Stargazing: Fireballs

FIREBALL: This week is a great time to look to the skies for meteor showers and fireballs. PHOTO: John Schumack
FIREBALL: This week is a great time to look to the skies for meteor showers and fireballs. PHOTO: John Schumack

Celestial fireworks this weekend

The night sky for the rest of this month is looking good with no harsh moonlight to wash out our after dinner skies. It’s a great target for the novice telescope owner as well because it’s just so easy to find stars and star clusters. It’s also a good week ahead for watching the Orionids meteor shower visible across our region, with the peak of the shower occurring on the 21st.

Generally, this is a good shower for beginners with estimates of around 30 meteors per hour. As with all showers, the best time for viewing will be from around midnight until an hour before sunrise.

The shower is centred around the constellation Orion. From any Aussie backyard just look for the familiar shape of the ‘Saucepan’ and watch below the three stars that make up the bottom of the pan. Be patient and give it time, it’ll happen when you least expect it.

Now, just to spice things up a little, there’s a second lesser known shower happening afterwards. The Taurids are a long duration meteor shower visible throughout spring and peaking during the first week of November. They have been described as being bright, slow moving and with the occasional colourful fireball.

So, what exactly are meteor showers? Well, they’re basically the tail ends of comets. As comets orbit the Sun, they shed an icy, dusty debris stream along the comet’s orbit. If earth travels through this stream, we see a meteor shower. Meteor showers are named by the constellation from which meteors appear to fall.  

They’re called ‘shooting stars’ but that’s incorrect. Stars don’t fall out of the sky, they’re simply small bits of iron rock. Has anyone ever been hit by a meteorite? You bet! In 1954, an Alabama housewife was sleeping on her couch when a small meteor that crashed through the roof struck her on the hip.

In 1992, a large meteor exploded over the eastern United States with pieces punching a hole clear through the boot of a woman’s car. Her old and rather run down bomb instantly became a collector’s item and later sold for $200,000!

In June 1994, Jose Martin of Spain was driving with his wife near Madrid when a 1.4 kilogram meteor crashed through his windshield, bent the steering wheel and ended up in the back seat. Martin suffered a broken finger while his wife was uninjured.

In 1860, in Ohio, a horse reportedly died after being struck by a meteor. In 1911 a dog was reportedly killed in Egypt. But being clobbered by a meteor is still an extremely remote possibility.

Enjoy the Orionids. They love dark skies so don’t forget to keep your camera handy if they happen - just in case.


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