When you wish upon a… piece of Halley’s Comet?

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Have you ever heard the superstition that you should wish upon a falling star? If you do that this week, you might just be wishing upon a piece of Halley’s Comet burning up in our atmosphere! Falling or shooting stars have nothing to do with stars. Instead, what scientists call meteors are flashes of light caused when a tiny piece of a comet enters our atmosphere and burns up. Imagine your car driving into a swarm of insects and watching them go splat on your windshield. That’s not a bad analogy for the earth running into a swarm of meteoroids, debris liberated by a comet as it orbits the sun. When earth passes through the orbit of a particular comet (which, for any particular comet, will occur at the same time each year), many of these meteoroids burn up, creating a meteor shower. A meteor shower is named not after the comet whose particles create it, but rather where in the sky the meteors seem to radiate from, or the radiant. The brightest constellation in the region usually lends its name.

We are currently in the midst of the Orionid meteor shower, whose radiant lies between Orion’s bright shoulder star Betelgeuse and the bottom stars of Gemini (see above). Depending on how the meteoroid field is configured (for example, the size and number of particles, and the width of the meteoroid field), a meteor shower can last for a few days up to a few weeks, but there is usually a narrow window where we hit the densest part of the stream and hence see the largest number of meteors per hour. This year the Orionids are expected to peak in the predawn hours of Saturday, October 21.

The Orionids are certainly not the best meteor shower of the year (at peak you might only see 20 per hour, and each meteor is not particularly bright), but it has a unique romantic charm due to the identity of its parent comet, Comet P/Halley, or as most people know it, Halley’s Comet. While the comet itself won’t be in our neighborhood again until 2061, each year we actually get two meteor showers from the material it left behind on previous journeys around the sun – the Orionids in mid-October and the Eta Aquarids in early May.

If you find yourself up before dawn this week, why not take a peek out your window in the direction of Orion, and see if you can make a wish on an Orionid – mine will certainly be to be alive when Halley’s Comet returns in 2061 so I can become a member of the Halley’s Comet two-timer club!

 

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Explore the Cosmos at CCSU Family Day

CCSU Family Day is Saturday, October 7, and the Copernican Observatory and Planetarium and Geology & Planetary Science Club have free activities that are out of this world! Planetarium shows run at 11:30 AM and 2 PM, and join us in the library-side foyer of Copernicus Hall for free geology and astronomy activities suitable for children of all ages. Between 11 AM – 2 PM can construct a starfinder or a model of Saturn to take home, examine rocks and minerals from Connecticut, try your hand at making craters, touch real meteorites and fossils,  and observe sunspots (weather permitting).

Reliving the Total Solar Eclipse

[Pinhole projections of the partial phase as well as the diamond ring after the total phase of the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse as seen from Marion, IL.]

Viewing a total solar eclipse is an extremely emotional experience, whether it is your first (in Jess’s case) or your fifth (in Kris’s case). We attempted to shoot a Facebook Live video with a cellphone of the minutes before totality until the internet connection cut out about halfway through totality. Although the visual portion is questionable at best, the audio gives you an accurate portrayal of the raw emotion that comes with witnessing a total eclipse after the years of planning, hundreds or thousands of miles of travelling, and nail-biting hours of wondering if the clouds will thwart all your hard work. Enjoy!

— Kris Larsen and Jessica Johnson

[Note: although the video is set as Public, it may not play on certain browsers]

Upcoming Free Eclipse Talks

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[Partial phase of a solar eclipse viewed in Egypt in 2006]

If you haven’t attended one of Dr. Larsen’s free public lectures on the upcoming solar eclipse you still have several chances! Please contact the host institutions directly to reserve your spots:

Wallingford Public Library: August 9, 7 PM

Bristol Public Library: August 14, 6:30 PM

CT Audubon Society (Glastonbury): August 15, 6:30 PM

 

Summer is the perfect time to catch a FREE planetarium show!

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[Nick, the planetarium projector, putting his best face forward in a selfie]

The Copernican Planetarium and Observatory is open year-round! Our next FREE public planetarium shows are Saturdays June 17 and July 1 at 8 PM. Afterwards, if the skies are clear you are invited to view the real night sky through a variety of instruments. Consult our webpage for more information.

Take Your Child to Space Day!

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[Attendees of the CCSU Take Your Sons and Daughters to Work Day examine real space rocks!]

Children and grandchildren of CCSU employees explored space from the comfort of the Geological Sciences Department on April 27. In addition to handling meteorites, children made UV-bead bracelets, examined spectra via diffraction glasses, and made star finders to bring home.