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Geminids Meteor Shower 2015

December 11, 2015 1 comment

One of the most active and reliable meteor showers, the Geminids, happens every year in mid-December. This year’s display promises to be a good one for those meteorwatchers with clear skies.

The maximum rate of Geminids is predicted to occur around 1800 on 14 Dec 2015, but peak rates normally persist for around a day, so the nights of 13 and 14 Dec are both good for meteorwatching. In addition. you’ll see plenty of Geminids from now until a few days after the peak.

When Gemini Sends Stars to Paranal  Image Credit & Copyright: Stéphane Guisard (Los Cielos de America), TWAN

When Gemini Sends Stars to Paranal
Image Credit & Copyright: Stéphane Guisard (Los Cielos de America), TWAN

There are a few ways you can maximise your chances of seeing some Geminids (see The What, How, Where, When and Why) but the best way is to get somewhere dark, like one of the UK’s International Dark Sky Places. I’ll be heading down to Galloway Forest in SW Scotland.

The Geminids’ radiant (the point in the sky where all the meteors appear to emerge from) rises at sunset, so you can begin your meteorwatch as soon as it gets dark enough. The Moon is only 3 days old at maximum so you’ll have no interference to your dark skies.

The number of meteors that you will observe every hour depends on a number of factors:

  • the density of the cloud of dust that the Earth is moving through, that is causing the shower in the first place;
  • the height above the horizon of the radiant of the shower, the point from which the meteors appear to radiate;
  • the fraction of your sky that is obscured by cloud;
  • the naked-eye limiting magnitude of the sky, that is a measure of the faintest object you can see.

The Geminids meteor shower has a maximum zenith hourly rate (ZHR) of  around 120 (the highest of any meteor shower). This is the number of meteors that you can expect to see if the radiant is directly overhead (the point in the sky called the zenith), and you are observing under a cloudless sky with no trace of light pollution.

However conditions are rarely perfect. In the UK, for example, the radiant of the shower will not be at the zenith; it will be around 10° above the horizon at 1800h, 25° above the horizon at 2000h, 40° at 2200h, 60° at 0000h, and at its highest of 70° at 0200h.

Assuming a clear night, the other factor is the limiting magnitude of the sky, a measure of the faintest object you can see. Man-made light pollution will be an issue for most people. From suburbia the limiting magnitude of the sky is ~4.5 (around 500 stars visible), so you will only be able to see meteors that are at least this bright; the fainter ones wouldn’t be visible through the orange glow. In a big city centre your limiting magnitude might be ~3 (only around 50 stars visible); in a very dark site like Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park the limiting magnitude is ~6.5 (many thousands of stars visible), limited only by the sensitivity of your eye. So in most cases it’s best to try and get somewhere nice and dark, away from man-made light pollution.

The calculation that you need to make in order to determine your actual hourly rate is:

Actual Hourly Rate = (ZHR x sin(h))/((1/(1-k)) x 2^(6.5-m)) where

h = the height of the radiant above the horizon

k = fraction of the sky covered in cloud

m = limiting magnitude

Let’s plug the numbers in for the Geminids 2015.

ZHR = 120 (maximum)

h = 10° at 1800, 25° at 2000, 40° at 2200, 60° at 0000, 70° at 0200h

k = 0 (let’s hope!)

m = 6.5 (if you get somewhere really dark!)

So your actual hourly rate under clear dark skies is

(120 x sin(10))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 21 meteors per hour at 1800
(120 x sin(25))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 50 meteors per hour at 2000
(120 x sin(40))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 77 meteors per hour at 2200
(120 x sin(60))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 104 meteors per hour at 0000
(120 x sin(70))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 112 meteors per hour at 0000

If you’re observing in suburbia you need to divide these numbers by around 4, and in bright cities by 10! Nonetheless, even in a city if you’re out at midnight during peak activity you’ll see around 10 meteors per hour.

Remember though that these numbers are assuming perfectly clear skies under perfectly dark conditions, and are assuming a peak rate of 120 at each of these times. It probably won’t be quite this good, but the bottom line is: there’s never a better night to see meteors!

Geminids Meteor Shower 2014

December 8, 2014 2 comments

One of the most active and reliable meteor showers, the Geminids, happens every year in mid-December. This year’s display promises to be a good one for those meteorwatchers with clear skies.

The maximum rate of Geminids is predicted to occur between sunset on 13 Dec and sunset on 14 Dec, so the night of 13 Dec is the best bet, although nights on either side will still show plenty of shooting stars.

UPDATE: The excellent International Meteor Organisation (imo.net) have issued a live graph of Geminid activity. Last night the peak rate was around 46/hr +/- 21/hr. That rate will only increase overnight tonight, to a peak of around 120/hr.

When Gemini Sends Stars to Paranal  Image Credit & Copyright: Stéphane Guisard (Los Cielos de America), TWAN

When Gemini Sends Stars to Paranal
Image Credit & Copyright: Stéphane Guisard (Los Cielos de America), TWAN

There are a few ways you can maximise your chances of seeing some Geminids (see The What, How, Where, When and Why) but the best way is to get somewhere dark, like one of the UK’s International Dark Sky Places. I’ll be heading down to Galloway Forest in SW Scotland.

The Geminids’ radiant (the point in the sky where all the meteors appear to emerge from) rises at sunset, so you can begin your meteorwatch as soon as it gets dark enough. You’ll have until near midnight under dark skies, at which point the last quarter moon will rise to brighten the sky a little and drown out some of the fainter meteors.

The number of meteors that you will observe every hour depends on a number of factors:

  • the density of the cloud of dust that the Earth is moving through, that is causing the shower in the first place;
  • the height above the horizon of the radiant of the shower, the point from which the meteors appear to radiate;
  • the fraction of your sky that is obscured by cloud;
  • the naked-eye limiting magnitude of the sky, that is a measure of the faintest object you can see.

The Geminids meteor shower has a maximum zenith hourly rate (ZHR) of  around 120 (the highest of any meteor shower). This is the number of meteors that you can expect to see if the radiant is directly overhead (the point in the sky called the zenith), and you are observing under a cloudless sky with no trace of light pollution.

However conditions are rarely perfect. In the UK, for example, the radiant of the shower will not be at the zenith; it will be around 10° above the horizon at 1800h, 25° above the horizon at 2000h, 40° at 2200h,, 60° at 0000h just as the Moon rises to spoil the view a little.

Assuming a clear night, the other factor is the limiting magnitude of the sky, a measure of the faintest object you can see. Man-made light pollution will be an issue for most people. From suburbia the limiting magnitude of the sky is ~4.5 (around 500 stars visible), so you will only be able to see meteors that are at least this bright; the fainter ones wouldn’t be visible through the orange glow. In a big city centre your limiting magnitude might be ~3 (only around 50 stars visible); in a very dark site like Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park the limiting magnitude is ~6.5 (many thousands of stars visible), limited only by the sensitivity of your eye. So in most cases it’s best to try and get somewhere nice and dark, away from man-made light pollution.

The calculation that you need to make in order to determine your actual hourly rate is:

Actual Hourly Rate = (ZHR x sin(h))/((1/(1-k)) x 2^(6.5-m)) where

h = the height of the radiant above the horizon

k = fraction of the sky covered in cloud

m = limiting magnitude

Let’s plug the numbers in for the Geminids 2014.

ZHR = 120 (maximum)

h = 10° at 1800, 25° at 2000, 40° at 2200, 60° at 0000

k = 0 (let’s hope!)

m = 6.5 (if you get somewhere really dark!)

So your actual hourly rate under clear dark skies is

(120 x sin(10))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 21 meteors per hour at 1800
(120 x sin(25))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 50 meteors per hour at 2000
(120 x sin(40))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 77 meteors per hour at 2200
(120 x sin(60))/((1/(1-0) x 2^(6.5-6.5) = 104 meteors per hour at 0000

If you’re observing in suburbia you need to divide these numbers by around 4, and in bright cities by 10! Nonetheless, even in a city if you’re out at midnight during peak activity you’ll see around 10 meteors.

Remember though that these numbers are assuming perfectly clear skies under perfectly dark conditions, and are assuming a peak rate of 120 at each of these times. It probably won’t be nearly this good, but the bottom line is: there’s never a better night to see meteors!

Morning Mercury, December 2012

December 2, 2012 1 comment

Over the next few mornings you’ll be able spot the most elusive of the naked-eye planets, Mercury, low in the south-east just before sunrise.

Mercury is hard to find, and most days isn’t visible at all. Since it orbits so close to the Sun, when seen from Earth it never appears very far from the Sun in the sky. You can only catch it for a few days at a time when it’s furthest from the Sun in our sky, at a point called its maximum elongation. And even then it’s not that simple to find, as it will always be quite low on the horizon, hidden amongst twilight.

As Mercury whizzes round the Sun (it takes 88 days to make one complete orbit) sometimes we see it in the morning and sometimes in the evening. The amount of time between one morning appearance and the following evening appearance is around six or seven weeks. However Mercury isn’t very clearly visible at every maximum elongation (in some the Sun is much nearer the horizon so the sky is much brighter, making it harder to find), and even when it is clearly visible you’ll only catch sight of it on the few days before and after the date of maximum elongation.

Mercury’s next maximum elongation in of 4 Dec 2012, when it’s quite far (21°) west of the Sun, and quite bright (magnitude -0.3) making it quite easy to spot over the next few mornings.

How to find Mercury

If you have clear skies, head outside around 0630 and find somewhere with a good clear SE horizon (Mercury rises around 0630 and only gets a few degrees above the horizon by the time the Sun’s light begins to significantly brighten the sky).

Luckily there are two other planets up near Mercury right now, namely Venus and Saturn. Both of these planets are brighter than Mercury and higher in the sky, and together all three form a straight line leading diagonally down to the horizon. Find brilliant Venus, the brightest thing in the sky except for the Sun or the Moon, and then look for Saturn up and to the right, and Mercury in the opposite direction, down and to the left.

This photo, taken by the excellent Paul Sutherland, shows how the three planets lined up this morning (2 Dec) when viewed from the UK.

Mercury, Venus and Saturn in the morning sky. Image credit Paul Sutherland.

Mercury, Venus and Saturn in the morning sky. Image credit Paul Sutherland.

Geminids Meteor Shower 2011

December 11, 2011 Leave a comment

The best view of the Geminids Meteor Shower this year will be after midnight on the nights of 13/14 and 14/15 December, however the hourly rate of meteors will be drastically reduced due to the presence of a waning gibbous Moon which will be high in the sky at the peak meteor times, and right next to the part of the sky that the Geminid meteors will appear to radiate from (called the radiant).

A Geminid Meteor (image credit Wally Pacholka / AstroPics.com / TWAN)

The light from the Moon will drown out all but the brightest meteors, and so rather than seeing 80+ meteors per hour (under cloudless skies, free of light pollution) that rate may be reduced to only a few an hour. This still represents an increase in the normal background rate of meteors, but is far from the spectacular display usually seen during this reliable performer.

To maximise your chances of seeing meteors you should plan to spend a few hours outside after midnight. A reclining lawn chair is ideal, allowing you to observe in comfort, and wrapping yourself in blankets should stave off much of the midwinter chill.

You should face your lawn chair away from the Moon, so you are not in its direct glare. Although the radiant of the shower will be behind you if you do this, the meteors will streak all over the sky, and so there is no real harm in facing away.

More information about the Geminids meteor shower can be found at the Meteorwatch website.

The Lowest Full Moon of the Year

Tonight (actually around 0130 tomorrow morning) the Full Moon will reach its highest point due south, just an hour and a half after the eclipse ends. Despite being at its highest in the sky, you’ll still struggle to see it, as it is very low down. In fact the Full Moon nearest the Summer Solstice is the lowest Full Moon of the Year.

Full Moon by Luc Viatour http://www.lucnix.be

First, let’s begin with the definition of “Full Moon”. A Full Moon occurs when the Moon is diametrically opposite the Sun, as seen from the Earth. In this configuration, the entire lit hemisphere of the Moon’s surface is visible from Earth, which is what makes it “Full”. There is an actual instant of the exactly Full Moon, that is the exact instant that the Moon is directly opposite the Sun. Therefore when you see timings listed for the Full Moon they will usually include the exact time (hh:mm) that the Moon is 180° round from the Sun (we call this point opposition).

Here’s a list of the times of all Full Moons between June 2011 and June 2012:

Month Date of Full Moon
Time of Full Moon (UT)
June 2011 15 June 2014*
July 2011 15 July 0640*
August 2011 13 August 1857*
September 2011 12 September 0927*
October 2011 12 October 0206*
November 2011 10 November 2016
December 2011 10 December 1436
January 2012 09 January 0730
February 2012 07 February 2154
March 2012 08 March 0939
April 2012 06 April 1919*
May 2012 06 May 0335*
June 2012 04 June 1112*

* UK observers should add on one hour for BST

As you can see from this table, the instant of the Full Moon can occur at any time of day, even in the daytime when the Moon is below the horizon. So most often when we see a “Full Moon” in the sky it is not exactly full, it is a little bit less than full, being a few hours ahead or behind the instant of the Full Moon. I’ll refer to this with “” marks, to distinguish this from the instant of the Full Moon (they look virtually identical in the sky).

The Moon rises and sets, like the Sun does, rising towards the east and setting towards the west, reaching its highest point due south around midnight (although not exactly at midnight, just like the Sun does not usually reach its highest point exactly at noon). And like with the Sun the maximum distance above the horizon of the “Full Moon” varies over the year.

The Sun is at its highest due south around noon on the Summer Solstice (20 or 21 June) and at its lowest due south around noon on the Winter Solstice (21 or 22 Dec) (of course the Sun is often lower than this, as it rises and sets, but we’re talking here about the lowest high point at mid-day, i.e. the day of the year in which, when the Sun is at its highest point that day, that height is lowest…)

And because Full Moons occur when the Moon is directly opposite the Sun, you can imagine the Moon and Sun as sitting on either sides of a celestial see-saw: on the day when the Sun is highest in the middle of the day (in Summer), the Moon is at its lowest high point at midnight; and on the day when the Sun is at its lowest high point in the middle of the day (in Winter), the Moon is at its highest high point at midnight.

This means, in practical terms, that Summer “Full Moons” are always very low on the horizon, while Winter “Full Moons” can be very high overhead.

Here’s a table of the altitude of the “Full Moon” when due south. Remember the times in this table don’t match the exact time of the Full Moon, but instead have been chosen as the closest in time to that instant, and so have be labelled “Full Moon” (in quotes).

Month Date of
Full Moon
Time of
Full Moon (UT)
Time/Date of
“Full Moon” due S
Time from/since
instant of Full Moon
Altitude due S
(degrees)**
June 2011 15 June 2014* 0127BST 16 June 2011  +4h13m  10° 05′
July 2011 15 July 0640* 0012BST 15 July 2011  -7h28m  10° 24′
August 2011 13 August 1857* 0126BST 14 August 2011  +5h27m  19° 19′
September 2011 12 September 0927* 0049BST 12 September 2011  -9h38m  31° 49′
October 2011 12 October 0206* 0053BST 12 October 2011  -1h13m  44° 16′
November 2011 10 November 2016 0005GMT 11 November 2011  -3h49m  53° 24′
December 2011 10 December 1436 0030GMT 11 December 2011  +9h54m  56° 03′
January 2012 09 January 0730 0006GMT 09 January 2012  -7h24m  53° 36′
February 2012 07 February 2154 0031GMT 08 February 2012  +2h37m  43° 47′
March 2012 08 March 0939 0000GMT 08 March 2012  -9h39m  35° 37′
April 2012 06 April 1919* 0145BST 07 April 2012  +5h26m  21° 45′
May 2012 06 May 0335* 0102BST 06 May 2012  -3h33m  15° 20′
June 2012 04 June 1112* 0047BST 04 June 2012  -11h25m  11° 49′

* UK observers should add on one hour for BST
** The altitude here is based on my observing location in Glasgow, Scotland. You can find out how to work out how high these altitudes are here.

As you can see from this table, the highest “Full Moon” due S this year occurs at 0030 on 11 December 2011, when the Moon will be over 56° above the southern horizon (approximately the height of the midsummer mid-day Sun which culminates at 57°34′).

Compare this to the “Full Moon” this month, just after the eclipse, in the morning of 16 June, when the Moon barely grazes 10° above the horizon, and you can see just how low the midsummer Full Moon can be.

In fact the closeness of summer “Full Moons” to the horizon means that this is an ideal time of year to try and observe the Moon Illusion.

UPDATE: Here’s a very cool speeded up video of the Moon cycling through its phases, as see by the LRO spacecraft:

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