Halley’s Comet last visited earth in 1986; far beyond the orbit of Uranus, it won’t be back until 2061. Halley laps the solar system approximately every 76 years – though light years away, it leaves behind a trail of cosmic dust. Twice a year our orbit passes this dust trail – in May the Aquarid meteors and in October the Orionids.
The Aquarids – named for their origin in the Aquarius constellation – peak tonight and tomorrow. The southern hemisphere has the best seats for this show with over 50 meteors an hour hitting the atmosphere at 66 Km/second. Northern hemisphere viewers can still see show, even though it’s hampered by Aquarius barely rising above the horizon.
The annual Lyrid meteor shower peaks this coming Monday, April 22. The Lyrid shower looks like it comes from Vega in the Lyra constellation. Vega is a bright star, 3 times larger than our sun, and 25 light years from earth. Lyrids are actually a dust trail from Comet Thatcher – officially known as C/1861 G1. Space dust, typically the size of a grain of sand, hits our atmosphere at 110,000 mph. The Lyrids aren’t known for large numbers of meteors per hour – usually 10 – 20, with peaks that may produce up to 100. “Lyrid fireballs” is the name given to outbursts of brighter meteors that leave a smoky trail behind for a minute or two.
The best time to ponder Lyrids is in the hour or two before sunrise on April 22. Get yourself away from city lights – bundle up; as you lay on your back facing east. An extra bonus for people in the Northern Hemisphere – sunspots AR1726 and 1727 are getting uppity.Any eruptions this weekend would be earth directed meaning geomagnetic storms could bring some strong auroras.
Quadrantid is an annual meteor shower. Originating from debris left by comet 2003 EH1, Quadrantid peaks tonight with an estimated 100 meteors an hour. Finding its source in the night sky is easy; find Polaris (the north star ) and you’ve found Quadrantid.
Unfortunately we have a party crasher. Most people have heard of a “waxing moon” or “waning moon” , both of which are Gibbous moons; the no mans land between half and full. Waxing being on the way to full, waning after a full moon. Tonight’s waning gibbous moon is bright enough to block out all but the brightest meteors.
Fortunately there are plenty more meteor showers. The Lyrids in April will suffer from a pesky waning moon, the Aquarids , Delta Aquarids, Perseids, Draconids, Orionids, Taurids, and Leonids follow. Click on the link to earthsky, bookmark it and plan a magical night of star gazing. Nothing restores the soul like wishing on a falling star.
The weather outside is frightful, the Geminid shower is delightful. Peaking on Dec. 13 and 14, for those willing to bundle up in pre-dawn hours; expect up to 100 meteors an hour. Named the Geminid meteor shower as it appears to come from the direction of constellation Gemini. Geminid is believed to be debris from comet 3200 Phaethon, Phaethon broke apart after one too many close orbits to the sun melted its icy exterior.
According to earthsky.org the best time to witness Geminid is between 1 and 3 AM on Dec. 14. Bundle up, drive far from city lights, and restore your soul.
A bright Geminid meteor pierces the night sky over California’s Mojave Desert in 2009.
Forget the “light of the silvery moon” bring on a glowing shower of fireballs. Between November 5 – 12 our planet passes through debris from Comet Encke, its known as the Taurid Meteor Shower. For those who trouble themselves with statistics, the Taurids may only average 8 meteors per hour. Not much of a show compared to the Perseids. Don’t despair; Taurid brings fireballs.
One characteristic of Taurid is the space baggage it packs. Marble sized debris travels at a sluggish 27 km/second, allowing it to penetrate more of our atmosphere before burning up. Most cosmic debris enters our atmosphere at considerably higher speeds, fizzling out a lot faster. Taurid’s slow moving space junk may have be tiny when entering our atmosphere; many a good fireball comes in small packages.