October meteor showers

If recent events during the last few months are any indicator, Chicken Little may have been right. The sky is falling. The sky is falling. Back on July 24 at approximately 2:44 a.m. EDT, a soccer ball-sized meteor entered the Earth’s atmosphere above Lake Ontario and became a bright fireball as it disintegrated. Click here to learn more about this event. Fragments of this “space invader” most likely reached the ground. That same day, at around 11:04 p.m. a similar object was sighted along the east coast from Virginia to Maine. But wait! There’s more. The very next day a previously unknown asteroid estimated to be 187-427 feet across zipped past the Earth at 11:22 a.m., travelling around 45,000 miles per hour. Talk about close encounters!  That one would have wreaked havoc had it collided with the Earth.

There’s a lot of space debris that the Earth passes through on its journey around the Sun. The vast majority are harmless remnants of comets or small pieces of asteroids. Everyday the Earth is bombarded with this material, and with greater frequency security cameras are recording the demise of the brightest of these visitors to our planet. After careful examination of eyewitness accounts, astronomers can determine the orbit of these bodies and determine if they are associated with a particular meteor shower. Two meteor showers were in progress at the time of the fireball reports. Many folks were lucky to view such a “fiery” display.

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Solar Variability: Our Inconstant Sun

I went to bed last night wondering where the Sun had gone. Then it dawned on me. A little astronomy humor to begin a serious discussion on our life-giving star—the Sun.

Our Sun coalesced out of a vast cloud of gas and dust some 100 times the size of our solar system roughly five billion years ago. Gravity contracted this mass until the core of this proto-star reached about 24.5 million degrees Fahrenheit. At that time nuclear fusion began, converting about 600 million tons of hydrogen to helium per second. This process has been ongoing since then.

Most folks take for granted that the Sun rises and sets every day due to the Earth’s almost 24-hour rotation. The only change most people recognize is the seasonal cycles caused by the fixed 23.5 degree tilt of our planet’s axis in its orbital path about the Sun. Reference this video to refresh your memory on the Earth’s annual journey.

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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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Splendid Saturn

I hope the weather gods have provided a few clear nights since my Jupiter observing guide appeared last month. I finally observed Jupiter at a late June star party Skyscrapers members conducted for the Jesse Smith Memorial Library in Harrisville on June 28. The four Galilean moons were easily visible in all the telescopes, as were Jupiter’s striking banded cloud tops. Regrettably the Great Red Spot was not visible that night, and my attempts to observe it since my last column have been thwarted for one reason or another. Fortunately, we have several more months to glimpse this perhaps dwindling storm.

I’m sure some of you couldn’t resist an early look at Saturn, even if you had to wait much later in the evening for this beautiful ringed-planet to rise high enough into the sky to clear summer horizon haze. Perhaps sky conditions permitted you to obtain marginal views despite the planet’s low altitude above the horizon within a couple of hours after sunset. Now that another month has passed, Saturn will have risen much higher into the southeast sky, thereby allowing for more favorable views. As promised at the end of July’s column, here is a brief observing guide to Saturn (our solar system’s most stunning planet.)

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The Return of Jupiter and Saturn to the Evening Sky


Quite a few months have passed since the local observatories have had the opportunity to provide detailed images of some of our planetary companions in the solar system. When weather conditions have allowed, the Moon has been a good substitute. When the Moon has not been available, telescope operators have turned to double stars and faint fuzzies like star clusters, galaxies and nebulae. However, these celestial objects don’t often elicit the wow factor that planetary viewing can do. Add some high thin haze, atmospheric turbulence, a little bit of moisture and light pollution, and it has been a challenge to provide decent views of the heavens. Our observing opportunities have now greatly improved.

While amateur astronomers have been observing Jupiter and Saturn during hours when most people are in REM dreamland, from now through November telescopes throughout Rhode Island will focus on exquisite views of these two gas giant worlds and all their glory. All I can say is, “It’s about time!!” This month’s column will provide a brief observing guide to Jupiter. Next month I will feature Saturn.

Back on June 10 Jupiter reached opposition. That means it rose as the Sun was setting. This date was also the date of Jupiter’s closest approach to the Earth for this year—about 397,850,855 miles. By July 1 this distance will have increased to 403,576,313 miles as the Earth pulls out ahead of Jupiter in our respective orbits. Fortunately, views of  the Jovian system do not suffer dramatically from rapidly increasing distance.

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