic booms during the fall, a good sign that the meteoroid (what you call a meteorite before it hits the ground) fragmented and dropped pieces on the ground east of Kittanning. According to Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Office, seismographs in the region recorded the pressure wave created by the meteoroid’s flight.

Like most meteors and meteorites, this one’s a visitor from the main asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. If pieces did survive the atmosphere’s ferocity, may I be the first to welcome them to their new home.

Watch for a 1-day-old super-thin crescent moon below the duo of Venus and Mars tonight. This map shows the sky about 35 minutes after sundown. Source: Stellarium

Watch for a 1-day-old super-thin crescent moon below the duo of Venus and Mars tonight. This map shows the sky about 35 minutes after sundown. Source: Stellarium

On another note, I wanted to remind moon lovers that a very young, very thin 1-day-old moon will be visible during early twilight in the western sky this evening starting about 25 minutes after sundown.

The moon’s about about one fist held at arm’s length below the pair of Mars and Venus. Tonight’s act is a warm-up for tomorrow night’s very close gathering of the moon with the two planets. For more information on that event, click HERE.

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.

Stargazing on Christmas night

Merry Christmas and a happy holiday! I hope you’re enjoying time with family and friends and a clear night is in the forecast. Should you poke your head out tonight, here’s what’s up.

Look for the crescent moon and Mars in the southwestern sky at the end of twilight tonight December 25th. Comet Finlay and Mars will still be tight the next few nights.  The alignment is line-of-sight only — the two are actually about 45 million miles apart. Stellarium

At nightfall, a pretty crescent moon ornaments the dim constellation of Capricornus not far from Mars. Barely half a degree to the planet’s east a 6-inch or larger telescope will net you Comet 15P/Finlay, now fading from its recent outburst. It’s currently magnitude 9.6 with a little tail pointing to the east.

Comet 15P/Finlay passed only 1/6th of a degree from Mars on December 23-24. This photo was taken on the 24th and shows the glaring planet and comet almost touching. Click for a map to help you find Finlay in your telescope. Credit: Damian Peach

In a remarkable coincidence, comets have passed very close to the planet Mars twice this year. Comet Siding Spring drew physically close on and around October 19th, while Comet Finlay only appears next to the planet thanks to a lucky line-of-sight alignment.

A grand entry of stars dances across the southeastern sky around 10 o’clock local time. Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy will be 10° high at that hour in the constellation Columba the Dove as seen from the northern U.S. and even higher from the central and southern states. Stellarium

Later tonight, around 10 o’clock, look to the south. Orion has now climbed boldly into view along with sparkling Sirius and the “Winter Triangle” figure. Tucked below Lepus the Hare you’ll find our Christmas comet, Lovejoy, now glowing at magnitude 5.5 and faintly visible to the naked eye from a dark sky location. Binoculars show it as a big ball of fuzz. For more information and a map showing its travels in the coming nights, click HERE.

Comet Lovejoy on December 23 looks like a Roman candle with a blue coma and long, faint tail. Credit: Michael Jaeger

Photos of Lovejoy show a huge coma or comet atmosphere more than half the size of the full moon tinted green from fluorescing carbon and cyanogen molecules; its super-skinny tail glows blue from light given off by carbon monoxide excited by ultraviolet light from the Sun.

Jupiter is easy to see now in the eastern sky in Leo around 10 o’clock local time. Stellarium

If you now direct your gaze to the east around 10 p.m., Jupiter jumps right out. After Sirius and the moon, it’s the brightest nighttime object the sky this winter. Use the planet to help you find the Sickle or head of Leo the Lion and its brightest star, Regulus.

Jupiter in binoculars tonight around 10 p.m. (CST). All four of its bright moons will be strung out in a nearly straight line very close to the planet (big glow at center). Stellarium

Sharply-focused and steadily held 10x binoculars will show all four of its bright moons, assuming one or more aren’t passing either behind or front of the planet or in eclipse. Lucky for us, Io, Europa and Ganymede will line up in a neat row east of Jupiter with Callisto well off to its west tonight. How many will you see?

Wow! What a blast. This fireball lit up Japanese skies early this morning. The Belt of Orion is at upper right. Credit: SonotaCo

Finally, reports are coming in about a powerfully bright fireball that streaked across Japan’s skies around 2 a.m. local time this Christmas morning. I’ve not been able to track down a brightness estimate, but the pictures show an object at least as brilliant as the full moon.

The Geminids ain’t over yet! Meteor shower update

Jeff Stephens created this composite of all the Geminids he caught during the peak hours on the morning of December 14th from central Louisiana. His camera faced north. Click for more of Jeff’s images. Credit: Jeff Stephens

An overcast of biblical proportions has hidden the sky at my home for 9 nights in a row. But even without seeing a single Geminid meteor, I can tell you this – the shower’s been fantastic. NASA’s network of all-sky cameras detected more than 200 fireballs and the International Meteor Organization’s quicklook data show a peak of 155 meteors an hour around 10 p.m. (CST) December 13th.

Though past maximum, bits and pieces of the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, the meteor shower’s parent, will continue to zip through the atmosphere over the next few nights. We may even be see some larger fireballs. The Geminids arrive pre-sorted, with the smallest meteoroids appearing early on, followed by larger crumbs and small rocks later.

Diagram of the inner solar system showing the orbits of Geminid fireballs (and a few other bright meteors) on December 14th. They intersect at the blue dot, which represents Earth, and are color-coded by velocity, from slow (red) to fast (blue) based on information from NASA’s all-sky camera network that scans the skies above the U.S. Automated software determines the orbits and other characteristics of the incoming meteors. Credit: NASA/ Bill Cooke

The moon has continued to slim down and is now a crescent rising well after midnight. Best viewing times will be from about 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. There’s also a decent chance for a small auroral display tonight for the northern U.S. and southern Canada.  You’ll find more about the Geminids HERE.

Zoltan Kenwell got a nice auroral surprise when he stepped out to watch the Geminid meteor shower near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada yesterday morning December 14th. Click to see more of Ken’s aurora photography. Credit: Zoltan Kenwell

Heck of a place to watch a meteor shower … and northern lights. Zoltan Kenwell kicks back and takes it all in Sunday morning. Credit: Zoltan Kenwell

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.

Lively Leonid meteor shower peaks tomorrow, Tuesday

The annual Leonids peak this week. About a dozen per hour will be visible from a dark site. The shower’s known for fireballs that often leave persistant “smoke trails” or trains. Tony Hallas captured two Leonids in a single frame with glowing trains during the 2001 shower. Credit: Tony Hallas

Watch out for flammable comet dust the next few nights. ‘Tis the season of the Leonids. This annual meteor shower, which originates from dust dribbled by comet 55P/Temple-Tuttle, peaks tomorrow and Tuesday mornings November 17-18.

About every 33 years the Leonids produce a spectacular display. This illustration from a newspaper at the time captures the intensity of the shower on November 13, 1833. The next Leonid storm is expected in 2034.

Every 33 years, when the comet swings into the inner solar system, Leonid numbers swell into the hundreds if not thousands per hour and create what’s better described as a meteor storm. The most recent storm unfolded in 2000-2001; now we’re down to the Leonids’ usual peak of 10-15 per hour.

Admittedly, that’s more like a light drizzle than a shower, but what the Leonids lack in numbers in off-years, they make up for in character. Because the Leonid stream travels around the Sun in a direction opposite to the planets, Earth hits Tempel-Tuttle’s debris head-on at very high speed. Leonids pepper the planet at speeds upwards of 158,000 miles per hour (70 km/sec), the fastest of any shower.

They often burn brightly as fireballs and leave glowing streaks of ionized air in their wakes called trains. Upper atmospheric winds can distort and stretch the trains over several minutes time, a sight well worth watching. In 2001, we saw a fair number of these long-lasting “smoke trails” after the appearance of fireballs.


This map shows the sky facing east around 3 a.m. Monday November 17th. The radiant is well-placed near Jupiter in Leo. The thick crescent Moon rises around 2 a.m. Monday and 3 a.m. Tuesday. Stellarium

Watching the Leonids is easy as long as you’re willing to wake up in the wee hours. Patience helps too. You may see nothing in the first 10-15 minutes and then all at once a swift blade of light slices the sky. The radiant or point in the sky from which the meteors originate rises around 11:30 p.m. local time in Leo near Jupiter. But the best time to view the shower is from about 3 a.m. till dawn when the radiant is high in the east-southeast.

Both Monday and Tuesday mornings are good for shower watching. Light from the crescent Moon will hardly be a bother. Dress warmly and get comfy under a blanket in a reclining lawn chair facing east or south. Relax back and watch the stars slowly parade above you. Every meteor you see will come both as a pleasant surprise and reminder that Earth is continually touched by comets.

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!

Night of the four fireballs – Eastern U.S. sees spectacle

Maps showing where the four separate fireballs were seen overnight last night September 24-25, 2014. Fireballs are defined as meteors equal to or brighter than magnitude -3 or between Jupiter and Venus in brightness. Credit: Mike Hankey / AMS

Four different fireball meteors lit up skies across the eastern U.S. last night according to reports received by the American Meteor Society (AMS). Normally, one brilliant fireball might zoom by every week or two, but last night four separate ones all came by within a few hours of each other. While brightness estimates vary a lot, nearly all the reports mention great brilliance and BIG. Many compared them to the full moon and some even to the sun in radiance! These were beauties.

Trajectories of the four fireballs over the eastern U.S. last night. Credit: Mike Hankey / AMS

Here’s a chronological list of their appearance. Times are eastern (EDT) and approximate:

* #1 at 9:30 p.m. over Tennessee, Kentucky Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri
* #2 at 9:47 p.m. over Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania
* #3 at 10:13 p.m. over Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Ontario and Pennsylvania
* #4 at 1:09 a.m. over Florida and Georgia

Despite their brilliance, very few people reported hearing any associated sounds rumbles or explosions. This makes me think that none of the entering meteoroids made it to the ground. If you saw or heard anything at those times, the AMS would love to hear about it. Please enter your report HERE.

I have yet to find any video from security cameras and cellphone captures. If you have any visuals, please also report that on your AMS form. It would also be very helpful to send it to Dirk Ross who runs the Latest Worldwide Meteor/Meteorite News. As usual there are a few silly references to this being some kind of prophecy of doom. This happens every time something remarkable happens in the sky. Last time I looked, we were all still standing.

As to whether four fireballs is purely coincidence or if they might in some way be related (prior breakup before entering Earth’s atmosphere?) it’s very difficult to say. If you look at the trajectories, there are two pairs similar to one another. Hopefully we’ll learn more when video surfaces and more reports are made.

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.

Perseid meteors peak tonight!

Multi-photo composite showing Perseid meteors shooting from their radiant point in the constellation Perseus. Earth crosses the orbit of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle every year in mid-August. Debris left behind by the comet burns up as meteors when it strikes our upper atmosphere at 130,000 mph. Credit: NASA

Ready for more celestial enjoyment after the weekend supermoon? Tonight’s the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower, one of the year’s two best and most prolific meteor showers. The other, the Geminids, produces a few more meteors per hour but happens in the middle of December when the weather often puts a bite on nighttime activities.

Just two days past full, the moon rises around 9-9:30 p.m. and will be up all night, spreading its less than desired radiance across the sky. No question that fainter Perseids will be lost in the glare, but not the best and brightest. Under ideal conditions – a rural, moonless sky – more than 100 Perseids an hour flash across the sky. But with the moon out, expect closer to 25-30 per hour from a typical suburban location.

You can go out anytime to watch the shower overnight tonight (August 12-13), but you’ll see more meteors if you go out later when the radiant is higher in the sky. Higher is better because fewer meteors get cut off the observer’s horizon. Source: Stellarium

The key to seeing as many as possible is to keep the moon out of view. Set up your lawn chair to face northeast, north or southwest, kick back and wait for the meteors to come to you. Over the years, I’ve noticed that shower meteors often come in bursts. For 5-10 minutes you’ll see a handful or more and then all will go quiet for the next 5 minutes. Hang in there and I guarantee you’ll see at least some Perseids. You’ll now you’re see a genuine shower member if you can trace its path backwards toward the W of Cassiopeia near the location of the shower’s radiant.

Fireballs, those extra-brilliant meteors that shine as bright or brighter than Venus, are no strangers to this shower. Perseids are generally white and move swiftly, often leaving fading ‘smoke streaks’ or trains in their wake. These are hollow tubes of ionized air molecules that have been energized by the meteoroid particle’s passage. As they return to their original ‘relaxed’ or non-ionized state, we see a lingering afterglow.

Keep an eye on any really bright train. Some can linger for minutes and become distorted by upper atmospheric winds.

A Perseid burns up in Earth’s atmosphere photographed in orbit 250 miles up by astronaut Ron Garan on Aug. 13, 2011. The star Arcturus is directly above the meteor trail. Credit: Ron Garan / ISS Expedition 28 crew / NASA

Most meteor shower particles range in size from a small pebble to beach sand and generally weigh less than 1-2 grams or about what a paperclip weighs. They’re fluffy and porous material shed by comets. The main reason something so insubstantial can create such a striking flash of light has to do with its kinetic energy or energy of motion. Perseids scream into the atmosphere at an average speed of 130,000 mph (209,000 kph).

Even a tiny bit of mass can make a big, bright display when it hits the air at such tremendous speed. Think of the difference between being hit by a slow-moving vs. a fast-moving baseball. It stings either way, but the fast one’s worse by far.

Hopefully your weather will be clear tonight. If so, spend an hour with the shower. You’ll see a smattering of meteors in the early evening and more as the night grows long and radiant rises higher. Let us know how you fare in words and pictures (my e-mail: rking@duluthnews.com), and I’ll share your observations in an update tomorrow.