The Unicorn meteor shower occurs every year, but tonight could be special, perhaps showering Earth with dozens of shooting stars every minute — but it won’t last long.
Each year, the Earth passes through several clumps of debris, producing our regular meteor shower. One of the lesser-known of these is the Unicorn meteor shower, which peaks around November 21. There are reasons to believe tonight’s show might be spectacular, treating viewers to several shooting stars per minute.
The Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower is unofficially known as the Unicorn meteor shower since they are loosely centered around the constellation Monoceros, the Unicorn. Normally, the Alpha Monocerotids are one of the least-impressive of all annual meteor showers, but once on a while, the Earth passes through an especially-dense portion of the debris trail, producing a stunning display of shooting stars.
NASA’s Ames Research Center scientist Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen of the Finnish Fireball Network believe skygazers may be treated to a spectacular display tonight.
“This dust trail exists for such a long time near the Earth’s orbit that it can produce outbursts, for at least decades, and in this case probably for a few centuries. The width of the trail is just very narrow,” researchers reported in Meteor News.
The comet which spreads the debris is a long-period comet, meaning that it takes more than 200 years to orbit once around the Sun.
The constellation of Monoceros, around which the shower will be centered, is challenging to see near city lights, as the stars which make it up are dim as seen from Earth. However, it lies just east of the constellation of Orion, with its easily-recognizable belt of three stars.
Nothing is certain about this possible display, but this shower has produced dazzling displays in 1925, 1935, 1985, and 1995. If a burst is seen, the display should be impressive, as the crescent moon will not drown out the dimmer streaks. Viewers may be treated with as many as 100 to 1,000 shooting stars during the display.
If the Alpha Monocerotids do produce a burst of shooting stars, the display will last just about 40 minutes, and will peak for only 15 minutes. Most meteor showers last for days, and can be seen throughout the night, but this peak is concentrated, meaning timing is critical, and the show may start a little early, so the display make start up to 20 minutes before the predicted showtime at 11:50pm EST.
So, tonight, head outside around the 11:25pm EST (8:25pm PST), and look to the east or southeast (dress warm, bring hot drinks and a comfy chair), and you may — possibly —be treated to one of the best meteor showers seen in nearly a generation.
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