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.

As big as it gets: Celebrate a super(moon) Cinco de Mayo at the George Observatory

The supermoon is this Saturday, May 5th, 2012.Something out-of-this-world — think celestial — is happening this Saturday evening. It’s the biggest, brightest moon of the year: the supermoon!

The last supermoon was over a year ago, but that was nothing compared to the sky show we’re about to watch this weekend. The moon on Cinco de Mayo will appear 14% larger and 30% brighter, with the maximum brightness at 10:35 pm CDT — just at the end of regular observation hours at our George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park.

But you’ll get more than the moon when you look toward the stars this weekend! There will also be three planets in view (Venus, Mars, and Saturn), plus the peak of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. These meteors are from the tail of Halley’s Comet and even with all the moon light, we might see a few fireballs.

That’s why you should come join us at the George Observatory to get your front row seat to this Moon de Mayo event. In addition to the celestial show, we’ll be screening 2012: Mayan Prophecies — a fabulous Cinco de Mayo astronomy story — in our Discovery Dome.

George Observatory events begin at 3:00 p.m. with a daytime viewings and showings in the Discovery Dome of 2012: Mayan Prophecies. Telescope viewing will begin at dusk and last until 11:00 pm.

This Cinco de Mayo, you owe it yourself to look up. Spend some quality time with the supermoon at George Observatory, and don’t miss this awesome astronomical event.

Go Stargazing! August Edition

This month the great planet race continues, as Venus, Mars and Saturn form a triangle in the west.  Watch the triangle change shape each night as Venus overtakes Saturn and then Mars!

Venus is by far the brightest of the three planets.  Face west at dusk and look for a point of light that outshines everything in the night sky.

Saturn and Mars are to the upper left of Venus as August opens.  Mars is below Saturn and a bit to its left.  Although these two planets of similar brightness are much dimmer than Venus, they outshine all the other stars near them.

Observe all three carefully throughout August and watch as their configuration changes.  Mars aligned with Saturn last Saturday (July 31) and now begins to move farther to Saturn’s left.  Venus, moving faster than the other two, continues to approach from the right; it will pass Saturn on August 8.  Venus then continues to gain on Mars as they both move away from Saturn.  Venus finally overtakes Mars on August 19-20.  On the night of August 31, Venus and Mars are to either side of the star Spica in Virgo.

Jupiter is now a late evening object, rising by 11 p.m now and by 8:45 p.m. at month’s end.  It outshines all stars in the sky, so it’s easy to find.  Face east in late evening or south southwest at dawn to see it.

The Big Dipper is in the northwest at dusk. You can extend the curve of its handle to ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’.  These stars are in the west at dusk tonight.  Arcturus, by the way, is the fourth brightest star we ever see at night, but the brightest one Americans ever see on an August evening.  Spica is in Virgo, the constellation where this month’s ‘planet race’ occurs.

In the east, look for the enormous Summer Triangle, consisting of the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair.   This triangle is up all night long from June to early August, hence its name.  Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south at dusk.  Sagittarius, the Archer, known for its ‘teapot’ asterism, is to its left.  Between these two star patterns is the center of our Milky Way—the brightest part of that band as wee see it.  On a cloudless night far from the big city, see if you notice the Milky Way glow near the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius.  In late evening, look for the Great Square of Pegasus rising in the east.

Moon Phases in August 2010:

Last Quarter                        August 3, 12:00 a.m.

New Moon                              August 9, 10:08 p.m.

1st Quarter                           August 16, 1:14 p.m.

Full Moon                              August 24, 12:05 p.m.

Perseid Meteor 8/12/08
Creative Commons License photo credit: aresauburn™

On Friday morning, August 13, the Earth passes through a stream of debris left long ago by Comet Swift-Tuttle.  This produces the Perseid Meteor Shower, one of the best meteor showers each year.   The Perseids occur every year at about this time, producing on average about one meteor per minute.  Keep in mind that even a short period such as a minute can seem longer if you are waiting for something to happen.  Since Earth is running into the meteors, not the other way around, the leading edge of the Earth encounters the shower.  This is the side going from night into day.  Accordingly, we see more meteors as dawn approaches.  Big city lights or the Moon can limit the meteors you see by dimming out fainter ones.  This August, however, the New Moon is on the 10th, giving us a skinny crescent on the 12th which sets long before the shower really gets going.  The main challenge, then, is to avoid city lights.

If skies that night are clear, our George Observatory will open Thursday night, August 12 at 9pm and remain open until dawn for observing the shower.  If you come out to George or go elsewhere, you’ll want to lie on your back (to see as much of the sky as at once as possible) and orient yourself towards the constellation Perseus.  (The shower is called the ‘Perseids’ because they seem to radiate from that constellation.)  Perseus rises in the northeast at dusk and is high in the north at dawn.