Since accidentally discovering the Leonids Meteor Shower several years ago (Leonid By Mistake), November has become my favorite time for viewing the night sky. There’s nothing better than a cool, crisp autumn evening shared with your significant other while ooohing and aaahing the night away (watching the stars, of course).
First up, the lesser known (as compared to the Leonid shower) Taurids Meteor Shower. Why lesser known? Even in a good year, the Taurids don’t kick up half the sparks that the Leonids do. Peak rates are only about five-to-seven meteors per hour. The good news is they travel at about half the speed of the more energetic Leonids (17 miles per second vs. 44 miles per second) and should be visible for longer periods. However, the peak of the Taurids is expected on the 11th and the moon will be full on the 10th. Worse, the moon will be sectored near the Taurids making them all but impossible to see. It might be better to change your priorities this time: Pull out your telescope and check out the moon — if you happen to see a Taurid or two, consider yourself lucky.
Unlike the Taurids, the Leonids can fill the sky with streaking light that can rival an interplanetary fireworks celebration. This particular shower tends to peak in 33 year intervals with hundreds of meteors per hour being visible. Unfortunately, the last peak was in 2001. This year we can expect a more normal rate of 15-20 per hour. But there’s more bad news: The Leonids will peak on November 18th, poorly timed with the last quarter of the new moon. Not only that, but the “half moon” will be hanging in the same sector of the sky as where the Leonids are expected to be most concentrated. In other words, the moon will be throwing enough light around to make for tough viewing of the meteor-strewn sky. Bummer. Or, in the words of Bob Seger, “Shame, shame, shame, shame on the moon.”
But what about next week’s passing asteroid? [Asteroid vs. meteoroid.] Maybe November sky-gazing won’t be a washout after all? Asteroid 2005 YU55 was discovered in 2005 and next week will make the closest pass to Earth of an asteroid of this magnitude since 1976. Early last year it was determined to not possess any unusual level of danger to Earth and a few months later its orbit was confirmed by radar to not be on a path to strike Earth for at least the next 100 years and removed from the Sentry monitoring system (Sentry tracks only the next 100 years of possible collisions). Next Tuesday, 2005 YU55 will pass 202,000 miles from earth, or about 85% (.85 lunar distance) of the distance to the moon. The next similarly-sized asteroid passing this close isn’t expected until 2028.
As for the next 2005 YU55 visit, it’s not expected in our neighborhood — at least not this close — for quite some time. NASA and the folks at JPL will be keeping eyes, lasers, radars and who knows what else firmly fixed on the passing asteroid. Calculations as it passes next week will help confirm its orbit, and further calculations as it swings past Venus in 2029 will fine-tune its next close-Earth pass in 2041 which may be as close as 190,000 miles.
What should we expect next week as YU55 streaks by? Moon illumination shouldn’t be an issue even though the next full moon is on the 10th. Actually, the sky should be fully illuminated as the closest pass to Earth will happen at about 4:30 PM Central time Tuesday afternoon. All we have to do is hope for clear skies. Search for the star Altair at about that time (Altair is the 12th brightest star in the sky), and then watch for 2005 YU55 — astronomers estimate its size as about that of an aircraft carrier. You’ll need a telescope and the ability to track it (it will be moving fast, remember). NASA says it should be easily viewed by observers in both Northern and Southern Hemispheres. No problem, right?