I almost can’t believe it will happen. But meteor experts Peter Jenniskens, of NASA’s Ames Research Center, and Esko Lyytinen, of the Finnish Fireball Network, are predicting an intense outburst of the obscure Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower Thursday night, Nov. 21 between 10:15 p.m. and 11:15 p.m. Central Standard Time. The peak, when the shower could produce 400 or more meteors per hour, is expected around 10:50 p.m.
This rare outburst is expected to last between 15 and 40 minutes centered on 10:50 p.m. (11:50 p.m. EST; 9:50 MST, 8:50 PST and 4:50 a.m. Greenwich Time). The shower gets its name from Monoceros the unicorn, a faint constellation located to the left or east of Orion. You didn’t know there was a unicorn in the sky? Maybe not on Earth, but it’s been trotting across the sky since its creation in 1612.
Don’t worry about having to actually see a unicorn or even the constellation. All you need to know is that the radiant, the place in the sky from which the meteors will appear to stream, is near the bright star Procyon in Canis Minor the little dog back behind Orion. As with any shower, meteors can flash anywhere in the sky. You can distinguish a shower member from a stray because members always point back to the radiant, located in the southeastern sky from U.S. locations.
The crumbs that will strike Earth’s atmosphere Thursday night hail from an unknown comet with a long orbit around the sun. During its last pass through the inner solar system hundreds of years ago, the sun heated the comet, vaporizing icy gases and releasing dust. That dust forms a narrow, dense ribbon that the Earth will hit nearly dead-center on Thursday night.
The Alpha Monocerotids have had at least a handful of big outbursts in the past, the most recent in 1995. The map shows two radiants because the position changes a bit with each encounter. As far as viewing the event, observers in the eastern U.S., South and Central America, Western Europe and West Africa are favored because the radiant will be above the horizon at the appointed time. Further west, the radiant sits below the horizon, cutting off many potential meteors from view. But not all. Even out West viewers should be able to see some shooting upward from the southeastern horizon.
You can face any direction you like, but if it were me, I’d do east or south. The most important thing to maximize your viewing prospects is to find a place where at least the eastern half of the sky is dark and free of light pollution. If you have a tripod and digital SLR, see if you can catch a meteor. I suggest a wide-angle lens (16mm-35mm) set to its widest opening (f/2.8, f/3.5, f/4), an ISO of 1600 and expose between 30-60 seconds. Take one after another after another. Better, use an intervalometer to do the button pressing automatically, so you can just watch and enjoy.
Clear skies! And please let us know what you see. And if it’s cloudy at your house, don’t fret. Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi will live stream the outburst starting at 11:15 p.m. EST Nov. 21 (4:15 UT Nov. 22) on his Virtual Telescope Project site.