Catch some Quadrantids! Year’s first meteor shower peaks tomorrow morning

Watch for the Quads to radiant from a point in northern Bootes below the handle of the Big Dipper tomorrow morning. Stellariu

Tomorrow morning before dawn will be the best time to catch the very first meteor shower of the new year. The Quadrantids, named for the one-time constellation Quadrans Muralis, located below the handle of the Big Dipper, is one the most reliable showers of 2014. While the constellation’s now obsolete and erased from modern sky maps, its name lives on in fiery sparks of meteoric light. Pity the shower rains down at the coldest time of the year.

Ideally, you might see from 60-200 “Quads” per hour, when the shower’s very sharp peak coincides with the radiant being high in the northeastern sky for your location. This year the peak happens around 1:30 p.m. January 3, not exactly ideal for North and South American observers but perfect for folks living in the Middle East and Russia. Numbers will probably be less than half that for western hemisphere skywatchers.

Quadrans Muralis represents the wall quadrant, a instrument once used to measure star positions. Credit: Johann Bode atlas

Don’t let it bring you down. We’ll still see a good show tomorrow morning between the hours of 2 and 6 a.m as meteors emanate from the shower radiant located about a fist below the end of the Big Dipper’s handle in the northeastern sky. No moon will cast its glare to compromise the view. I’d suggest dressing warmly and relaxing in a sleeping bag on a reclining chair. Face to the east or north for the best view. The later you’re up, the more Quads you’ll see as the clock ticks closer to the daytime shower maximum.

A beautiful Quadrantid meteor captured over Duluth near the Big Dipper (partly outlined) a couple years back. Credit: Stephen Bockhold

Quadrantids are slower than other major showers like the August Perseids and December Geminids with speeds around 25 miles per second (41 km/sec). You’ll know you’re seeing a Quad if you can trace its trail back to the northeastern sky below the Dipper.

Peter Jenniskens, senior research scientist at NASA’s SETI Institute, traces the Quads’ origin to the asteroid 2003 EH1, a likely extinct or occasionally active comet. Its orbital characteristics agree well with the paths of our cold weather friends.

Rare Andromedid meteor outburst happening this weekend

Sketch of Comet Biela made by E. Weiss when it returned split in two during its 1846 appearance.

Ever heard of the Andromedids? They were briefly a major meteor shower – meteor storm might be a better description – visible in the late 1800s after the break-up of Comet Biela. The comet was discovered in 1772 and in 1805 but no one knew it was the same object until it was found for a third time in 1826 by Wilhelm von Biela and an orbit calculated.

The 1872 “Bielids” resembled the incredible Leonid meteor storm of 1833, an engraving of which is shown here.

When Comet Biela returned in 1846, astronomers were surprised to see it had split into two comets traveling side by side. Biela came back for another spin in 1852, but after that mysteriously disappeared until November 27, 1872. That night, instead of a comet, skywatchers were treated to a spectacular meteor storm from Biela’s dusty remains. Rates reached 3,000 meteors per hour.

Amazing displays of “Bielids” (renamed Andromedids) occurred again in 1885, 1892 and 1899. Since then, no one saw hide nor hair of Biela’s showery remnants until 2011, when the Andromedids returned with a rate of 50 per hour.

Kelly Beatty, who writes for Sky and Telescope magazine, passed along the news this evening that meteor specialist Peter Brown, using data from the Canadian Meteor Orbit Radar, has recorded a big outburst of Andromedid meteors in the past 24 hours. Comet Biela’s bits of dust are small and slow moving compared to most, striking Earth’s atmosphere at “only” 12 miles per second (19 km/sec).

Watch for the Andromedids to shoot from a point in the sky near the star Gamma in the M-shaped constellation Cassiopeia located high in the northern sky during early evening hours. This map shows the sky at 8 p.m. local time in early-mid December. Stellarium

Maybe you even saw a few when you were out watching the northern lights last night. Brown suggest that the shower has yet to peak, so tonight might offer an even better meteor show. Pity it’s overcast here in Duluth, Minn. or I’d be running off to the country with coat and camera.

If it’s clear by you, please take a look. We’d love to hear if the shower’s still in progress. The Andromedid radiant – the point from which the meteors will appear to radiate – is currently located near the center of Cassiopeia as shown in the map and up most if not all night for observers at mid-northern latitudes. December’s shaping up as a great time for meteor watching with the Geminid meteor shower set to peak next Saturday morning.

Click HERE for more on Biela’s Comet and HERE for additional good material about the Andromedids.

Bright moon dings Monday’s Orionid meteor shower

The Orionids are a reliable if minor meteor shower that returns every year in late October. Despite moonlight, keep watch for the occasional bright Orionid shooting from above the constellation Orion near the bright planet Jupiter on the mornings of Oct. 21 and 22. This map shows the sky facing south around 5-5:30 a.m local time.  Stellarium

Darn moon. We love its radiance but sometimes it just gets in the way. Count on it being there Monday morning Oct. 21 during the peak of the annual Orionid meteor shower. The shower is best seen in the wee hours before dawn when the radiant point, the spot in the sky from which the meteors will all appear to radiate, is high in the south above the upraised arm of Orion the Hunter.

Composite of many Orionids as recorded by Ohio amateur astronomer John Chumack

Normally we’d expect to see up to 20 very swift meteors per hour but moonlight will halve that number. Don’t let that stop you. The sun rises late, so you can squeeze in a little meteor watching between 5 and 6 before work.

Use the morning to dig out that old telescope and check in on Jupiter and the wonderful display of lunar craters along the moon’s terminator, the dividing line between day and night. I usually multi-task during meteor showers, poking the scope around from this to that while taking breaks for meteor-watching.

The Orionids are so-named because all the meteors appear to originate from northern Orion. But they’re also “Halleyids”, crumbs dropped by Halley’s Comet during its 76-year orbit of the sun.

Meteors appear to radiate from a point in the distance the same way snow striking your car windshield does when driving. Even though snowflakes and meteors are nearly parallel to each other, our eyes see them as converging in the distance. A similar illusion happens when looking down a set of train rails. Photo: Bob King

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. Don’t bother pointing one out to an observing companion – it’ll be gone as soon as you open your mouth. Most tear across the sky in second or less.

We cross Halley’s orbital path twice a year, and each time we do, our planet slams into sand-sized bits of debris strewn by the comet during the many times it’s circled the sun. Our other encounter with Halley leftovers happens every around April 21 during the Delta Aquarid shower.

Watch for Orionids between about 2 a.m. and dawn. South or southeast is a good direction to face once you’re cozy under a big blanket to stay warm. The shower lasts a few days, so if the weather looks bad, try the mornings before and after Monday’s peak.

Perseid meteor shower puts on a great performance

A Perseid meteor shares the scene with the Pleiades star cluster (right) around 1:45 a.m. this morning Aug. 13 from Duluth, Minn. Credit: Bob King

I know many of you had clear skies and great meteor shower viewing the past few nights. Late last night my daughter Maria and I set up lawn chairs in the driveway, got under our blankets and watched the show together. With temperatures in the low 40s it felt more like fall than summer.

Cold often means VERY clear and the sky was spectacular. During an hour and a half we counted 60 Perseids and five non-Perseid meteors. We saw single faint meteors, a few super-nice fireballs that left bright trains and bursts of 2 or 3 nearly simultaneous meteors separated by lulls in activity lasting from 2-5 minutes.

It was really a lot of fun and a very relaxing way to spend time with my daughter. You’ve heard me say it before, but I highly recommend watching meteor showers both for the show and benefit of quiet conversation.

The graph below shows the ZHR (Zenithal Hourly Rate), which is the number of meteors an observer would see under a very dark sky with the radiant of the shower in zenith. Credit: International Meteor Organization

If lousy weather frustrated your attempts to see the meteor shower, the Perseids will continue to be active, although at much lower rates, through August 24. The International Meteor Organization has published preliminary results for the shower. A peak of 130 meteors per hour were recorded around 18:00 Greenwich Time (afternoon in the Americas) on Aug. 12.  Complete results HERE. Lots of photos HERE.

Gamma Delphinid meteor shower a no-show

Just a quick update. So far there have been no reports of a meteor shower from the constellation Delphinus earlier this morning. We appear to have missed the stream of debris left behind by the long-ago comet. Spaceweather’s Dr.Tony Phillips suggests it’s also possible the meteoroids were too small to produce meteors bright enough to see with the naked eye. I’ll have more information at a later time.

For those who went out for a look, I hope you enjoyed your time under the stars all the same.

Rare Delphinid meteor shower may erupt tomorrow morning

The Gamma Delphinids meteor shower – if it shows – will appear to radiate from the constellation Delphinus (del-FINE-us) the Dolphin high in the southern sky shortly before dawn tomorrow morning June 11. This map shows the sky facing south at 3:30 a.m. local time. Delphinus is to the east or left of the bottom of the bright 3-star figure the Summer Triangle. Created with Stellarium

June 11, 1930. Three meteor watchers in Maryland were quietly watching the sky when out of nowhere a half-hour-long bright outburst of meteors flared from the little constellation Delphinus the Dolphin. Since that time, observers keen on meteors have watched for an encore without success.

But there might be good news for this all-but-unknown shower. Peter Jenniskins, research scientist with the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center, suggests that the cometary debris responsible for the Gamma Delphinids may return again to ignite a similar outburst tomorrow morning June 11.

The expected time of maximum activity is 4:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, 3:30 a.m. Central, 2:30 a.m. Mountain and 1:30 a.m. Pacific and 11:30 p.m. (tonight) Hawaiian. No moon will spoil the view and Delphinus will be high in the southern sky as seen from the Americas. You’ll know you’re seeing a shower meteor if you can trace its path back to Delphinus, a small pattern of stars in the shape of a dolphin near the bottom of the bright Summer Triangle asterism.

The map above shows where the shower will be best visible (bright green-yellow band). Unshaded areas on the map won’t have a view of the shower. The higher the radiant (located in Delphinus), the more potential meteors might be seen. Credit: Geert Barentsen, International Meteor Organization

This is an oddball shower for sure, since no one knows how many meteors might be visible or even its duration – estimates range from one hour to 15 minutes with meteors appearing a minute or two apart.

If you’re in a gambling mood, unfold your reclining lounger and face south an hour before the expected maximum and keep watch. Even if the Gamma Delphinids fail to show you’ll have a fine view of the summer Milky Way. Bring binoculars and enjoy the rich star fields along its length. You’re also guaranteed to see at least a few random or sporadic meteors – typically 5-10 per hour.

Tonight June 10-11 from 10 p.m. – 2 a.m. CDT, Dr. Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office will take your questions about the Gamma Delphinids via live web chat. He’ll offer viewing tips about the shower and include a live Ustream telescope view of the skies over Huntsville, Ala.

If you spot any Gamma Dels, please send a report to: lunro.imo.usa@cox.net Have video or images? Consider sharing them with the Office’s Flickr group. Any observations could help scientists unravel the shower’s origins and assist in predicting future outbursts.

And don’t forget, tonight (June 10) the newly-hatched crescent moon joins Mercury and Venus at dusk in the northwestern sky.

Close but still so far away – the sun at perihelion


Quadrantid meteor shower Jan. 2-3, 2013

Were you like me and got up this morning only to find the sky still overcast? No meteors for this poor astronomer. I hope some readers fared better.

It always seems to be clear over John Chumack’s home in Dayton, Ohio. Chumack, a long-time amateur astronomer, recorded 52 Quadrantid shower meteors overnight using a low-light video camera. Click the video above to watch it all go by in just 33 seconds.

Earth’s oval or elliptical orbit causes our distance from the sun and orbital speed to vary during a year. This week we’re both closest and moving fastest. Illustration: Bob King

At 10:37 p.m. January 1 this week, Earth passed an annual milestone in its orbit, reaching its closest point to the sun for the year. Astronomers call it perihelion, a Greek-rooted word combining ‘peri’ (close) and ‘helios’ (sun). Earth’s distance from the sun varies over the course of a year because our orbit is not a circle with the sun at the center. Rather it’s an ellipse – like all the other planets’ orbits – with the sun slightly off to one side.

On July 5 this year, Earth will reach its farthest distance from the sun called aphelion (AP-hee-lee-on). The difference from one side of our orbit to the other is only about 3 million miles or 3.3%. While the change in distance affects the amount of heat we receive from the sun, it’s not nearly enough to affect the seasons, which are caused by the 23.5 tilt of our planet’s axis. The tilt of the north pole toward the Sun in June causes summer north of the equator, while summer south of the equator comes six months later when the south pole is facing the Sun.

Difference in the size of the sun when Earth was at aphelion (top) last July and this week at perihelion. It’s very obvious in side-by-side photos but extremely difficult to discern with the naked eye. The difference amounts to just 1.1 minute of arc or 1/30 the diameter of the full moon. Credit: Giorgio Rizzarelli

Because our distance from the sun varies, so does the sun’s size and our planet’s orbital speed. When closest to the sun, Earth moves faster than when farther away, the same way sun-hugging Mercury orbits faster than distant Jupiter. Our average speed is 18.5 miles per second (66,600 mph) through space, but today we’re zipping along 2,160 mph faster than we will come July. I can almost feel the wind in my thinning hair.

The sun is peppered with sunspots in this photo made at  9 a.m. CST today Jan. 3 by the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Sunlight takes 8.2 minutes to arrive at Earth at perihelion and 8.5 minutes at aphelion. Credit: NASA

Giorgio Rizzarelli, a regular reader and commenter on this blog, performed an interesting experiment comparing the size of the sun at aphelion on July 5, 2012 and at perihelion earlier this week. The difference is immediately obvious from his unique perspective.

Giorgio went a step further and measured the difference in diameters to arrive at the Earth’s orbital eccentricity.

Eccentricity or ‘e’ refers to how stretched out a planet’s orbit is compared to a perfect circle. With a circle defined as e = 0, Rizzarelli calculated an ‘e’ of  0.017 (nearly circular but not quite) for Earth’s orbit, in excellent agreement with the published figure of 0.0167. (see calculation below). Amazing what you can do with a camera from your own backyard.

“The disc in lower photo is 3.4% bigger than in the upper, so (dividing by 2) 1.7% bigger than average. Hence Earth today is 1.7% closer to the Sun than average. This defines the approximately eccentricity, (which is) 1.7% or 0.017.” – Giorgio Rizzarelli

Flyby photos show lumps and bumps of far-out asteroid Toutatis

Composite of 9 pictures showing mulitiple Geminid meteors, including a -6 magnitude fireball, photographed from a mountainside above Coal Creek Canyon, Colorado. Each flash represents a grain or pebble of the asteroid Phaethon burning up in our atmosphere. Credit: Dr. Richard Keen

This morning two small asteroids passed harmlessly by Earth at distances of just 174,000 and 292,000 miles. 2012 XP134, the more distant and measuring 42 feet across, whizzed by at 8 a.m. (CST) and 40-foot -wide 2012 XL134 two hours later. While some may take the sign of so many Earth-approaching asteroids as a bad omen, it’s all good news in my view.

NASA estimates there are a total of about 10 million near-Earth asteroids in the 10-meter (32 feet) range with an expected impact rate of one every 10 years. If you up the size to 30-meters (100 feet), there are 1.3 million objects with an impact rate of one every 200 years. Objects this size are still too small to gouge a crater and cause significant damage on the ground. Most would be expected to fragment in an airburst and possibly drop meteorites along their entry paths.

This chart shows how data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has led to revisions in the estimated population of near-Earth asteroids (NEAs). The infrared-sensing telescope performed the most accurate survey to date of NEAs. Small objects found weekly number in the millions. Click photo to learn more about asteroid numbers. Credit: NASA

With numbers like these, it’s no surprise that Earth-shaving asteroids are discovered routinely. According to Donald Yeomans, manager of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office, asteroid search programs find about 20 every week. In tomorrow’s blog, I’ll be reviewing his brand new book on the topic.

I’m glad all these good people are watching out for flying rocks. Not only does it mean we humans are becoming more knowledgeable about our surroundings, but knowing their orbits allows us to forecast when one of them might pose a danger in the future. This, we hope, will stir us to devise solutions to avoid a potential disaster. In 1990 there were only 134 Earth-approaching asteroids known; as of mid-2012 that number is somewhere around 9,000 and rising every week. Wouldn’t you rather know what’s coming than be in the dark?

Flyby images of the 3-mile long asteroid Toutatis taken by the Chinese Chang ‘e 2 spacecraft earlier this week. Its odd shape might be the result of two separate asteroid fragments that stuck together after a gentle collision. Click for larger version. Credit: SASTIND via Weibo / UMSF

Many of us got to experience first hand this week what happens when minute pieces of an asteroid strike Earth’s atmosphere – a beautiful meteor shower! Thurday night’s Geminids originate from dust and small pebbles released from the 3.1 mile long asteroid 3200 Phaethon. Two nights prior to the Geminid peak, the largest near-Earth asteroid 3179 Toutatis, also about 3 miles long, passed some 3.4 million miles from the planet.


64-frame movie showing Toutatis tumbling through space only 4.3 million miles from Earth on Dec. 12-13. Credit: NASA/Goldstone radar

While Phaethon’s too faint for most amateur telescopes, Toutatis remains bright as it slowly travels through the constellations Cetus and Aries this month. I watched this star-mimic amble through my telescope field of view Thursday night while trying to appreciate exactly what I was looking at. Fortunately the Chinese and NASA’s Goldstone radar provided some help.

A cropped version of picture sequence shows a clearer view of the asteroid’s surface. The bumps could be piles of boulders. Credit: Chinese National Space Agency

As the spacecraft flew by the bizarre-shaped Toutatis at the relative speed of 24,000 mph, it snapped a series of approach pictures. Higher resolution images will soon be released, but these are clear enough to see what appear to be boulder piles strewn about the surface as well as shallow craters. We live in wonderful times.

Farewell DST, hello Orion!

The two maps show the sky facing east on Nov. 3, when daylight saving time was still in effect, and tonight. Losing an hour makes the stars appear to move an hour westward, raising Orion up in the east at the same time on the clock. Created with Stellarium

Since dropping Daylight Saving Time last weekend you’ve probably noticed how swiftly evening darkness descends. The photojournalist part of me craves daylight, especially if I need to shoot a feature photo for my newspaper’s local news section. It’s not easy to find or photograph people out and about during twilight.

But there are compensations. One of them is the swift kick the stars get once DST is done. You may have noticed last week around 9:30 p.m. local time that Jupiter and his constellation buddies Taurus and Orion grazed the treetops low in the eastern sky.

With our return to standard time, the stars of the eastern sky are up an hour earlier, while those in the west set an hour earlier. If you’re a fan of Orion and Jupiter – and who isn’t? – you don’t have to stay up so late to see them. Meanwhile, you’d better get out early if you want to catch the late summer-early fall stars. They’re all in the western sky and getting the boot an hour sooner.

The secret to this remarkable sleight of hand is simple – 9:30 p.m. daylight time is the same as 8:30 standard time. For our clocks to read 9:30 standard time we have to wait an additional hour, during which time Orion sneaks up from below the horizon and Jupiter vaults higher in the east.

Many of the meteors in this composite photo belong to the Taurid meteor shower, which remains active through the weekend. The bright object at lower right is the moon. Credit: John Chumack

Having Taurus the Bull nosing up earlier is a good thing because the Taurid meteor shower’s putting on a decent show. I wish I could chime in with my own observations, but the sky’s been overcast here. Not so for astrophotographer John Chumack of Dayton, Ohio. He grabbed some great video stills yesterday morning at the start of the shower’s peak activity.

“The meteors were nice and slow … burning up and often leaving small afterglows (trails),” writes Chumack. “Not bad for a minor shower.” The Taurids will continue to fling meteors our way through the weekend. Click HERE for more information on how to view them.

Orionid meteor shower, Iridium flares and chance for auroras tonight

Map from Heavens Above showing the path of Iridium 96. The satellite will likely be invisible along much of the path but will flare at 5:36 a.m. Credit: Chris Peat / Heavens Above

Don’t forget to watch for flying Orionid meteors tomorrow morning before dawn. This annual shower peaks Sunday Oct. 21 when up to 25 meteors per hour originating from the constellation Orion might be visible from a dark sky site. No moon will mar the view. Head out around 4 a.m. and face south. I encourage you to share your observations in the comment section below.

While you’re out meteor watching, check to see if any of the Iridium satellites are visible from your location. The Iridiums, a group of some 66 satellites orbiting the Earth in a global ‘constellation’ 485 miles high, are used for relaying voice and data communications.

Normally Iridiums are too faint to see except in binoculars, but they have silver-coated Teflon antenna arrays that reflect sunlight like a mirror. When the angle between satellite and observer is right, a brilliant reflection of the sun from the antennas causes an Iridium to suddenly and spectacularly brighten for 5 to 20 seconds. For Duluth, Minn., the city dear to my heart, a -2 magnitude flare (bright as Jupiter) occurs at 5:36 a.m. tomorrow morning just below Orion’s Belt.

Iridium flares start out faint, rapidly brighten to peak light and then quickly fade away. This photo captured Iridium 96 a few years back. Photo: Bob King

Flares range in brightness from equal to the brightest stars all the way up to -8 or about 20 times brighter than Venus. They’re very exciting to see. The new maps at Heavens Above make finding where and when to look a snap. Log in, select your city and then click the Iridium Flares link. You’ll be shown a table of times and brightness. Just click the time to see the map.

The moon will be a thick crescent in the southwestern sky in Sagittarius the Archer tonight. The lunar terminator defines the crescent’s left side. Photo: Bob King

There’s also a chance for a small display of aurora borealis for the northern U.S. tonight through Monday as a high speed stream of solar wind particles buffets Earth’s magnetic field. If auroras show, they’re usually brightest around midnight – 1a.m. Keep an eye out while you’re meteor watching.

And don’t forget the moon, especially if you’re out early this evening.

Binoculars are excellent for bringing out the bigger craters and dark impact basins (lunar seas). Look along the lunar terminator, the arc-shaped border between day and night where shadows are longest and details most clearly defined, for best viewing.