Sept 28/29/30 Meteors

The weather is changing here in the American southwest. Now that the monsoon is over the weather patterns are changing to more of a fall/winter pattern. This still means it is usually clear but every week or so a cut-off low or cold front moves through the area. Today is a cold front day. As a result, Bob has been dealing with clouds and few sprinkles while Tucson gets hit with wind as well as some clouds.

Luckily the clouds held off till the very end of the night in Tucson. Rates were down from the average over the past week, though this is probably due to the clouds and the brightening Moon.

Starting on the night of Sept 28/29, we are looking for activity from the September Lyncids. This is a recently identified shower first found in amateur video data. It is also a bit of an oddball since it active in early September and then again between Sept 29 and Oct 2. There is a possibility that there are in fact 2 separate showers. Further observations will be required to solve this mystery.

From Bob’s notes: “After a totally overcast night on the 28th, the fog held off until 11:30pm tonight, which allowed me 2.5 hours observing time but only 2 meteors.”

Obs Date (UT)   TotTime  TOT SPO DAU NTA STA SLY
TUS 2009-09-30  09h 20m   21  17  0   2   2   0
TUS 2009-09-29  10h 29m   31  28  0   1   1   1
SDG 2009-09-29  02h 34m   2   2   -   -   0   0

TUS – Camera in Tucson operated by Carl Hergenrother
SDG – Camera in San Diego operated by Bob Lunsford
TotTime – Total amount of time each camera looked for meteors
TOT – Total number of meteors detected
SPO – Sporadics (meteors not affiliated with any particular meteor shower)
DAU – Delta Aurigids
NTA – Northern Taurids (includes Antihelions)
STA – Southern Taurids (includes Antihelions)
SLY – September Lyncids

Sept 24/25/26/27/28 Meteors

Clear moon-less skies over Tucson have produced a steady “shower” of meteors. My 2 cameras are catching about 23 to 41 meteors per night.

This week saw the start of activity from the 2 branches of the Taurid meteor shower (the Northern and Southern Taurids). The start date of the Taurids is based on previous analysis of video data. A recent paper by Peter Brown based on Canadian radar data finds that the Taurids are active as early as late July. In fact, the minor Northern and Southern Iota Aquariids are really just the beginning of the N and S Taurids. So next year, our Taurid watch may be starting much, much earlier than usual.

Obs Date (UT)   TotTime  TOT SPO DAU NTA STA
TUS 2009-09-28  10h 25m   23  17  2   3   1
TUS 2009-09-27  10h 24m   37  29  4   3   1
SDG 2009-09-27  09h 41m   42  38  -   -   4
TUS 2009-09-26  10h 13m   41  34  6   0   1
SDG 2009-09-26  07h 00m   32  25  -   -   7
TUS 2009-09-25  10h 00m   35  33  0   1   1
SDG 2009-09-25  09h 50m   60  49  -   -   11

TUS – Camera in Tucson operated by Carl Hergenrother
SDG – Camera in San Diego operated by Bob Lunsford
TotTime – Total amount of time each camera looked for meteors
TOT – Total number of meteors detected
SPO – Sporadics (meteors not affiliated with any particular meteor shower)
DAU – Delta Aurigids
NTA – Northern Taurids (includes Antihelions)
STA – Southern Taurids (includes Antihelions)

Sept 25th Ontario Fireball

Another week, another brilliant fireball! Last weekend a spectacular fireball was seen over New England. This Friday evening (Sept 25) at ~9 pm, observers from a bit further west in the eastern Great Lakes area witnessed the fireball.  Sightings have been reported to this blog and the AMS Fireball page from Ontario, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Thanks to everyone who commented on this page. If you haven’t already, please submit a report to the American Meteor Society’s Fireball page.

Most of the reports are consistent in their description of a meteor at least as bright as the Full Moon and lasting 5-10 seconds. Most reports give a bluish/greenish color for the fireball though some reported a white or reddish color.

Luckily, the University of Southern Ontario operates a number of all-sky fireball cameras in the area. If those cameras were up and running, they all probably detected the fireball. So there’s a good chance that the fireball’s orbit can be determined. This info can be used to recover any meteorites that may have fallen.

[ADDED: The fireball network operated by the U. of Southern Ontario did, in fact, detect the fireball. They have a page devoted to the fireball which includes multiple videos, a diagram of the fireball's orbit, and the most likely location for the meteorite strewn field.]

The map below is based on reports sent to this blog and the AMS Fireball page. The red stars demote sightings while the 2 yellow stars denote reported sonic booms. The sonic booms located to the west of Toronto may pinpoint the location were the fireball came closest to the ground.


Sept 22/23/24 Meteors

The monsoon is over in southern Arizona. Actually it’s been over for a few weeks now but I was holding out hope for a reprieve. Though the monsoon started earlier than usual it didn’t amount to much. At my home, we only got half as much rain as last year.

There are lots of cons to not getting enough rain in Tucson. The only real pro is that the nights have been crystal clear allowing for the observation of lots of meteors. Rates continue to remain high even though most of the activity is not related to any one particular shower.

From Bob’s notes: “The Southern California weather continues to be good one night and cloudy the next. During the last three nights only the 23rd was badly impacted by fog. The 22nd had some fog late in the morning which caused me to quit early. The 24th was dry and transparent, one of the darkest nights I have seen around here. The high number of meteors on that morning reflects these good conditions.”

Obs Date (UT)   TotTime  TOT SPO ANT DAU NUE
TUS 2009-09-24  10h 14m   39  28  4   4   3
SDG 2009-09-24  08h 00m   67  57  8   2
TUS 2009-09-23  10h 15m   38  25  7   1   5
SDG 2009-09-23  05h 00m   7   7   0   0

TUS – Camera in Tucson operated by Carl Hergenrother
SDG – Camera in San Diego operated by Bob Lunsford
TotTime – Total amount of time each camera looked for meteors
TOT – Total number of meteors detected
SPO – Sporadics (meteors not affiliated with any particular meteor shower)
ANT – Antihelions
DAU – Delta Aurigids
NUE – Nu Eridanids

Sept 20th Fireball Over the NE

The Northeast US was treated to a doubleheader of rare sky phenomenon this past weekend. On Saturday evening, a NASA rocket launched from Virginia created a spectacular but short-lived “comet”. Later on that night around 12:30 to 1:00 am, a brilliant fireball was observed along the eastern seaboard from New Jersey to Maine. There were even sightings as far inland as the Buffalo area and far eastern Ontario.


The above map plots sightings of the fireball reported to the American Meteor Society’s Fireball page and this blog. The reports are consistent with an object that was at least as bright as the Full Moon and lasted for 3-10 seconds. There were 2 reports of delayed sonic booms, possibly caused by falling meteorites. These reports were relatively close to each in Derry, NH and Westford, MA. The fireball was most likely caused by a small asteroid (maybe a foot or so across) burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Please send any additional reports to the American Meteor Society’s Fireball page.

The Discovery, Re-discovery and Recovery of Comet Pigott-LINEAR-Kowalski

There has been a long held rule that comets can not be named after more than 3 discoverers. In the days of slow world-wide communications, it was not uncommon for a comet to be discovered by numerous observers before the official discovery announcement could be made. As a result, many comets had three names attached to them. With the internet, the frequency of triple named comets has decreased. The latest comet to bear three names is Comet Pigott-LINEAR-Kowalski and 226 years passed between the time it acquired its first and third name.

Edward Pigott of York, England first spotted Comet Pigott on November 19, 1783. Astronomy ran in the Pigott family as his father was also a well known astronomer. The comet was lost after the 1783 apparition. Due to the primitive state of measuring comet positions as well as orbit determination, it was not unusual for comets to be lost until rediscovered at a later time.

That later time came in January of 2003 when the LINEAR survey found a “new” comet with their telescopes outside of Socorro, New Mexico. Within days of its discovery the LINEAR comet, now designated Comet C/2003 A1 (LINEAR), a suggestion was made that it might be a return of long-lost Comet Pigott. Unfortunately, it was not possible to made a definite link between the 2003 LINEAR comet and Piggot’s 1783 find. The comet would have to wait till it was observed at yet another apparition.

A few weeks ago on the night of Sept 10, Rich Kowalski of the Catalina Sky Survey was surveying the sky for unknown comet and asteroids when he came across a possible new comet. Rich shared some of his thoughts on his latest comet find:

The Catalina Sky Survey, along with most of the observatories in the American Southwest, do not observe during July & August each year due to our rainy season, known locally as the Monsoon. It gives us the time to repair and maintain our telescopes and upgrade instruments and facilities. Time that is precious and isn’t used for these things during the other ten months of the year which is our “Observing Season”.

This year’s season started right after the Full Moon of September and as luck would have it the first night was rainy and cloudy. Even though I was at the Catalina Schmidt telescope, I could not observe. The second night of my run and the actual first night of the new season was much better. I could observe most of the night, even though some clouds remained during the first few hours. It wasn’t long before I discovered a new Near-Earth Asteroid, 2009 RH, a small rock only about 50 meters (150 feet) across. The rest of the night continued with our normal pattern of observing various parts of the sky systematically, looking for these asteroids.

A few hours before dawn, with the waning gibbous moon climbing high in the sky, our software showed me an object that was faint and very diffuse, almost a wisp of light like the reflections off the optics we sometimes see when there is a bright star close by, but this one was different. It isn’t uncommon for us to spot comets on our nightly search and after a while your eye becomes trained to see the differences between asteroids, galaxies, reflections in the optics and comets. This one looked like a puffball of a comet, with no tail or the central condensation that many comets have, but I knew right a way it was a comet. As I said, spotting comets is not out of the ordinary and almost every time we see one the comet is already know. I copied the coordinates of this comet into the Minor Planet Center’s “Comet Checker” web page, fully expecting it to identify the comet just as it had done several times before during that same night.

This time it did not come back with an ID.

“Oh really?” I thought to myself.

It had been nearly two years since my last comet discovery, P/2007 T2, a comet I discovered on my birthday. After seeing that it was not identified, I took a closer look to make sure it was actually a comet before reporting it to the MPC and the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT). CBAT is the clearinghouse for reporting comet discoveries, just as the MPC is the clearinghouse for positional observations and discoveries of asteroids and planetary satellites.

I then proceeded to have our software schedule additional observations of the comet later that night and continued searching for more NEOs. I secured these observations before the sky started getting bright from the coming dawn.

The next night was mostly clear again and I continued the search for more NEOs. By the time this new comet rose high enough in my sky for me to observe it again, no other observations had been reported, so I made some additional ones to confirm it was real and to help determine it’s orbit. Before the night was over a few other observatories had reported additional observations.

When the Circular announcing the discovery of the comet was released I was a bit surprised that it had been determined by Dimitry Chestnov, an astronomer in Moscow, that this comet was actual the return of an object that was found by a fellow NEO survey in New Mexico called LINEAR in 2003. It was also thought that it might also be the comet Edward Pigott discovered in 1783, but no one could be sure. After my discovery, the two objects, my comet and the one found by LINEAR were clearly one and the same, but its position was very far off from where it should have been in the sky. It was found that this comet had a close encounter with Jupiter exactly three years to the day before I picked it up with the Catalina Schmidt. The recent observations, along with those made in 2003 made it obvious that this was indeed the comet that Pigott had discovered in 1783 and had been lost for 226 years!

It was an interesting and exciting way to start off the new observing season and whets my appetite to the other things my colleagues and I will discover in the coming year!

With the identification of the latest Kowalski comet with P/2003 A1 (LINEAR), it was possible to link the comet with the 1783 Pigott comet. The comet is now known as P/2009 R2 (Pigott-LINEAR-Kowalski) and will probably be officially numbered as comet 226P/Pigott-LINEAR-Kowalski.

Though the comet was bright enough to allow small telescope users to see it in 1783, it no longer gets as bright. It is likely that the comet was in outburst in 1783 which caused it to get brighter than usual. Also in 1783 the comet approached within 1.46 AU of the Sun. Now the comet only approaches within 1.77 AU of the Sun. Since it is 4 months past perihelion the comet barring another outburst will slowly fade from its current brightness of 17th magnitude.


The 4 recovery images of Comet Pigott-LINEAR-Kowalski taken by Rich Kowalski at the Catalina Sky Survey on 2009 Sept 10. The comet is located within the small purple circle. Credit: Rich Kowalski/Catalina Sky Survey/NASA

Sept 20/21/22 Meteors

Meteor activity remains strong over the past few night. Low levels of activity continue to radiate from the Perseus/Auriga area (where the Delta Aurigids and other poorly defined radiants may be active) and the Nu Eridanid radiant which is currently located near the “shield” of Orion.

The Nu Eridanids (NUE) is a newly recognized shower which has been identified in the video data of the SonotaCo network (Japan) and the IMO Video network (Europe/US, which includes the cameras operated by myself and Bob). The cameras operated by myself and Bob are part of the IMO network.

The NUE are active from Sept 3 to 24 with a peak around the date of Sept 7. Though there has not been any published work on the visual rates of this shower, it most likely only produces a meteor or three per hour for observers at dark sites. Salvador Aguirre of Hermosillo, Mexico reports that he was able to observe 2 NUEs on the morning of Sept 17 during ~40 minutes of observing under a dark +6.2 mag sky. With a velocity of ~68 km/s the NUEs were most likely created by an unknown retrograde long-period comet.

Obs Date (UT)   TotTime  TOT SPO ANT DAU NUE
TUS 2009-09-22  09h 50m   32  20  1   4   7
SDG 2009-09-22  07h 27m   38  32  6   0
TUS 2009-09-21  09h 24m   37  28  3   4   2
SDG 2009-09-21  08h 00m   56  43  11  2
TUS 2009-09-20  09h 19m   29  22  1   3   3
SDG 2009-09-20  03h 00m   4   4   0   0

TUS – Camera in Tucson operated by Carl Hergenrother
SDG – Camera in San Diego operated by Bob Lunsford
TotTime – Total amount of time each camera looked for meteors
TOT – Total number of meteors detected
SPO – Sporadics (meteors not affiliated with any particular meteor shower)
ANT – Antihelions
DAU – Delta Aurigids
NUE – Nu Eridanids

Rocket Launch Seen Over the NE US

A few reports have been received of a mysterious “comet”-like cloud visible over the Middle Atlantic and New England states during the evening of Sept 19. Steve from Martha’s Vineyard sent in the following sighting:

Unusual sighting at 19:22 on 9/19/09 from Matrha’s Vineyard (off Cape Cod, MA). Bright light (3-4x brighter than Jupiter) that seemed to be moving directly towards us (not across the sky). It grew brighter for 3-5 seconds and two eruption of glowing gases/debris were emitted from it. The first eruption fell out of the object, forming at triangle, while the second eruption formed a round cloud around the object. Both clouds remained visible for 2-3 minutes and drifted eastward into similar bands within the milky way.

It turns out that NASA had launched a small sounding rocket from their launch facilities on Wallops Island in Virginia. Sounding rockets don’t travel fast enough to orbit the Earth but are still fast enough to reach extremely high altitudes (as high as 1400+ km) before falling back to Earth.

The launch of the Black Brant XII rocket was part of the Charged Aerosol Release Experiment (CARE) conducted by the Naval Research Laboratory and the Department of Defense Space Test Program. It’s purpose was to release particles into the upper atmosphere in order to create an artificial cloud. The STPSat-1 satellite will monitor this cloud which will help shed light on what causes noctilucent clouds.

Info on the launch as well as some pictures can be found at NASA and Spaceweather.

Below is a cool YouTube video of the launch and cloud release by an observer in Maryland.

Sept 17/18/19 Meteors

Meteor rates are about half of what they were earlier in the week. This is probably due to random fluctuations in the Sporadic meteor rate.

We also have seen the end of activity from the September Perseids and the beginning of activity from the Delta Aurigids. Both showers overlap with each other even though they appear to be caused by different comets.

Obs Date (UT)   TotTime  TOT SPO ANT DAU
TUS 2009-09-19  07h 12m   22  18  3   1
TUS 2009-09-18  10h 05m   24  20  4   0

TUS – Camera in Tucson operated by Carl Hergenrother
SDG – Camera in San Diego operated by Bob Lunsford
TotTime – Total amount of time each camera looked for meteors
TOT – Total number of meteors detected
SPO – Sporadics (meteors not affiliated with any particular meteor shower)
ANT – Antihelions
DAU – Delta Aurigids

Now’s the Time to See Comet Christensen

The brightest comet in the sky is Comet C/2006 W3 (Christensen). Now is the best time to observe this comet as it is nicely located in the evening sky after the end of twilight. At 8th magnitude the comet is not bright enough to be seen with just the naked eye. It will require a small telescope, though observers at very dark sites can probably see the comet with small binoculars. Though the comet will be observable over the next month or three, it is slowly fading and getting lower in the sky.

Moving through the constellation Aquila, the comet is located near the meridian, or due south, at the end of evening twilight. It is a few degrees to the southwest of Altair, the brightest star in Aquila and the southernmost star in the Summer Triangle. The comet is equally visible from both the northern and southern hemispheres. Recent observations put the comet near magnitude 8.5. It’s brightness should remain fairly steady for the rest of the month.

Ephemerides for the comet can be found at the Minor Planet Center.

Another version of its sky chart can be found at Comet Chasing.


Chart of the location of Comet C/2006 W3 (Christensen) for the 2nd half of September. Chart created with C2A. Credit: Carl Hergenrother/C2A

The comet was discovered by Eric Christensen of the Catalina Sky Survey on 2006 November 18. He used the 0.68-m Catalina Schmidt telescope located near Mount Bigelow in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. It was the 15th of Eric’s 19 comet discoveries. At discovery the comet was located 8.00 AU from Earth and 8.66 AU from the Sun which is almost as far from the Sun as Saturn (9.8 AU). Though such a large discovery distance is not rare these days it is still impressive since only a small fraction of all comets are discovered out that far.

Eric shared some thoughts on his discovery: “Regarding C/2006 W3, I honestly can’t recall much about its discovery. Perhaps the only remarkable thing about it was that it was so unremarkable at the time: small, faint, diffuse, and without any obvious tail or structure. When the initial MPEC came out I remember being excited by how distant it was and how close it was predicted to come (q~1.5), though this of course was quickly modified to a “disappointing” q~3.1.

It’s a little ironic that less than 6 months after discovery, I had moved to the southern hemisphere where C/2006 W3 would remain hidden from view until pretty recently. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t yet seen it visually through even a small telescope…and unfortunately there’s no eyepiece on Gemini. ;)”

As Eric mentioned, right after discovery the original orbit had the comet coming much closer to the Sun at perihelion. After a week or 2 of further observations the perihelion distance was moved farther away. This is common with distant comets. It’s not that the orbit is actually changing but rather that we don’t have sufficient observations to accurately determine the orbit. In the movies, the astronomer discovers something and then after a few furious seconds of keystrokes knows exactly where the object is going. In real life it may take hours (for very close objects) to years (for objects out by Pluto) of additional observations to nail down the correct orbit.

Comet Christensen is a long-period comet taking ~100,000 years or more to orbit the Sun. Closest approach to the Sun (perihelion) occurred on 2009 July 6 at 3.13 AU from the Sun. The comet’s orbit is highly inclined to the plane of the solar system at an angle of 127° which is slightly retrograde (meaning it orbits in the opposite direction as the planets).


Orbit of Comet Christensen. Positions valid for 2009 Sept 16. Chart made with C2A. Credit: Carl Hergenrother/C2A

Back in May of this year I was able to observe Comet Christensen with the 61″ telescope near Mount Bigelow (located at the same site as the Catalina Schmidt telescope that was used to discover the comet). At the time the comet was roughly the same brightness as it is now. Processing the image to look for structure in the inner coma revealed a few jets (the insert image in the figure below).  This is somewhat surprising for such a distant comet. Usually only comets that are much closer to the Sun display jet activity.


For another view of the comet, Salvador Aguirre of Hermosillo, Mexico submitted drawings of the comet as seen through his small backyard telescope. As his drawings show the comet does not have much of a tail and looks like a small faint smudge on the sky.


Small telescope observation of Comet Christensen. Credit: Salvador Aguirre

I’d like to thank Eric for sending his recollections and Salvador for sending his observations.

If anyone has pictures or drawings of this or any other comet to share, I’d like to post them.


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