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A Deluge of Draconids?

Originally posted on Sky and Telescope by by Kelly Beatty, October 6, 2010

Everyone enjoys a great meteor shower, those special times each year when a profusion of shooting stars zip across the sky. So here's a head's up: all of you should circle October 8th on next year's calendar.

This is the yearly date when Earth plows through a tenuous band of space dust created by Comet Giacobini-Zinner along its orbit. Ordinarily, the Draconid shower (formerly called the Giacobinids) puts on a so-so celestial show, delivering about 20 meteors per hour if you can view them under a moonless, pitch-black sky. That's hardly worth staying up for: after all, from a similarly clear, dark site you'll see six or seven random ("sporadic") meteors per hour.

However, this shower has a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. In 1933 and 1946 the Draconids dazzled skywatchers with astounding meteor "storms" — delivering shooting stars at rates that briefly topped 10,000 per hour! — because Earth crossed through a particularly dense ribbon of debris shed by the comet in 1900. The shower hasn't put on that kind of performance in the years since, though in 2005 it surged unexpectedly to double or triple the usual rate.

If celestial prognosticators are right, we're in for a treat next year, when Draconid rates could top 600 per hour — that's 10 per minute — under ideal viewing conditions. That surge is in the cards because we'll likely clip the stream of particles ejected in 1900. Odds are that it's still largely intact, even though the comet's 6½-year-long orbit periodically puts it in Jupiter's disruptive vicinity.

On October 8, 2011, Earth will pass through several streams of particles ejected over the past 200 years by Comet Giacobini-Zinner.
J. Vaubaillon & others

At a meeting of planetary scientists now under way in Pasadena, California, meteor dynamicist Jérémie Vaubaillon (IMCEE, France) put forth predictions that he'd calculated with colleagues Mikiya Sato and Jun-ichi Watanabe (NAOJ, Japan). If they're right, next October 8th Earth crosses some cometary debris shed by Comet G-Z between 1873 and 1894, peaking at perhaps 60 meteors per hour centered at 17:09 Universal Time, followed at 19:57 UT by a much stronger, 600-per-hour pulse from the 1900 stream.

The rate is very uncertain, Vaubaillon admits, because there's no way to know whether those earlier streams are still densely packed or have been spread thin. Meteor observing wasn't as rigorous back then as it is now. But next year's results should help disentangle which streams are still contributing to the overall rates.

Other meteor specialists are also struggling to come up with firm rates. In 2008 Sato and Watanabe independently estimated a maximum of 500 per hour (at 20:36 UT), whereas NASA researchers Danielle Moser and William Cooke have offered a more optimistic 800 per hour (at 19:11).

These times favor observers in Europe, but don't rush out to book a plane just yet. First, the Draconid shower tends to produce many faint meteors that'll be obliterated by a nearly full Moon that night.

Although Europe is favored for watching the 2011 Draconid meteor shower, this map of average cloud cover during October suggests finding clear skies might prove challenging. (Bluer hues denote more frequent clouds.) Click on the image for a larger view.
Jay Anderson

Second, because the shower's radiant is way up near the head of Draco (declination +54°), the best observing sites would likewise be geographically north. But there's a reason that so few people book vacations to Scandinavia in October: "Weather in Northern Europe is not very pretty," notes Canadian meteorologist Jay Anderson. "October can be very nice, but usually it is the time when the winter cloudiness begins to encroach on the daily weather."

Instead, Anderson's cloud-cover map (at right) suggests that the northernmost "good weather" spot is in the Greek Islands. "Santorini — a favorite place of mine — has clear/few/scattered cloud cover 74% of the time. I know where I'd go."

Star Counting

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), in conjunction with the British Astronomical Association‘s Campaign for Dark Skies, has recently announced their 2011 Star Count Project.

Star Count Week 2011 (from CPRE website)

Star Count Week (Monday 31 January – Sunday 06 February 2011) aims to get you outside and looking up, specifically to assess how dark – or light – your sky is.

The technique is simple. 1. Find Orion. 2. Count all the stars you can see within the main rectangle formed by Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Rigel and Saiph, the four stars that make up Orion’s shoulders and feet. (Don’t count the three bright belt stars). 3. Tell the CPRE.

That’s it. By counting how many you can see, astronomers can calculate your sky’s limiting magnitude, or the brightness of the faintest stars you can see. It’s a very simple – and rewarding – project to take part in.

There are other annual star count programmes, such as GLOBE at Night (March 22 – April 4 2011) which I blogged about during their 2010 event. You can also get more involved and conduct a detailed dark sky survey, or take part in local activities such as the Peak District National Park’s Orion in the Peak project

Meteor Showers for 2011-2012: Ones to watch

Originally posted on Dark Sky Diaries by Steve Owens (@darkskyman on Twitter)

With the Quadrantids meteor shower that has just past yielding around 100 meteors per hour in near-perfect New Moon conditions, which showers of the next two years will give us as good a display?

Meteor Shower

There are a few regular, dependable showers that can be relied on to put on a good show year after year, given a good Moon phases, so let’s concentrate on those:

Lyrids 2011
The Lyrids peak this year on April 21/22, only three days after the Full Moon, making conditions far from ideal. The ZHR is around 20, but under bright Moon conditions this will be much reduced, so that from the UK you might only see a few Lyrids per hour.

Persieds 2011
The Perseids peak on 12/13 August 2011 coincides exactly with a Full Moon, making this shower pretty much a write-off in 2011.

Orionids 2011
The Orionids peak occurs on 21/22 October 2011 just after the last quarter Moon, with the Moon rising a little after midnight, just as the meteor shower radiant is gaining height. Again, far from ideal.

Leonids 2011
The Leonids peak on 17/18 November occurs during a last quarter Moon, which unfortunately is smack bang in the direction of Leo, and so will obscure many of the Leonids in 2011

Geminids 2011
The Geminids peak on 13/14 December 2011 will likewise be completely obscured by an almost-full Moon in Gemini.

Quadrantids 2012
The Quadrantids peak on 3/4 January 2012 will feature a waxing gibbous Moon which won’t set until 0400.

Lyrids 2012
The Lyrids peak on 21/22 April 2012 is the first major shower peak in 15 months where the Moon is absent, meaning that you should get good views of this shower which has a ZHR of only around 20.

Persieds 2012
The Perseids peak of 12/13 August 2012 will feature a thin waning crescent moon that’s visible in the sky from midnight, obscuring some of the Perseids.

Orionids 2012
The Orionids peak on 21/22 October 2012 is pretty much Moon-free from around 2330, as the Moon sets.

Leonids 2012
The Leonids peak on 17/18 November 2012 will also be Moon free from early evening, and so presents an opportunity to see a few Leonids.

Geminids 2012
Rounding off this two year run of poor Moon conditions for meteor showers, we end with the Geminids on 13/14 December, coinciding wonderfully with a New Moon on 13 December, meaning conditions will be near perfect.

Perihelion 2011, The Earths Closest Approach To The Sun This Year

Originally posted on Dark Sky Diary by Steve Owens www.twitter.com/darkskyman

At 1900 GMT on 3 January 2011 the Earth will be at perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun this year.

If that sounds confusing to you, and has you wondering why it’s so cold given that the Earth is at its closest to the Sun, then this belies (a) a northern-hemisphere-centric attitude (in the Southern Hemisphere it’s summer right now), and (b) a misunderstanding of what causes the seasons.

The Earth orbits the sun in a nearly circular orbit called an ellipse. The degree by which an orbit differs from a perfect circle is called the eccentricity, e. If e = 0 then the orbit is circular; if e = 1 then the orbit is parabolic, and therefore not gravitationally bound to the Sun. The Earth’s orbital eccentricity is 0.0167, meaning that it is very nearly circular, with the short axis of the ellipse being around 96% the length of the long axis.

Thus, during perihelion Earth is 0.983AU from the Sun, while during aphelion (its furthest distance from the Sun, occurring this year on 4 July) Earth is 1.017AU from the Sun. (1AU = 1 astronomical unit = the average distance between the Earth and the Sun = 150 million km). The seasons on Earth have really nothing to do with how close the Earth is to the Sun at different times of year. Indeed how could they, given that the difference in distance between closest and furthest approach is only a few per cent?

The seasonal differences we experience are of course caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis, which is inclined by 23.5 degrees from the vertical. This tilt means that, as Earth orbits the Sun, for six months of the year one hemisphere tips towards the Sun, so that it experiences longer days than nights, becoming most pronounced at midsummer, at which point the Sun reaches its highest in the sky at noon. Simultaneously the other hemisphere tips away from the Sun, and experiences shorter days than nights, becoming most pronounced at midwinter, on which day the Sun is at its lowest noontime altitude.

Earth's tilted axis

The further you are from the equator the more pronounced the seasonal effects. In fact equatorial countries don’t experience seasonal variations, while the poles experience extremes with six-month-long winters and summers.

The timing of perihelion and aphelion relative to our seasons is entirely random. The fact the southern hemisphere midsummer (21 Dec) almost coincides with perihelion (3 Jan) is simply that; a coincidence. Given that fact, there is no reason to be surprised that perihelion occurs so close to northern hemisphere midwinter. it has to happen some time and it’s coincidence that it happens to occur within two weeks of midwinter / midsummer.

To take this explanation even further, we can calculate how much variation in incident sunlight (called the flux) there would be in two scenarios:

1. an imaginary scenario where the seasonal varioations in temperature are due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis but where the Earth goes round the Sun in a perfectly circular orbit


2. an imaginary scenario where the Earth’s axis isn’t tilted, but where it’s orbit is elliptical in the same degree as ours actually is.

1. The Sun appears at its highest point in our sky each day at noon. The highest it ever gets is at noon on midsummer. The lowest noontime altitude occurs at noon on midwinter.

In Scotland the Sun is around 55 degrees above the horizon at noon on midsummer, and only 10 degrees above it at noon on midwinter.

The amount of energy from the Sun radiant on a fixed area is proportional to the sine of the altitude, so the ratio of the solar energy radiant on a square metre of Glasgow between midsummer and midwinter is

sin(55) / sin(10) = 1.84

So here in Scotland we get 84% more energy from the Sun in summer than we do in winter, due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis.

2. If the Earth’s axis was not tilted, then we would only experience temperature differences from the Sun depending on how far or near we are from it. In this case, the amount of energy from the Sun radian of a fixed area is proportional to the square of the distance from the Sun, so the ration of the solar energy radiant on a square metre of Glasgow between perihelion and aphelion is

(1.017/0.983)^2 = 1.07

So we get 7% more energy from the Sun at perihelion than we do at aphelion., due to the differing distances to the Sun.

From this you can see that, while the distance to the Sun has some effect on how much heat we receive, it is a very small effect compared to that produced by our axial tilt.

ISS Wave

A round-the-world wave to the humans aboard the International Space Station by their fellow humans on the Earth – choreographed by a grassroots Twitter campaign (@ISSwave).

 24-31 DECEMBER, 2010


A celebration of human solidarity during the holiday season

For one week beginning Friday, 24 December, humans around the world will show their solidarity with their fellow humans in space (and on Earth) by waving at the International Space Station (ISS) as she passes overhead at 17,500 mph (28,000 kmph).

Participants, recruited through Twitter, are encouraged to share their waves — either alone or as part of an ISSwave tweetup (a physical gathering of twitterers, or tweeps) — by tweeting their zip/postal code and the hashtag “#ISSwave” along with photos and videos of their waves, thoughts, holiday wishes for the astronauts and cosmonauts, etc. Participants’ waves will be registered in real-time at www.isswave.org.

Astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the International Space Station may even film themselves waving back at ISSwave participants. At least two astronauts, including Ron Garan, have voiced their support for ISSwave in emails and tweets.

The idea for the wave emerged through a serendipitous twitter exchange among Twitter acquaintances and regular ISS watchers Lucy Rogers (@DrLucyRogers), Richard P. Grant (@rpg7twit) and Karen James (@kejames). They discovered that watching ISS passes is even more exciting when done together with other humans, whether they are standing right next to you or watching from afar. To know that you are not the only one looking up in awe at this spectacle of human ingenuity and cooperation speeding across the night sky creates a special connection between us.

“The first time I watched an ISS pass I was surprised by how much it affected me,” said Karen James. “‘We made that’, I thought, ‘there are humans up there!’ All of my worries just seemed so tiny in the face of this symbol of human achievement and cooperation. I want to share that experience with other humans and also show my support to the ones living and working aboard the station.”

‘“I’d always wave up at the ISS if I saw it pass overhead,” says Lucy Rogers. “Someone laughed and said the astronauts wouldn’t see me.” So she asked on Twitter if anyone else waved – a lot of people did – and the communal ISS waving began.  “When Karen moved to the USA she saw the ISS at a different time to us in Europe – which prompted the idea of a round-the-world wave,” she says.

We see the ISS because it is lit by the Sun. Sunlight reflects off it’s solar panels in the same way it glints off windows here on Earth. As the ISS travels round the world, the reflection can be seen in a broad sweep across the Earth. Due to the angles involved between the Sun, ISS and our location on Earth, sometimes we see bright, high passes and sometimes we can’t see it at all. During the week 24th – 31st December, most places on the Earth should get a good view of it at some point.

The three formed the Twitter account @ISSwave to coordinate, promote and provide updates on  the event. Their hope is that seasoned and novice ISS watchers alike will experience the startlingly emotional experience of an ISS pass, amplified by solidarity with thousands of others watching around the world.

Additionally, the team hopes the buzz around ISSwave will persuade those who have never watched an ISS pass to participate, marking an increase in awareness about the International Space Station and the existence of a community of space enthusiasts on Twitter (“spacetweeps”).

The wave also celebrates the 10th anniversary of continuous human presence in space (ISS10years) on 2 November 2010 and the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight into space — the first human spaceflight — on April 12th 2011 (www.YuriGagarin50.org).


ISS Wave Info:

  • The International Space Station has been orbiting the Earth over 15 times a day for more than ten years.
  • Although it is about 390 km (~240 miles) high, we can still see it from the Earth, thanks to the Sun reflecting off the solar arrays. The solar array wingspan is 240 feet (73 meters). This is longer than that of a Boeing 777 model at 212 feet (65 meters).
  • Currently on the ISS are Oleg Skripochka, Alexander Kaleri, Dmitry Kndratyev, Paolo Nespoli, Catherine Coleman and Scott Kelly (Commander).
  • Photos of the ISS passing overhead are available at http://www.isswave.org/ISSWave/Media_Photos.html
  • There are various ways you can work out when it will be possible to see it from where you are, including Heavens Above, Twisst, NASA, ESA and Orbiting Frog.
  • As of 19 December, @ISSwave had over 600 followers from across all continents.
  • Dr Karen James (@kejames) is Director of Science for The HMS Beagle Trust, a UK charity aiming to rebuild the famous ship that carried Charles Darwin around the word on his seminal voyage of discovery. Through the Beagle Project she collaborates with NASA Astronaut Michael Barratt a long-duration spaceflight veteran and member of the crew of the upcoming STS-133 mission to the ISS aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. She is a former postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum in London and has recently repatriated to the United States. For more information visit http://kejames.com/.
  • Dr Lucy Rogers (@DrLucyRogers) a Chartered Mechanical Engineer and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, aims to infiltrate the public’s consciousness by writing scientific stuff in plain English. She has published a book about space flight, “It’s ONLY Rocket Science”, which doesn’t contain any equations. She lives on the Isle of Wight where she can see the Milky Way from her back garden. For more information visit http://lucyrogers.com.
  • Dr Richard P. Grant (@rpg7twit) is a biological scientist turned writer, editor and poet. He currently lives and works in London, and has a habit of taking on far too many projects.  For more information visit http://rg-d.com/rpg, or his blog at Occam’s Typewriter.



For more information or to arrange an interview:

UK:    Dr Lucy Rogers

Twitter: @DrLucyRogers

Skype: dr.lucy.rogers

Phone: +44 1983 731 759

Email: [email protected]

USA:    Dr Karen James

Twitter: @kejames

Skype: karenejames

Phone: +1 207 669 2663

Email: [email protected]

Total Lunar Eclipse on the Winter Solstice

This Tuesday 21 December 2010 is the Winter Solstice, and in addition there will be a total lunar eclipse, occurring at sunrise in the UK.

Total Lunar Eclipse, image by Nick James

Total Lunar Eclipses occur when the Moon passes into the shadow of the Earth. That this does not happen every 29 days (the time it takes for the Moon to orbit the Earth) is due to the fact that the Moon’s plane of orbit is not the same as the Earth’s orbital plane around the Sun, and so the Moon passes above or below the cone of the Earth’s shadow most of the time. Every so often, however, these two planes align to create the conditions for a Lunar Eclipse.

When this happens, the Moon will begin to darken in the sky, eventually turning a dark red colour. Unlike a Solar Eclipse, where the Sun’s light is totally blocked out by the Moon, in a Lunar Eclipse the Moon is still visible.

Tuesday’s Lunar Eclipse will begin at 0528 GMT when the Moon enters the Penumbra, the outer part of the Earth’s shadow. This will begin a slight darkening of the Moon, the darkness extending across the Moon’s surface slowly, taking around an hour. At 0632 GMT the Moon will enter the central, darkest part of the Earth’s shadow, form which point it will darken appreciably until, at 0740 it will be in total eclipse, with the full face of the Moon darkened red. This will last until 0854 GMT, at which point the Moon will slowly begin to darken again.

At this point, however, the Moon will have set for some UK observers, or be very low in the sky, on the western horizon, as it is about to set. The time at which it finally sets depends on where you are. In London it sets at 0812 GMT, while in Glasgow (my home town) it sets at 0857 GMT, just minutes after total eclipse ends.

This means that observers in Scotland will have the best view, and the further north you are the more you’ll see.

This lunar eclipse also has the rare distinction of being one where you can see the eclipsed Moon and the Sun in the sky at the same time, as Sun rises around 11 or 12 minutes before the Moon sets, wherever you are in the UK.

Originally posted by Steve Owens Dark Sky Diary http://darkskydiary.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/total-lunar-eclipse-on-the-winter-solstice/

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