Meteors light up our skies

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A spectacular meteor shower was recently seen over the UK, stretching from Edinburgh to Norfolk, and even as far north as the Shetland Islands.  These amazing meteors, which appeared shortly after 11 pm on September 21, were not predicted, and have left leading experts puzzled as to where exactly they came from. Meteors are visible trails formed by space debris that can be up to a meter wide.  The debris itself is heated by atmospheric pressure, releasing a long stream of glowing particles and gas, and in most instances these showers can often be predicted years – sometimes centuries – in advance.

The meteors which we just experienced were unusual in that they were exceptionally large and bright and, travelling at only 18,000 miles per hour, relatively slow-moving.  This gives us a clue that they might have originated somewhere close to earth: some experts believe that they were pieces of a broken-up satellite.  Over a thousand satellites are currently orbit the earth, and many of them will eventually fall through the atmosphere – and so for those who did miss the fireball, opportunities to view meteor showers will reappear aplenty over the next three months.

Photo credit: Adcuz

 The Draconid meteor shower is active between the 6th and the 8th of October, peaking on the 7th. The last century witnessed some spectacular Draconid storms, and while no unusual activity is predicted for this year, observers are encouraged keep an eye out for potential storms. Draconid meteors are also remarkably sedate, so showers should be observable throughout the evening of the 7th.

 The Orionid meteor shower makes its appearance before dawn on the 21st of October, with an average of fifteen meteors per hour. Faster-moving than the Draconids, the Orionids often deliver bright fireballs and lingering trains.  In early November, dedicated sky watchers can look out for the South Taurids, which produce only about seven meteors per hour, peaking just after midnight on the 5th. The North Taurids offer similar numbers between late evening on the 11th of November until dawn on the 12th.

One of the most famous showers of the year, the Leonids, emanates from the constellation Leo and will be observable on the 16th of November. The Leonid shower has produced as many as a thousand meteors per hour in the past, its most prolific being in 1966. However, observers should also be prepared for disappointment as the Leonid has also been known to growl rather than roar, providing as few as ten to fifteen meteors per hour.

Finally, the Geminids will be peaking around the 13th of December, a favourite with meteor-watchers, as it gives the most consistent annual showers of fifty or more meteors every hour. It also starts earlier, around 9pm or 10pm, the perfect show for those who value their bedtime.

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