Posts Tagged ‘Shooting Star’

Earlier this year I blogged about the Persied Meteor shower, but because of a full moon, the meteors were really tough to see.  Then later, there were the Geminids.  Somehow they managed to also be right around the time of the full moon, and it was cloudy here to boot, so I didn’t get to see them either.  But I’ve got great news for tonight- it’s the Little Bear’s time to shine!

Ursid Meteor Shower

Thursday and Friday night, December 22nd and 23rd, will be the peak of the Ursid (sometimes called the Umid) Meteor Shower.  The moon is waxing at 17% tonight (11% tomorrow), and the skies around Quincy should be clearing throughout the early evening to mostly clear by around 11 pm.

The shower will be seen emanating from the constellation Ursa Minor, also known as the Little Bear or Little Dipper.  This is one of the most easily recognizable constellations in the Northern Hemisphere.  The meteors will be seen as fanning out around the star Kochab, which is the brightest of the outer two stars in the dipper-bowl part of the constellation.   The best part about this shower is that it will produce about 12 meteors an hour constantly for the next several nights and into the New Moon on Christmas.  The constellation never sets in our part of the world, so no matter what time of night you’re awake, you’ve got a great shot at seeing some shooting stars.

The shower is courtesy of the tailings of comet 8P/Tuttle, which was last seen when it passed the earth in 2008.  This comet is a frequent visitor since it’s on a celestially-short 13 ½ year orbit around our solar system.   Last year, while I was out on an evening walk with a friend, we saw a particularly bright green meteor over Quincy.  It was part of the same shower, and it was truly breathtaking.

And as long as you’re out stargazing, it’s a great time to check in on some of the other planets in our solar system!  Seven planets are visible from Earth at different times of the year, but right now is the very best time to see them.  5 of them- Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can be seen without the aid of a telescope.  The other two- Uranus and Neptune- can be seen with a telescope.  It’s very rare to have all seven of these planets visible from the same hemisphere at the same time.

Screen shot from the Star Walk App.

You can Google some star maps to help you find the planets, but the easiest one for me to describe is Jupiter.  Face North (which you already should be doing if you’re looking at the Little Dipper for meteors).  Locate the Little Dipper high in the northern sky.  Now follow it down to the constellation Queen Cassiopeia- this constellation is made up of 5 stars a very bright W shape.  Follow the right leg of the W like a pointer to the first very bright star you’ll come to.  That’s Jupiter!  Neat, right?

The photos with this article are screen shots from my iPhone App called “Star Walk.”  I highly recommend this app for any amateur star gazer.  It’s available for Apple or Android systems and is actually “on sale” for the holidays for $1.99 for iPhone and $2.99 for iPad as of this writing.

Happy Star Watching!

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The Northeast sky seen from Quincy on August 11, 2011 at 3:30 AM. This is a screenshot from the Star Walk App for iPhone. The meteor shower will appear to radiate from the point marked “Persieds.”


NOTE: This is the article I posted last year about the Persied Meteor Shower.  But it mostly still applies! Your best chance to see the most meteors is 8/10/12 through 8/12/12- and during the peak on Saturday night, you will see up to 60 meteors per hour!!  It’s going to be better than last year due to a waning moon.


As far as Grecian heroes go, Perseus really has it all. He’s the son of Zeus and Danea; so he’s got the fame. He’s slayed his fair share of monsters,  including  “snake-for-hair” Medusa; so he’s got the street cred. He rescued the damsel-in-distress Andromeda from a serious sea serpent set upon her by Poseidon; so he’s got the girl. With a resume like this, it’s not surprising that Perseus is one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky.

Each summer in Northern latitudes, we are treated to the Persied Meteor shower. These meteors are actually remnants of the tail of a comet named Swift-Tuttle. This comet orbits through our solar system, and its tail debris stretches hundreds of thousands of miles through space. As the comet crosses Earth’s path, bits of rock and ice slam into Earth’s upper atmosphere, and we get to view to some of the most spectacular “shooting stars” in the Northern Hemisphere.

Statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa at the Vatican.

The Persieds began in July, but will be peaking this week. Gazers can expect to see up to 50 meteors per hour in the Northeast sky radiating from the belt of the constellation Perseus. The full peak of the shower will be on Thursday, Aug. 11, around midnight, but there’s a bit of bad news: this year, Aug. 11 is also the night of a full-moon, and this will obscure all but the brightest Persieds. Here are a few tips to view the most meteors in spite of the moonlight:

1. Watch all week — Sure, the meteor shower peaks Thursday, but there will still be lots of streaking debris as the moon begins to wane next week. The best time for viewing with the least amount of moon interference is immediately proceeding dawn. At that time, the moon will set just a bit before the sun rises, so there will be a few minutes of precious dark.

2. Get out of town — City lights of any kind are going to obscure your view, so head out to the country to the darkest spot you can find. I’d suggest camping out at a local State Park and setting an alarm to wake you up in the wee hours of the morning if you really want a great view.

3.  Find a moon shadow — The moon will be shining low in the southern skies around dawn this week. If you can find a barn or big tree or hill, you can sit on the north side and amplify the darkness. The darker the sky appears for you, the more meteors you’ll see.

4. Bring a sky map — If you’re going to be out star-gazing anyway, bring a sky map. There are five planets that are visible from Earth with the naked eye, and three of them appear in August (four if you’re lucky enough to glimpse Mercury just before sunrise). Saturn will be in the West in the early evening, and you can even view its rings with a telescope. As Saturn sets around 11 p.m., you should see Jupiter rise, and then Mars will follow Jupiter’s path in the sky a few hours after that. Besides the planets, it’s a fun time to find constellations like Queen Cassiopeia in her “W” shaped chair, Canus the dog, Ursa the Great Bear (A.K.A. the Big Dipper), Ursa Minor the Little Bear (A.K.A. the Little Dipper), Taurus the Bull, and many more.

5. Get the App — I apologize for the advertisement, but for my money, the app “Star Walk” (available on iPhone and Android) is simply one of the best celestial aids out there. Point it at the sky to see a map of the constellations you’re looking at. Point it at a major star and find out where it is, how big it is, and how many millions of year old the light you’re viewing today is. Besides the great live features, the app also gives you a picture of the day and a calendar — without which I would have forgotten the Persieds. The app is $2.99 for iPhone and $4.99 for iPad.  It’s totally worth it.

I hope you follow your Adventure Foot for some star-gazing this week. Your next best chance for a meteor shower will be this winter when the Geminids will be streaking through our skies, but believe me when I say that sitting outside in August is substantially more comfortable than doing the same in January.

P.S. — I couldn’t write a blog about the stars without mentioning my favorite poem of all-time: When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, by Walt Whittman.

Happy star gazing everyone!

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