About James

James is the Planetarium Astronomer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He teaches students every school morning in the planetarium, and also answers astronomy questions from the public.

Say hello to a brand new meteor shower: the May Camelopardalids

Longtime observers of meteors are familiar with the annual Perseids in August and the Geminids in December. These showers reliably produce hundreds of “shooting stars” per hour every year. 

Beginning in 2014, however, we might add another annual treat — the May Camelopardalids, peaking on May 24!

What are meteors?
Meteors are streaks of light in the night sky produced when tiny dust particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Because these particles are moving very fast as they fall through the Earth’s atmosphere, friction causes them to glow. Most meteors burn up completely while in the atmosphere. Any rocks that reach the ground are called meteorites.

Why do meteor showers occur?
Individual meteors may be seen at any time and are therefore totally unpredictable.  However, as the Earth circles the Sun, it passes from time to time through paths of comets. The comets are long gone, but dust particles swept off the comet remain behind. As these particles fall into the Earth’s atmosphere, a meteor shower occurs. (Imagine driving on a gravel road behind a truck. Although the truck is not at the point where you are, particles kicked up by its wheels strike your windshield.) Since astronomers know where these comet paths are, they can predict when the Earth will pass through them and thus roughly predict meteor showers. 

Early on May 24, the Earth passes under the path of Comet 209P/LINEAR, causing a shower known as the May Camelopardalids. Although Comet 209P/LINEAR’s most recent approach to the Sun was on May 6, there should still be many dust particles left to enter the Earth’s atmosphere on May 24.

What does “Camelopardalid” mean?
This shower is called the May Cameolpardalids because these meteors seem to “radiate” from the constellation Camelopardalis, the Giraffe. Since two other (much weaker) meteor showers, peaking in March and October, radiate from the same area, we specify “May Camelopardalids.”  Camelopardalis appears just under the North Star early on May mornings, so meteors will seem to come from the north. That’s because Earth passes under the debris stream rather than through it; debris thus falls into Earth’s atmosphere mostly near the North Pole.

When can I best observe the May Camelopardalids?
This year, the best time to observe is on Saturday morning, May 24, between 1:30 and 3:30 a.m. The very skinny crescent Moon, which won’t even rise until 3:40 a.m., is not a major factor. The closer you are to Houston’s bright lights, however, the fewer meteors you’ll see.  Also, any haze or cloudiness will hide meteors from view. Keep in mind, however, that unlike other annual meteor showers such as the Perseids or the Geminids, we have never observed this shower before. 

That’s because until recently, Earth never came close enough to the path of 209P/LINEAR for its debris to fall into our atmosphere. That changed in 2012, when that comet came too close to Jupiter. Interaction with the King of Planets put 209P/LINEAR onto a new orbit which comes closer to Earth’s. As the comet has a five-year period, 2014 is the first time it approaches the Sun on its new orbit — and the first time Earth encounters its debris field.  Therefore, the information above on when to see the most meteors is simply our best estimate.

How many meteors will I see?
Astronomers expect at least 100 to 200 meteors per hour, with only an outside chance of seeing 1,000 per hour (a meteor storm). Meteors will appear all over the sky during the shower, with each meteor streaking from north to south. Lying on your back, to see as much of the sky as possible at once, offers the best view. With the radiant low in the north for us, we won’t see as many meteors as those in the northern U.S. or Canada. 

Still, this shower has never happened before, so all projections could be off. The only way to know for sure is to watch and find out!

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Changing stars remind us that summer’s coming

 This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on May 1, 9 pm CDT on May 15, and dusk on May 31.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.  Jupiter sets in the west in Gemini, the Twins. The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the north. Leo, the Lion, is almost overhead at dusk. From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and then speed on to Spica in the southeast.  Saturn is below Spica in Libra.  Vega and Antares peek above the horizon, announcing the approaching summer.


This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on May 1, 9 p.m. CDT on May 15, and dusk on May 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter sets in the west in Gemini, the Twins. The Big Dipper is as high as it gets in the north. Leo, the Lion, is almost overhead at dusk. From the Big Dipper’s handle, arc to Arcturus and then speed on to Spica in the southeast. Saturn is below Spica in Libra. Vega and Antares peek above the horizon, announcing the approaching summer.

Jupiter remains well placed for evening observing all spring. Look for it in the west at dusk, outshining all the stars we ever see at night. 

Mercury appears in the evening sky this month. Too close to the Sun to observe on May 1, Mercury gradually comes from behind the Sun and by mid-month, it appears low on the western horizon at dusk right above the point of sunset. Greatest elongation (apparent distance from Mercury to the Sun) is on May 25.

Mars is in the southeast at dusk this month. On April 8, Earth passed between the Sun and Mars. Mars has dimmed a little since then as Earth has begun to leave it behind. Still, Mars rivals the brightest stars we see at night.

Saturn is up all night long this month. On May 10, Earth passes between the Sun and Saturn, putting Saturn at opposition. That night, Saturn rises at sundown and sets at sunrise. Thus, Saturn is very low in the southeast at dusk, and very low in the southwest at sunup.

Venus remains in the morning sky. Look east at dawn for the brightest point of light there; only the Sun and Moon outshine Venus. Venus remains a morning star for almost all of 2014.

A swath of brilliant winter stars sets in the west at dusk. Orion, the Hunter, is still visible in the west as May begins. His two dogs, represented by Sirius and Procyon, are to his left.  Gemini, the Twins, are above Orion. The Big Dipper is above the North Star, with its handle pointing to the right. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the east and southeast at dusk. Leo, the Lion, passes almost overhead in late evening.

As Orion and Taurus set, look for Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, to rise in the southeast. At the same time, Vega, brightest star of the Summer Triangle, appears low in the northeast.  These stars remind us that summer is on the way. 

Moon Phases in May 2014:

1st Quarter: May 6, 10:16 pm 
Full May: 14, 2:18 pm
Last Quarter:  May 21, 7:59 am
New May: 28, 1:42 pm 

Click here to see the HMNS Planetarium Schedule

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer.  If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

Clear skies!

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Mars and the Moon share the limelight

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 pm CDT on April 1, 9 pm CDT on April 15, and dusk on April 30.  To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom.  Jupiter is high in the west in Gemini, the Twins. Below them, Dazzling Orion, the Hunter sets with Taurus, the Bull.  To Orion’s left are the two Dog Stars—little dog Procyon and big dog Sirius.  Sirius outshines all other stars we see at night.  The Big Dipper is high in the north. Leo, the Lion, is high in the south. These stars, along with Arcturus, announce the spring.  Mars is up all night long this month.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 10 p.m. CDT on April 1, 9 p.m. CDT on April 15, and dusk on April 30. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter is high in the west in Gemini the Twins. Below them, Dazzling Orion the Hunter sits with Taurus the Bull. To Orion’s left are the two Dog Stars: little dog Procyon and big dog Sirius. Sirius outshines all other stars we see at night. The Big Dipper is high in the north. Leo the Lion, is high in the south. These stars, along with Arcturus, announce the spring. Mars is up all night long this month.

This month, Jupiter remains well placed for evening observing all spring. Look for it high in the west at dusk.

Mars is up virtually all night long this month. On April 8, Earth passes between the Sun and Mars. This places Mars at opposition, an alignment where we see Mars rise at dusk and set at dawn — Mars is up literally all night long. It turns out that Mars is farther from the Sun than average when Earth passes it, so at this opposition Mars is not as big or bright as in years past. Still, Mars now rivals the brightest star at night, Sirius, and is now as bright as it will get until May 2016.

Saturn remains in the pre-dawn sky. Face south right before sunup to see it. You can also begin observing Saturn in late evening. It rises just after 10:30 p.m. tonight, and then about a half hour earlier each night until by month’s end, it’s up until twilight. Saturn comes to opposition next month.

Venus remains in the morning sky. Look southeast at dawn for the brightest point of light there; only the Sun and Moon outshine Venus. Venus remains a morning star for almost all of 2014.

Brilliant winter stars shift towards the west during April. Dazzling Orion is high in the southwest at dusk. His three-starred belt is halfway between reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel. Orion’s belt points right to Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull. Above Orion are the twin stars Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini the Twins. Jupiter is among the Twins this month. You can find Sirius, the brightest star we ever see at night, by drawing a line south from Orion’s belt (left as you face west). Forming a triangle with Betelgeuse and Sirius is Procyon the Little Dog Star.

Joining the winter stars are stars of spring in the south and east. Look for Leo the Lion almost overhead at dusk. In the east, extend the Big Dipper’s handle to “arc to Arcturus” and then “speed on to Spica.”

Moon Phases in April 2014:

1st Quarter: April 7, 3:31 a.m.
Full: April 15, 2:44 a.m.
Last Quarter: April 22, 2:52 a.m.
New: April 29, 1:17 a.m.

The Full Moon of Tuesday morning, April 15, fully enters the Moon’s shadow, causing a total eclipse of the Moon. The Moon first encounters the shadow at 12:58 a.m.; that’s when the partial phases begin. By 2:06 a.m., the Moon is all the way inside the shadow, and thus totally eclipsed. The Moon takes 78 minutes to cross the shadow, so totality lasts until 3:24 a.m.. The Moon then emerges from the Earth’s shadow until the eclipse is over at 4:33 a.m.

Keep in mind that the eclipse happens in the morning hours of Tues., April 15. Don’t go out looking for this Tuesday night! Our George Observatory will be open from sundown Mon., April 14 until dawn on Tues., April 15 for observing the eclipse. If you can’t come to the George at such early morning hours, remember that anyone who sees the Moon sees the eclipse. You can observe this eclipse from your backyard or even through your window if you have one that faces south/southwest.

The only thing that can stop you from seeing the eclipse is overcast weather. If we do get clouded out, or if you can’t get up in the middle of the night, we can observe another eclipse on Oct. 8, 2014, right before dawn.

Click here to see the HMNS Planetarium Schedule

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

Clear skies!

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Springing forward into Daylight Saving Time

This star map shows the Houston sky at 9 pm CST on March 1, 9 pm CDT on March 15, and 8 pm on March 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter is high overhead in Gemini, the Twins. Dazzling Orion, the Hunter is to the Twins’ lower right. To Orion’s left are the two Dog Stars—little dog Procyon and big dog Sirius. Sirius outshines all other stars we see at night. In the north, the Big Dipper is higher in the sky. Leo, the Lion, rises in the east. These stars, along with Arcturus, announce the coming spring. Mars now rises in late evening.

This star map shows the Houston sky at 9 p.m. CST on March 1, 9 p.m. CDT on March 15, and 8 p.m. on March 31. To use the map, put the direction you are facing at the bottom. Jupiter is high overhead in Gemini, the Twins. Dazzling Orion the Hunter is to the Twins’ lower right. To Orion’s left are the two Dog Stars: little dog Procyon and big dog Sirius. Sirius outshines all other stars we see at night. In the north, the Big Dipper is higher in the sky. Leo, the Lion, rises in the east. These stars, along with Arcturus, announce the coming spring. Mars now rises in late evening.

This month, Jupiter remains well placed for evening observing all winter and spring. Look for it almost overhead at dusk and high in the west later in the evening.

Mars remains in the morning sky. It continues to brighten a bit in the south at dawn. Later in March, it also begins rising in late evening (9:30 p.m. on March 5; 8:20 p.m. on March 31)

Saturn remains in the pre-dawn sky. Face south immediately before sunup to see it.

Venus has now entered the morning sky. Look southeast at dawn for the brightest point of light there; only the Sun and Moon outshine Venus. Venus remains a morning star for almost all of 2014.

Brilliant winter stars shift toward the southwest during March. Dazzling Orion is almost due south at dusk. His three-starred belt is halfway between reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel. Orion’s belt points up to Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull. This winter and spring, the Bull also contains Jupiter. To Orion’s upper left are the twin stars Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini, the Twins. You can find Sirius, the brightest star we ever see at night, by drawing a line from Orion’s belt towards the horizon. To Orion’s left, about level with Betelgeuse, is Procyon, the Little Dog Star.

From Sirius, look a little bit to the right and then straight down to the horizon. If your southern horizon is clear of clouds and tall earthly obstacles, you’ll see Canopus, the second brightest star ever visible at night. This star is so far south that most Americans never see it, and many star maps made in the USA omit it. (You must be south of 37 degrees north — the latitude of the USA’s Four Corners — for Canopus to rise). As you view Canopus, keep in mind that the sky we see depends on our latitude as well as on time of year and time of night.

Joining the winter stars are stars of spring rising in the east. Look for Leo the Lion at dusk. Later in the evening, extend the Big Dipper’s handle to “Arc to Arcturus” and then “speed on to Spica;” these stars rise at about 10 p.m. in early March, but by 9 p.m. on the March 31.

Moon Phases in March 2014:
New:
March 1, 2:02 a.m.; March 30, 1:47 p.m.
1st Quarter: March 8, 7:26 a.m.
Full: March 16, 12:10 p.m.
Last Quarter: March 23, 8:47 p.m.

Sun., Mar. 9, is the second Sunday of the month. Accordingly, Daylight Saving Time begins at 2 am that morning. (The time goes from 1:59:59 to 3:00:00, with the 2 a.m. hour skipped.) Don’t forget to set your clocks forward one hour!

At 11:57 am on Thurs., Mar. 20, the Sun is directly overhead at the equator. That makes this the vernal equinox, one of two days when everyone on the planet has the same amount of daylight. Many consider this the ‘official’ start of spring. That’s because for us, days have been lengthening, with the Sun slightly higher in the sky each day, from December until now. After March 20, days continue to lengthen, making day longer than night. In the Southern Hemisphere, their long summer days have been shortening until now, with the Sun lower in the sky each day. After March 20, they continue to shorten, making day shorter than night. For them, then, this is the autumnal equinox.

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

Clear Skies!

(Click here for the HMNS Planetarium Schedule)