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What you're really seeing during a meteor shower

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Why are meteor showers like the Perseids so common? Turns out, space isn’t as empty as you might think. It’s littered with debris that forms those spectacular meteor shower we look forward to each year. Following is a transcript of the video.

Solar eclipses are rare and you can never predict when an aurora will illuminate the sky. But there’s one cosmic light show we can always count on. Meteor showers. They happen around the same time each year and have been doing so for centuries. But despite their brilliance and beauty it doesn’t take much to make a meteor shower. You just need three ingredients, the sun, Earth and a comet.

Comets have been around since the dawn of our solar system over four-and-a-half billion years ago. They formed out of the same disc of gas and dust that created earth and the other seven planets. And like the other planets they too orbit the sun but that’s where the similarities end. Most planets orbit the sun on fairly circular orbits whereas comets take a more elliptical path through our solar system. Check out Halley’s Comet for example. Right now it’s beyond the orbit of the furthest planet Neptune. But over the next 50 years it will travel about three billion miles toward the inner reaches of our solar system. Eventually flying past Earth in the year 2061.

And it’s encounters like this that make meteor showers possible. Because as a comet approaches the inner solar system, the sun’s radiation heats up ice under the surface and as that ice turns to a vapor it generates powerful outbursts of gas and dust, sometimes ejecting hundreds of tons of material into space per second. The result is a brilliant stream of debris called the comet tail or coma, which can stretch hundreds to thousands of miles across. In fact, space is littered with comet tail debris that our planet passes through each year. And when that happens, the debris strikes our atmosphere at over 100,000 miles an hour, incinerating the four-and-a-half billion year old fragments in seconds. This produces brilliant flashes of light that we call a meteor shower.

Now some meteor showers are more spectacular than others, giving us anywhere from a few to over a hundred meteors an hour. And even the same meteor shower can vary from year to year. It all depends on how much debris we scoop up as we pass through the tail. Regardless, comet tails tend to follow the same path as the comet itself, which means they pass through the same spot along Earth’s orbit. That’s why we get the same meteor showers around the same time each year. At the end of October for example, we pass through the tale of Halley’s Comet which gives us the Orionids meteor shower. And every August, we pass through comet Swift-Tuttle’s tail which we see as the Perseids meteor shower. But it’s not just October and August, meteor showers occur year-round. So check your calendar to see when the next one will be coming to a sky near you.

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Astronaut's Photo Captures Summer Sunrise over the Gulf of St. Lawrence

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A lucky astronaut aboard the International Space Station captured this image of the sun reflecting off the Gulf of St. Lawrence between the island of Newfoundland and mainland Labrador in Canada. 

They were lucky because clouds are so common in the area, NASA says, images of the region are not often acquired from the space station. But on this day, there was a break between two cloud banks just as the sun was rising about 4:40 a.m. 

This image of the sun reflecting off the Gulf of St. Lawrence between the island of Newfoundland and mainland Labrador was made by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station on July 5, 2018.

(NASA’s Earth Observatory)

At the time the photo was made on July 5, the space station was over Massachusetts, more than a thousand miles southwest of the sun's reflection point.

The astronaut, a member of the Expedition 56 crew, was using a Nikon D4 digital camera with a 145 mm lens. 

This labeled version gives you a better idea of what you're seeing:

This island of Newfoundland is on the right and mainland Labrador on the left with Quebec further inland. The photo was made by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station on July 5, 2018.

(NASA’s Earth Observatory)

 

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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'A planet of clouds': Astronaut aboard the ISS captures stunning image of Earth blanketed in white

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‘A planet of clouds’: Astronaut aboard the ISS captures stunning image of Earth blanketed in white

  • Astronaut Alexander Gerst captured the stunning photo this weekend from the International Space Station
  • The astronaut shared the image on Twitter this past Saturday, writing : ‘Wolkenplanet – A planet of clouds’
  • Through the window of the ISS, the curved horizon of Earth is seen as the planet appears covered in clouds

It’s a scene reminiscent of theories on ‘Snowball Earth’; a vast blanket of white that appears to stretch across the entire globe, completely blotting out the surface.

The breathtaking image captured by astronaut Alexander Gerst this weekend shows our planet swathed in clouds, with barely a hint of blue peeking through the cracks.

Gerst attained the unique perspective from 250 miles above the surface, aboard the orbiting International Space Station.

Scroll down for video 

A breathtaking image captured by astronaut Alexander Gerst this weekend shows our planet swathed in clouds, with barely a hint of blue peeking through the cracks. The astronaut shared the image on Twitter this past Saturday, writing simply: ‘Wolkenplanet – A planet of clouds’

A breathtaking image captured by astronaut Alexander Gerst this weekend shows our planet swathed in clouds, with barely a hint of blue peeking through the cracks. The astronaut shared the image on Twitter this past Saturday, writing simply: ‘Wolkenplanet – A planet of clouds’

The stunning photo offers a glimpse into the views seen only by the astronauts on the ISS.

Through the window, the curved horizon of our planet is seen in clear view – along with a few gadgets attached to the space station itself.

The astronaut shared the image on Twitter this past Saturday, writing simply: ‘Wolkenplanet – A planet of clouds.’

Gerst is currently leading the Horizons mission on the ISS, in his second stint at the orbiting lab.

He previously shared a stunning timelapse of what it’s like to fly over Earth at speeds unimaginable to the average person.

The video shows an incredible view of the trip over Alaska to the Andes in 260 seconds.

The crews aboard the space station frequently share updates on their life hundreds of miles above the surface, showing what it’s like to live and work in orbit for months on end.

In the past, they’ve revealed stunning views of everything from auroras to moon-sets.

WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION?

The International Space Station (ISS) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

It has been permanently staffed by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts since November 2000.

The space station is currently home to two Russians, three Americans and one Japanese. 

Research conducted aboard the ISS often requires one or more of the unusual conditions present in low Earth orbit, such as low-gravity or oxygen.

The International Space Station (file photo) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth

The International Space Station (file photo) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth

The International Space Station (file photo) is a $100 billion (£80 billion) science and engineering laboratory that orbits 250 miles (400 km) above Earth

ISS studies have investigated human research, space medicine, life sciences, physical sciences, astronomy and meteorology.

The US space agency, Nasa, spends about $3 billion (£2.4 billion) a year on the space station program, a level of funding that is endorsed by the Trump administration and Congress.

A U.S. House of Representatives committee that oversees Nasa has begun looking at whether to extend the program beyond 2024.

Alternatively the money could be used to speed up planned human space initiatives to the moon and Mars.

Earlier this month, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev released a video of the narrow tunnels astronauts must traverse to navigate the ISS.

And, it’s not an environment for those put off by small spaces.

The video showed a brief trip through the longest route on the ISS, passing through the main section where the astronauts spend most of their time, to the cafeteria, the Russian section, and the storage and service modules.

The $100 billion orbiting lab is currently home to a crew of six, including geophysicist and volcanologist Gerst.

 

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Richmond Hill wants you to visit Canada's largest telescope

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Randy Attwood remembers visiting the David Dunlap Observatory for the first time as an eight-year-old boy and feeling awestruck as he looked up at the towering 1.88-metre reflector telescope.

He never imagined that more than 40 years later he would deliver lectures about astronomy at the Richmond Hill, Ont., observatory as the executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

"When you walk in for the first time into the observatory, you see this massive telescope," said Attwood. "It's overwhelming for an eight-year-old that's for sure…I'm overwhelmed every time I go in there now as an adult. It's an impressive thing to look at."

This summer the observatory, which contains the largest telescope in Canada, reopened to the public after 10 years.

The town of Richmond Hill, which owns the observatory and about half the surrounding property, is for the first time looking to raise awareness of the site and reach the community through programming, said Maggie MacKenzie, the town's heritage centre co-ordinator.

'A gorgeous place'

About a 45 minute drive north from downtown Toronto, visitors can every Saturday see the 1.88-metre telescope being operated, star gaze with telescopes set up on the lawn around the observatory, and listen to a guest speaker give an astronomy talk.

Once a month on Sundays, tours of the observatory and administration building provide more information about the site's history. A space camp for kids also runs this summer during the week.

The Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill on Saturday. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

Since the University of Toronto sold the property in 2008, there has been years of litigation over its ownership and how it should be maintained, said Ian Shelton, chair of the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders, a group that formed in late 2007 to protect the property and advocate for its upkeep.

"It's a gorgeous place. It's a best-kept secret. People should certainly come visit it," said Shelton, who runs programs out of the observatory and teaches astronomy at the University of Toronto.

"It's a very, very nice place to visit based in terms of its esthetic, but what it represents in terms of Canadian history is just even more spectacular."

I couldn't think of a better way to spend an evening.– Randy Attwood, executive director of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

The observatory's 61-foot dome weighs 80 tonnes and was built in England and transported by ship to Canada in 1933, said MacKenzie. The telescope was the second largest in the world when the observatory officially opened in 1935.

The property was designated a historic site in 2009 and most of the observatory and administration building is in its original state. The telescope is still functional and hundreds of photographs of planets and constellations are still held in the radio astronomy room.

Olivia Lang looks at a diagram of constellations during a family night at the Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill on Saturday. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

David Alexander Dunlap was an avid astronomer, philanthropist and founding partner of the Hollinger gold mines. After he died in 1924, his wife, Jessie Donalda Dunlap, donated the property to the University of Toronto as a memorial for her husband. The observatory was then at the forefront of Canadian astronomical research through the university.

"There were a number of prominent astronomers that made this place their home," said MacKenzie.

Helen Sawyer Hogg, one of few female astronomers at the time, started researching in the observatory in the 1930s. She photographed over 2,000 stars, published more than 200 papers and wrote a column for the Toronto Star from the 1950s to the 1980s through her work at the observatory.

Light pollution a 'major problem'

Dr. Charles Thomas Bolton was a postdoctoral researcher at the observatory in 1970, and two years later through his research he discovered a black hole.

"But at this time light pollution started to become a problem," said MacKenzie.

She said around the 1970s, as Richmond Hill's population grew and the surrounding areas developed, light pollution became more of an issue, and the astronomers had to adapt their research methods.

People take turns looking at the moon through a telescope on the grounds of the Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

For instance, when Dr. Donald Alexander MacRae was the director of the observatory and chair of the university's astronomy department from the 1960s to 1978, he established a radio astronomy program that used a 24-inch telescope in Chile said MacKenzie. She said because of the light pollution, some research would be conducted in Chile and communicated to astronomers at the Dunlap observatory

But despite the efforts, astronomers realized that the telescope wasn't as useful and soon after the observatory was no longer used for research, said Attwood.

"Light pollution is a major problem and it has been for a long time. Light pollution is a real challenge," Attwood said. "It ruins the night sky for people. Very few people have seen a totally dark sky."

Even though the observatory is no longer used for astronomical research, Attwood said the site has always been "a central focus for education and outreach" as the community continually comes by the observatory to look up at the night sky during the summer.

"I couldn't think of a better way to spend an evening."

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