Stargazers may be treated to rare 'unicorn' meteor storm this week
The alpha Monocerotid meteor outburst in 1995. (S. Mola & Jenniskens/Ames/NASA/CNN)
Stargazers may be treated to a short, but intense “unicorn” meteor storm that could produce as many as 400 to 1000 meteors per hour, according to two well-known scientists.
The rare outburst by the alpha Monocerotid meteor shower may occur on Thursday night or early Friday morning, depending on the viewer’s location.
Meteor scientists Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen calculated the peak of the outburst will be at 11:50 p.m. ET and last only 15 minutes, although they advised spectators to be in position at least an hour ahead of time to catch the beginning of the spectacle.
If the scientists’ prediction is correct, it will be the first alpha Monocerotid meteor storm since 1995, when the peak hourly rate of meteors was 400.
According to the American Meteor Society, if that same rate was achieved again on Thursday, it could peak at seven meteors per minute.
“Periods only 5 minutes from the time of the outburst could see considerably less activity,” the organization warned on its website. “These meteors are never spaced evenly but appear in bunches so 2-3 meteors may be seen seconds apart and then an entire minute could go by without any activity.”
The alpha Monocerotid meteor shower usually happens every year between Nov. 21 and Nov. 23, but it only produces a few meteors each night. Like all meteor showers, it’s caused when Earth’s orbit encounters the debris field of an unknown comet.
“This outburst is caused by the dust released by a long-period comet, but the comet itself is still unknown,” Jenniskens and Lyytinen said.
While the comet remains a mystery, the radiant point of the meteors is known. The meteors radiate from a faint constellation called Monoceros, which is Greek for unicorn. It’s located near the prominent constellation Orion.
While it’s not guaranteed the meteor storm will happen, the scientists said there’s a “good chance” stargazers will be able to observe a “short-lived” outburst so long as the clouds cooperate.
Those in western Europe and northwestern Africa will have the best views of the celestial display, according to the American Meteor Society. However, spectators in South America and eastern North America should also be able to watch the meteors.
The American Meteor Society said moonlight is not expected to obstruct the views as it will only be 20 per cent illuminated and located in the constellation of Virgo during the predicted storm.