This week, we have several chances to spot spacecraft. Our first topic today, however, is last week's Leonid meteor shower, which was an interesting albeit modest display, and the "fireball" meteor that turned night to day from Colorado to Idaho.
Modest meteors here but amazing elsewhere: As predicted, the Leonid meteor shower cut loose with an outburst of approximately 150 meteors Wednesday morning above Asia. Also as predicted, the rates of Leonids elsewhere - including as seen from New Jersey - were only modestly better than a typical year's display.
Reader Will Mendo wrote of his observations of the meteor shower from the Cape May area before dawn last Tuesday and Wednesday.
The first morning, I watched the sky from 3:50 to 4:20 a.m. before 10 to 40 percent cloud cover spread to 90 percent and saw eight meteors - five of them Leonids. Mendo went out at about 4:50 a.m. and saw seven meteors in 25 minutes.
As far away as West Virginia (where an expert observer nearly had a bad run-in with coyotes), viewers saw a little flurry of a few meteors in a minute or two at about 4 a.m. The meteors I saw had nice trails and one was bright and yellow.
On Wednesday, I watched from 4:05 to 4:20 a.m., and just saw three Leonids and two other meteors. But Mendo went out at 5 a.m. and caught 12 meteors in 20 minutes, including two impressive ones with long trails. One of my Rowan college students saw a bright blue-green meteor that left a trail.
At least we got some hours of clear sky here in New Jersey. Bill McCurdy, an observer from Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, Canada, said he was "skunked" by clouds both nights, and saw only one Leonid. That, he wrote, was 1586 fewer than he beheld on the same night in 2001.
Last Tuesday night, the Rocky Mountains witnessed a fireball light up the sky, but it was not a Leonid. It was a meteor so brilliant that it turned night to day and rocked the ground with a shock wave. The fireball likely produced meteorites and left a cloud. For video of the fireball in action, visit:
and set the date back to Nov. 19.
Our local Leonid display was mild, but if the evening of Sunday, Dec. 13, is clear, we should see dozens of Geminid meteors per hour. I will have details on the Geminids the Tuesday before they peak.
ISS and shuttle passes: Space shuttle Atlantis will be docked at the international space station until Wednesday and returns to Earth on Friday.
The ISS will be at least briefly visible as a bright moving point of light the next four evenings. The space station will be about halfway up the northeast sky at 5:59 p.m. tonight, the southwest sky at 6:21 p.m. Wednesday, the north-northeast sky at 5:08 p.m. (bright twilight sky) on Thanksgiving, and the southwest sky at 5:30 p.m. Friday. For more details, visit:
Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at: