While the Geminid meteor shower of
mid-December reigns supreme as the northern hemisphere’s most productive
display of shooting stars, August’s Perseids, coming in a close second, are the most widely observed meteor shower of
the year. Why? Warm temperatures find families spending more time outdoors
during the summer season enjoying cookouts, camping, or any other assortment of
late evening activities. Normally 60+ green, red or orange Perseids can be
observed per hour during peak activity. Unfortunately, for 2019 a waxing
gibbous Moon (Full on the 15th) will severely hamper observing this
meteor shower which peaks on the night of August 12-13.
However, while moonlight will wash out all
but the brightest meteors before midnight on the night of the 12th,
once the Moon sets around 3:48 a.m. that will leave just over an hour of dark
sky observing time before dawn’s early light begins to brighten the sky.
Somewhat helpful is the fact that Perseus, the constellation from where the
meteors appear to radiate (known as the radiant point), is completely opposite
the sky from the Moon. This circumstance could help extend your window of
opportunity to an hour or two before the Moon sets! Hey, I’m trying my best to
be optimistic here!!
It’s challenging to explain to someone that you
spent a below-freezing December night sitting on your back porch bundled up in
a sleeping bag on a lounge chair just to watch a few meteors blaze across the
sky. Why? Because sometimes even I question why I choose to do so. A few months
back the Geminid meteor shower did not perform well around here, at least not
when I decided to observe it. After about an hour and a half I counted less
than a dozen meteors, and not all of them were Geminids. Only a couple of them
were bright enough to elicit a wow, though not loud enough to wake my neighbors!
That’s the way it is with meteor showers.
Sometimes you’re in the right place at the right time to see the meteors to best
advantage. Other times you are not. It can be frustrating when the latter
occurs, especially when the weather conspires against you. Still, after all my
decades of stargazing I never tire of watching for meteors to fall from the
The early days of May present us with warmer
weather prospects to enjoy a somewhat “meteor-ocre” display of shooting stars.
During the pre-dawn hours of May 5 and 6, the Earth will be sweeping through a
stream of particles shed by Halley’s
Comet long ago. (Either morning will be a fine time to observe since the Eta
Aquarids do not have a sharp peak. The meteors comprising this meteor shower enter
the Earth’s upper atmosphere head-on at 41 miles per second. While the Moon will
not interfere with observing this shooting star display this year (New Moon is
on the 4th), one can expect to see no more than 10-15 swift and
yellow shooting stars per hour from Southern New England. Why? The Eta
Aquarids, are best observed from the southern hemisphere.
The Leonid meteor shower was approaching and as the astronomers prepared cameras to capture the event they must have wondered: will the skies be clear tonight?
Prof. Winslow Upton taught astronomy at Brown from 1883 until his death in 1914. He also had a keen interest in meteorology. He had been a professor of meteorology at the Weather Bureau of the U.S. Signal Survice from 1881 until 1883. In 1884 he was one of the organizers of the New England Meteorological Society and operated a weather station at Ladd Observatory starting in 1890. We can gain some insight into how he might have forecast the cloudiness of the sky by noting a curious instrument to the left of the cameras in the photo above.
The Geminid meteor shower peaked on Dec. 13 – 14, 2012. At Ladd Observatory we operate an automated camera on the roof which takes an image of most of the sky every 10 seconds. There were many small meteors and a number of medium meteors that we captured during the night. Here are the four best images. Each is a 10 second exposure with a field of view of about 140 by 90 degrees. North is at right and west is at bottom.
There are some times during the year when a number of meteors can be seen in the sky. For example, the recent Quadrantid meteor shower during the early morning hours of January 4th. But late January is not usually a time that you would expect to see meteors. It is possible, though.
At the Ladd Observatory we’ve been testing a sky camera to watch for interesting phenomena in the night sky. The camera has a field of view of 90 by 140 degrees which can take an image of nearly the entire sky every 10 seconds.