Possibly the least observed meteor shower of the autumn has just begun. They are are the ε (epsilon) Geminids which reach a peak of activity on the 18th/19th. These are not the "Geminids" that astronomers get excited about every December! If you've been out observing during late October evenings then it's possible that you've seen a meteor from this shower already; records show that the Earth encounters the meteor stream from about October 10th to the 27th.
Under perfect conditions (no moonlight, radiant directly overhead, etc) then 1 or 2 meteors per hour can be expected! From the UK the radiant can never be overhead and in 2011 the gibbous moon is near the radiant of the shower...so observed rates will be much lower than 1 or 2 per hour. Also, the Orionid meteor shower (peaking on the 20th/21st) has a radiant nearby so meteors coming from that part of the sky may not necessarily be ε-Geminids.
Before you give up on this as a lost cause it's worth noting that the ε Geminids were probably discovered by local astronomer Thomas William Backhouse (1842 - 1920). That he was able to ascribe a radiant to meteors of such low frequency occurring close to the radiant of the Orionids is evidence of his meticulous observing skills. Backhouse of Sunderland was a renowned visual observer in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was one of the first astronomers to see Noctilucent Clouds and he brought the Gegenschein (a glow of zodiacal light directly opposite the Sun) to the attention of astronomers in the UK. The northeast of England can claim a couple of well known astronomers as its own; Sir George Biddell Airy (born in Alnwick) went on to become a mathematician and the 7th Astronomer Royal. And we adopted Sir William Herschel for the brief period he lived in Sunderland (although to be fair, he wasn't an astronomer at this point. Straws are being clutched.) The contributions of T W Backhouse are numerous but he now seems to be the forgotten astronomer of the Northeast.
Back to the epsilon Geminids. As the name suggests, the radiant is close to the star epsilon Geminorum in the constellation Gemini. See a map here. This year the waning gibbous moon (with 63% phase) is close to the radiant making observation tricky. Higher rates will be seen after midnight - particularly in the hours leading up to dawn when the radiant is high above the southern horizon. Don't hold your breath though.
The first meteor shower of the new year is the Quadrantid shower. The shower is named after the discarded constellation Quadrans Muralis (the mural quadrant) whose stars were incorporated within the boundaries of neighbouring Hercules, Bootes and Draco when the the IAU reorganised the constellations in 1928.
The position of the radiant is shown on the star chart below; it is situated about one-third of way between the tail of the Plough and the star Vega.
The star chart shows the sky as seen from the latitude of Hauxley, Northumberland (a little over 55 degrees N) at 6.00am on January 4th. The radiant is almost overhead at this time and meteors will appear to radiate from this point, appearing anywhere in the sky.
Sat in the garden with a cup of coffee watching the Perseids zip across the sky. I saw a couple of dozen - it averaged out at about one per minute. The camera was taking one minute exposures of the whole sky. The best picture I got showed a Perseid shooting down the Milky Way as it emerged from behind a cloud.
The shower is building towards a maximum this evening and forecast is good. I'd like to get another meteor picture without a pesky cloud in the way.
I was torn between leaving the camera taking whole sky pictures and getting a shot of some deepsky object through the telescope. The DSO won and I took about eight 3 minute exposures of the Veil Nebula.
A star detonated here between five and eight thousand years ago. The gaseous wreckage continues to expand into the interstellar medium, carrying heavy elements which might get incorporated into a future generation of star formation and perhaps planets capable of supporting life. The Veil Nebula covers a huge area of the sky; there's a clear 2.5 degrees between the east and west portions of the nebula. That's big enough to fit more than 5 full-moons edge to edge!
The only big DSO left that I want to photograph is the Heart Nebula in Cassiopeia; hopefully I'll get a chance tonight with a clear sky.
Dr Adrian Jannetta
Guitar strummin' explorer of the universe. Mild mannered maths teacher by day and astronomer by night.