Was it a meteor? A broken-up satellite? Maybe a UFO? Leave it to an astronomer to identify what caused the light show that was visible over a wide stretch of the Pacific Northwest around 9 p.m. PT tonight.
Jonathan McDowell, an expert satellite-tracker at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, quickly figured out that the meteoric display was actually the breakup of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stage, left over from a launch that took place three weeks ago.
“The Falcon 9 second stage from the Mar 4 Starlink launch failed to make a deorbit burn and is now re-entering after 22 days in orbit,” McDowell tweeted.
It’s fitting that the re-entry of a rocket stage from a Starlink satellite launch provided a moment of marvelment from Seattle to Portland and beyond. After all, those satellites are manufactured at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash., and it’s conceivable that members of the Starlink team caught the show.
The stars have aligned for this weekend’s peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower. Now let’s hope that the weather aligns as well.
Skywatchers rank December’s Geminids alongside August’s Perseids as the year’s highlights for meteor shows. Under peak conditions, sharp-eyed observers can see two meteors a minute. NASA notes that the shooting stars are bright and fast, and tend to be yellow in color.
But the strength of the show is highly dependent on viewing conditions. In some years, the moon’s glare washes out the night sky so that few meteor streaks stand out.
One of the few good things about 2020 is that the moon won’t interfere this year. It’s nearly a new moon, which means skywatchers will see only a thin crescent that rises in the east just before dawn.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on summer star parties and other public gatherings, and skywatching isn’t exactly the kind of thing best done via a Zoom session. But you can still experience the wonders of the universe, just by looking up into dark, clear skies.
Four planets are on view: Jupiter and Saturn after sunset, and Mars and Venus before sunrise.
Although now is not the best time for Americans to spot the International Space Station, you just might be able to track the latest batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites as the stream across the sky. (Plug in your coordinates on Heavens-Above.com to check viewing times.)
Dickinson’s guide is designed to cover the more established targets of the night sky, ranging from the constellations to star clusters, nebulae and galaxies.
Forty-four sky charts, organized by month, point out wonders that can be found with the naked eye, with binoculars or with a telescope like the one that Dickinson sets up in his backyard or on the top floor of a nearby parking garage.
“Your observatory is wherever you’re observing,” he said.
Dickinson also provides context that goes beyond latitude and longitude: Which naked-eye stars have planets orbiting them? What are the myths behind the constellation’s names, and what did other cultures see in them? What makes a planetary nebula “planetary”?
The guide includes a list of online tools, websites and publications to help you plot out your observing strategy — including Stellarium, a free planetarium program that’s priceless.
So what are the best deep-sky objects to turn your telescope toward while you’re waiting for the Perseids? Dickinson recommends M13, a globular star cluster in Hercules, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, the variable star Algol (a.k.a. the Demon Star) in Perseus … and Epsilon Lyrae, the “double-double” star in the constellation Lyra.
You’re unlikely to repeat Messier’s mistake, as long as you have Dickinson’s field guide sitting next to your lounge chair (preferably consulted by the light of a red flashlight to preserve your night vision).
To celebrate the summer’s big week for skywatching — and reward you for reading down this far — I’m giving away a copy of “The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide.” Just be the first to answer this Cosmic Log quiz question in the comment section below:
What is the name of the closest planetary nebula to Earth?
The first person to answer correctly, based on my assessment of the time stamp, will be eligible to receive the book by mail (U.S. postal addresses only). If I can’t get in touch with that person via email in a timely fashion, I’ll move on to the next person on the list.
Back in the old days, Cosmic Log was known for its community of commenters, and I’m hoping we can revive that spirit. If you have a favorite night-sky object to observe, or a favorite resource for skywatching, pass it along in a comment. Your recommendation may end up in a future Cosmic Log roundup.
Update for 11:25 a.m. PT Aug. 9: We have a winner! Boris Zuchner was the first to answer the quiz question correctly, with an assist by Professor Google. As revealed on page 160 of “The Backyard Astronomer’s Field Guide,” the closest planetary nebula to Earth is the Helix Nebula, a.k.a. NGC 7293. Assuming that Boris’ mailing address is in the United States, he’ll be able to look that fact up himself in the future, thanks to the book I’ll be sending him.
As I wrote in the comments, don’t be a stranger! It took me a while to approve the comments this time around, but I’ll try to be faster on the draw for the next book giveaway.
Rocket fans in California may have been disappointed by tonight’s scrub of a Delta 4 Heavy launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, but they received a nice consolation prize: a fireball that left what looked like a contrail hanging in sunset skies.
The bright squiggle in the sky may have mystified some, but savvy folks who spotted the flash recognized it as the signature of an exploding meteor, also known as a bolide.
It was pure coincidence that the fireball flashed at 5:34 p.m. PT, just before United Launch Alliance called off the launch of a classified spy satellite known as NROL-71 for the National Reconnaissance Office, due to elevated hydrogen levels that were detected during the countdown.
Video views captured from cars traveling in locales including Sacramento, Stockton and the San Francisco Bay Area helped solve the celestial mystery.
The moon is sure to one-up the meteors: With the full phase just a few days away, it’ll be in the sky nearly all night, washing out most of the Orionids’ fainter flashes. Nevertheless, the weekend timing and the sky cover forecast could make it worth your while to get out of town and see the show.
The outlook for this year’s Perseid meteor shower is checking all the boxes. Up to a meteor a minute? Check. Moonless sky? Check. Peaking during the weekend? Check. Clear weather? That even looks like a check mark for the night of Aug. 12-13 in Seattle.
Only two clouds hang over what’s traditionally the year’s most watched meteor display. One is literal clouds: The skies won’t always be totally clear for this weekend’s peak, although the National Weather Service shows the cloud cover forecast improving as the weekend wears on. There’s also the smoke from Western wildfires to contend with.
The other cloud has to do with expectations: Yes, the Perseids can produce a meteor per minute, but that’s at the very peak of the shower, under peak conditions. So don’t be disappointed if your meteor mileage varies.
The preliminary findings are the result of an unprecedented survey conducted this week by the Exploration Vessel Nautilus in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, about 15 miles (25 kilometers) off the coast of Washington state.
If scientists are correct, the two flecks of rock identified today could be the first pieces of a meteorite recovered from the ocean after its descent was observed.
The good news is that the annual Quadrantid meteor shower is reaching its peak tonight with relatively clear skies in the forecast for Western Washington. The bad news? It’ll be hard to spot shooting stars, due to the night-long glare from a moon that’s just past its super-sized full phase.