A Shower From a Comet’s Tail

The Leonid meteor showers are peaking this week, so I’ll be out trying to catch a glimpse of them. Unfortunately, Murphy’s Law of Meteors that seems to follow me tends to make meteor shower nights also cloudy nights in Paradelle. Add to that the lack of truly dark skies here and watching for meteors can be difficult.

From midnight to dawn this weekend is a good time to look for meteors in the annual Leonid meteor shower. There is New Moon today and that at least guarantees the darkest skies for the shower’s peak mornings. The peak this year is expected to be before dawn on Tuesday, November 17, but people online have reported sightings already. In an ideal location at the peak, you could see 10 to 15 meteors per hour.

Though meteor showers get their names from their radiant point (the place where they seem to come from) that is not their actual source. The Leonid shower is below the horizon in the constellation Leo the Lion, but the radiant point will rise over the eastern horizon around midnight which is why it will be better to look in the hours before dawn. Actually, you don’t need to know where that point is because they will appear in all parts of the sky.

The actual source is the comet Tempel-Tuttle and the meteor storms occur when the comet is in our neighborhood. 55P/Tempel–Tuttle (commonly known as Comet Tempel–Tuttle) is a periodic comet with an orbital period of 33 years. It was independently discovered by Wilhelm Tempel in 1865, and then by Horace Parnell Tuttle in 1866. The orbit of Tempel–Tuttle intersects that of Earth nearly exactly, so the streams of material ejected from the comet during perihelion (nearest to us) passes do not have to spread out over time to encounter Earth.

Animation of 55P/Tempel–Tuttle orbit around Sun.gif
Animation of 55P/Tempel–Tuttle orbit around Sun – JPL, NASA, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link


Number the Stars

One of the birthday cards I received this week contained this list of firsts from my birth year of 1953. None of them connect in any way with me. Elsewhere I read that 1953 was the year that rapid eye movement (REM) was connected to dreaming. I feel connected to that. Looking at words that were added to the dictionary that year (including UFO, videotape, Medicare, road trip) gives you a sense of what was happening when I was born.  As looking at words that will be added this year will remind us (though most of us don’t need reminders) of what was new in 2020.


The card also had a string of stats that I assume are numbers based on averages. But I don’t think I am average. My heart beats a bit slower than average at 58 beats per minute. But even at that rate, I must be near 2 billion beats which is an impressive run for that organ.

I’m also not a great sleeper (night owl, insomniac, sleep apnea) so I don’t think I’ve hit 188,000 hours yet. But I guess I have been alive for about 35,000,000 minutes (though these numbers for 1953 must cover birthdays from January to December so…) and I still put milk in my coffee and on my occasional bowl of cereal, so that might be close.

My birthday is close to the days when the Orionid meteor shower peaks. On my birthday morning, I took a look but it was too cloudy. The next morning it was foggy. There is a waxing crescent Moon during the shower’s peak which would help darken the sky.

You should be able to see the meteors across the sky but they do appear to originate in the constellation Orion. You can find Orion with his well-known three-star belt if you look in the southwest sky (northern hemisphere) or the northwestern sky (southern hemisphere) or the western sky if you live on or near the equator. This Orionid shower’s radiant rises in the east in late evening and meteors appear but increase after midnight and peak in the hours before dawn.

These meteors are vaporizing bits of comet debris from Halley’s Comet. Because they look to us like streaks of light in the night sky, they are popularly called “shooting stars.”


We can’t number the stars. I’m sure some people have tried to at least estimate the number of stars, as someone has tried to number my breaths and heartbeats. Maybe it’s not the numbering or the naming that matters. Maybe it’s the attention we pay to the moments and the stars that really make a difference.

Number the Stars was a young adult novel by Lois Lowry that students of mine used to read. It’s told by a ten-year-old girl who chronicles German Nazi troops “relocating” Jews in her Denmark and the Danish Resistance smuggling almost all of that Jewish population to Sweden.

The novel’s title is taken from a line in Psalm 147:4 – “He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.” Maybe God has numbered and named all the stars.

Starfield via spacetelescope.org

Meteors Showering From Leo the Lion


The Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak in the predawn hours of Monday, November 18 this year. The Moon will be pretty bright and that will wash out some of any meteor streaks. This is not a “meteor storm” but a modest display of maybe 7-15 meteors per hour at peak. Still, for some of us – especially children – seeing even one meteor streak across the sky is miraculous.

Meteors appear to come from a radiant point in the sky. For the Leonid meteor shower, that is near the star Algieba in the constellation Leo the Lion. When darkness falls, the radiant point of the Leonid shower is below your horizon no matter where you are on Earth. But as the Earth turns, the constellation rises over your eastern horizon around midnight and climbs higher, reaching its highest point in the night sky just before dawn. That’s the best time to view, although you have a chance of seeing one any time after midnight.

The meteors will appear in all parts of the sky but, if you could trace their path backward, they seem to come from that radiant point in the constellation.

The Leonids are associated with the periodic comet Tempel-Tuttle, first discovered in 1865. This comet has a period of 33.2 years, so it last made a close approach to the sun in 1998.

After Tempel-Tuttle’s discovery, it was traced back to a comet that had been observed in 1366.

It was when astronomers realized that Tempel-Tuttle’s last close approach to the sun was in 1833 and that it coincided with one a huge meteor storm, they began to realize that meteors had their origins in comets.

In 1998, there were thousands of meteors per hour – a meteor storm – to observe when the Leonids’ parent comet, Temple-Tuttle, was nearby.  If you missed that one, hang around until November 2031 for the next time.

A Perseids Weekend

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.

Meditations on the Night Sky and a Sunday Morning

Matisse - Fruit and Coffeepot
Henri Matisse – Fruit and Coffeepot (1898)
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.

It’s was clear enough this past week for me to have had the chance of seeing some of the meteors known as the Leonid meteor shower. I went outside and stared up into the deep, dark sky. But I didn’t see any shooting stars or fireballs.

Something I did see this past week was an article that noted that the poem “Sunday Morning” is 100 years old. That really surprised me. It shouldn’t surprise me, because Wallace Stevens was writing in the early 1900s.

Sunday Morning” starts out pretty nice (as shown at the top of this post) with coffee and oranges, a woman in a negligee and a cockatoo hopping on the rug.  But Stevens isn’t really known for lightness.

I first read the poem in a college class and we dissected it. It is a serious poetic meditation, a philosophical poem about what might happen to us when we die.

The “pungent oranges and bright, green wings” very quickly transform into:
…things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

When “Sunday Morning” was published in 1915 in Poetry magazine, the Modernist movement was the thing. T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” also was published that year.

So, on this Sunday morning, why am I connecting this poem and a night sky?

When I was staring up at the sky the other night, I was pulled into thoughts about old age and death. I don’t know that gazing into the universe at night causes those kinds of feeling for everyone, but eternity and the impossibility of it really do fit together.

I find that sometimes I have to fight moving from a happy moment of coffee and oranges to a sad one . They also fit together sometimes too. Something is so good that you start thinking about it being gone.

That night sky does make me think about eternity. It is the only thing I can see that comes close to being eternity.

Eliot’s Prufrock wonders

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.

Do I dare even stare into that universe that reverses our decisions and revisions so easily?

What about an afterlife?

Stevens writes:

Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?

I don’t find any comfort in the concept of an afterlife. I suppose that means I lack faith.  I never did believe, or perhaps I was afraid to believe. Even as a child, I found an afterlife frightening. It scared me that people who died were somewhere watching us.

Maybe I’m just feeling age building up in inside me.  I grow old. I already wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

More likely, I am feeling more in love with life and with those people I love. I don’t want them shooting off into space or eternity. I want them here.

It is a sunny, autumn Sunday morning after the terror attacks in Paris. I don’t have any oranges in the house, but I was just having coffee with my wife in her peignoir and I need to hold onto this morning well into evening and the night.

And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Halloween Fireballs

taurid poland

Because of their occurrence in late October and early November, the Taurid meteor showers have gained the popular name of “Halloween fireballs.”

The Taurids are an annual meteor shower associated with the comet Encke. They are named after their radiant point in the constellation Taurus, where they are seen to come from in the sky.  Encke and the Taurids are believed to be remnants of a much larger comet, which has disintegrated over the past 20,000 to 30,000 years, breaking into several pieces.

They are rather slow-moving (from our perspective) and so often make a good show. They usually peak from November 5-12.

According to earthsky.org, they are not known for having a great number of meteors, but  “a high percentage of fireballs, or exceptionally bright meteors.”

The South Taurids should produce their greatest number of meteors – and hence their greatest number of fireballs – between midnight and dawn on November 5, 2015. Try watching on the morning of November 4.

Higher rates of Taurid fireballs seem to occur every 7 years and the last big display was in 2008, so 2015 should be a good year for viewing.

You may have seen some video on the news over the past Halloween weekend of some fireballs seen over Poland. The photos at top are from there and you can see the video here.

If you want to check what to look for in the sky on any day,  check out earthsky.org/tonight/