Alaskans have the dark-sky advantage when it comes to viewing meteor showers

In fall, winter months it's common to wake up to a morning shower

Posted: Sunday, November 05, 2006

KENAI - When it comes to viewing meteor showers in late fall and winter, Alaskans have at least one advantage over stargazers living in the Lower 48. It's easy to wake up before sunrise.

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The Orionids, a shower of meteors that peaked earlier this month, have diminished, but stargazers still have the Leonids and the Geminids to look forward to and the best time to view these meteor showers will be in the morning just before sunrise.

Now that the long sunny days of summer have waned, it's time to pull out the telescopes, binoculars, blankets and sky charts and soak in all that the theater of the night sky has to offer. Satellites, meteor showers, planets and other astronomical phenomena offer to dazzle patient observers.

The meteor showers mentioned above will mark two of the highlights of this winter's night sky events.

Meteor showers are named after the point in the sky from which they appear to be coming from and descend into the atmosphere when the Earth passes through the trails of debris left in the wake of comets, said Travis Rector, an astronomy professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

Meteor showers typically last about a week, but usually peak for only one or two days.

Stargazers will want to mark Nov. 17 and Dec. 14 on their calendars when the Leonids and then the Geminids will peak.

To see the meteor showers, look to the constellation of Leo on Nov. 17 and the constellation of Gemini on Dec. 14.

But there's no reason for stargazers to limit their nighttime viewing to just these two events. Every clear night features a host of constellations to discover, satellites to follow and sometimes a planet or two.

As a hobby that can keep stargazers busy all winter long, Rector suggests tracking iridium flashes. Iridium flashes are caused by a series of phone satellites launched in the late 1990s. The company that launched the satellites went under, but its satellites still roam the heavens with their reflective, door-sized antennae.

"What makes them interesting is that there's a lot of them and they move around," Rector said. "(And) there are certain times of the day and the evening when one of the satellites will be at just the right angle ... and you'll see it as a bright flash up in the sky."

To find out when and where in the sky an iridium flash can be seen, stargazers can visit and enter their coordinates.

"It's a lot of fun," Rector said. "They're quite bright. It looks like all of a sudden a real bright star appears and then disappears. If you aren't looking in the right direction then you won't notice it, but if you are looking in the right place it's pretty neat."

Rector said there are typically several a night and that they can also be seen during the day, but put on their best show at night.

Other satellites can be distinguished from heavenly bodies by their movements through the sky, which are slower than those of meteors falling into the atmosphere but much faster than that of any of the stars or planets. Some satellites move very little relative to the heavens. These are typically communications satellites and have primarily equatorial orbits.

Circumpolar satellites, however, do move relative to the heavens and these are usually the satellites that we readily recognize in the sky. Unfortunately these are primarily military satellites and cannot be tracked by visiting a Web site, Rector said.

"Those are the ones you actually see move, but you're not supposed to know about them," he said. "They don't want you to know where they are."

Although this is not the best time of year to see planets, stargazers watching for the Leonids might also want to watch for Saturn. Saturn is pale yellow and will be visible in the vicinity of the constellation of Leo at the same time the Leonids peak.

There is yet another planet viewing opportunity on the horizon that should not be missed, but you don't need to crawl out in the dark to see it.

Starting at about 10 a.m. Nov. 8, Mercury will pass in front of the sun, appearing as a small shadowy blemish on the sun. Without a telescope and solar filters observers can damage their eyes trying to watch the event.

But don't despair yet. If skies are clear, Kenai Peninsula College professor Andy Veh is inviting the public to view the event through telescopes and solar filters that he will set up on the college's lawn from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Mercury last transited in front of the sun in 2003 and won't transit in front of the sun again until 2016.

Lucky for Alaskans the transit will occur while their side of the Earth is facing the sun and will last five hours.

"Usually such events are shorter, but this one really takes its time," Veh said. "So the length is quite impressive."

In addition to, stargazers might also want to visit and for when and were to look for other astronomical events, and photos and explanations of how and why they occur.

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