Take a break from doomsday to enjoy the Geminid meteor shower

The Geminids will appear to radiate from near Castor and Pollux, the two brightest stars in Gemini the Twins. The shower peaks Weds. night – Thurs. morning. Maps made with Stellarium

Doomsday, smoomsday – let’s interrupt this broadcast to talk about the best meteor shower of the year. The Geminids will liven up skies this Thursday night – Friday morning Dec. 13-14 with up to 50 meteors per hour. We’ve all been burned a little by showers that dribble out meteors once every half hour. Not the Geminids. They’re a strong, reliable shower right on par with the August Perseids.

Although occurring at a cold time of year, the shower offers compensation in putting on a decent show during evening hours. You can start watching for meteors around 9  p.m. when Gemini, home to the Geminids, is up in the east. Rates will improve after midnight when the radiant – the point in the sky from which the shower members appear to radiate or travel – climbs high in the southern sky. Hard-core meteor watchers will be out from 2 a.m. until dawn Friday, but casual observers can start around 9 or 10 p.m.

Beautiful Geminid fireball from a few years back. Credit and copyright: Wally Pacholka

With the moon at new phase, expect ideal conditions for viewing. To improve your counts, consider a drive to the country to put the hurt on city light pollution. Real darkness can make a big difference, since there are far more faint meteors than bright.

Most meteor showers originate from debris lost by comets as they orbit the sun. When Earth plows into the stuff, it burns up through friction with our atmosphere, flaring as a meteor or shooting star.

Photos of the Geminid parent asteroid 3200 Phaethon taken over a span of 45 minutes with a 15-inch telescope on Dec. 25, 2010. Dust and rock association with this asteroid is responsible for the Geminids. Credit: Marco Langbroek

The Geminids are different. Instead of comet bits, we’re showered by bits of rock from the asteroid 3200 Phaethon. What likely happened was that sometime in the distant past, the asteroid collided with another, spreading rocky debris along its orbital path. Every year in mid-December, Earth gets peppered by Phaethon dust as we pass through the stream. Geminids are typically travel at modest speeds compared to some showers and appear white to yellow.

If your weather looks cloudy tomorrow night, you’ll still see some Geminids a couple days before and after the Thursday night peak. For best viewing, dress warmly, pack a thermos of your favorite beverage, face east or south and kick back in a chair. I’ve heard hot tubs also make good meteorite viewing stations.

As long as we’re touching on asteroids, last night the sky cleared just enough in my neighborhood to watch asteroid 2012 XE54 creep across the stars of Taurus and Orion during its close pass of Earth. The approximately 120-foot-wide space rock moved in real time like a very slow satellite at 142x through my 15-inch telescope. While the asteroid was exactly on track, it arrived about 3 minutes early of position.

As for 2012 XE54′s predicted eclipse by Earth – yes, it did happen! Others who followed 2012 XE54 measured a steep drop in its brightness to about 17.5 magnitude during the predicted time, much too dim to see in nearly all amateur scopes. It would have been cool to watch it fade from view for an hour, but the sky here in Duluth, Minn. was cloudy then. To see how the asteroid’s light changed during the eclipse, check out the light curve at amateur astronomer Pete Birdwhistle’s site.

 

Most recent Goldstone radar image of asteroid 4179 Toutatis taken on Dec. 10, 2012. Click picture to see more. Credit: NASA

Toutatis, another Earth-approaching asteroid we looked at a couple days ago, will be making its closest approach tonight around 10 p.m. (CST) at a relatively distant 4.3 million miles.

Radio astronomers will be closely watching the space rock to further refine its orbit, shape and surface features. Amateurs with small telescopes from 4.5 inches on up can spot it traveling slowly among the stars of Cetus the Sea Monster shining at about magnitude 10.8. If you miss tonight, don’t worry. Toutatis will be brighter than 12th magnitude (visible in a 6-inch telescope) all month.

To find Toutatis in your scope, head over to JPL’s Horizons site, select your location and time period, then click the Generate Ephemeris button. That will give you a list of positions for the asteroid you can hand-plot on a detailed star atlas. I’ll try to post a chart for you later today if I can find time.

I’m hoping the Chinese will share closeup photos during the planned flyby of the asteroid tomorrow with their Chang’ e 2 spacecraft. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Potential second NEW meteor shower is expected Thursday night. Click HERE for more info.

Why astronomy provides essential vitamin Q

A -8 magnitude Leonid fireball captured by one of John Chumack’s video cameras at his home in Dayton, Ohio. Click to see a video of all his captures. Credit: John Chumack

By all accounts it was a slow year for the Leonid meteor shower. I almost feel like apologizing for promoting it, but as often happens in astronomy, you don’t know until you go out and see for yourself. Had the shower been unexpectedly spectacular and you passed on it, you’d feel disappointed, right?

This sleep thing is overrated. If only we could stay up and stare at the sky with unblinking eyes like John Chumack’s low-light video setup. He ran his cameras from the evening of Nov. 16th through the 19th and recorded 84 meteors. Most people who’ve e-mailed me saw one or two at most.

I spent some time this morning waiting for some action from that strand of comet debris forecast to give us a second Leonid maximum, but none showed during my brief vigil. Don’t lose hope. More meteors are on the way. The next shower, the Geminids, have been very productive in recent years, even besting the summer Perseids. Stay tuned for that maximum forecast for Dec. 13-14.

Yesterday I had my oil changed and tires rotated over at Larry’s place. We talked for a while about deer hunting. He’s the animal hunter, I’m the star hunter. Larry didn’t get a deer this year but found equal or greater pleasure in the solitude of the forest as he waited in his stand. He noticed little things like how much sound a bird makes foraging for food or fluttering from tree to tree.

“You wouldn’t normally go into the woods to listen to the quiet or pay attention to a bird flying,” he said, but hunting gave him the occasion or at least the excuse to do so. That’s how it is with observing the night sky, I told him. Many of us have so many other commitments that we unknowingly push aside things we don’t even know we need. Quiet is one of them.

The Milky Way (left) with Orion and Jupiter (top) on Sunday night from north of Duluth. Details: 15mm f/2.8, 25-seconds, ISO 2500. Photo: Bob King

I’m a pretty purposeful amateur astronomer and get a lot of pleasure digging in the dark with my scope, but this past Sunday night, under the clearest sky in weeks, I walked away from the telescope, sat down and looked up. A light breeze sifted through the fir trees, water gurgled from a distant river, but mostly there was silence. I’d forgotten how much I needed the quiet. It’s such a rare commodity. Tasting it felt like that first gulp of cold water down the throat when you’re dying of thirst.

There are sights too – the eternal stars, the vastness of space hinted at by the band of the Milky Way, the brilliance of Jupiter. All of them provide sustenance, a vitamin “Q” (for quietude) to strengthen both resolve and inner peace. We may go out to hunt with prey on our minds, but return home sustained by the intangibles.

You’ll need some of that resolve if you’re planning on getting up in the wee hours to watch the International Space Station. It continues making great passes this coming week. The times listed below are for the Duluth, Minn. region. Click over to Heavens-Above, Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys or sign up for free e-mail or phone alerts at NASA’s Spot the Station site to get pass times for your town.

* Weds. morning Nov. 21 beginning at 6:22 a.m. across the northern sky
* Thurs. Nov. 22 at 5:34 a.m First appears out of Earth’s shadow below the North Star and moves east.
* Fri. Nov. 23 at 6:19 a.m. across the north
* Sat. Nov. 24 at 5:31 a.m. Like Thurs., the ISS suddenly appears below Polaris and continues east.
* Sun. Nov. 25 at 6:16 a.m. Crosses nearly overhead reaching magnitude -3.1. Brilliant!

Stars fall on Alabama, meteorite hunters find them in a flash

Dr. Moody James shows where Ann Hodges was struck in the hip by an 8.5 lb meteorite that crashed through her roof (right). The photos appeared in the Dec. 13, 1954 issue of Life magazine.

It’s been 58 years since the last witnessed meteorite fell from Alabama skies. That one made a big impression. It was the first confirmed extraterrestrial object to injure a human being. On November 30, 1954 at 2:46 p.m. an 8.5 lb rock crashed through the roof of a home not far from the town of Sylacauga (sil-la-CAW-ga).

The grapefruit-sized Sylacauga meteorite that struck Hodges

It hit a radio console, bounced off the floor and struck the hand and hip of 31-year-old Ann Hodges who was asleep on the couch at the time. She awoke in surprise and pain thinking that a space heater had blown up, but when she noticed the hole in the roof and rock on the floor, Hodges figured the neighborhood kids had been up to no good.

Fortunately her injuries weren’t serious. Ann became a sudden celebrity; her photo even appeared on the cover of Life magazine with a story titled “A Big Bruiser From The Sky”. In 1956 she donated the meteorite to the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa, where you can still see it to this day. A second meteorite from the fall weighing 3.7 lbs. was picked up the following day by Julius K. McKinney in the middle of a dirt road. McKinney sold his fragment to the Smithsonian and used the money to purchase a small farm and a used car. These days a single gram – if you can find any – costs about ten grand.

Ann and her husband Hewlett Hodges with the roof hole (left). At the time, the Hodges lived across the way from the Comet Drive-In movie theater. Cosmic coincidence.

For more on the fall including how the meteorite turned out to be anything but good luck for  Hodges, click HERE and HERE.

Fast forward to October 30, 2012. That evening at 5:30 p.m. (CDT) a boulder-sized meteor broke into pieces as it came booming over northern Alabama between Birmingham and Huntsville. The sonic boom created by the faster-than-sound meteorite even registered on several area seismographs. Doppler weather radar sweeps picked up a rain of cosmic fragments and meteorite hunters were soon on the ground including a six-member NASA team.

Front and back side of the first meteorite found from the Alabama fall found by the search team of Stephen Beck, Tommy Brown, Jerry Hinkle, and Robert Woolard. It’s provisionally named Addison. The stone is covered in black fusion crust, features a metal vein (upper right) and weighs about 60 grams or 2 ounces. Credit: Tommy Brown

Meanwhile another pair of hunters, Robert Woolard and his pal Jerry Hinkle of Little Rock, Ark., had just subscribed to Galactic Analytics, a service run by Marc Fries that retrieves and examines Doppler radar weather data to create maps of potential meteorite falls. With maps in hand, Hinkle jetted off to Alabama to meet up with Woolard’s other friends, Tommy Brown and Stephen Beck, and by the end of the day Saturday (Nov. 3), they’d found the first meteorite!

Weather radar data (in blue) indicates the trail of the meteorite that fell in northern California near Sutter’s Mill on April 22, 2012. Credit: Google Earth / Marc Fries

This is incredible for at least two reasons. First, it took only 4 days from fall to find, proving yet again that radar is quickly becoming the tool of choice for locating fresh-falling meteorites.

Doppler’s better than eyewitness accounts because meteors stop flaring around 30 miles up yet continue moving along their flight path. Called “dark flight”, this portion of a meteorite’s journey may be invisible to the eye but detectable by reflected radio waves. The closer we’re able to track potential meteorites before they strike the ground, the better our chances of finding them.

Meteorites are named after the closest city or landmark to where they’re found. Provisionally named “Addison”, this is the 11th witnessed meteorite fall of the year,  the most seen in one year since the new century began. So if it seems I’ve been writing a lot about meteorite falls lately, there’s a good reason for it. We’re on a hot streak!

Doris Day sings Stars Fell on Alabama 

Maybe you’re familiar with the 1930s tune Stars Fell on Alabama. It was inspired by yet another meteoric event – the spectacular 1833 Leonid meteor storm, when thousands of meteors an hour rained from the sky. Enjoy.

See the feisty fireballs of November’s Taurid meteor shower

At least four fragments are seen in this closeup of Comet Hergenrother’s bright nucleus taken early on Nov. 2, 2012 by the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. The comet is currently 266 million miles from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/NOAO/Gemini

November’s brightest comet – 168P/Hergenrother – continues to splinter. On Oct. 25, the Italian amateur astronomer team of Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes and Giovanni.Sostero  were the first to photograph a fragment shed from the comet’s bright head or nucleus using the 79-inch Faulkes Telescope.

Deeper observations with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s huge 323-inch Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii now show at least four chunks broken loose from the nucleus:

“We have resolved that the nucleus of the comet has separated into at least four distinct pieces resulting in a large increase in dust material in its coma,” said Rachel Stevenson, a post-doctoral fellow working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The more dust, the brighter the comet will appear since there’s more material to reflect sunlight. Hergenrother has faded some recently but still shines at about 10.5 magnitude (my estimate) and makes a fine target for amateur telescopes. Look for it high in the southeastern sky during early evening hours. Click HERE for a finder chart.

The Northern and Southern Taurid meteor showers are active in early November. Taurids are sparse but often bright and appear to radiate from the direction of the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. Map shows the sky facing east around 11 ‘o clock local time. Created with Stellarium

Meteors come from comets. They’re the dust that gets boiled off the comet’s nucleus and pushed down the tail by sunlight. As a comet travels around the sun, it leaves a trail of gritty crumbs in its wake. Earth crosses some of these trails at particular times of year giving rise to familiar meteor showers like the August Perseids and December Geminids.  Dust slams into our atmosphere at thousands of miles an hour and quickly vaporizes, creating a glowing tube of light or meteor.

The Taurid shower contains larger comet crumbs than other showers. They travel relatively slowly – 65,000 mph – compared to the Leonids or Perseids and show as bright, slow fireballs. Credit: NASA

There’s more going on besides the election next week. Nov. 5-13 marks the peak of the Northern and Southern Taurid meteor showers. Showers usually hit maximum over a one or two day period, but the Taurids have a broad plateau lasting weeks. At peak, you might see around 7 meteors per hour.

You’re welcome to pull up a chair and face east or south for an hour, but you may be disappointed. Given their broad distribution, Taurid meteors are more likely something you’ll see while you’re outside at night doing something else.

While sparse, the dual showers are famed for their slow fireballs. If you see a brilliant, orange-colored meteor slowly arcing across the sky and can trace its path back toward the Pleiades, chances are you’ve caught a Taurid. I’ve seen a few over the years and remember them as not only bright but breaking into pieces as they burned up overhead.

Comet Encke and the trail of dust and debris it leaves behind in its orbit photographed by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

The Southern Taurids peak on the 5th; the northern version on Nov.12-13th. Both showers are connected to Encke’s Comet or possibly a larger comet that broke into fragments in a manner similar to Comet Hergenrother. One of the fragments became Encke’s Comet while other chunks of debris may have evolved into the dual showers.

Meteor showers normally appear to radiate from one spot in the sky. The double radiant for the Taurids tells us this is an ancient meteor stream that has diverged and spread out over time from the accumulated gravitational tugs of the sun and planets. This year we’re expected to cross a thicker-than-usual stream of comet dust, so expect a slightly better chance of seeing your first Taurid meteor. The best time to watch is later at night after 11 o’clock, when Taurus and the Pleiades are high are in the eastern sky. For more details on the Taurids click HERE.

California fireball fragment hits pastor’s home in Novato

Lisa Webber, meteorite finder.

Call it a message from heaven, but the first meteorite reported from the Oct. 17 fireball that lit up the sky over the San Francisco Bay area struck the roof of the Rev. Kent and Lisa Webber’s home in Novato’s Pleasant Valley neighborhood. Kent is pastor of Novato’s Presbyterian Church. Lisa works as the head nurse at the Department of Dermatology of the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.

While relaxing at home last Wednesday night watching TV, she heard a boom and then something rattling around on the roof. She walked outside for a look, but didn’t find anything amiss … at first.

The dark-crusted rock found by Lisa Webber in Novato, Calif. weighs 63 grams or 2.2 ounces. The meteorite “appears to be a breccia with light and dark parts” according to Dr. Jenniskens. Credit: Peter Jenniskens

Later last week, Lisa’s curiosity was piqued by Dave Perlman’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle on Saturday, describing the NASA/CAMS meteor trajectory predicted impact area centered on Novato. Lisa decided to make a more thorough search and turned up an unusual rock near her side gate. A neighbor’s son suggested she test it with a magnet. She did and it stuck! Not a guarantee of a meteorite but a very good sign all the same.

Preliminary trajectory calculated by Peter Jenniskens from Sunnyvale and San Mateo College Observatory CAMS video data. The possible fall zone is shown in white and contained in the circle. Credit: Peter Jenniskens

Webber contacted Dr. Peter Jenniskens, who runs NASA’s Cameras for AllSky Meteor Surveillance or CAMS, an automated video surveillance program of the night sky in search of meteors.

Two CAMS cameras in different locations in the Bay area triangulated the fireball’s path. Based on the picture data, Jenniskens predicted a potential landing zone in funnel-shaped zone east of San Rafael, over Novato and toward Sonoma.

He and the Webbers’ neighbor Luis Rivera inspected the roof and found an impact pit or divot in a shingle that matched up nicely with the meteorite’s size. Usually the smallest meteorites drop first with the larger ones moving farther ahead before they fall too. Because the fireball traveled from SW to NE, Jenniskens thinks it likely larger fragments dropped nearer Sonoma northeast of Novato.

Luis Rivera points to the impact dent on the Webbers’ roof. Credit: Peter Jenniskens

“The significance of this find”, says Jenniskens, “is that we can now hope to use our fireball trajectory to trace this type of meteorite back to its origins in the asteroid belt,” said Jenniskens. The find also helps start the process of defining the orientation and location of the meteorite drop-zone or strewnfield.

Rain’s expected in the area today – something meteorites don’t like. Rain makes for rust and breakdown by erosion. Jenniskens hopes more of the space bounty comes to light before a soaking. If you’re in the area and think you’ve found a fragment of cosmic rock, contact him at this e-mail: Petrus.M.Jenniskens@nasa.gov

By the way, you’ll still see stories claiming this meteorite came from the weekend Orionid meteor shower. It didn’t. The fireball blew in from a completely different direction opposite Orion.

I want to thank Dr. Jenniskens for pictures and information from the CAMS site used for this article.

** UPDATE Oct. 23, 2012 — The rock is not a meteorite after all! As per Peter Jenniskens:

“We examined the rock with a petrographic microscope yesterday, says Jenniskens, and quickly concluded it was not a meteorite. I sincerely thought it was, based on what appeared to me was remnant fusion crust. On closer inspection, that crust was a product of weathering of a natural rock, not from the heat of entry.” He searched the ground again with Lisa Webber but failed to a meteorite. So how did that hole get in that roof shingle?

NASA video of California fireball helps narrow fall zone

San Mateo College student Paola-Castilla photographed the fireball on a cell phone while stuck in traffic. Credit: Paola-Castillo

Either meteorites haven’t been found yet or nobody’s talkin’. But videos and eyewitness reports have allowed Peter Jenniskens, principal investigator at SETI Institute, to paint a more detailed picture of the fireball that blazed over the San Francisco Bay area Wednesday evening.

Jenniskens examined the images recorded by two CAMS (Cameras for AllSky Meteor Surveillance) cameras, one near Sunnyvale and another at San Mateo College. Data from two widely-spaced places gives researchers the ability to triangulate distances and altitudes of a meteor’s flight.


The fireball was so bright in NASA’s sensitive camera, it blew out the image, creating some trippy effects.

The cameras tracked the car-sized space boulder from when it started to glow at 53 miles overhead down to 24 miles, when it exploded to pieces. Top speed was 31,300 mph. Jenniskens believes there’s a “good chance a relatively large fraction of this rock survived.”

Peter Jenniskens

Before meeting its earthly fate, the meteoroid circled the sun with a perihelion (closest point to the sun) of 91.8 million miles in nearly the same plane as Earth’s orbit. Practically a next door neighbor. Jenniskens began his search the hills north of the Bay area Friday for meteorite fragments. Let’s hope he finds a few!

If you were (are) in the area and wish to share videos and photographs and report possible meteorite finds, please email: Petrus.M.Jenniskens@nasa.gov

Oct. 17 California fireball may have dropped meteorites

Last night’s fireball over Belmont, California. The meteor first appears in the constellation Sagittarius and flamed across Ophiuchus and Hercules. The Summer Triangle of Vega, Deneb and Altair is at center and tipped sideways with north to the right. Credit: Wes Jones

Although the Orionid meteor shower’s up at bat this weekend, meteors fall anytime. Those that drop from a random spot in the sky and aren’t connected to a specific comet, as the Orionids are with Halley’s Comet, are called sporadic meteors. On any given night you might see 5-10 sporadic meteors per hour.

Yesterday evening October 17 at 7:42 p.m. local time, a brilliant sporadic meteor created a sensation over the San Francisco Bay-San Jose region where it briefly lit up the night sky like a thousand sparklers. The fireball broke into pieces as it fell, rumbled like thunder and left a glowing train (luminous trail) in its wake. To hear some of the comments posted on the American Meteor Society’s Fireball Report website makes you wish you were there:

“Awesome wild glowing train that turned to smoke.” – Karen

“It must have been really big and/or really bright because it created shadows on the street and the delay between the first shadows appearing and the delayed boom was maybe more than a minute. It was so bright it created shadows on the road from the overhead powerlines.” – Alicia

“The sound was stretched out and there were several pulses, like distant thunder, but louder. After it passed overhead it broke into a number of pieces which continued in the same direction at first and then some diverged near end.” – Frank

“The fireball was clearly breaking up as it flew across the sky. it made the tail appear like a firework sparkler with blue and red and yellow sparks flying off.” – Amanda Titterington


Security cameras at California’s Lick Observatory recorded the fireball. The round, silhouetted structure at left is the telescope dome and the lights in the background are from San Jose.

While some news articles are connecting the fireball to the Orionid meteor shower, it’s completely unrelated. How do we know? The photo above clearly shows it originating in the Sagittarius area located in the opposite part of the sky from Orion. Orionids fly out of Orion which at the time had yet to rise. Because of the meteor’s slow speed, its breakup into fragments and reports of thundery booms that shook residents’ homes after it disappeared from view, there’s a fair chance it may have dropped meteorites. Meteors rumble, thunder and boom when they enter the lower atmosphere traveling faster than the speed of sound.

Meteorite hunters will be checking Doppler weather radar recordings made in the fall zone to see if they can pinpoint a possible search location. Jonathan Braidman of Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center, believes that fireball fragments may have fallen in hilly terrain north of Martinez, Cal. For the latest news and reports, please click over to Dirk Ross’s excellent Latest Worldwide Meteorite / Meteorite News site.

X your calendar for Sunday’s Orionid meteor shower

This map shows the sky facing south around 5 a.m. Sunday morning October 21, 2012. The Orionids will appear to radiate from the “shoulder” of Orion the Hunter not far from the brilliant planet Jupiter. Created with Stellarium

Don’t stay up too late this coming Saturday night. You’ll need your sleep before rising for the annual Orionid meteor shower which peaks early Sunday morning October 21. As many as 25 meteors per hour will be visible from a dark sky. This shower guarantees at least a minor show compared to the more fickle Draconids earlier this month. As long as the moon’s out of the sky and you live along the suburban fringe of a city or out in the country, you’ll see meteors. This weekend the moon sets long before the shower peaks, tempting even the hard-bitten I-hate-getting-up-before-sunrise-crowd to step outside for a look.

Halley’s Comet swings near Earth every 76 years. This comic, created by an unknown author, captures the poignancy of the comet’s multiple appearances. Dust left by the comet arrives each year as the Orionid meteor shower.

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 148,000 mph. Few showers offer up faster meteors.  I can attest to the Orionids’ high speed. Every one I’ve ever seen sure appeared to be in a big hurry; most tear across the sky in second or less.

You can start watching for Orionids a couple hours before morning twilight begins or from 4 a.m. Sunday onward. Face south and get cozy under a big blanket or in a sleeping bag to stay warm. The shower lasts a few days, so if the weather’s looks bad, try the mornings before and after.

Path of the International Space Station shown on one of the new sky charts on Heavens Above. This map shows the track for Duluth, Minn. this evening Oct. 16 starting around 7:18 p.m. Credit: Heavens Above / Chris Peat

For evening sky watchers, the International Space Station continues its series of passes during convenient viewing hours this week. Watch for a brilliant yellow “star” traveling from west to east across the northern sky. The times listed below are for the Duluth, Minn. region. To get specific times and maps for your town, log on to Heavens Above. Chris Peat at Heavens Above just unveiled brand new sky maps that will make finding the station and anticipating its track even easier. A single click on any part of a new chart lets you zoom in. Click again to zoom out. I’ve included an example above.

You can also go to Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys link and type in your zip code for flyover times (no maps).

Tuesday Oct. 16 starting at 7:19 p.m. High and bright pass in the northern sky
Wednesday Oct. 17 at 8:06 p.m. Another northern sky pass but the station fades away into Earth’s shadow below the North Star.
Thursday Oct. 18 at 7:17 p.m. across the north
Friday Oct. 19 at 8:05 p.m. in the north. Fades away again beneath the North Star
Saturday Oct. 20 at 7:15 p.m. Yet another northern sky pass
Sunday Oct. 21 at 8:03 p.m. in the north and fading beneath the North Star

Draconid meteors busting out all over!

A falling meteor leaves a trail of light as well as one of electrons that radar can “see”. Credit: NASA

There’s a dragon on fire and he’s burning up the sky!

The Draconid meteor shower, underway since this weekend and normally a weak shower, suddenly spiked today around 11 a.m. (CDT). The Canadian Meteor Orbit Radar (CMOR), which “sees” meteors by the tracks of ionized air trails they leave in the upper atmosphere, is recording rates of 1000 per hour. That’s much higher than last year’s outburst and off the charts of this year’s expectations.

Since radar picks up even small meteors that go unnoticed with the naked eye, it’s not known whether all of these would be visible in a dark sky. But, hey, it’s easy enough to go out and have a look for yourself. This afternoon, European observers are favored, since it’s already night there. If you live in the U.S. or Canada , take a look this evening as soon as it gets dark. Face west or north for the best view and cross your fingers the storm continues.

Incoming meteors move so rapidly they knock electrons off air molecules. Turns out you can bounce radio waves off electrons like a ball off a wall. That’s why radar is an excellent tool for “watching” a meteor shower even in daylight.

Here’s a link to a live audio site featuring the sounds of meteors picked up by the Air Force Space Surveillance Radar in Texas. Meteors sound like descending whistles of various pitches. I can’t guarantee the particular meteors you hear are Draconids, but if your sky is cloudy like mine tonight, at least you can still be there.

Unique UK meteor proves what goes around comes around


Video of the September 21, 2012 UK fireball. At closest, the meteor was only 33 miles above the Earth’s surface.
On the evening of September 21 a spectacular fireball as bright as the full moon blazed over the British Isles fracturing into dozens of fragments. Traveling at 8 miles per second – barely enough to escape Earth’s gravity – the meteor took an estimated 3 minutes to cross the sky as it sizzled westward over the Atlantic. Because it lingered so long, some observers thought it might be the breakup of a satellite, but the great majority of satellites travel the opposite direction – from west to east – making a chunk of slow-moving space debris the better possibility. Most meteors strike the atmosphere between 11 and 72 miles per second.

A similar Earth-grazing meteoroid / fireball streaked over Wyoming on August 10, 1972 that 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

155 minutes later another fireball tore across eastern U.S. and Canadian skies before incinerating itself. Were these two sightings connected? Esko Lyytinen, mathematician and member of the Finnish Fireball Working Group of the Ursa Astronomical Associationmodeled the meteor’s flight and determined that its slow speed may have allowed it to be captured by Earth’s gravity.

After its British debut, the object orbited once around the Earth and flared to life again over Canada before finally breaking to bits. It’s unknown if pieces survived to land as meteorites. The original meteoroid, the name given a space rock before it enters our atmosphere, is estimated to have weighed from several to tens of tons. Most of it would have burned up miles high, turned to dust and vapor by the heat and stress of entry.


Footage of the Great Daylight Fireball of 1972
While pieces of the meteor did burn up over the North Atlantic, Lyytinen believes a surviving fragment skipped back into space to become a temporary satellite of Earth. Slowed to 5.7 miles per second by its atmospheric encounter, the meteoroid’s fate was sealed – it wasn’t going anywhere but down. After one orbit, it flared a final farewell in a fiery trail over Canada.

Frame grab of the Sept. 21 UK fireball. Click to see video. Credit: CCTV / Youtube

Lyttinen cautions that more study needs to be done to confirm his hypothesis. If proven true, this would be the first time a meteoroid has been observed to graze in and out of Earth’s atmosphere, becoming a temporary natural satellite in the process. For a brief few hours our planet had not one but two moons!

I wish to thank Dirk Ross and his excellent Latest Worldwide Meteor / Meteorite News website for background on the fall. Check out his site as well as science writer Kelly Beatty’s .informative article. Stay tuned for an update.