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Tuesday, August 10

Northern Lights and the Perseid Meteor Shower

Update! The aurora forecast has just been updated to include Wednesday and Thursday nights as high activity!

The Sun is waking up to give us aurora and we are blessed with a large meteor shower around the time of the new moon! A good week!

First, the aurora borealis (Northern Lights). When a large coronal mass ejection (CME) occurred on Sunday, astronomers first predicted that it would have little or no effect upon us Earthlings. Yesterday, they said they were wrong, and that we would in fact be passing through a good chunk of the charged particles streaking through the heavens. Presto! Northern Lights!

Tonight (Tuesday) and tomorrow night slighly less so, we should have another crack at seeing the northern lights as far south was Chicago. Obviously, being in the city with our pink/orange light pollution will make it unlikely, but head north as far as you can get between 10pm-2am, and take a gander. The reality is that they don't really know how big, or how bright, or where they will show. The forecasting for this stuff is even harder than the weather in Chicago, so it could be a lot less than they think or it could be a lot stronger. They are predicting that Tuesday will be the stronger of the two nights. So make a batch of green tea and head north with a comfy chair, a blanket, and someone you like spending time with.

And while you're out watching for the lights, check out the Perseids! The meteors will peak on Thursday night, but are already active!

 Meteor showers are caused when the earth passes through the tail of a comet as it travels on its huge arc around the sun. The timing of this display is very predictable, though the exact level of activity is not. Meteors are really tiny pieces of dust, rock and ice hitting the atmosphere and glowing as they burn up. This week we are passing through the debris trail of the comet Swift Tuttle, which circles the sun every 133 years. Because the meteorites appear to emanate from the constellation Perseus, they are named the Perseids.

 So while you are sitting out waiting for the elusive northern lights, here's how to look for the center of the shower. Find the throne of Cassiopeia, which looks like a huge W in the NE sky. Starting around 10pm, Perseus will rise just below her. The shower will be centered on the area between them. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but their tails will all be pointing back to this area. The meteors count should be highest just before dawn, but some should be visible all night.

While you're watching this way, look for the large sideways V of Andromeda opening up toward this area. If you look just above the second set of stars in the V, you will see our closest neighbor galaxy, the Andromeda Galaxy, which on a clear night is visible to the naked eye even in Chicago, and will look like a large fuzzy patch in even low power binocs!

Here are two charts to help you watch for the shower. Enjoy.
View of the Northeast sky around 11pm in Chicago. Graphic courtesy of NASA.

Here is a sky chart for Chicago at 10:25 Tuesday night. Hold it over your head for best results. Courtesy of heavens-above.com.

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