Geminid meteor shower, December 13, 2012

December 12, 2012

StarDate lists December 13 as probably the best night for the year’s last meteor shower, the Geminids.

Dennis Mammana photo of Geminid meteoroid near Orion

Astrophotographer Dennis Mammana caught a Geminid fireball streaking near the stars of Orion. (what year?) CREDIT: ©Dennis Mammana/

Are you up for it?  Or, do you plan to stay up for it? said this one is likely to be better than the Leonids of last month:

If you were disappointed with the meager showing put on by this year’s Leonid Meteor Shower, don’t fret.  What potentially will be the best meteor display of the year is just around the corner, scheduled to reach its peak on Thursday night, Dec. 13: the Geminid Meteors.

The Geminids get their name from the constellation of Gemini, the Twins.  On the night of this shower’s maximum the meteors will appear to emanate from a spot in the sky near the bright star Castor in Gemini.

The Geminid Meteors are usually the most satisfying of all the annual showers, even surpassing the famous Perseids of August. Studies of past displays show that this shower has a reputation for being rich both in slow, bright, graceful meteors and fireballs as well as faint meteors, with relatively fewer objects of medium brightness. Geminids typically encounter Earth at 22 miles per second (35 kilometers per second), roughly half the speed of a Leonid meteor. Many appear yellowish in hue. Some even appear to travel jagged or divided paths. said the show starts as soon as Gemini rises — soon after sunset in the nothern middle latitudes.  Look east to the constellation Gemini, toward the star Castor. (I’m using my iPhone NightSky app; wish I had my old Android and Google Sky.)  Get a coat.  Get your binoculars, your tripod and camera (you’ll want time exposures, yes?).  Maybe take some gloves, and a Thermos of hot chocolate.  Out of the city, out where the sky is dark.  The Moon is in a new phase, and shouldn’t be visible when the meteor watching is hot.

Send us your pictures. (Here are instructions from on how to photograph this shower.)  Good luck!

Babak Tafreshi, photo of 2009 Geminid meteor

Babak Tafreshi’s photo of a Geminid meteoroid in 2009. Note position of Orion, on the right.


Watching the Leonid meteor shower 2012

November 17, 2012

Faithful stargazers may already have spotted a few shooting stars from this year’s Leonid shower.  Best estimates are that the peak will come the night of Saturday, November 17.

Meteor from 2009 Leonid shower, Wikimedia Commons

A meteor streaks across the sky during the 2009 Leonid meteor shower. (Navicore / Wikimedia Commons via Los Angeles Times)


One of our best sources on viewing meteors is the StarDate website.  Their advice for tonight:

The next meteor shower is the Leonids on the night of November 17

The best viewing for this year’s Leonid meteor shower will be several hours before dawn on November 17. The shower should produce perhaps a dozen or so “shooting stars” per hour. The best view comes in the wee hours of the morning, as your part of Earth turns most directly into the meteor stream.

*     *     *     *     *

What is a meteor shower?

A meteor shower is a spike in the number of meteors or “shooting stars” that streak through the night sky.

Most meteor showers are spawned by comets. As a comet orbits the Sun it sheds an icy, dusty debris stream along its orbit. If Earth travels through this stream, we will see a meteor shower. Although the meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, if you trace their paths, the meteors in each shower appear to “rain” into the sky from the same region.

Meteor showers are named for the constellation that coincides with this region in the sky, a spot known as the radiant. For instance, the radiant for the Leonid meteor shower is in the constellation Leo. The Perseid meteor shower is so named because meteors appear to fall from a point in the constellation Perseus.

What are shooting stars?

“Shooting stars” and “falling stars” are both names that describe meteors — streaks of light across the night sky caused by small bits of interplanetary rock and debris called meteoroids vaporizing high in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Traveling at tens of thousands of miles an hour, meteoroids quickly ignite from the searing friction with the atmosphere, 30 to 80 miles above the ground. Almost all are destroyed in this process; the rare few that survive and hit the ground are known as meteorites.

When a meteor appears, it seems to “shoot” quickly across the sky, and its small size and intense brightness might make you think it is a star. If you’re lucky enough to spot a meteorite (a meteor that makes it all the way to the ground), and see where it hits, it’s easy to think you just saw a star “fall.”

How can I best view a meteor shower?

Get away from the glow of city lights and toward the constellation from which the meteors will appear to radiate.

For example, drive north to view the Leonids. Driving south may lead you to darker skies, but the glow will dominate the northern horizon, where Leo rises. Perseid meteors will appear to “rain” into the atmosphere from the constellation Perseus, which rises in the northeast around 11 p.m. in mid-August.

After you’ve escaped the city glow, find a dark, secluded spot where oncoming car headlights will not periodically ruin your sensitive night vision. Look for state or city parks or other safe, dark sites.

Once you have settled at your observing spot, lie back or position yourself so the horizon appears at the edge of your peripheral vision, with the stars and sky filling your field of view. Meteors will instantly grab your attention as they streak by.

How do I know the sky is dark enough to see meteors?

If you can see each star of the Little Dipper, your eyes have “dark adapted,” and your chosen site is probably dark enough. Under these conditions, you will see plenty of meteors.

What should I pack for meteor watching?

Treat meteor watching like you would the 4th of July fireworks. Pack comfortable chairs, bug spray, food and drinks, blankets, plus a red-filtered flashlight for reading maps and charts without ruining your night vision. Binoculars are not necessary. Your eyes will do just fine.

StarDate offers a wealth of resources on meteor showers, and clips from their radio programming on specific events.

Here’s a map of where to look in the sky (also from StarDate, though that’s not where I found it!):

Starmap, where to look for Leonids, StarDate via NBC

Where should you look for Leonid meteors? Orient this map, and look to the east – courtesy of StarDate via NBC

Next up:  The Geminids shower, about December 13, 2012.


Draconid meteor shower — a great show in 2012?

October 8, 2012

Space Weather says radar suggests a big show, already begun, with 1,000 meteoroids an hour:

DRACONID METEOR OUTBURST UNDERWAY: The CMOR radar in Canada is picking up a major outburst of Draconid meteors commencing at 16 UT on Oct. 8th. “Radar rates are at 1000 meteors per hour,” reports Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “This is greater than last year’s outburst, and 5x the 2005 level.” Cooke encourages northern sky watchers, especially in Europe where night is falling, to be alert for Draconid activity. Because radars are sensitive to very small meteoroids, there is no guarantee that this radar outburst will translate into meteors visible to the human eye. On the other hand, a brilliant display could be in progress. The only way to know is to go outside and look. [CMOR radar data] [sky map] [Submit: reports or photos]
Listen: Tune into Space Weather Radio to hear live Draconid radar echoes.

Can you see these rocks as they burn up?  Or are they too small to make a visible “splash,” even though registering on radar?

Heck, some reports say it’s even more active than that; Sky and Telescope reports up to 2,200 meteoroids per hour.

How to tell?  Go outside and look up!

Draconids are most active in the early evening (other showers tend to be active after midnight).  Look toward the head of Draco the Dragon. offers a skymap to help out:

Draconid meteor shower, October 8, 2012 - map from

Draconid meteor shower, October 8, 2012 – map from


Leonid meteor shower tonight: Don’t wait up in Dallas

November 16, 2009’s story on tonight’s Leonid meteor shower doesn’t encourage me to stay up, or get up to watch (tomorrow morning’s meteor shower, really).  A “strong show,” but not spectacular numbers, and our living so close to Dallas will help obscure much of what would be visible normally.

The first cloud of comet dust was released from the nucleus of Tempel-Tuttle back in the year 1567. North America will be turned toward the constellation Leo when these particles begin pelting the upper layers of our atmosphere, some 80 to 100 miles (130 to 160 km.) above us. Earth’s encounter with the comet dust is going to be brief – possibly no more than several hours long.

Unfortunately, we won’t be going directly through the center of cloud, but rather skim through its outer edge on Nov. 17, chiefly between about 4:30 and 10:30 GMT. As a consequence, the meteor rate is not expected to get much higher than 20 or 30 per hour (on average about one meteor sighting every two or three minutes). Still, this is about two to three times the normal Leonid rate.

At the beginning of this window, it will still be dark across Europe and western Africa with Leo high up in the southeast sky, but within an hour the sky will be brightening as sunrise approaches, soon putting an end to meteor watching.

North Americans – especially those living near and along the Atlantic Seaboard – will be able to watch for Leonids from after 1 a.m. local time right on until the first light of dawn, which comes soon after 5 a.m. local time.

I’ll wager more people will be up watching the new movie 2012 about a wholly fictional collision with Earth than will watch the real collisions from parts of an old comet (Tempel-Tuttle).

More data

2008 Leonids, Chris Peterson at Cloudbait

A composite, all-sky image of the 2008 Leonid outburst over Colorado. Credit: Chris Peterson, Cloudbait Observatory. (NASA) This is a composite image of 141 meteors collected over four evenings, November 16-19 UT. Because the images were collected over many hours, the radiant of the shower is spread out. The Moon was present during the peak activity period each night, so only bright meteors have been recorded. The Moon has been removed from the composite image. (Cloudbait)

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