Brief But Spectacular Rare Meteor "Outburst" Forecast For Tonight

The Alpha Monocerotids had a brief blaze of glory in 1995, when 400 shooting stars were visible an hour. Conditions are similar to then so tonight's event could be just as spectacular. SKY2015/Shutterstock 

Depending on where you are, November 21-22 could bring a brief but very intense burst of meteors for those lucky enough to see them. Although it's not for definite. 

The alpha Monocerotids is not a well-known meteor shower and not just because of the hard-to-pronounce name. Most years, this shower is barely distinguishable from the background skies but four times in the 20th century it was glorious, and two modelers of meteor events think 2019 could be another big year.

The whole shower lasts 10 days, and usually even its November 22 peak is so sparse it is barely noticeable, producing just three or four shooting stars an hour. However, if the forecasters are right, this event will be short but very, very sweet. Lasting as little as 15 minutes but possibly as long as 40 minutes, it's thought around 100 meteors could be spotted in that time, depending of course on where you are.

For North Americans, it should be visible anytime between 11.15pm ET on November 21 and 12.10am on November 22, though it's thought 11.50pm will be the peak viewing time. Europeans should be able to catch it around 4.15am GMT on November 22. 

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Predicting outbursts like these is hard. Most meteor forecasters thought the Leonids would be big in 1998 or 1999, and only a few picked 2001, which went on to be one of the most spectacular meteor showers in memory when thousands of meteors an hour were visible over the USA, only for it to happen again the next day, with thousands more visible across Asia and Australia.

This rare "outburst" has been forecast by Peter Jenniskens, who won a reputation by getting the 1995 Alpha Monocerotids right based on estimations of the movements of the cloud of particles left behind by a long-period comet, and Finnish meteor forecaster Esko Lyytinen. It's thought the Earth is about to pass through a particularly thick section of the tail of the unknown comet that provides the debris for the shower, which is the same conditions as the 1995 event, when 400 meteors were visible an hour.

Monoceros is very faint, but is wedged between the brightest stars in the sky. The meteors seem to come from near its brightest star, lower left on this view. IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg) CC-by-3.0

Meteor "showers" occur when the number of meteors swells with the debris of an old comet, all appearing to come from the same point in the sky and traveling at the same speed. Amateur astronomers' calendars are dotted with these dates as most showers are regular and predictable, with similar numbers each year: Think Perseids (August), Leonids (November) or Geminids (December). They can range from a handful to hundreds an hour; a busy one is an experience to cherish for a lifetime. 

All meteor showers are named after the constellation from which they appear to come. The alpha Monocerotids appear to come from near the star Procyon, which is next to the constellation Monoceros, Greek for unicorn. You may not be familiar with Monoceros, but it's easy to find as it lies just next to Orion and is visible from both hemispheres. It hosts another, very small, shower in December.

If the pair are wrong, and some forecasters are skeptical, hopefully the view of the rest of the sky will justify the cold and lack of sleep. It should be worth attempting though, as Lyytinen and Jenniskens expect the next outburst to be in 2043.

[H/T Spaceweatherarchive]

 

 

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