With a bit of luck, people in the Eastern United States will be able to witness a rare meteor shower known as the Alpha Monocerotids late Thursday night. Two astronomers predicted the outburst will last less than an hour and could even yield more than 400 meteors in that time.
Meteor experts Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen published their prediction in MeteorNews. They said interested parties should arrive at their preferred watch zone no later than 11:15 p.m. ET — 35 minutes before the forecast start time — to see the maximum number of meteors.
The American Meteor Society said observers in eastern North America, western Europe and northwestern Africa are in prime locations to view the display. Those in western North America do not have such luck.
“At the time of the predicted outburst, the radiant will lie near the horizon for observers located on the west coast of North America,” AMS’s Robert Lunsford wrote. “From that location only a few long earthgrazers may be seen shooting upward from the eastern horizon.”
The Alpha Monocerotids showers — named after the unicorn-shape constellation Monoceros — appears every year during late November, but it usually brings only three or four meteors per hour. However, it has brought huge meteor rates four times in the past, the latest being in 1995.
“The 1925 and 1935 outbursts reached even the level of a meteor storm with [zenithal hourly rates] of over 1000,” Jenniskens and Lyytinen wrote. “In 1985 and 1995 the activity reached a level with ZHRs of about 700 and 400.”
Jenniskens and Lyytinen are expecting similar numbers on Thursday night. However, at NASA, one meteorologist believes it won’t be so impressive.
Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office said the intensity of a meteor shower is dependent on the size of the parent comet’s orbit. The parent comet of Alpha Monocerotids has not been discovered, leading Cooke to question how accurate the prediction is.
“And since we have not yet discovered this mysterious parent comet, who knows how close the estimate of the orbit is to the actual?” he said.
But even if the meteor shower fails to impress, Cooke said, it will be a good use of a couple of hours.
“Even if there is no outburst, it doesn’t hurt to get out under the stars for a bit,” Cooke said.
Paolo Zialcita is an intern on NPR’s News Desk.