The stars at night are big and…. falling: Geminid Meteor Shower Returns December 13!

Of the many meteor showers that occur throughout the year, the Geminid Meteor Shower in December may be the most reliably active. This meteor shower occurs when the Earth passes near 3200 Phaethon, a Palladian Asteroid. The Geminids were first observed in 1862. The shower gets its name because they appear to originate in the Gemini constellation. 

Under ideal conditions, one may see as many as 50-100 meteors an hour. The meteors from this shower are also especially bright, and many astronomers believe that the shower is intensifying every year. The shower should peak around 9:00 p.m. on Saturday December 13th. That’s good news because most of the other significant showers, like the Perseids, peak after midnight. With no Moon until after midnight, we should be able to see a lot of meteors (weather permitting of course). 

The George Observatory will be open Saturday, December 13th until midnight for viewing the shower. Tickets for viewing the shower are $5 and include access to our telescopes.  That night, we’ll be able to view several star clusters and nebulae with our scopes. Jupiter should rise in time to be viewed as well. We’ll also have our Discovery Dome available for $3. 

If you can’t make it out to the George, you can still view the shower anywhere with dark skies.

 

 

Mark Your Calendars for these events happening this week (12/8-12/14) at HMNS

R_rating_WBust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week!

Film Screening & Lecture
Dinosaur 13
Tuesday, December 9
6:00 p.m.

Join paleontologists Peter Larson and Dr. Robert T. Bakker for a candid discussion on the discovery of Sue—the largest, most complete T. rex ever found—and the ensuing battles that Larson and his crew faced after their monumental find. This talk will be followed by a screening of Dinosaur 13—the new film from Lionsgate and CNN Films that tells this riveting story, and features Larson and Bakker. Click here for more info.

Opening of Special Exhibition: Crystals of India at HMNS Sugar Land
Friday, December 12
Discover the Crystals of India at HMNS at Sugar Land. Originating from India’s Deccan Plateau, a large geologic formation that comprises most of the southern part of the country, the exhibition features a never-before-seen collection of almost 50 of the most beautiful and most perfectly formed natural mineral crystals ever found anywhere in the world.
For this exclusive engagement, the temporary exhibition hall at the HMNS at Sugar Land will be transformed into a jewel box that will highlight these exquisite mineral masterpieces in a setting more befitting an installation of the crown jewels—made complete with dramatic lighting and custom display cases.

Crystals of India is organized by the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Local support is provided by the City of Sugar Land, Frost Bank, and Sudha Chittaluru, M.D (Internal Medicine) – First Colony Primary Care.

Frozen
Saturday, December 13 & Sunday, December 14
10:00 a.m. & 4:00 p.m.
Fearless optimist Anna sets off on an epic journey-teaming up with rugged mountain man Kristoff and his loyal reindeer Sven-to find her sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom of Arendelle in eternal winter. Encountering Everest-like conditions, mystical trolls and a hilarious snowman named Olaf, Anna and Kristoff battle the elements in a race to save the kingdom. Arts and crafts will follow this showing of the movie. Costumes are encouraged! Click here to purchase tickets.

Holiday Trunk Show – Mirta Tummino and Sarah Stewart
Saturday, December 13
12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Two Houston designers are teaming for this special trunk show. Mirta Tummino’s delicate wirework showcases colorful gemstones. Sarah Stewart designs beautiful silk and wool scarves that are batiked and woven in Indonesian by master textile artists.

Geminid Meteor Shower
George Observatory
Saturday, December 13
Open until Midnight
Enjoy the annual Geminid Meteor Shower at the George Observatory. Not rising until past midnight, the Moon will be favorable this year. The peak of the shower will be 9:00 p.m. to midnight. Dress warmly and bring lawn chairs. Telescope viewing will be open until 10:00 p.m. Cloudy skies will prevent viewing of meteors.

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: August 2013

Venus remains in the west at dusk. It outshines everything but the Sun and Moon, so you can begin observing it during deep twilight. As August ends, Venus begins to approach Saturn.

Saturn is now shining in the south/southwest at dusk. Although not as bright as Venus, it does outshine the stars around it, so you can’t miss it. Jupiter is higher in the morning sky this month. Look for it in the east at dawn.

Mars, much dimmer than Jupiter, now pulls away from it in the morning sky. Look for it to Jupiter’s lower left in the morning sky at dawn.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten

The Big Dipper is to the left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the south at dusk.  Leo, the Lion, sets in the west at dusk.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius to its left. The Summer Triangle is high in the east. The stars of summer are here. Meanwhile, the Great Square of Pegasus begins to rise in the east, indicating that fall is near.

Moon Phases in August 2013:

New                                August 8, 2:15 am
1st Quarter                    August 15, 10:19 pm
Full                                 August 22, 1:15 pm
Last Quarter                 August 29, 12:44pm

The Perseid meteor shower peaks on Monday morning, August 12, as it does every year in mid-August. As always, we see more meteors in the pre-dawn hours, because that’s when Earth rotates us into the meteor stream. The Perseids have a broad peak, meaning that quite a few meteors are visible for a few days before and after the best date.

Thus, you’ll still see quite a few meteors if you come to George Observatory on Saturday night, August 10 and stay into Sunday morning, August 11. We’ll be open until 2 am, long enough for the shower to get good. Keep in mind that this is a meteor shower with, on average, one meteor per minute, and not a meteor storm, which would average about one meteor per second.

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.

To enjoy the stars in any weather from the comfort of the HMNS Planetarium, click here for a full schedule.