Morning aurora topped off by avian cheer

A pretty series of rays sprouts above a pair of green arcs this morning around 3 a.m. CDT. Photo: Bob King

I got up for the stars but stayed for the birds. Clear skies overnight allowed for a look at a surprise aurora display, comets PANSTARRS and Lemmon, a handful of spectacular Eta Aquarid meteors and an attractive lunar crescent early this morning.

Three images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory were combined to create this spectacular view of last Friday’s flare. Credit: NASA

No auroras were predicted and true-to-forecast all looked quite at least through midnight. But at 2:30 this morning a bright green band spanned the northern horizon punctuated by one, two and occasionally an entire series of faint, rosy rays.

Sunspot group 1734′s largest spot – at left – is several times the diameter of Earth. This photo was taken this morning May 6, 2013. Credit: NASA

Expect more excitement courtesy of our parent star. Last Friday, a big flare erupted along’s the sun’s eastern edge, hurling a dragon-like tongue of incandescent hydrogen gas 120,000 miles (193,000 km) above the surface. Although this storm wasn’t directed toward Earth, the large sunspot group 1734 is currently nearly face-on to the planet and has the potential for strong flares. Cross your fingers.

A bright Eta Aquarid streaks across the northern sky and aurora this morning around 2:45 a.m. Photo: Bob King

I had planned to look at a variety of objects in the telescope but kept getting “distracted” by both the northern lights and regular appearances of incredibly fast, long-trailed meteors streaking across the northern sky from the east – Eta Aquarids.

Because the shower has a broad peak I encourage you to go out for a look yourself. Being so far north, I figured only a few might be seen here in Duluth, Minn. but was happily proven wrong. Had I simply sat in a lawn chair and stared skyward I’m certain I would have seen many more. Click HERE for more on the shower and how to view it.

A wide-field photo of Comet C/2011 L4 PANSTARRS shot on May 4, 2013. The comet is oriented the way it would appear shortly before dawn with the anti-tail pointing down and broad dust fan opening to the left. Credit: Joseph Brimacombe

Let me tell you about Comet PANSTARRS. In 10×50 binoculars I was surprised by how much there was to see under a dark sky. The V or fan-shaped tail spread is still obvious marked at its base by the small, brighter comet’s head. A second, straight anti-tail (debris left by the comet along its orbital path) stuck out like a pinkie finger from one side.

I estimated the whole works measured 1 degree or two full moon diameters across. While faint and smoky-looking at magnitude 7, the comet was very easy to pick out. In a 15-inch telescope PANSTARRS and its dual tails were brighter and better-defined; a tiny star-like nucleus peeped through the gases and dust concentrated in the its head. Very beautiful.

A morning topped off by the crescent moon is never wasted. Photo: Bob King

On to Comet Lemmon. I didn’t see it until 4 a.m. when dawn’s first light had already put its pale stamp on the eastern sky. I found it with difficulty in binoculars as a small, dim soft patch of light below the lower left star in the Square of Pegasus VERY low in the northeastern sky. It’s about as bright as PANSTARRS but low altitude and the onset of twilight combined to make it look fainter. In the scope, Lemmon was a big pale green fuzzball with a hint of a tail pointing southwest. Care to find it yourself? Here’s a map.

Wherever you are, enjoy the coming nights. If the moon’s your thing, an even thinner crescent will rise an hour before sunrise tomorrow in the east. Check for northern lights before you turn in tonight and use the map from yesterday’s blog to try your luck at Comet PANSTARRS … one last time.


Cassini sees meteoroids pummeling Saturn’s rings

Larry Beck was watching TV last Friday night when he heard a loud crash on his roof. Beck thought something that had fallen off a plane since his home is in the flight path of a nearby airport. When he went into the attic to look, he discovered a hole in his roof and a softball-sized rock, which was soon confirmed as a meteorite. Credit:

The spectacular fireball over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February and a more recent meteorite fall through the roof of a home in Wolcott, Connecticut last Friday remind us the solar system is still littered with debris left over from its formation 4.6 billion years ago.

Piles of small meteorites dropped by the Chelyabinsk fireball on Feb. 15, 2013 and collected by meteorite hunter Mike Farmer. Credit: Mike Farmer

During and immediately after the formation of the planets, meteorite bombardment was nonstop. Since then the impact rate has dropped dramatically – a good thing for life – but continues to this day as a steady rain of everything from fine dust to the occasional teeth-rattling meteorite strike.

Five images of Saturn’s rings, taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft between 2009 and 2012, show clouds of material ejected from impacts of small objects into the rings. Click for large version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Cornell

Besides Earth, amateur and professional astronomers have recorded meteorite or comet strikes on the moon and Jupiter. Now we can add Saturn to the list. Detailed study of thousands of images sent back to Earth by the Cassini spacecraft have turned up nine meteoroid strikes on Saturn’s rings in 2005, 2009 and 2012.

Think of the rings as a giant meteoroid detector/collector. If Earth gathers some 37,000-78,000 tons of space debris per year (mostly as dust but approx. 3-8 tons as rocks weighing 1/3 ounce to 2.2 lbs.), Saturn’s rings, with a surface area 100 times that of our planet, is more like humpback whale during feeding season.

This illustration shows the shearing of an initially circular cloud of debris as a result of the particles in the cloud having differing orbital speeds around Saturn. The numbers in the lower left of the panels in the still image show how quickly a cloud can be elongated as it orbits the planet. Credit: NASA/Cornell

Meteoroids pummeling the rings range in size from about a half-inch to several yards (one cm to several meters). When they bash into the icy ring particles they self-destruct, creating clouds of dust and ice in the process. The material is then sorted according to its distance from the planet – closer debris orbits more quickly, material further out more slowly. Soon the dust cloud gets stretched into an elongated bright streak that Cassini can photograph as it looks down (or up) onto the ring plane.

Detail of a debris cloud from a meteoroid strike in Saturn’s C-ring in 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Cornell

“These new results imply the current-day impact rates for small particles at Saturn are about the same as those at Earth — two very different neighborhoods in our solar system — and this is exciting to see,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

It’s fascinating to realize that the sight of a meteor in Earth’s starry skies finds its counterpart among the icy boulders of Saturn’s rings nearly a billion miles afield.


Update on the fireball that exploded over Russia

The largest ~ 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) Chelyabinsk / Chebarkul meteorite found to date alongside many smaller fragments. Credit: Screenshot from video, courtesy press-service Ural Federal University

The sun rose twice over the Ural Mountains in Russia Friday February 15. No one expected the second sun, a meteoroid that slammed into the atmosphere so fast it set the air aglow with a fire even brighter than the real sun. It lasted more than 30 seconds before exploding and sending a shock wave rippling across the city of Chelyabinsk and surrounding countryside.

Thousands of residents of small towns in the area of the fall at and around Lake Chebarkul have been busy hunting for meteorite fragments by looking for holes in the snow cover and then carefully clearing away the white stuff until a little black rock remains. It must sound and look like an Easter egg hunt out there. Some of the locals are cashing in on meteorite fever by offering rides to the big hole in the ice on Chebarkul Lake thought to have been punctured by a meteorite fragment.

Another view of the biggest meteorite fragment. It’s shows regmaglypts or dimples created when high temperatures during entry heat and melt away minerals on the surface. Click to see more images of  meteorites found from the fall. Credit: Screenshot from video, courtesy press-service Ural Federal University

Many of the stones – some real, some obviously fake – are popping up on various auction sites in Russia and elsewhere. A quick check on eBay under “Chelyabinsk meteorite” turned up 29 listings today. How many of those are real? Hard to say.

One meteorite hunter interviewed by a BBC team put it this way: “It’s like hunting or fishing. When you see an animal, your heart starts to beat fast, and when you’re fishing – it’s like pulling the fishing rod and thinking there’s something extraordinary. This is the same – you see a tiny hole, try it, and here it is.”

After more than a week of study, we know a little more about the asteroid that created this shower of stones in large part from information recorded by a network of infrasound sensors operated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). Their purpose is to monitor nuclear explosions.
Recording of infrasound from the Russian fireball that’s been sped up 135 times so we can hear it. The original file was 25 minutes long!

Infrasound, a very low frequency sound wave that can travel long distances, can only be heard by a few animals including elephants. When a large meteor enters the atmosphere it sends ripples of infrasound across the atmosphere around the planet revealing information about its speed, direction of travel and how much energy it contains.

“The Russian meteor’s infrasound signal was was the strongest ever detected by the CTBTO network. The furthest station to record the sub-audible sound was 9,300 miles away in Antarctica,” according to a NASA press release.

Russian fireball on Feb. 15, 2013 recorded by a dashcam

Here’s what we know based on an analysis by Western Ontario Professor of Physics Peter Brown:

* Size: 56 feet (17 meters) in diameter
* Weight: 11,000 tons (10,000 metric tons)
* Speed: 40,000 mph (64,000 km/hour) and broke apart 12-15 miles above Earth’s surface
* Exploded with the power of 470 kilotons of TNT which is equal to more than 23 1940s-era atomic bombs

We looked at the asteroid’s orbit the other day and discovered it belonged to the Apollo family of Earth-crossing asteroids. When farthest from Earth it used to mingle with its many friends in the asteroid belt. Like the majority of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter it has a rocky composition.

Further thoughts on fireballs, asteroids and coincidence

Fragments said to be from the Russian meteorite fall ring the hole in Chebarkul Lake. Credit: Reuters: Chelyabinsk region Interior Ministry

Asteroid 2012 DA14 has moved on, and the Russians are busy cleaning up the mess from yesterday’s fireball. Hopefully a few people are also busy looking for meteorites from the fall. The only meteorite-maybes I’ve seen photos of are the small, black rocks found around the perimeter of the hole in Chebarkul Lake, west of Chelybinsk.

A Tagish Lake meteorite fragment. Credit: Michael Holly, Creative Services, University of Alberta.

If these are indeed meteorites from the bolide, they remind me of the black, carbonaceous debris dropped by the Tagish Lake fall over the Tagish Lake area in British Columbia on January 18, 2000. Carbonaceous chondrites are fragile, carbon-rich meteorites that easily shatter into dust and small bits during a fall. If that’s what we’re dealing with here, meteorite hunters better get cracking – this type erodes quickly. Divers found no trace of any meteorites in the lake at the bottom of the hole today.

It is odd though that two days have gone by without a single significant fragment found. Meteorites, which develop a black fusion crust on atmospheric entry, would show up beautifully against the snowy Russian landscape. So what gives? How long will see purported Chelyabinsk “meteorites”pop up on eBay before the real item finally shows? Only hours after the fall, the first dubious specimens appeared on the auction site. Not a one of them looks like a fresh fall and some are clearly not meteorites. Buyer beware!

These MET-7 satellite photos clearly show the Russian fireball traveling from east to west. North is at top. Asteroid DA14′s trajectory was south to north or nearly perpendicular to the fireball’s. Click for more information and a short video. Credit and copyright: EUMETSAT

As for the Russian fireball being related in any way to the asteroid flyby, it is not. I’ve been in touch with folks who orbits and it’s becoming even clearer that we’re dealing with two very different asteroids. Not only were their orbits nearly perpendicular to each other from the perspective of the Earth, but it’s not possible for a cloud of DA14 fragments to even reach the city of Chelyabinsk at 55 degrees north latitude in Russia.

Since the fragments would approach Earth from due south nearly parallel to the planet’s axis, if they hit the planet, they’d strike the southern hemisphere. From the fragments’ very-close-to-Earth perspective, Chelyabinsk, Russia is on the far or opposite side of the globe and totally out of sight. Amateur asteroid discoverer Dr. Marco Langbroek uses this analogy and I paraphrase slightly:

“Compare it with a car. A bird flying toward your car will always hit the front of the car – it cannot hit the back of the car. Chelyabinsk at 55 North latitude is “the back of the car” in this comparison, given the approach direction of 2012 DA 14 and any fragments of it.”

We place a lot of faith in coincidence because, well, if you drop a plate, it breaks. The two are related. So if two close meteors or asteroids appear around the same time, many of us make the assumption they’re related too. It totally makes sense to wonder about a connection between the two events, but once the data is in, we need to take another look at our surmise. Speaking of data, we’re still waiting on radar images from the Goldstone antenna. As soon as they’re available, you’ll see them here.

Animation of DA14 made from images taken this morning from New Mexico. Credit: Ernesto Guido and Nick Howes

I’m curious if any of you got to see the asteroid flyby either through binoculars or telescope. If so, we’d love to hear your story. Clouds were cruel here in Duluth, Minn., but I stood at the telescope and waited. And waited. Finally, a few thin openings passed the asteroid’s location just above the bowl of the Little Dipper about 7:15 p.m. (CST). There was just enough time to identify DA14 and watch it scoot north. One minute of joy followed by hours of clouds.

Cosmic debris rains down through the atmosphere nearly every day, accumulating at a rate of 37,000 to 78,000 tons per year. While that may sound like a lot, much of it is dust or passes unseen over the oceans.

At least a half-dozen times a year, however, a fireball burns up over a populated area and drops meteorites. Their fall is pinpointed by careful analysis of the angle of entry based on eyewitness reports, Doppler weather radar, security cameras or even dashboard cams, as we saw in Russia on Friday. Once the word is out, everyone from those closest to the areas of impact to meteorite hunters from across the planet are eager to find a piece of otherworldly treasure. The Chelyabinsk region has been pretty much off-limits to foreigners until recently, so it should be interesting to see who gets in and out without being arrested.

What they’re looking for are leftover fragments from collisions of bodies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Over the eons, Jupiter’s gravity nudges the shattered rocks out of the belt, sending them toward the inner solar system. Millions of years later, those fragments may hurl toward Earth. As the space rocks plummet through the atmosphere, the heat and pressure become so intense that even a fairly large object, say 13 to 50 feet across, will more often than not burst into harmless pieces that fall to the ground as meteorites.

The famous Peekskill fireball of October 9, 1992 that dropped a meteorite that smashed the rear end of a Chevy Malibu

A 13-footer hits our planet about once a year. One the size of Friday’s fall in Russia — about 50 feet across and weighing about 7,000 tons — strikes Earth about once every 50-60 years. The bigger they are, the less frequently they fall but the greater the consequences.

Yesterday’s flyby asteroid 2012 DA14, a rock about 150 feet across, would have caused regional devastation had it struck in one piece. One that size only rings our bell every thousand years. An asteroid of about 0.9 miles across could cause planet-wide devastation and climate change. The good news is such an event happens only once in half a million years.

While most of the 0.9-mile and larger near-Earth asteroids have been discovered, there are something like a million others as big as the one that zoomed by harmlessly yesterday. Sky surveys have ferreted out many of them, but many more remain to be found — before they find us. While there are many great ideas about how we might deflect an asteroid headed toward Earth, there are presently no programs underway to accomplish that goal.

Watch asteroid 2012 DA14 flyby LIVE on the Web

2012 DA14 earlier this morning seen from Australia. The negative or reversed image is a 4-minute time exposure. The fast-moving asteroid created a trail of light during that time. Credit: Dave Herald

After this morning’s Russian fireball, we’re all sitting on the edge of our seats, but the fireball and 2012 DA14 are unrelated asteroid fragments on very different paths. One made a beeline directly to Earth, the other will safely pass 17,150 miles away around 1:24 p.m. (CST) today. The latest estimates on the Russian meteoroid’s size before it broke it up in the atmosphere put it around 50 feet across with a weight upwards of 7,000 tons. Today’s asteroid in contrast is about 150 feet end-to-end and tips the scales at 209,000 tons.

Amateur astronomer Dave Herald of Australia has been busy taking pictures of 2012 DA14 through his telescope overnight. His photograph shows the asteroid as a trail against the starry backdrop as it moved northward during the 4-minute time exposure. Herald will be providing an online feed with his observations and photos for NASA later today.

Simulated image of 2012 DA14 approaching Earth this morning around 9:15 a.m. CST. Antarctica shows up nicely as the asteroid closes in. Click to see the latest image.

If you’d like to hear commentary and see real-time pictures of the flyby (from Dave and others), check out NASA TV’s live stream beginning at 11 a.m. Central Time and continuing through the afternoon. Undoubtedly you’ll learn more about the Russian fireball there, too. When pictures are shown, the asteroid will look exactly like a star, because you’re looking at a small object many thousands of miles away.

A Ustream feed of the flyby from a telescope at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will be streamed for three hours starting at 8 p.m. CST this evening when the asteroid is visible in a dark sky over the U.S. You can view the feed and ask researchers questions about the flyby via Twitter HERE.

And don’t forget to take a virtual ride-along with the asteroid available HERE. Images are updated every 2 minutes. Enjoy the show!

Must-see videos of spectacular Friday fireball over Russia

Video of a brilliant fireball over Russia on Feb. 15, 2013 local time

A spectacular fireball exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk more than 900 miles east of Moscow around 9:26 p.m. (CST) Feb. 14 or 9:26 a.m. Feb. 15 local time in Russia this morning.

Frame grab from the video during the early phase as the fireball rapidly brightened

Frame from a few seconds later as the meteor heads toward the horizon

The dashcam videos record one of the most brilliant and amazing fireballs I’ve ever seen. Watch as it becomes nearly as bright as the sun with a strong reflection off the roadway. Loud booms accompanied the spectacle and glass windows were shattered. There are reports of downed power lines and interrupted cell phone service. Some 500 people were treated for injuries, mostly from broken glass sent flying from the shock wave and sonic boom. The roof at a zinc factory in Chelyabinsk may have collapsed from the same.

Video from a different dashcam taken from a different location where the fireball is higher in the sky and approaching at a different angle with an insanely spectacular trail. Click to view.

In the second video, notice how long the smoke trail lasts as the car speeds along in a big hurry to get somewhere. In case you’re wondering, this is not related to the flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14 expected around 1:24 p.m. CST today. One clue is the direction of travel. Had it been “leading” today’s asteroid, the fireball’s path would have been almost directly south to north. Instead it traveled from northeast to southwest.

But they do have one thing in common. Even though one will miss Earth and the other’s trajectory took it straight into our atmosphere, both are small asteroids almost certainly originating from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

A hole in Chebarkul Lake, west of Chelybinsk, made by meteorite debris. Small fragments of black rocks were found around the crater. Two other impact sites are reported. Click for more photos and further story. Photo by Chebarkul town head Andrey Orlov.

Great video of the smoke trail also called a meteor train 

In this photo provided by, a meteorite contrail is seen over Chelyabinsk on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. The meteor, which streaked across Russia’s Ural Mts. Friday morning, was the largest reported fireball since the 1908 Tunguska explosion. Credit: AP Photo/

The latest estimate of size for the original meteoroid – the name given to the object while still in space before entry into Earth’s atmosphere – is about 50 feet across with an approximate weight of 7,000 tones. The Russian Academy of Sciences released a statement saying the meteor traveled at 33,000 mph and shattered about 18-32 miles above the  ground. Three impact sites are now reported including one that fell through the ice in Chebarkul Lake. Dark, rocky meteorites have also been found.

Short video showing dramatic effect of the shockwave

I’ll be updating this blog with more information and photos throughout the day.

More videos HERE.

Bundle up for tonight’s Quadrantid meteor shower; K5 comet update

The Quadrantid radiant, or point in the sky from the meteor shower originates is found below the handle of the Big Dipper. I’ve shown the sky looking northeast around 2 a.m. Later that morning, the radiant will be high in the northern sky. Created with Stellarium

Yes Bobby, there is life after the Geminids. Last month’s meteor shower was arguably the best of 2012, but more are on the way. We start the year with a shower that originates from one of astronomy’s extinct constellation, Quadrans Muralis.

Although defunct, the group of dim stars was around long enough in the late 1700s to lend its name to the Quadrantid meteor shower.

The Quadrantids are reliable but forever a tease. Unlike most showers, which typically toss meteors our way up to several days before and after maximum, the Quads’ activity is limited to a span of 6 hours centered on the peak. That peak can bring a blast of up to 100 meteors per hour, but after that, the show’s pretty much over.

Quadrantid meteor on Jan. 4, 2011. Details: ISO 400, 30-second exposure and 8mm fisheye lens. Credit: John Chumack

This year’s maximum occurs at 13:00 Greenwich time or 7 a.m. CST tomorrow morning Jan. 3 for the Midwest. That’s well into morning twilight for the eastern half of the U.S. but still close enough to peak to make the shower worth watching.

Observers living in the western U.S. and across Hawaii and east Asia are favored because their skies will be dark for a longer time centered around the expected time of maximum.

No matter where you are, light from the waning gibbous moon will compromise meteor counts.

To watch the Quadrantids, set your alarm for tomorrow morning between 2 and 6 a.m. and face east or north away from the bright moon. Your eyes will adapt better to the darkness in those directions, letting you see more (and fainter) meteors. For mainland U.S. observers, the closer to dawn you’re out the better. I plan on rising about 5 should the sky clear.

Peter Jenniskens, senior research scientist at NASA’s SETI Institute, traces the Quads origin to the asteroid 2003EH1, a likely extinct comet. So yes, tomorrow morning we’ll be watching the remains of an extinct comet radiate from an extinct constellation. What could be more apropos?

Comet C/2012 K5 Monday evening Dec. 31, 2012 from Austria. Compare its appearance to the photo taken below in mid-December. The comet’s tail points northeast. Credit: Michael Jaeger

Did someone say comets? Rarely have I seen a comet’s appearance change so rapidly. C/2012 K5, the comet we visited in a blog three days ago, went from compact and bright to big and foggy in just a week. On Christmas morning, C/2012 K5 sported a small, bright head and a striking tail pointing northwest. Two nights ago I was in for a shock when I observed it again. The head had swelled into a big, hazy bulb with a bright, star-like center followed by a wide, much fainter, tube-like tail angled northeast.

There are at least two reasons for these radical changes – the comet was closer by a few million miles – 27 million on Monday night vs. 30 million on the 25th – and our viewing perspective is changing rapidly as C/2012 K5 dives through the plane of the solar system on about Jan. 6.

C/2012 K5 on Dec. 16, 2012 shows a small head and well-defined bright tail pointing northwest. Credit: Michael Jaeger

The comet follows a steeply inclined orbit, looping high above and plunging deep below the plane of the planets and sun. During the first half of December  skywatchers looked up above the Earth and solar system plane to see it. As C/2012 K5 plunges southward, we’re now seeing the comet more from the side.

Since a comet’s tail always points away from the sun, these changing perspectives – a combination of both the comet’s and Earth’s orbital motions – will continue to alter the tail’s direction and appearance in the coming weeks.

C/2012 K5 orbit is steeply inclined to the plane of the solar system, which is why it’s been visible in the far northern sky of late. Now the comet’s rapidly moving southward as it plunges through the plane. Credit: NASA/JPL

Despite the changes, C/2012 K5 remains bright enough to see easily in 8×40 binoculars from a dark sky. It’s a speedy beast too, leaping along at the rate of about 4 degrees per day or 1/3 the moon’s diameter per hour. When the bright core or nucleus happened to pass near a star Monday night, I could see it move in just 15 seconds at 64x in my scope.

Comets and meteor showers keep an amateur astronomer’s life interesting.

Over 100 an hour – Gemmy Geminids don’t disappoint

A bright Geminid meteor slices like a knife across the top of Orion last night. 20mm lens at f/3.2, ISO 800 and ~ 3 minute exposure. Photo: Bob King

What a night for meteors! I hope you had clear skies like we did here in northern Minnesota. From an observing spot on a snowy road 15 miles from home I watched as 70 Geminids tore across the sky. Some took my breath away. They arrived often enough that I soon grew addicted to the sense of anticipation. You knew the next one was coming soon but never exactly where and how bright. Would it be a fly speck or one of the shower’s trademark yellow fireballs?

I saw ones that were so brief and bright they looked exactly like sparks flying from an arc welder. Others burned steadily for a full second or two, leaving glowing trails. There were brief bursts of 2-3 meteors, lots of singles and occasional odd meteor-less gaps lasting five minutes or more. What I wouldn’t have given for a second set of eyes in the back of my head.

Two meteors shoot out Gemini in this single time exposure made in Cloquet, Minn. Credit and copyright: Matthew Moses

Even in 0 F temperatures and with work looming in the morning, it wasn’t easy to call it a night. Matter of fact, it was impossible. I went to bed at 1 and set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. to catch the peak. What a surprise to wake up and see ice fog slowly enveloping the stars. I just about turned back to bed, but a meteor flash through the window was motivation enough to dress up and go out for one last head-craning look skyward. Glad I did. At that moment, the most brilliant fireball of the night fell out of Gemini, illuminating the fog like some monster Roman candle burst.

Jim Schaff of Duluth, Minn. got a nice shot of Geminid zipping through the Big Dipper this morning.

According to the International Meteor Organization’s quicklook data for the Geminids, the shower peaked at 132 meteors per hour early this morning. More activity is in store today and tonight as Earth passes through the tail end of debris left by the asteroid 3200 Phaethon. As for the other meteor shower forecast from Comet 46P/Wirtanen, I’ve heard only spotty reports. I saw only one suspect that may have been a member.

A green-tinted Geminid lights up a portion of the Ursa Major early this morning. Photo: Bob King

We normally have no sense of the Earth moving through space which it does every day at a clip of 18.5 miles per second. Not so last night. Seeing all those meteors fire up as our planet plowed through Phaethon’s debris cloud gave us a visceral sensation of Earth’s silent but swift circle around the sun.

Feel free to add your comments below, and if you have pictures, send them to me at:

Face southwest about 40 minutes to an hour after sunset to see the crescent moon and Mars tonight. Created with Stellarium

On a final note, the crescent moon returns to the twilight sky tonight. Take a look low in the southwest about 45 minutes after sunset (around 5 p.m. for Duluth, Minn.) to see a very young 1-day-old moon. It’s not far from Mars, but the planet is so faint right now because of its great distance from Earth, you’ll probably need binoculars to spot it.

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!