That’s because Jupiter’s weighty gravitational pull is influencing this year’s Perseids, tugging at the space particles responsible for the shower so that their orbits moved closer to Earth. So while an average Perseid meteor shower will rain down 60 to 90 meteors per hour, there may be double that amount this year.
“This is one I would watch this year,” said Bill Cooke, lead for NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Ala.
The Perseid meteor shower is considered runner-up on the grandness scale only to the Geminid meteor shower in December.
But Cooke said the Perseids are special because they are known for sending showy fireballs streaking through the sky with long trains that may linger for several seconds. Fireballs are brighter than the planet Venus, and a Perseid fireball can light up the ground like a brief spotlight.
“They can produce some very spectacular meteors,” Cooke said about the Perseids. “Some people say they have a yellow color.”
While the Perseid shower radiates from the bold constellation of monster-slayer and mythical Greek hero Perseus, the meteors are actually debris from the comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. The comet orbits the sun in a large cigar-shaped motion, with Earth passing through the comet rubble every year in mid-August.
The comet sheds debris that can range from the size of a pin head to a half-dollar, Cooke said. They slam into Earth’s atmosphere at 132,000 mph.
“With a little luck you’ll see a ‘shooting star’ every minute or so on average,” said Alan MacRobert, senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine.
Sam Storch, a retired astronomy professor and member of the Astronomical Society of the Palm Beaches, said people shouldn’t be discouraged if they walk out there door and don’t see a meteor right away.
He suggests finding a dark spot away from light pollution and with no obstructions such as tall buildings. He suggests finding a dark spot away from light pollution and with no obstructions such as tall buildings. The moon this year will be waxing gibbous, so you won’t have the light of the full moon to interfere with seeing a meteor.
“The thing about the Perseids, they are reliable,” Storch said. “This is one of the ones to see.”
Whether South Florida’s skies will cooperate is another thing. The National Weather Service in Miami is giving Palm Beach County a 40 percent chance of showers Thursday, dropping to 30 percent Friday morning.
If Mother Nature does obscure South Florida’s view of the Perseids, at least two groups are planning live broadcasts of the show.
NASA is planning a webcast beginning at 10 p.m. today on its UStream channel. Slooh.com’s broadcast will be live beginning at 8 p.m.
While the Delta Aqaurid display is not as robust as some, the meteorites move lazily through the sky giving stargazers a better chance at catching a glimpse. Because of the angle at which Delta Aquarids enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they tend to leave long glowing trails of ionized gas that can last one to two seconds.
“These are slow moving. They are more zoop than zip,” said Alan MacRobert, senior editor of Sky and Telescope magazine. “Pretty much look wherever the sky is darkest and away from the moon.”
A high pressure system circling over Florida should keep skies mostly cloud free. The National Weather Service is forecasting sky cover of between 19 percent and 30 percent depending on time of day and just a 15 percent chance of rain. MacRobert said the best time to see the meteors is midnight to dawn when the Earth is facing forward in its orbit.
“That’s when you will get the meteors head on, like raindrops on a windshield,” he said.
If South Florida’s show is shrouded by clouds, the website Slooh is hosting a special broadcast beginning at 8 p.m. that will have live feeds from the Canary Islands, Connecticut and Canada.
The source of the Delta Aquarids remains a mystery, although some astronomers believe the shower occurs when the Earth passes through the broken up chunks of rock and dust from Comet 96/P Macholz. The comet was discovered by an amateur astronomer in 1986.
The meteorites appear to radiate from their namesake star Delta Aquarii, which is in the constellation Aquarius, the water carrier.
While this meteor shower favors the Southern Hemisphere, MacRobert said South Florida has a low enough latitude for good viewing as long as a darkened sky free of heavy light pollution can be found.
“Don’t get your hopes up too much, and be patient,” MacRobert said. “Just relax and have fun gazing into the stars.”
“Almost no one has a wide open dark sky anymore and this year there will be bright moonlight flooding the sky,” said Alan MacRobert, senior editor of Sky and Telescope. “It’s nature’s own light pollution that will affect the sky even if you were out in the wilderness.”
This month’s full moon is nicknamed the pink moon because of the pink flowers of the wild ground phlox, one of the first flowers to appear in the spring in more northern areas of the U.S.
Of course the moon, which becomes full precisely at 1:24 a.m. Friday, will not literally turn pink. Names were given to moons by Native Americans who tied the lunar cycles to nature and the seasons.
April’s moon is also called the sprouting grass moon, the egg moon and the fish moon.
The skies should be mostly clear tonight into Friday morning with the National Weather Service forecasting less than a 10 percent chance of rain. But Friday stargazing may be blocked by clouds with chances of rain increasing to 50 percent throughout the day.
EarthSky.org notes that Lyrid meteors can be very bright and often leave trails, so one may be able to outshine the light of the pink moon. The radiant for the shower is near the star Vega.
“Amateur astronomy teaches patience,” MacRobert said. “We have to take the universe as it is.”
While March is usually a slow month for meteor showers as none of the major annual events occur this month, the American Meteor Society has reported six major fireball events since March 1 and NASA says fireballs can increase as much as 30 percent in spring.
A fireball is defined as a meteor that is brighter than the planet Venus and usually has a bright trailing tail.
The reason for the increase in fireball activity is “still unknown,” NASA says, but one thought is simply that more space debris litters the Earth’s orbit near the spring equinox, which is March 20.
According to the AMS, 2016 has seen an increase in the number of reported fireballs. Since Jan. 1, 910 fireballs have been reported through its online report program, compared to 839 reports received during the same time last year.
On March 5, 99 fireball reports were made in central to northern Florida. Two people in Davie reported spotting a fireball with one noting that “it fell out of a cloud” making the angle of entrance hard to determine.
This fireball was caught over Missouri on March 4.
The next major meteor shower will be the Lyrid meteor shower which peaks in late April.
The February moon is also called the snow moon, according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac.
“Other Native American tribes called this moon the ‘shoulder to shoulder around the fire moon’, the ‘no snow in the trails moon’ and the ‘bone moon,'” the Almanac notes. “The bone moon meant that there was so little food that people gnawed on bones and ate bone marrow.”
For southerly latitudes such as Florida, a rare February treat is in store for stargazers.
Canopus, the second brightest star in the night sky, will twinkle above the horizon just below the sky’s brightest star, Sirius.
To find Canopus, face southward between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., and locate Sirius, the dog star. Sirius is usually a standout because it’s so shiny. Canopus will be at it’s highest at about this time, just above the horizon.
According to EarthSky.org, Canopus is in the constellation Carina, which was once part of Argo Navis, “the great ship that sailed the southern skies.”
“Astronomers officially named the constellations in the 1930s, at which time they divided Argo into three separate constellations,” EarthSky.org notes.
In the 1965 book Dune, by Frank Herbert, the fictional planet Arrakis, was third from a real star in the universe – Canopus.
Look to the pre-dawn skies the next few days to witness the waning crescent moon greet the planets named for the gods of love and economic gain.
Venus and Mercury will form a triumvirate with the moon over the morning skies looking to the southeast.
To the right of the trio will be the constellation Sagittarius – the archer.
“Before dawn tomorrow (Feb. 5) and for the next few mornings, a wondrous scene awaits in the morning sky,” notes Earthsky.org. “The waning crescent moon and planet Venus beam close together before sunrise.”
The moon and Venus rank as the second and third brightest celestial bodies after the sun.