Showers at Heaven's Gate?
August 13, 2009 6:38 PM   Subscribe

[Astronomyfilter] A new meteor shower?

Last night I had the pleasure of watching the Perseid meteor shower from the warm & floaty comfort of a back porch hot tub.

As I lay soaking, a dozen or more shooting stars were falling in close at hand. Some were so big, they left a trail of smoke in their wake. It was something truly mesmerizing.

I know the Perseid shower comes in August from debris left behind
by Swift-Tuttle; and the Leonid shower in November from Tempel-Tuttle.

So my question is this:
Since Hale-Bopp was only fairly recently (1995) discovered, when can we expect to see a Heaven's Gate Meteor Shower?

Granted, it most probably wouldn't be named the Heaven's Gate shower--- but from which constellation would the debris left over from Hale-Bopp appear to be emerging?

(and) Do we still name showers like that, according to their corresponding constellation?

(plus) how often would Earth's orbit collide with Hale-Bopp debris?
Is it possible that Earth's orbit wouldn't intersect Hale-Bopp's stardust trails every year like the Leonids and Perseids?

(Also) Is there a software program that would help me visualize spatially the routes and timelines of these comets and their trajectories?

Thanks (a zillion) in advance.
posted by at the crossroads to Science & Nature (15 answers total)
Well, I can only answer the (also)

posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:00 PM on August 13, 2009

I believe meteor showers are named from the constellation to help identify if the meteor is actually part of the shower or not. As in, if a meteor has a different apparent origin then it is probably a random bit of space dust.

The average rate of meteor showers is fairly common from year to year. The actual process of predicting the peak times and peak amounts is pretty complicated. It involves a knowledge of all the comets passing through the solar system, properly estimating the dispersal rates of the debris left behind as the comet passes through the Earth orbit's vicinity, the orbit around the sun of the debris after it has left the comet and running the simulation for hundreds or even thousands of years. The individual stream we may hit one year could be from a time hundreds of years different from the one next year. The more recent the 'filament' of debris is, the less dispersed it will be and will end up with an increased meteor shower rate.

I'm basically saying that this is a very complex process so there may not be an answer for you. I also don't have time to do web research as I'm at work. Looking forward to see if anyone can find something out.
posted by Phantomx at 7:04 PM on August 13, 2009

DAMN YOU! We worked HARD to see this shower but all of Seattle and surrounding areas within an hour drive were totally overcast.

Anyway, here's some more showers to look for.
posted by vito90 at 7:12 PM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think what has to happen is that a large percentage of the volatiles of the comet have to boil off during successive perihelions. The volatiles (ice) hold the rocks together and with the ice gone, tidal effects then cause the rocks to go into slightly different orbits. A few dozen more orbits, and they smear themselves along most of the orbital ellipse. Given that comets typically take dozens or hundreds (or even thousands) of years per orbit, it's not a fast process.

For that to become a meteor shower also requires that the orbital smear intersect with Earth's orbit so that Earth can sail through the rocks once or twice a year. Hale-Bopp's orbit does not intersect with Earth's orbit, so it won't ever become a meteor shower visible from Earth.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:58 PM on August 13, 2009

This page says that Hale-Bopp's orbit does not intersect with Earth's orbit.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:41 PM on August 13, 2009

Response by poster: no offense ChocoPickle, but those shitty vector diagrams of smeared trails drawn as images mean nothing. A few dots on a page with a straight line drawn in between? Christ in a spaceship.
posted by at the crossroads at 11:54 PM on August 13, 2009

For a statement that simply and definitively answered one of your questions, you have a funny way of showing your thanks.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 2:34 AM on August 14, 2009

Actually at the crossroads, Chocolate Pickle is quite correct, the orbit of Hale-Bopp (while in the long term unstable due to pertrubations from the planet around perihelion) did not, and will not (on its last two passes - ~2200BC and 1997AD, and its next in 4530AD) intersect with that of the Earth and thus does not leave a debris trail capable of causing a meteor shower on Earth. There's a nice svg of the orbit here, as you can see it is highly inclined with respect to the ecliptic making close approaches to the inner planets unlikely.
posted by nfg at 2:58 AM on August 14, 2009

Response by poster: These 2-D drawings are very difficult for me to read.

I was hoping for a 3-D simulation so that I might better understand the way the objects are moving in space. Please accept my apologies. Chocolate Pickle, TheOtherGuy, and nfg---

Simply, I can't comprehend these diagrams of lines.
posted by at the crossroads at 3:19 AM on August 14, 2009

This video (watch in HQ) might show things a little more clearly, this diagram illustrates well the lack of intersection between the comet and Earth's orbit. Basically the way to think about it is Hale-Bopp doesn't orbit in the same plane as the planets (this plane is referred to as the ecliptic), instead it orbits perpendicular to that, this means it spends only a very brief period of time even conceivably intersecting with the orbit of the planets, coupled with the fact that it spends most of its orbit very far away from the Sun and you get a very narrow "window of opportunity" for the comet to get close to a planet. Andalso it turns out that at the times that the comet flies through the ecliptic it does so outside the orbit of the earth, so that any dust deposited does not end up hitting the Earth.
posted by nfg at 4:04 AM on August 14, 2009

Best answer: In its current orbit, it passes through the ecliptic twice. Once is out near the orbit of Jupiter. The other is about a third of the way between Earth and Mars. So it misses Earth's orbit by maybe 20 million miles.

That drawing I linked to is about the best way to represent the 3D relationships in a static 2D drawing. Hale Bopp's orbit is drawn as an arc, with a series of spots along the way representing different positions. And off of each spot is a line drawn perpendicular to the ecliptic, down to the ecliptic, thus representing how high it is.

At the point where that line is shortest, that's where it intersects the ecliptic. It's outside the orbit of Earth, inside the orbit of Mars. And it's far enough away so that the debris the comet is shedding won't hit Earth.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:50 AM on August 14, 2009

(I'm talking about the drawing labeled "30deg".)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:51 AM on August 14, 2009

Best answer: Seconding Celestia, if you haven't tried it yet. I was astounded the first time I loaded it up. Its the closest thing to the Enterprise-D's Stellar Cartography lab that presently exists.

You can see--in three fully rendered dimensions, with smooth animation--the paths of most of the known comets in our Solar System.

Not to mention hundreds of other real planets, moons, asteroids and spacecraft in our solar system, plus hundreds of thousands of the nearest stars, all fully explorable by you the user.
posted by General Tonic at 9:15 AM on August 14, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your invaluable answers.

Forgive me for my ignorance, my snippy response, and for my inability to interpret the 2-D representation of these things on the move. In haste, I blurted out my displaced disgust for Bohr's Model of an Atom, directing it at the Solar System itself, or at least the drawings of it.

I see now where my understanding failed and I appreciate you all taking the time (even in rebuke) to correct me.

I suppose I thought since Hale-Bopp was such a spectacle, we had crossed paths with it.
I understand --and thank you Chocolate Pickle for taking the time to explain the diagram--
that the spectacle was due to proximity instead of an intersection of orbits.

I have to admit though, I am a little disappointed to realize that Hale-Bopp's passing won't result in a new meteor shower.

Thanks also for directing me to Celestia. Wow!
posted by at the crossroads at 12:46 AM on August 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Dear everyone still keeping tabs on this,

I've been talking about meteor showers and comets since August, really hyping them up.

This year I was lucky enough to be in rural North Texas on a clear and mild night when the Geminids came. My four year old son got to stay up late with us to watch, sitting in the back of a pick-up. He, his mother, and his grandmother (all three) simultaneously go, "Oooooooooh. I saw it!!" and immediately followed by "I saw it too!!!" and lots of laughs, everyone full of glee.

He was so thrilled. Thank you all.

After the first one, he waited very patiently for two more and then he goes, happily,
"I saw THREE! I saw THREE!" (he is fascinated with 'outer space' and we had been trying to explain to him what a 'shooting star' was...) and then he was ready for bed. He groked it. Three is enough.

I stayed out, since viewing conditions were optimal, sitting on a tail gate, drinking beer, feeding dried up mesquite to a hack's sawed-off Weber charcoal grill, our little tripod campfire ring. The driveway chimnea... I still don't grok it. I am trying to understand the correlation between the comet passing through the ecliptic and the meteor shower that results.

During the Geminid shower this year over the course of 2 hours, I saw somewhere between 50-75 "shooting stars." The Geminids (in N Texas, Dec 2009) were very umm... slow and predictable. Fairly easy to spot, I guess. I can recognize Castor and Pollux in North Texas winter evening sky and I knew that they radiate from there. The Geminids seemed to start higher up in the sky and streak for a longer period of time. Very distant and slow.

The Perseids (when I was in Indiana, Aug 2009), viewed from a hot tub were very fast, but more vivid, more spectacular, like fireballs shooting down on us. Very low in the sky (I can't recognize the constellation Perseus nowhere, nohow, notime. Yet.) Over the course of 2 hours, I only saw a dozen, give or take, but they were much more intense than the Geminids. Fireballs leaving trails of smoke.

All that is to say, thanks once again. My son really loved it. We all did.

But my follow up question is this:

"What is it that makes them so different?"
posted by at the crossroads at 10:17 PM on December 23, 2009

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