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Halley’s Comet only comes into the inner solar system about every 76 years. The last pass at its perihelion was in 1986 and I got a glimpse of it. The next one should be in 2016 and I won’t be around for that visit.

But Earth intersects Comet Halley’s orbit twice each year. Around now, we can see bits of this comet as the annual Eta Aquariid meteor shower. Then, in October, Earth’s orbit again intersects the orbital path of Comet Halley and the broken pieces from Halley’s Comet burn up in Earth’s atmosphere as the annual Orionid meteor shower.

The comet itself is a mountain of ice, dust and gas, but each pass near the sun breaks it up more and it sheds that trail of debris. Astronomers say it lost about 1/1,000th of its mass during its last flyby in 1986.

It is truly awesome (we tend to forget what awe really means) that Comet Halley has circled the sun innumerable times over countless millennia. I am doing my 65th circle this year and I surely have lost a lot over those orbits (though not mass).

A meteor shower can be from fragments (meteoroids) the size of grains of sand or gravel smashing into Earth’s upper atmosphere. This creates those vaporized fiery streaks (meteors) across our sky. I suppose we have our birthday candles

Right now, Comet Halley is outside the orbit of Neptune at almost its most distant point from us (aphelion).

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This weekend brings the Lyrid meteor shower into view. From late evening on Friday (April 20) until dawn Saturday, and even better viewing April 21 until the probable peak at dawn Sunday. You can try Sunday night (April 22) until dawn Monday too if the previous nights were cloudy, but the chances are less of seeing many.

The radiant point where the meteors appear to be coming from is near the star Vega which is in constellation Lyra. That will be at its highest in the sky in those early morning hours and you’re more likely to see multiple meteors. We say it appears to come from Vega, but Vega is actually trillions of times farther away from those meteors. Vega is 25 light-years away. Those numbers always make me feel smaller – and more amazed at the universe.   Here is some help on finding Vega

The Lyrid meteors are the debris of a comet orbiting the sun that is burning up in the atmosphere about 60 miles (100 km) up.

Unfortunately, I will be in a big city this weekend, so viewing will be not very good due to the artifical light. But for most people, the waxing moon will have set by late night, leaving the predawn hours dark. And before dawn, you can see the three planets, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.

 

Note for Southern Hemisphere observers via earthsky.org: Because this shower’s radiant point is so far north on the sky’s dome, the star Vega rises only in the hours before dawn. It’ll be lower in the sky for you than for us farther north on Earth’s globe, when dawn breaks. That’s why you’ll see fewer Lyrid meteors. Still, you might see some! Try watching before morning dawn on April 21, 22 and 23.

Geminids in the northern hemisphere by Asim Patel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via commons.wikimedia.org

The Geminid meteor shower is a very reliable annual meteor shower that will visit us again in the upcoming week. It will peak the night of December 13 and early morning hours of the 14th and because there will be a thin crescent Moon, there won’t be much light to interfere with viewing.

The showers are caused by the object 3200 Phaethon, which is an asteroid, making this event one of the only major meteor showers not originating from a comet. Phaethon (a name from mythology) is an asteroid with an orbit that brings it closer to the Sun than any other named asteroid.

The meteors appear to come from (radiate from) the constellation Gemini, which rises around sunset and will be almost overhead by 2am. The best views should be between midnight and 4am.

If you’re lucky and you are under a clear, dark sky, you could see up to 120 meteors per hour. And to further make them easier to see, the Geminids are slow-moving dust particles when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. They are only moving at 22 miles per second, but friction with air molecules will easily burn them up and make a nice incandescent glow for us to watch.

More at www.skyandtelescope.com

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.

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.

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