Friday, December 12, 2014

ASTRO ALERT! This Weekend's Meteors

I'd like to invite everyone to join me this weekend for an impressive fireworks show.  No, I don't want all of you to travel to Virginia on short notice and gather in my backyard; however you are all invited to join me (metaphorically) for the annual "Geminid" meteor shower, which is widely regarded (in my circle of friends, anyway) as the years' finest display of 'shooting stars'. 

The shower is already underway, but the peak of meteor activity is expected on the evenings of the 12th and 13th, with the best show anticipated on Saturday night from approximately 10 PM to 2 AM Sunday morning.  After the peak nights, meteor activity will fall off sharply, but on either of those evenings you can expect a pretty impressive view from a dark location.  With Moonrise occurring near or after midnight we should be able to view peak shower activity without the Moon's glare to interfere, washing-out the dimmer meteors.  The timing of this shower--on a weekend with little Lunar interference in the peak hours--makes this an excellent opportunity!

Obviously, those in rural areas will see many more meteors then urban observers; city mice can expect 10-20 bright meteors per hour while country dwellers will view many more, perhaps 30-40 per hour during the peak period.  In any case, no equipment is required beyond warm clothes and a reclining chair (I usually lie in my sleeping bag on an insulating pad).  From personal experience I can recommend a thermos of your favorite warm beverage, few companions to enjoy the show with, and some appropriate music.  (I usually play Smetana or Copland--with Holst and Tchaikovsky at climactic moments!)

Try to find a location with a good view of the entire sky and few streetlights or other man-made illuminations to interfere.  An excellent idea is to check the websites of local amateur astronomy organizations; search "astronomy (city name)" to find area astronomy clubs, observatories and planetaria that might be hosting "open to the public" observing sessions to view the meteor shower.

Because the Geminid shower's meteors will appear to be moving from the direction of the constellation Gemini (hence the name), you can expect to see meteors radiating from the northeast early in the evening; as Gemini rises higher in the sky toward midnight the "radiant" will be much higher--just to the northeast of the zenith.  If you stay out past midnight you'll notice that Gemini (and the radiant) have moved to the northwest.

Wherever you are, I hope you all find yourselves this weekend under a clear night sky, bundled-up against the cold, hot mugs in your gloved hands, enjoying this celestial fireworks show with friends and loved ones. If you've observed meteor showers before, feel free to go all "scientific" and keep a record of how many you see; if this is your first such event then just sit back and enjoy the show--and feel free to write me with your experiences and impressions!

Tom Epps
Chief Astronomer
USNS Big Horn

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