100,000 shooting stars per hour: what makes a “meteor storm”
Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through a stream of debris left by the wake of comets, asteroids or other celestial bodies. Most are the size of grains of puffed rice or small pebbles and produce flaming displays as they burn in our outdoor atmosphere. Meteor storms occur when Earth enters an unusually dense and intense clump of interstellar debris, which is like walking through a swarm of bugs on the highway. In an instant, your windshield would be covered in streaky streaks in your direction of travel.
That’s why, in the unlikely event that things line up perfectly, an explosion of up to 1,000 shooting stars per hour may be possible.
Where do the debris come from?
Each meteor shower is connected to an object in space. In the case of the Perseids in August, the debris comes from Comet Swift-Tuttle, while the Geminids in December are triggered by an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. Both screens generate 50 to 100 meteors per hour when viewed under clear, dark skies.
Along with the Tau Herculid shower, the parent comet is Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (SW3), which made its closest approach to the sun on October 16, 2011. Since then, it has been breaking up and disintegrating.
The comet was discovered in 1930 and orbits the sun every 5.4 years. He was not seen again, however, until late 1979, making a series of clandestine passages through Earth. The comet unexpectedly graced the night sky in 1995 after apparently breaking into four pieces.
Today, there are more than a dozen pieces, and each fragment, especially the 1995 one, can lead to billions of tiny pieces of debris.
Due to the effects of mass, gravity, and pressure from sunlight, some of the gravel-sized debris can take smaller orbits that would put them ahead of the main comet, and on a possible intersection trajectory with Earth’s orbit.
What are the chances of it producing a meteor storm?
According to space.com, a number of astronomers are optimistic about the possibility of another meteor shower this year, and some even say that meteor storm levels – corresponding to 1,000 shooting stars per hour – could be reached.
That said, astronomers don’t know how far the fragments spread out, or the dimensions of the debris cloud.
Meteor rates could vary between one and 1,000 meteors per hour. If a meteor storm did occur, it might only last an hour or two, and probably less.
“This will be an all-or-nothing event,” wrote Bill Cooke, who heads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “If the debris from SW3 was traveling over 220 miles per hour when it separated from the comet, we could see a nice meteor shower. If the debris had slower ejection speeds, then nothing will happen on Earth and there will be no meteors from this comet.
In the event of a storm, you do not want to miss it.
Astronomers have identified the most likely time for the peak of any display which may or may not occur around 1 a.m. EST Monday night/Tuesday morning. The “radiant” point of the shower, or the part of the sky from which the meteors seem to emanate, will be high in the sky over North America at that time, so there is no specific place in the sky to look at.
Of course, you’ll want to isolate yourself from bright lights or obstacles and move to an area with a wide view of the sky. This will of course be weather permitting.
Meteor storms have occurred with the Leonid meteor shower, which occurs every November. Ordinarily, the Leonids shoot only a few shooting stars per hour above their heads, making an unremarkable sight. But every once in a while, the skies explode with sudden spikes of extreme activity and meteor rates of 100,000 per hour.
In AD 902, astronomers in North Africa and China reported stars falling “like rain.” Another meteor storm was sighted over present-day Venezuela in 1799.
It happened again in 1833. “At Boston the frequency of meteors was estimated to be about half that of snowflakes in an average snowstorm,” wrote Irish astronomer Agnes Mary Clerke, who said that the storm had lasted about nine hours. Clerke put estimates of meteor rates at the unheard of level of no less than 240,000 shooting stars per hour. That’s over 60 shooting stars per second.
The Leonids dazzled again on the night of November 13-14, 1866. A newspaper in Malta published an eyewitness report describing the scene as “truly grand and imposing…one of the most sublime I have ever views”.
Another meteor storm occurred in 1966, setting off an equally splendid fireworks display in the United States. Eyewitness Christine Downing, who drove north from Mojave, California, saw a few shooting stars every five minutes, which “at the time…seemed extraordinary.” At 12:30 p.m. it started “raining stars” and at 2 a.m. “it was a blizzard.” ”
His description, which can be read in full on a NASA webpage, is one of many from that night. “There was an unsettling feeling that the mountains were being set on fire,” Downing wrote. “Falling stars filled the entire sky to the horizon, but it was silent.”
Other more moderate explosions took place in 1999 and 2001.
There are no Leonid meteor storms or any other explicitly predicted showers in our lifetimes, and we probably won’t encounter anything close to what generations past have seen – but next week could offer a preview. taste.
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