Perseid meteor shower to peak on Monday morning, August 12th

Meteor StormThis years Perseid meteor shower should be a good one. I encourage you to get out and bag some Perseid meteors. Perseids come from the comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle and are an annual favorite for many sky observers. The Moon should be setting just as the shower starts picking up. Look for meteors any time after dark on the nights of August 11, 12 and 13. The shower actually peaks on the night of August 12th. For best results find a dark sky away from city lights and relax on a reclining lawn chair. Keep your gaze on the starry sky and wait. The shower’s radiant located near the Double Cluster in Perseus will clear the horizon an hour or so before midnight but you’ll spot meteors prior to that happening. The meteor rate should pick up as the night goes on until they reach 50 to 100 per hour. This normally will occur in the early morning hours.

You can look for “earthgrazers” right after dark and until 10 p.m. or so. Earthgrazers are meteors that skim the top of Earth’s atmosphere like a stone skipping across the surface of a pond. They appear when the radiant of a meteor shower is near the horizon, spewing meteoroids not down, but horizontally overhead. They are rare and usually speculator to see as they can be very long lived, starting in the eastern sky and slowly crossing the zenith and fading of in the western sky. You’ll know it if you spot an earthgrazer! I saw three in one night during the peak of the Perseids a decade ago and still remember it quite well.

Here are some fun things to do while watching a meteor shower. 1) Count the number of meteors you see and compare your numbers with your fellow meteor watchers. 2) Trace the meteor back to where it originated in the sky. If it points back to the constellation Perseus then you know you saw a Perseid. If it doesn’t then you probably saw a “sporadic” meteor (one not associated with the current shower) 3) Try capturing images of some of the brighter meteors by using a tripod mounted camera with wide field lens. Try long exposures of several minutes with fast focal ratios and shoot different parts of the sky. You might catch a brilliant fireball but if not you’ll have some cool star trail shots showing the different colors (temperatures) of the stars.

Good luck and clear skies!


Supermoon or Super Hype?

Full Moon
Full Moon

You might have heard some talk about the “June Supermoon” that seems to be buzzing the astronomy and space news outlets on the internet. Hey! wait a minute. Wasn’t there a supermoon last month? Why yes, there was. So how super is the June supermoon and what’s the big deal anyway about the full moon that happens on June 23, 2013 at 11:32 UTC (6:32 a.m. CDT in the U.S.).

Well, this full moon is not only the closest and largest full moon of the year. It also presents the moon’s closest encounter (perigee) with Earth for all of 2013. So it’s not just a “supermoon” like we had in May but It’s the closest “supermoon” of 2013. But how super is it really?

To be honest if everybody was not making such a big deal about the biggest, most “supermoon” of 2013 happening this month then I’d venture to say that no one would even notice the difference. Yes, the Moon will be slightly (hardly noticeable) larger in the sky at full moon this month because it’s nearer to perigee than at any other time it happens to be in full phase in 2013 but that’s the extent of it really.

I like to promote astronomical happenings and often I’ll tells friends and family about cool things that they can see in the sky but I have to admit I’m a bit turned off by folks making a mountain out of a mole hill about something because they need something to write about. I also frown on suckering in the public to see a sky event that will make them walk outside and say “oh, yah, that’s a full moon. I don’t see anything “super” about it. It just looks like a full moon to me.”

Too often astronomical events come off as flops or very unspectacular to the public. The last thing I want to do is add to that. So, yes the Moon will be closer to Earth this full moon than at any other full moon phase this year and yes, it will appear very, very slightly larger in the sky but please do not expect to walk outside and have your socks blown off by the super duper moon of 2013. Having said that, please get out and enjoy the full moon of June 2013. Super or not, It’s our planet’s only natural satellite and a dozen men have walked on its surface.

New UT-Arlington Observatory to be ready by start of Fall semester

I recall discussion about the university building an observatory a few years ago. At that time the plan was to place the structure in Doug Russell Park which borders the campus. I guess somewhere along the way that proposal was abandoned for the new location on the top of the  Park Central Garage.

The observatory, which has been constructed, will feature a fully automated 16-inch LX200GPS Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, an auto guiding system, a weather station and an astronomical grade CCD camera, which will not only be used for astronomical observations but also will provide a video feed to visitors of the university’s planetarium which is located in the Chemistry & Physics building.

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Asteroid 1998 QE2 will pass close to Earth on Friday, May 31st

Asteroid 1998 QE2Another asteroid is set to buzz Earth. Is it just me or are these events happening more frequently? The asteroid designated 1998 QE2 will be making it’s close approach to Earth tomorrow (Friday) May 31, 2013.

1998 QE2 is considered a potentially hazardous object because it makes a regular close approach to Earth’s orbit, and it’s a whopper! QE2 is over 1.5 miles across. To help give you a visual reference that’s the equivalent of nine QE2 (Queen Elizabeth 2) cruise ships lined up end to end.

This Friday marks the QE2’s closest approach to Earth for at least a couple a hundred years and even at it’s closest it’ll still be about 15 times farther away than the Moon, but that’s close astronomically speaking.

1998 QE2 will be closest to Earth at 3:59 p.m. CDT. Once it gets dark you can try to located QE2 as it will be visible in small telescopes but you’ll need a dark sky.

NASA has already started imaging the asteroid with massive radar telescopes and they found that 1998 QE2 has a small moon. The preliminary estimate for the size of the asteroid’s satellite, or moon, is approximately 2,000 feet (600 meters) wide.

Asteroid 1998 QE2 was discovered on Aug. 19, 1998, by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program near Socorro, N.M.

Mercury, Venus & Jupiter Congregate in the West

Look low in the west after sunset in late May to catch Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury dancing closely in the sky. The best time to see them should be 40 minutes after local sunset. See the video prepared by Sky & Telescope for the planets positions relative to each other over several weeks into June. From Friday, May 24th through Wednesday, May 29th Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury will all be within 5 degrees of each other providing a great opportunity to check them out in binoculars. You should be able to see all three planets in the field of view in your binoculars. Brilliant Venus will be the brightest followed by Jupiter and Mercury. This celestial sky show will take place on the western skyline about 10 degrees (the height of your clinched fist held at arm’s length) above the horizon. Jupiter falls from view beginning on June 6th while the Moon begins to make it’s presence known very low on the horizon on June 9th.

Video courtesy of Sky &

A Penumbral Grazing on May 25th

Lunar eclipse chart for May 25, 2013
Lunar eclipse chart for May 25, 2013

The May 25th penumbral lunar eclipse will be practically imperceptible for creatures viewing from Earth. Most folks won’t even bother to try to see this eclipse and hardcore amateurs with telescopes will probably scoff at the idea of unpacking and setting up their telescopes for this event. That still doesn’t change the fact that however slight the moon’s grazing of the Earth’s penumbral shadow, and this one is about as scant as they get, it still technically counts as an eclipse.

So why is this such a non-event? Well there are three parts that make up a bodies shadow. The penumbra, the umbra and the antumbra. The penumbra is the weak or pale part of an object’s shadow, in this case the Earth’s shadow. From within the penumbra, the Moon is only slightly cast in shadow as in the case of a partial eclipse. This contrasts with the umbra, where the Moon is completely within the Earth’s shadow which sometimes results in a total eclipse. If it’s a total solar eclipse then the Moon’s shadow is cast on the Earth. On the other hand if it’s a total lunar eclipse the Moon passes through the Earth’s shadow, and more specifically, the Earth’s umbra. You can think of the umbra as a cone getting smaller as it retreats from an object. The antumbra is that portion of the shadow past where the umbra’s cone of influence ceases. If you’ve seen an annular eclipse you’ve witnessed the antumbra first hand.

So what we have on May 25th is the Moon ever so slightly creeping into the Earth’s penumbra. The partial eclipse begins at 10:53 p.m. CDT and lasts 33 minutes and 45 seconds, the big non-event will be visible (or not) for all in North America.

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