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Meteors by Moonlight

Meteor watching in 1999 began with a whimper, but it could end with a bang

A Geminid
meteor streaks through Ursa Major in 1998.  Courtesy Yukihiro KidaThe moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the luster of midday to objects below....


Jan. 6, 1999: The first major meteor shower of 1999 has come and gone, largely hidden from view by the light of last week's full moon. Early reports stretching from the Middle East to eastern North America indicate that 15 to 30 meteors per hour were visible in clear-sky locations.

Right: This image of a colorful Geminid meteor streaking through Ursa Major was captured by Yukihiro Kida in Hamada, Japan at 16:14 UT on Dec.13, 1998. The apparent magnitude was approximately -0.4. He used a Pentax 50mm f1.7 camera lens, with a 10 s exposure on Agfa 400 film.

Although the number of Quadrantid meteors was relatively few, some were spectacular. C. J. Christensen of Weber State University in Utah observed only 13 meteors per hour on Jan. 4, but he reported "I was impressed that many [of the meteors I saw] stretched a considerable distance across the sky. The best example ... appeared to dump off red sparks as it started to dissipate directly overhead. The light pollution by 2:30 a.m. was too great and convinced me to quit."

Peter Detterline of the Boyertown Planetarium in Douglassville, PA saw 25 meteors in 90 minutes on Jan. 4. He commented, I saw "four 4th magnitude meteors under moonlight conditions! Imagine how many could have been seen on a good dark night." Indeed, next year's Quadrantids probably will put on a more impressive show when the moon is a waning cresent during the shower's peak on Jan. 4, 2000.

Left: The distribution of Quadrantid meteor magnitudes on Jan. 3 and 4, 1999. Observers were Shlomi Eini, Anna Levina, and Sara Bordowitz in Israel, and Peter Detterline in Pennsylvania. A total of 103 meteors are included in the data set. The absence of many sightings dimmer than 4th magnitude is probably due to the bright light of the full moon. Larger image.

For more information about the Quadrantid meteor shower visit
www.Quadrantids.com

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The passing of the Quadrantids marks the end of the meteor watching season for most amateur astronomers. The next major shower won't arrive until late July when Earth passes through the debris stream of comet Swift-Tuttle, resulting in the Perseid meteor shower. It's a long wait, but it may be worth it. The 1999 Perseids will signal the beginning of unusually good series of meteor observing opportunities -- possibly the best in decades. The action is expected to begin on August 12, 1999 when the Perseid shower reaches maximum only two days after a new moon. At its peak in 1998 the Perseid shower displayed as many as 80 meteors per hour despite the bright light of a moon that was full only 4 days earlier. Thanks to darker skies the 1999 shower should be even better.

The Giacobinids, the next major shower after the Perseids, will also benefit from the dark skies of a new moon when it peaks on October 8-9, 1999. Last year's Giacobinids produced an outburst of 500+ meteors per hour over Japan thanks to the recent passage by Earth of its parent comet Giacobini-Zinner. The comet will be farther away from Earth this year, but still in the neighborhood, so the Giacobinids are likely to put on a good show once again.

1999: A good year for meteors?

Most of the major meteor showers of 1999 will take place just before or after a new moon. The only exception is the Leonids, which will peak during a waxing quarter moon. The Leonids are brighter than average, as meteors go, so they should be easily visible despite the somewhat bright moonlight. The calendar below summarizes the major showers of late-1999.

 Shower       Max.     Moon
                       phase 
 ------------------------------
 Perseids     Aug 12   new
 Giacobinids  Oct 8    new
 Leonids      Nov 17   quarter
 Geminids     Dec 14   crescent

A more detailed meteor observing calendar which includes major and minor storms throughout the year may be found at Gary Kronk's Comets & Meteors web site.

Below: This colorful Leonid meteor train was captured on film by Alvis Ko (© 1998, all rights reserved) of the Hong Kong Astronomical Society, minutes after a -20 magnitude fireball exploded over Hong Hong. The photo was taken at about 2030 UT on November 16th, 1998. The same train was photographed by another Hong Kong astrophotographer, Ms. Ruby Leung. Her picture is located at the Leonids Live! photo gallery.

The remnants of a 1998 Leonid fireball.
Courtesy Alvis Ko.Of course the most exciting meteor shower to watch in 1999 will be the Leonids. On Nov 17, 1999 there is a possibility of an historic meteor storm consisting of 500 to 10,000 meteors per hour. The highly-touted 1998 Leonid shower put on a display of 400 meteors per hour in some locations, and sky-watchers around the world were treated to a rare display of fireballs and long-lasting, colorful meteor trails. Ranier Arlt of the International Meteor Organization has analyzed data from 217 experienced observers and noted some similarities between the 1998 Leonid shower and the 1965 shower that preceded the Great Storm of 1966. Does the 1998 shower presage a meteor storm in 1999? That remains to be seen. Even if the 1999 Leonid shower is no better than the 1998 shower, it should be one of the best sky shows in many years.

Finally, 1999 will close with the Geminid meteors in December. The Geminid shower has steadily grown in strength for many years and now it is the most intense of the major annual showers. Like the 1999 Perseids and Giacobinids, the 1999 Geminids will take place under the dark skies of a nearly new moon. Over 100 meteors per hour should be visible on Dec. 13, 1999 when the shower peaks.

Join NASA as a Partner in Discovery


Many of the pictures and observations reported in this article were contributed by members of the NASA Star Trails Society. The Star Trails Society is part of the NASA/Marshall Space Science Lab's "Partners in Discovery" initiative to involve our readers in scientific and educational research. Several times each month we announce opportunities for amateur scientists to contribute to activities in astronomy, astrobiology, and other natural sciences. For more information or to become a member please visit www.StarTrails.com.

Web Links

The Star Trails Society -- Join NASA as a Partner in Discovery!

Meteors for kids - from the NASA Liftoff Space Academy

NASA Liftoff meteor shower pages - learn the basics about meteor showers. Includes tutorials, Java animations, and educational activities.

Satellite Tracking - monitor satellites as they weather the meteor shower

NASA's Office of Space Science - press releases and other news related to NASA and astrophysics

External Links:

1999 Meteor observing calendar -- from Gary Kronk Meteors and Comets web site

North American Meteor Society -- Observing Guide

International Meteor Organization -- analysis of the 1998 Leonid meteor shower

Related Stories:

22 Dec. 1998: The Ghost of Fireballs Past -- RADAR echoes from Leonid and Geminid meteors.

15 Dec. 1998: Bunches & Bunches of Geminids -- the Geminids continued to intensify in 1998

27 Nov. 1998: The 1998 Leonids: A bust or a blast? -- New images of Leonid fireballs and their smokey remnants.

23 Nov. 1998: Leonids Sample Return payload recovered! -- Scientists are scanning the "comet catcher" for signs of Leonid meteoroids.

19 Nov. 1998: Early birds catch the Leonids -- The peak of the Leonid meteor shower happened more than 14 hours earlier than experts had predicted.

18 Nov. 1998:
A high-altitude look at the Leonids -- NASA science balloon catches video of 8 fireballs.

16 Nov. 1998: The Leonid Sample Return Mission -- NASA scientists hope to capture a Leonid meteoroid and return it to Earth.

10 Nov. 1998: Great Expectations: the 1998 Leonid meteor shower -- the basics of what the Leonids are and what might happen on November 17.


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Author: Dr. Tony Phillips
Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips
Curator: Bryan Walls
Responsible NASA official: Ron Koczor