Each August, the Earth passes through a stream of comet debris from Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. The comet will not be back our way until 2126… so… I wouldn’t wait up for that one. Along the orbital path, the comet has left behind small bits and pieces, most no bigger than a grain of sand. These run into our planet’s atmosphere and burn up due to friction. The result of this friction-filled reentry is a meteor, a rapid streak of light through the sky. This shower usually gives us about 60 meteors per hour at peak, and many fireballs: bright meteors that can even be bright enough to cast a shadow. How to see it?
Pick a clear night closest to the peak, which is on August 11th/12th/13th.
Go to a dark sky site: avoid lights and cities. The darker, the better.
Bring something comfortable to lie down on: sleeping bags are good.
Bring food, drink, and bug spray if needed for your location.
Spend the night time hours looking up at the sky! No optics required other than your eyeballs.
Avoid lights! No cell phones. No flashlights. Your eyes take between 30-60 minutes to become dark adapted, and you lose that dark adaptation instantly if you see a light. Avoid lights!
The shower appears to come from a spot in the sky in the constellation Perseus. This rises just before midnight, so best observing will be after that, into the morning hours.
We have a splendid opportunity to see a total lunar eclipse this January. It will be taking place late on a Sunday night into the early hours of Monday morning. That Monday is also Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here in the USA, so many schools will not have classes that day. Eclipse timings are given in the above graphic, in Universal Time. Converting that to the various USA time zones:
Usually the real eclipse visibility starts to take place late in the penumbral phase approaching the first contact of the umbra. If you have not seen a lunar eclipse before, it is quite a special event. The moon will appear to have a charcoal chunk missing from it as the eclipse progresses. Deeper into the eclipse, the moon will take on a rusty red hue caused by the sunlight passing through the earth’s atmosphere before arriving at the moon. Telescopes are not required, as one can see the whole event easily with the eye. Binoculars and telescopes will offer a nice closeup view. Photography of the event is a relatively simple affair. A good tripod and telephoto lens will work well with the moderate shutter speeds required. Tracking is not needed. An example of a series of photos I took of the last total lunar eclipse is below. The camera was a Nikon D7000 with 200mm telephoto on a tripod. Click for a larger image.
It is that time of year again when we get to enjoy one of the best meteor showers, the Leonids. This one peaks mid-November and stems from the remains of Comet Tempel-Tuttle which has left its debris in a massive orbital path through which our planet passes yearly. This November the peak is on the mornings of November 17th and November 18th. This is not likely to be a storm shower, as we have enjoyed in the past. This is more likely to produce anywhere between 10 to 15 meteors per hour. As with all meteor showers, you will see more if you are far away from city and town lights and have clear, transparent skies. Here in the state of New Hampshire, it will also be chilly, so you’ll want a coat, sleeping bag, and some warm food/drink to enjoy while looking up. The meteors will appear to stream out of the head of Leo, the Lion. This is the sky for those mornings (click to enlarge):
Looking southeast on the morning of November 17th: The Leonids will seem to originate from Leo’s head.
Don Machholz, Shigehisa Fujikawa and Masayuki Iwamoto have confirmed a new comet which might very well become bright enough to see without optical aid. Stand by for updates here in the coming days as the orbital elements and ephemeris are corrected. The comet has been designated:
It appears that we might just have a bright comet for the end of 2018 and into the start of 2019: Comet 46P/Wirtanen. With a short period of just about 5.4 years, this time around the Sun, it will be very close to Earth (a mere 0.07AU or 11.6 million km) and enjoying its perihelion, too….. Predictions at this stage suggest a magnitude 3 object, well within the visibility range of the human eyeball. When and where to look? Here is an overall map of the comet’s path through December. Note that the perihelion date in December 16th, then the comet should be near its brightest:
Comet 46P/Wirtanen throughout December 2018. (click to enlarge)
On the night of 16 December for mid-latitude northern observers, looking south, this is what you should see…a lovely view of Orion and surrounding constellations. The comet should be near the Pleiades, making for a fine photographic opportunity.