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This weekend (tonight into early Saturday and Saturday into Sunday, August 11-12 and August 12-13) will be the peak nights of the 2017 Perseid meteor shower.

The Perseids get their name because they appear to come from the constellation Perseus. Perseus is a mythological Greek hero. He beheaded the Gorgon Medusa and saved Andromeda from a sea monster Cetus. Perseus was the son of the mortal Danaë and the god Zeus. In the night sky, constellations named after other ancient Greek legends surround Perseus, including Andromeda to the west and Cassiopeia to the north.

In 1866, after the perihelion passage of the Swift-Tuttle comet in 1862, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli discovered the link between meteor showers and comets. A meteor shower is the result of an interaction between a planet, such as Earth, and streams of debris from a comet.

In John Denver’s song “Rocky Mountain High”, he alludes to watching the Perseid meteor shower in the mountains near Aspen, Colorado – “I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.”

A much stranger reference is the Catholic religion’s reference to the Perseids as the “tears of Saint Lawrence.” The belief was that his tears returned to Earth once a year on August 10 which is the canonical date of that saint’s martyrdom in 258 AD. Saint Lawrence was said to have been burned alive on a gridiron. From that came the origin of the Mediterranean folk legend that the shooting stars are the sparks of that fire. Furthermore, it was believed that during the night of August 9–10, the cooled embers of that fire appear in the ground under plants, and are known as the “coal of Saint Lawrence.” I checked around my garden Wednesday night. No coals.

This weekend you can watch from late evening until dawn. The meteor showers have been “falling” for several weeks, but this weekend should be the peak. The greatest number of meteors typically fall in the hours before dawn. In a remote location and on a “moonless” night, you might see 50+ meteors per hour. For 2017, there will be a bright waning gibbous moon after midnight. And I will be in Northern New jersey, not far from New York City, which will make viewing more difficult. But I still should be able to see those bright enough to overcome the city and moonlit glare.  This year they may be a “Perseid outburst” with 200 meteors per hour at the peak.

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Venus, is the queen of planets that rules the early morning hours in July. Our closest neighboring planet glows brightly because it is close, and because its atmosphere is composed of thick clouds of carbon dioxide that reflect sunlight back into space.

If you look to the eastern horizon two or three hours before dawn, you should see it easily. On July 20 in the early morning, you can also watch the waning crescent moon pass by Venus.

Photo: Mayak Satellite

If you want to spot something manmade up there (and with all the talk about Russia in the news), you can see the Russian satellite Mayak which will be almost as bright as the moon on the 14th. Why so bright? It will unfurl its reflective solar sails after its launch on July 14th.

Mayak (meaning “lighthouse”) goes up in a Soyuz-2.1a rocket and once in orbit, the pyramidal solar reflectors open and it becomes one of the brightest objects in the night sky.

Some sky gazers are not thrilled with that because this crowdfunded project (designed by students from Moscow Polytechnic) will not help the dark skies that astronomers cherish. The New Moon on July 23 is the kind of dark night sky that telescope gazers see as a perfect opportunity.

You can look for the Delta Aquarids meteors to light up the early morning skies on July 27 and 28. They are the pre-show for the better known Perseid meteor shower in early August. To catch the shower at its best, look up on the morning of the 27 or 28 between 2-3 a.m.

The meteors get their name because they seem to originate near the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer in the southern sky. We say “appear” because the shower is debris from Comet 96P Machholz, a short-period sun-grazing comet that swings our way every five years.

Meteor falling – NASA

The annual Lyrid meteor shower is active each year from about April 16 to 25. You might have spotted one the past week, but the peak activity this year is predicted to be tomorrow morning (April 22).

There will be little or no interfering light from the slender waning crescent moon.

The greatest number of meteors will usually fall during the few hours before dawn, but the Lyrid meteor shower is just as unpredictable as any meteor shower.

The shooting stars seem to radiate from the constellation Lyra the Harp, near the brilliant star Vega. These meteors burn up in the atmosphere about 100 kilometers/60 miles above Earth and Vega lies trillions of times farther away at 25 light-years, so they just “appear” to come from Lyra. You don’t need to find Lyra in order to see meteors as they are visible in any part of the sky.

Tonight is a Full Moon. With a Full Moon and also with a New Moon our only permanent natural satellite is on a line with the Earth and sun. When new, the moon is in the middle position along the line, and when full, Earth is in the middle. A Full Moon always comes about two weeks after the new phase.

I wonder if this alignment of the sun, Earth and moon is part of the appeal of a Full Moon. A lunar eclipse always happens at Full Moon as only then the Earth’s shadow, extending opposite the sun, can fall on the Moon’s face.

A Celtic name for the April Full Moon is the Growing Moon, referring to this time of plants returning to their growing seasons and humans turning to planting again.

No matter what the mixed weather of march may have brought to your area last month, at least some days of April will feel like true spring has arrived.

This month’s moon is sometimes called the Pink Moon, not for its color, but for the color of the herb moss pink, or wild ground phlox, which is one of the earliest widespread flowers of the spring. Of course, I am also seeing plenty of yellow forsythia, daffodils and crocuses in neighborhood gardens.

Names like the Full Sprouting Grass Moon and Seed Moon are also growing reminders.

The Egg Moon name reminds us of new life from the eggs of birds and fowl and echoes the egg themes of Easter and Eostre.

The name Fish Moon references this time when shad move upstream to spawn.

This Sunday starts the annual Lyrid meteor shower which I think of as an April spring event. It is active each year from about April 16 to 25. In 2017, the peak of this shower is expected to occur the morning of April 22.

Ursa Major - Ursa Minor - Polaris.jpg

“Ursa Major – Ursa Minor – Polaris” by Bonč – Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

The annual Ursid meteor shower peaks near the time of the winter solstice. They are generally easier to see in the more northerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. Unfortunately, it will have to compete with city lights and the Moon this year, so I’m not sure his year I will see any meteors.

Meteor showers take their names from the constellations hat they appear to come from (radiant point). The Little Dipper asterism is in the constellation Ursa Minor, the smaller She-Bear or Lesser Bear, gives us the Ursid meteor shower name.

These are not prolific showers and that waxing gibbous moon all night makes the predawn hours better than night. The peak is predicted to be before dawn on December 23.

 

Sidney Hall - Urania's Mirror - Draco and Ursa Minor.jpg
Sidney Hall – Urania’s Mirror – Draco and Ursa Minor” by Sidney HallThis image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g10050.
This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information. Lic
ensed under Public Domain via Commons.

The last meteor shower of the year is the Ursids which began on Dec. 17 and will end on Dec. 25. It peaks on Dec. 22 and 23.

It is one of the minor meteor showers that produces up to 5-10 meteors per hour.

We can also observe at least five planets in the December sky. Mercury will be too close to the sun for most of the year and so the view is affected by sun’s glare, but by the end of the month, it will move away from the sun and will be visible in the west-southwest sky after the sunset.

Venus returned as our “evening star” in the southwestern sky at the beginning of the month. Mars is will be visible in southwestern sky. Jupiter will appear in southern sky at night and Saturn will emerge as a “morning star” in the southeastern sky visible at the daybreak.

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