Starwatch: Watch for the Leonids later this week
Stargazing this time of year is really getting a lot easier because first off, the nights are now a lot longer than days, which bums out a lot of folks, yours truly at times.
Second, with the end of daylight savings time last weekend, it’s dark enough for stargazing by 6 p.m.
Despite all that though, I’m suggesting that this week the best stargazing is going to be in the early morning two to three hours before sunrise. I can certainly understand your hesitation to go to bed early and set the alarm for three or four in the morning, but this week there’s a great show going on in the early morning heavens if the clouds don’t photo bomb the sky. Grab a big cup of coffee, bundle up, have a long chair and blankets and prepare to be dazzled! The show’s even better in the darker countryside, but even if you have to compete with city lights it’s worth getting up for. What a wonderful way to start your day!
When you first get out there, just sit back in a lawn chair or lean up against your car and let your eyes get used to the darkness. You can’t help but be blown away with the great stellar show going on in the early morning southern skies. The fantastic winter constellations overwhelm that part of the sky.
I call this part of the sky “Orion and his gang.” Orion the Hunter and his surrounding gang of constellations of Taurus the Bull, Gemini the Twins and others gradually shift from the south to southwest sky as you approach morning twilight. I never get tired of seeing those great celestial characters.
Even though it isn’t quite winter, Orion and his posse are considered winter constellations because in January, as the Earth continues its orbit around the sun, these bright shiners will be seen in the early evening sky, so consider your view of them in the morning this week a preview of great evening stargazing to come.
To get to know these constellations, download a good January evening star map. You can find a good one at www.skymaponline.net and set for early evening sometime in January. Make sure you use red filter flashlight to see the map so you don’t ruin your night vision.
Of course there many great stargazing apps on smartphones available. My favorite is “Sky Guide.” On that app and several other good ones, you can turn the screen on your phone red to maintain night vision.
While you’re taking in the loveliness of all the bright stars in the early morning hours you’ll also see some of stars shooting across the celestial dome. Of course they’re not actually stars but rather meteors ripping into our atmosphere.
Later this week and especially this weekend, you’re bound to see a more meteors than normal. That’s because the annual Leonid meteor shower is and will be peaking. The Leonids are not the best meteor shower of the year, but I would put them in the upper tier. What makes them attractive this year is that there’s no moonlight in the early morning hours, leaving a much darker backdrop in the sky for catching those “falling stars.”
Annual meteor showers like the Leonids occur when the Earth plows into debris left behind by a comet. Comets are more or less “dirty snowballs” of rock and ice that orbit the sun in highly elliptical elongated orbits. When their orbits take them close the sun, they partially melt, leaving a debris trail made up of generally tiny particles from the size of dust grains to small pebbles, about the size of small marbles. The comet that fuels the Leonid Meteor Shower is called Temple Tuttle.
That last came by this part of the solar system in 1998 and won’t return again until 2031. The Earth is busting into the trail from Temple Tuttle at 66,000 mph, and at the same time these individual comet debris particles or bullets are whizzing along in their orbit at thousands of miles an hour as well. This means that the debris can crash into our atmosphere at speeds over 150,000 mph!
With that kind of speed, individual particles quickly burn up due to tremendous air friction and we see the quick streaks of light decorate the celestial dome. The light we see isn’t because of the combustion of the debris. There’s no way you could see that because these tiny particles are burning up anywhere from 50 to 150 miles high. The streak we see is the glowing column of air being chemically excited by the particle that’s ripping through it. Sometimes you see different colors in these streaks that indicate the kinds of gas in our atmosphere that are being temporarily aroused.
Meteors in a meteor shower are best seen after midnight, because that’s when you’re on the side of the rotating Earth that’s plowing into the comet debris. It’s kind of like driving cross county on a warm summer night. You get more bugs smashed on your front windshield than you do on your rear window. After midnight we’re facing the “front windshield” of the traveling Earth.
The Leonid meteor shower is not named after the old Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev. They’re called the Leonids because the meteors seem to emanate from the general direction in the sky where the constellation where Leo the Lion is poised. After midnight Leo is hanging in the eastern sky and looks like a backward question mark. That makes the constellation Leo the radiant of this meteor shower.
That doesn’t mean that you should restrict your meteor hunting to just that area of the heavens. If you do you’ll miss many of them because the meteors can show up anywhere in the sky. You know they’re part of the Leonids because their “tails” seem to point back in the general direction of Leo the Lion. The best way to watch for the Leonids or any other meteor shower is to lie back on a lawn chair with blankets sometime after midnight, preferably after two or three in the morning, roll your eyes all around the night sky and see how many meteors you spot in a given hour. It’s a fun group or family activity because you can keep each other awake and have multiple eyes all around the heavens, have a great time and keep each other a wake!
Celestial Hugging this week: This weekend the new crescent moon will be hanging out next to the bright planet Venus in the low southwestern very early in the evening sky. Later this coming week the first quarter moon will be really close to the planet Mars in the evening southern sky. On Thursday the moon will be just to the lower right of Mars and on Friday Mars will be parked to the upper left of the red planet.