Rare chance to see 150+ meteors an hour, here's how
Monday, August 8, 2016, 4:11 PM - Get ready, August's Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on the night of the 11th-12th is going through an outburst, meaning that it will be the best showing from this meteor shower in years! If the weather in your area does not co-operate, the NASA live stream AT THE VERY BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE will give you a look at the event from anywhere in the world.
August 11-12 - Perseid meteor shower outburst!
If you didn't see many meteors from the Delta Aquarids, don't worry, this is the one to wait for this summer, and what some have been waiting for since 2009 - the Perseid meteor shower, one of the best meteor showers of the entire year, and one that is due for an outburst!
The radiant of the Perseid meteor shower, at local midnight, on Aug 11-12, 2016. Credit: Stellarium/S. Sutherland
The Perseids rank as one of the best showers of the year because this shower not only produces around 100 meteors per hour (only bested by the December Geminids and the January Quadrantids), but it also produces the most fireball meteors of any other shower seen during the year.
Normal meteors can range in brightness from very faint (requiring the darkest skies to see), up to the brightness of brightest stars and even rivaling Jupiter or Venus. A fireball, however, is frequently the brightest thing in the night sky, unless the Moon is up.
Things to know:
• NASA recommends waiting until after midnight to start viewing (but focus on the pre-dawn hours, if possible)
• Give your eyes around 45 minutes to fully adjust
• Be in as dark of a place as you can get to
• Perseids can appear anywhere in the sky, so looking straight up gives the widest viewing area
• Under perfect conditions, rates could soar to 200 meteors per hour
Perseid fireballs can be so bright as to be visible even from the downtown core of a large city (as long as the buildings don't block your view).
This year is setting up to be a special one, however. Astronomers with NASA are projecting that the 2016 Perseids will experience an outburst, with 150 meteors per hour expected (under ideal conditions), and possibly even more!
According to Danielle Moser and Bill Cooke, from the Meteoroid Environment Office of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center "model predictions place the peak activity on the night of August 11-12 as the Earth passes through several old debris trails from parent comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle."
The International Meteor Organization also notes that part of Comet Swift-Tuttle's stream was shifted closer to Earth by Jupiter this year, giving rise to this enhanced activity.
Will this outburst be similar to the ones observed in 1993 and 2009, both of which filled the sky with meteor streaks? It is still a few days before peak now, and it is already looking very promising, indeed! The IMO is reporting that observers are already seeing meteor rates of between 20 and 30 meteors per hour to start off the week. That's roughly twice what was seen ahead of the 2015 shower, so it is shaping up very nicely!
With the Moon setting at either just before or just after midnight each night this week, it should be fairly low in the west once the sky is completely dark. Thus, with the Perseid radiant (the spot in the sky the meteors appear to originate from) being in the eastern sky, the Moon should not be an overwhelming source of light pollution. Still, the best time to watch will definitely be after the Moon sets.
The Perseid radiant is one that doesn't set, thus it's up all night and anyone out to watch the shower simply needs to wait until the sky is dark enough to see the meteors.
Don't just focus on the eastern sky, however. The fragments of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle can hit the atmosphere at any point in the sky above, so it's best to find a location far from city lights, with as best a view of the entire night sky as possible (open fields are best, or somewhere at higher elevation). Settle in somewhere, sit back, look up to take in the entire sky and enjoy the show!
Current cloud forecast for Thursday night. Regions in the eastern half of Canada should focus on the first two frames of the animation. In the west, focus on the last two frames.
August 27 - conjunction of Venus and Jupiter
For this event, your timing and your view of the western horizon have to be especially good.
On the night of August 27, the planets Venus and Jupiter will come extremely close in the western sky, just after sunset.
The view west, just after sunset, on August 27, 2016. Credit: Stellarium/S. Sutherland
Viewed without any assistance from a telescope or binoculars, the planets will appear to overlap, producing one very bright object in the sky. A close-up view, though (shown inset, above), reveals that they are just very close to one another from our point of view.
If Jupiter is far larger than Venus, why is Venus identified as the larger object in the view above? Simple. It's closer.
The positions of the planets on August 27, 2016. Planets and Sun not to scale. Credit: Solar System Scope
Viewed from above, we can see that Jupiter is around three times farther away from us than Venus is on that date.
Given their proximity to the Sun, in our sky, anyone viewing this has to be mindful of the time. Start watching the western sky just after the Sun sinks below the horizon, and keep watching as that part of the sky grows darker. The two planets will eventually emerge from the glare of the setting Sun, sometime around 8 p.m. local time, but they will set roughly an hour later.
September 1: Annular Solar Eclipse across Africa
Just after the end of meteorological summer, a very cool event will be occurring across the south Atlantic Ocean, the continent of Africa and the Indian Ocean - an annular solar eclipse.
For roughly 3 hours, from 7:30 UTC to 10:30 UTC, the Moon will be passing in front of the Sun, producing a solar eclipse. This is a special one, however, because the Moon will be only 5 days away from apogee, its farthest distance from Earth. As such, when Earth, the Moon and the Sun line up on September 1, the Moon will only cover most of the Sun. This produces a special "Ring of Fire" eclipse, as seen below:
The annular solar eclipse of May 21, 2012, taken by Wikimedia user Nakae, from Tokyo, Japan.
Astronomers from around the world will be journeying to the thin path that the Moon's shadow will trace across the face of the planet, as shown in the image below.
The path of the Sept 1, 2016 annual solar eclipse. Credit: NASA
Although not visible from anywhere in North America, this event is sure to be live-streamed from those on location, so those of us on the other side of the planet can marvel at is as well.
What we've already seen:
June 2-3: Saturn tipped its rings at us for opposition
No, those aren't fightin' words. Very early in the morning of June 3, 2016, Saturn reached opposition, the point where Earth and the ringed planet were on the same side of the Sun, with all three objects in perfect alignment.
At that time, Saturn was at its closest point to us of the entire year (at a distance of over 1.3 billion kilometres). Thus, it was at its biggest and brightest, and it was up all night -- from dusk until dawn.
Looking southeast on June 3 at 10 p.m. EDT. Credit: Stellarium/S. Sutherland
It just so happens that Saturn is currently experiencing its northern springtime, on its way to a May 2017 summer solstice. That means that the planet's north pole, along with its immense northern hexagon and spectacular system of rings, are currently tipped towards Earth.
For those with access to a telescope, this is what Saturn looked like during this time.
Three planets in one night. Great images in a small telescope by shahrin Ahmad. pic.twitter.com/c18h6w2yF0— Con Stoitsis (@vivstoitsis) June 6, 2016
June 20: rare Solstice Strawberry Moon
On the night of June 20, we witnessed an event in the night sky not seen since 1948 - the June "Strawberry" Full Moon on the same night as the June Solstice.
The solstice occurred at 22:33 UTC, or 6:33 p.m. EDT, on Monday, June 20, when the sun reaches its highest point in the northern hemisphere, marking the start of the northern summer, and its lowest point in the southern hemisphere, marking the start of the southern winter.
Around 12 hours earlier - after sunrise in the eastern half of Canada, but before sunrise in the west, the Moon reached its fullest, but was still over 99 per cent illuminated when it rose again, Monday night.
The Full Moon and the Solstice Moon. Credit: NASA Goddard/S. Sutherland
Given that we have a full moon roughly every month (there are times when it skips a February), it may not seem like such a rare thing to have one occur on the same day as the solstice, but it actually happens once every 19 years, for at least somewhere on the planet.
The last time these two events lined up for those of us living in much of North America and South America was 68 years ago, on June 21, 1948. If you happened to live eastward from there, however, from Greenland around to the International Date Line, it was actually a little more recent, on June 22, 1967.
The next time it happens after this, again for Greenland and points eastward, is 46 years from now, on June 21, 2062. If you're in Atlantic Canada, you'll have to wait until June 20, 2054, when the Full Moon occurs just after midnight, and we reach Solstice later in the day. For the rest of Canada, due to the exact timing, we actually won't see another one for the rest of this century! We will get to see a rare December Solstice Full Moon on Dec 21, 2094, though.
The reason for this rarity? Although the Full Moon does fall in the range of June 20 to 22 more often than that, the exact date of the June Solstice shifts back and forth in that range too, so that they frequently miss each other. Every 19 years isn't so rare, of course, but the way we organize our time zones on the planet add an extra level of complication to the pattern. Although somewhere on the planet will see a solstice full moon every 19 years, the times when all of Canada can witness this happen a bit farther in-between.
Late July - Early August: Delta Aquarid meteor showers
This one is a bit of an astronomical two-for-one, as we get two meteor showers originating from roughly the same area of the night sky, at roughly the same time.
The radiants of the two Delta Aquarid meteor showers at local midnight on July 28-29, 2016. Credit: Stellarium/S. Sutherland
The southern Delta Aquarids, so called because they put on a slightly better show in the southern hemisphere, peak on the nights of July 28 and 29.
The northern Delta Aquarids, named because the northern hemisphere gets the better show from this shower, peaks a bit later, around the same time as the Perseid meteor shower (detailed below).
Both meteor showers overlap, however, and thus can contribute to each other's display in the night sky, and since the southern Delta Aquarids delivery slightly more meteors, perhaps 15 per hour under ideal conditions, the end of July is the best time to try and catch the show.
Neither of these is a particularly strong shower, and even the combination sometimes doesn't add up to much, especially for anyone stuck under the wash of urban light pollution. However, the Moon is quite favourable at the end of July and the beginning of August, since it is just a thin waning crescent for the peak of the southern shower, and it is only up to its gibbous (half Moon) phase for the peak of the northern shower.
This is definitely one to check out if you can get away to the cottage or camping.
Best viewing, AKA "a clear, dark sky"
Time and time again you will see the phrase "clear, dark sky" or some variation, when it comes to watching meteor showers and other nighttime celestial events. What does this mean, and why does it matter?
For the "clear" part, the weather is always a big factor when it comes to seeing any of these events from a specific location. Cloudy skies will make it impossible to see what's going on in the sky, and even high humidity can make it difficult to see anything, especially when you consider the next two factors.
When it comes to having a "dark sky" there are two things to consider.
1) The Moon can easily spoil the show when it comes to some viewing events, especially meteor showers, and especially when it's near or at Full Moon. The amount of light the Moon casts can easily overwhelm dim meteors, so that they go unnoticed by us here on the ground.
2) Possibly worse than the effects of the Moon is light pollution, due to its insidious nature and the fact that we could actually control this, if we only took the time. Many people who live in or near urban centres are disappointed when they go outside to see a meteor shower. Even when the sky is clear of clouds and the moon is nowhere to be seen, they still only spot one or two meteors, or perhaps none at all.
Since the majority of meteors are fairly dim – even during a very strong shower such as the Perseids – they can only be seen if there are no competing sources of light beyond just the stars.
Street lights, car headlights, building lights, electronic signs, etc, all contribute as competition, and the bigger the urban centre, the more light it emits up into the atmosphere. Since this bright glow around cities is an unintended consequence (and certainly unwanted for anyone who wants an unobstructed view of the night sky), it is called light pollution.
For much of Canada, simply taking a short drive out of the city, town or village lights will result in a sky dark enough to see most of these events.
Although large areas of Canada's north are free from light pollution, our cities, strung across the southern parts of the country, light up the night sky. Credit: Falchi et al., Sci. Adv., Jakob Grothe/NPS contractor, Matthew Price/CIRES
Southwestern Ontario, and along the St. Lawrence Valley, however, are regions that have some of the worst light pollution in all of Canada.
Credit: Falchi et al., Sci. Adv., Jakob Grothe/NPS contractor, Matthew Price/CIRES. Labels added by S. Sutherland
Any area shaded red, yellow or green, along with regions near them, is going to have at least some impact from this light pollution.
There are ways to control light pollution, mostly by changing the kinds of lights we use outdoors, and how we angle the light produced by them. These abatement methods typically result in lower costs, as well, as less electricity is used to power these lights. However, light pollution continues to be a problem.
There are some areas scattered about in these regions, known as Dark Sky Preserves, which are far enough away from city lights to allow good viewing conditions. Many astronomy clubs host events at these locations, even in winter, to give their members and the public the best chance at witnessing these amazing sites in our night sky.