Mysterious comet may cause a rare ‘Unicorn’ meteor storm

Meteor Showers -
t might be a good idea to bundle up Thursday night, step outside under the November sky and look up at the stars.
For the first time in more than two decades, the alpha Monocerotid meteor shower could morph into a meteor outburst, meaning that for a short period of time late Thursday, you might be able to see several meteors a minute.

Even for large meteor showers, several dozen might be counted per hour — rather than per minute, said Michelle Nichols, director of Public Observing at the Adler Planetarium. “So seeing that many is really special. Because most people have never seen that many in a short period of time.
“It’s just really neat to see these bits of comet material disintegrating above your head."

Unlike other meteor events that can last for hours, the alpha Monocerotids will be brief. “So you have to be looking at the right time, and you have to be under a dark sky,” Nichols said — the latter presenting a challenge in a light-polluted urban location like Chicago. The radiant point is also not overhead the city, further complicating meteor outburst hopes.

And cloudy skies are expected across the Chicago area Thursday night, according to the National Weather Service. But if the skies clear, about 10:15 p.m. will be the time when the radiant point appears over the horizon. By 11 p.m. the outburst should be over.

Meteor showers generally are caused when comets leave a trail of debris as they travel through the solar system, Nichols said, and the Earth runs into these trails regularly. But the denseness of the debris varies. When the Earth travels through a dense trail, what we end up seeing is glowing air from pieces of debris the size of a grain of sand that disintegrate.

A shower is named after the area where meteors appear to radiate outward, Nichols said. So alpha Monocerotid takes its name from the alpha star and monoceros — or unicorn — constellation.
The meteor shower prediction comes from a paper by scientists Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen.
The scientists say this outburst could resemble the one in 1995, which produced meteors at a rate of about 400 an hour. There have only been three other meteor outbursts from this shower in the last century — in 1925, 1935 and 1985, according to the scientists.

NASA scientist Tony Rice notes that “during 1985’s meteor shower, the ‘400 meteor per hour outburst’ actually produced a 34 meteors over 16 minutes , in total.”
The brightness of the moon isn’t expected to interfere since it will be waning.
The best views will be in South America, eastern North America, western Europe and northwestern Africa. The radiant point of the meteors is in the Monoceros, the Unicorn constellation, near Orion the Hunter.
Rare Meteor -

So why is this such a big deal? The alpha Monocertoid meteor shower usually happens each year around November 21 to 23, but during a normal shower it only produces a few meteors each night.
The large outbursts of this shower previously occurred in 1925, 1935, 1985 and 1995, with the outburst being a complete surprise for each of those years, except when it was predicted in 1995, according to the Amertican Meteor Sociaty.

The meteor shower comes from the dust trail of an unknown comet, the meteor scientists said. And the stream of meteoroids only intersects Earth’s orbit sometimes, which is what makes this potential outburst so rare.

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The conditions are lining up the way they did in 1995, so the meteor scientists are hopeful, but remind everyone that this is only a prediction.

During the 1995 outburst, the hourly rate of meteors was around 400. If the prediction is correct and that happens again, skygazers can expect to see around seven meteors streaking across the sky per minute. But the rate could actually mean two to three meteors close together and then another minute before activity picks up again. They’ll be moving at about 140,927 miles per hour.
The scientists suggested that people prepare to observe the sky an hour before the predicted time in case the shower begins earlier.

Find an open area away from the city that will afford you a wide view of the sky, and don’t forget to bring a blanket or chair and dress for the weather. Allow yourself time for your eyes to adjust to the dark. And you won’t need binoculars or telescopes to enjoy the show.

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