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Stars will fall! (Well, maybe… perhaps… dunno…)

If you’re on Twitter or Facebook and have an interest – either all-consuming or passing – in astronomy, you’ll be aware that there’s a huge amount of excitement brewing over a possible new meteor shower, which may or may not occur this coming Friday night/Saturday morning. As is the case with every astronomical story nowadays, be it about an asteroid fly-past, or a newly-discovered comet or an imminent eclipse, there’s a huge amount of hype and misinformation about this online – I know! People posting nonsense on the internet!! Can you believe it???? – so what is actually going on, and what might you (yes, you reading this) actually see?

Ok, well, let’s start by looking at the whole “shooting star” thing. Shooting stars – or “meteors” as astronomers prefer to call them – aren’t stars at all. They’re just tiny grains and flecks of space dust, burning up as they plunge through Earth’s atmosphere. Many people think they’re incredibly rare – hence the superstition about making a wish when you see one – but really, they’re not. Well, if you do your sky-watching now and again from your garden, in the middle of a light polluted town or city they’re rare, because you can only see a teeny tiny portion of the sky under such circumstances. But if you do your sky-watching from somewhere dark, I mean proper dark, where there’s a good view of a lot of the sky, you will see shooting stars fairly often, because they’re flying around all the time. You just need to be looking in the right direction, at the right time, and you can see a few every night. But seeing meteors like that is purely a matter of luck, to be honest.

Most meteors are faint, so faint the naked eye just registers them as they dash across the sky in a fraction of a second. Some are brighter though, very obvious to the naked eye, and genuinely do look like a star cut free from the sky to fall to the ground. Occasionally a VERY bright meteor – known as a fireball, or “bolide” – streaks across the sky, and that can be a memorable sight. Slower, far brighter (sometimes as bright as the Moon!) and more colourful than a “normal” shooting star, they can look like distress flares fired across the heavens…

20080930bolide_edin

…and even after they have faded they can leave behind a ghostly, smoky “trail” in the sky, which can linger for many minutes afterwards, twisting, twirling and contorting as its caught by winds in the upper atmosphere. But again, usually you catch sight of one of these purely out of luck.

However, at certain times  of the year we know – yes, we KNOW – we will be able to see more shooting stars than usual, because we know that Earth will be encountering more space dust than usual as it ploughs through a stream of dusty, gritty debris left behind by a comet. When this happens the number of shooting stars visible increases dramatically, and on the night of maximum activity you can hope to see a hundred or more shooting stars spitting across the sky every hour. Astronomers call these events “meteor showers”.

There are around a dozen good, reliable showers every year, they’re annual events astronomers and sky-watchers look forward to and make plans to observe, often travelling many hundreds of miles to observe them from places where weather forecasts have preducted the clouds will not interfere with or ruin the show.

What’s happening this coming weekend is that Earth is going to plough through a stream (actually several streams) of dust left behind by a comet called LINEAR, and this may – OR MAY NOT – result in a brand new meteor shower as it burns up “up there”.

But what’s the big deal? Why has this got so many people so excited?

Well, predictions for the number of meteors visible during this shower’s peak on Friday night/Saturday morning vary from a handful per hour, to a few dozen per hour or even several hundred per hour. Some are even suggesting that a “meteor storm” might occur, which is when many hundreds or even thousands of shooting stars spill out of the sky during a short period. Meteor storms have been seen before, probably most famously in 1833 when the annual Leonid meteor shower went absolutely nuts and meteors fell “like snowflakes”. Long before astrophotography and digital cameras, the meteor storm was recorded in illustrations like this…

1833 leonids

It would be INCREDIBLE to see something like that today, wouldn’t it? Twitter and Facebook would melt under the pressure as countless thousands of photos and reports were posted the next day…!

But others warn a storm is very unlikely, and are urging caution and warning people not to get the public’s hopes up. The truth is we just don’t know what is going to happen this coming weekend. We might see nothing special,no more shooting stars than usual, or we might see a handful more, or we might be in for a real treat. Why the uncertainty? Because as good as modern computer predictions and models are – and trust me, they are astoundingly good compared to how things were in Ye Olden Days – what we’re talking about here is trying to guess the behaviour of dust released hundreds of years ago and many millions of miles away. No-one cam know for sure what is going to happen. All of us, ALL of us, really do just have to wait and see.

Of course, this story is all over the internet like a picture of a sleepy kitten or a baby dressed in a dinosaur romper suit. The most optimistic Tweeters, Facebookers and bloggers are predicting with unshakeable and frankly foolish confidence that there WILL be a spectacle to enjoy, and that the sky will fall this coming weekend and everyone should go out and see it and be amazed. At the other end of the spectrum, the most pessimistic are dismissing the whole thing as hype. But sandwiched somewhere in the middle, the realists (like me) are suggesting that it will be worth keeping an eye on the sky Friday night/Saturday morning because there’s a POSSIBILITY that we MIGHT see more shooting stars than normal for this time of year IF WE’RE LUCKY AND THINGS WORK OUT FOR US.

And that’s the fundamental truth of this. Something might happen. Or it might not. It’s worth taking a look if you can. If you look and nothing happens, well, nothing lost. But if you don’t bother looking you will absolutely definitely see nothing. And then if something does happen, and you miss it because you couldn’t be bothered to make just a *little* bit of effort, you’ll kick yourself, especially if a meteor storm does light up the sky and you sleep through it, only to read about it all over the internet the next day…

So, let’s assume that after reading all the above you’re now thinking “Ok, yeah, I’ll take a look, thanks for the heads up…” What do you do? And when?

Well, if anything happens it will be the US which will get the best view, overnight on their Friday and into their Saturday morning. I know, I know, I’m groaning too, believe me. The US gets front row seats for an exciting astronomical event ***AGAIN***!!!! Eclipses, meteor showers, big auroral displays, they seem to get them all, the greedy –

But as the great man said, “Ye cannae change the Laws of Physics…” and the Laws of Physics dictate that, thanks to the rotation of the Earth, the US will be turned into the path of the meteors as the new shower reaches its peak. That’s just the way it is. Deal with it. So, come Friday night, all across the US people will be gazing at the sky hoping to see the heavens spitting out shooting stars like crazy. Good luck to them.

Here in the UK, the peak of any new shower is predicted to occur between 7am and 9am, or well after sunrise, in broad daylight, so we’ll miss out. Again.

fist-pump-baby

BUT that doesn’t mean it’s not worth UK skywatchers looking Friday night/Saturday morning. Not at all. We might still see something. How come?

Well, it’s a long shot, but there’s always a chance that the predictions of the peak are wrong. If they’re out by a few hours and any new shower peaks early, we might nick those front row seats from under the Americans! Yaaay! 🙂 Have to be honest, that seems unlikely though. The meteor experts making these predictions really are very good at this stiff nowadays. But hey, it can’t hurt to try. And as I always say, if you don’t look you’re guaranteed to see nothing.

And even if the peak does occur after dawn across the UK, it will be worth keeping an eye open for any early meteors from the shower, especially the “Earth-grazing”  fireballs, which come in at such a shallow angle they skip across the top of the atmosphere like a stone skimmed over a pond or lake, flaring and spurting before fading out of sight. We may see some of those after midnight, or we may not.

So, what does all this frantic hype, fevered speculation and sheer guesswork boil down to? This:

* Friday night / Saturday morning there might be a new meteor shower to see. Or there might not. There’s a chance absolutely nothing will happen, we just don’t know. But we’re crossing our fingers.

* We can’t predict how impressive/unimpressive any new shower will be at its peak. Best to hope for dozens every hour, be prepared to settle for a dozen or so, but cross your fingers for hundreds! At the end of the day it will do what it does.

* If the current predictions are correct, the peak of activity will occur well after sunrise from the UK, meaning the US will have the best view and we might even miss the whole thing. But it’s still worth looking in the early hours of Saturday am from the UK, just in case the shower peaks early or throws up some surprises before dawn.

* The people who enjoy the best views of whatever happens will be those who make the effort to find somewhere well away from light pollution and with a “big sky” to watch. The darker the sky above you, and the more of that sky you can see, the better your chances will be of seeing something.

* Before you go out, make sure you’re wrapped up warmly, have a drink (preferably hot) with you, and grab your binoculars, just in case any fireballs leave smoky trails behind; it’s fascinating watching those dance slowly through binoculars…

And where do you look? Well, you want to be facing the north, because that’s the direction the meteors will appear to come from. If you’re not sure which way is north, just look to the lower right of the familiar stars of the Big Dipper “or “Plough” or “Great Bear” or whatever you know it as) and you’ll be facing roughly the right direction. Then just wait and see what happens.

May 24th

And finally…

Surprise surprise, the same hordes of unwashed, X-Files worshipping, tin foil hat-wearing, chemtrail-fearing, Apollo Landing Hoax believing, Climate Change denying, gibbering lunatic Internet nutters who predicted Comet ISON would rain death and destruction from the skies (and who fell totally silent after the Sun ate it) are predicting this new meteor shower is dangerous, or a Sign of our imminent doom… yeah, yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah… shut up. There’s no risk. This isn’t going to be like that (brilliant!) scene from Armageddon where space rocks thunder down from the sky and shattered buildings burst into flames. We’re talking about DUST here. There’s no need to phone Bruce Willis.

So, there you go. The best – the very best – we can hope for is a good display of several hundred shooting stars overnight Friday. Worst case scenario? Nothing happens. Nothing at all. The reality will probably lie somewhere in-between. All we can do is go out Friday night, look up, wait, and take whatever the Universe deigns to give us.

Good luck everyone, wherever you are!

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2 Responses

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