Alpha Monocerotid: Rare 'unicorn' meteor shower expected to light up the skies on Thursday

The Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower was first spotted in 1925 in rural Virginia and included 37 meteors over a span of 13 minutes. The best time to catch the shower, according to the researchers, is 11.50 pm EST.


                            Alpha Monocerotid:  Rare 'unicorn' meteor shower expected to light up the skies on Thursday

A rare and spectacular ‘unicorn' meteor storm is expected to light up the skies of North and South America, Europe and Africa on Thursday, after 24 years. 

Predicting the celestial treat - also referred to as the Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower - are researchers Dr. Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen. “Anyone who is going to try to observe should not be late at all. The strongest maximum would fit in about 15 minutes, or maybe a little bit less. It will be almost completely over in about 40 minutes,” they explain. If you miss the Alpha Monocerotids “meteor outburst”, Jenniskens and Lyytinen predict the next one will happen in 2043.

Meteor showers happen every time the Earth passes through the debris of asteroid or comet. If the comet's dust trail is small and dense, the resulting meteor shower "may result in hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of meteors burning up in just minutes", reports the National Weather Service.
 
The ‘unicorn' meteor shower was first spotted in 1925 in rural Virginia: 37 meteors over a span of 13 minutes caught the eye of an observer. These events continued into the 20th century, with brief outbursts occurring in 1935 and 1985. Jenniskens predicted the 1995 outburst, the last 'unicorn' meteor shower recorded so far. The researchers add that conditions for the celestial event is ripe this year, as the conditions mirror those of 1995, which produced 400 meteors an hour.

This map shows the total number of meteors observers in the United States can expect to see for this year’s alpha Monocerotid meteor shower, provided the rates are similar to the 1995 outburst. (Credits: NASA)

The best time to catch the shower, according to the researchers, is at 11.50 pm EST. AccuWeather predicts that the moon will not play spoilsport this year. Considered the biggest source of natural light pollution, the moon is not expected to rise until the early morning hours. Europe will have the best view, followed by the east coast of North America and South America. 

As stargazers ready themselves for this rare celestial spectacle, a NASA scientist thinks the outburst may not happen.

According to Bill Cooke, Lead, NASA Meteoroid Environment Office, these predictions may be wrong. "I am all too aware of the fact that such predictions (including mine), while pretty accurate on the timing, often estimate a shower intensity higher (factors of a few) than what actually takes place", he explains in a blog.

So he set out to dig some data, after which he realized that there is a pretty good chance that there may be no outburst at all. And even if there is, it will not be as impressive as many think.

"If Jenniskens and Lyytinen are right, you might see some pieces of a comet that awaits discovery, burning up in the atmosphere 60 miles above your head. That’s worth a couple of hours, I think. Even if there is no outburst, it doesn’t hurt to get out under the stars for a bit", he says.  

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