Tag Archives: meteors

Poor Prospects for the Perseids

    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!!

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A Meteor Shower, a Blue Moon, and No More Iridium Flares

May Meteor Shower

   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 sky.

    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.

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Observing the “rain-bands”

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?

Leonids 1898
Astronomers preparing cameras to capture the Leonid meteor shower, Nov. 14, 1898.

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.

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2012 Geminid Meteor Shower

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.

Watching the skies for meteors

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.

sky camera
The small gray weather proof box in front of the dome on the roof of Ladd Observatory contains a digital all sky astronomy camera which is used to capture images of the night sky.

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