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November Meteor Showers

Saturday, November 05, 2011


nov meteors

Two meteor showers coming this month

Every month is meteor month this time of year, from the Draconids of October to the North Taurids and Leonids of November.

October meteors

First, here’s my update on last month’s Draconid meteor shower on October 8. First the good news: the mini-storm predicted by a Canadian astronomer did present itself. The bad news: not here in Southern New England. Europe was forecast to observe possibly up to 1,000 meteors per hour at peak, but a more likely number was about 350. And that’s exactly what the United Kingdom experienced.

Much of the United Kingdom was cloudy during the early evening according to the reports I’ve seen. But when holes began to open up in the cloud cover, folks were treated to a fine display of shooting stars. Over a two-hour period the number of meteors quickly rose, reaching a peak of about just under 350 meteors per hour before quickly subsiding.

By the time the Earth had rotated into sunset for us here in the Eastern United States, our planet’s orbital motion carried us completely through the stream of meteor particles. And don’t forget, the Moon was very bright in a waxing gibbous phase (three days before full)! It must have been quite a display to observe. Though we had 25 visitors at Seagrave Memorial Observatory during our regular public open night on the same evening, no one reported seeing any meteors at all.

Location. Location. Location! Better luck next time.

November meteors

I wish I had good news for the meteor showers of November, but several conditions this year conspire to diminish what can be seen. First up this month is the minor shower called the North Taurids, which peak around the 12th. The peak rate is a paltry five meteors per hour, and the Moon will be just past full (4:16pm on the 10th). Bright moonlight will flood the sky all night, so I wouldn’t expect to see many North Taurids.

I don’t often say this, but you may wish to skip the North Taurids this year and better occupy your free time. However, if the weather cooperates and you don’t mind a Full Moon, you might try your luck catching sight of one of these fragments of Encke’s Comet. The North Taurid meteors radiate out of the sky in the constellation Taurus the Bull (visible soon after sunset in the eastern sky), not too far from the well known and easily visible Pleiades star cluster. 

Unfortunately the bright Moon will be just 16 degrees (about a fist and a half held at arm’s length covers this distance) away from the Pleiades, further contributing to poor observing prospects. The North Taurids enter our atmosphere at approximately 17 miles per second, are yellow in color, and often explode as fireballs and then fragment into multiple meteors.

Meteor shower number two for this month doesn’t fair much better. While the Leonids are a major shower, with storm levels occurring every 33 years, the last storm graced our skies back in 2001. It has now resumed its regular peak rate of about 20 meteors per hour.

This year the peak occurs on the morning of the 18th between midnight and dawn. However, the Last Quarter Moon occurs on the same day, and to make matters even worse, it will be just a short distance (about 14 degrees) away from the shower’s radiant point in the Sickle (backwards question mark) asterism in Leo. The only up-side to this scenario—the Moon will guide you to Leo!

The circumstances are far from ideal for counting many meteors from the Leonids. While one does observe meteors well away from the radiant point, the Moon will accompany Leo until he sets. I would estimate that perhaps only ten or so meteors per hour can be expected at best.

The Leonids are bright meteors, usually green or blue, which hit our atmosphere nearly head-on at about 44 miles per second. For this reason the display produces many fireballs, with about half of them leaving trains of dust which can persist for minutes.

The Moon will be so bright and a hindrance to both of the meteor showers this month that I wouldn’t sweat trying to observe from a remote and light pollution-free location.

While you don’t require a telescope to enjoy meteor observing, there are many heavenly objects one can view by taking advantage of the public viewing opportunities provided by the local Rhode Island observatories. The following facilities are open on a regular schedule for you to enjoy the beauty of the heavens: Seagrave Memorial Observatory in North Scituate is open to the public every clear Saturday night. Also, Ladd Observatory in Providence is open every clear Tuesday night. Frosty Drew Observatory in Charlestown is open every clear Friday night year-round. Be sure to check all the websites for the public night schedules and opening times before visiting these wonderful observatories.

Keep your eyes to the skies.


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