100,000 shooting stars per hour: What does a ‘meteor storm’ do?
Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through a stream of debris left behind by comets, asteroids, or other celestial bodies. Most are the size of grains of puffed rice or small pebbles, and produce glowing displays as they burn up in our outer atmosphere. Meteor storms occur when Earth enters an unusually dense and intense accumulation of interstellar debris, similar to driving through a swarm of roadside bugs. In an instant, your windshield would be covered with smears in your direction of travel.
That’s why, in the unlikely event that things line up just right, up to 1,000 shooting stars per hour are possible.
Where does 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 is caused by an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. Both displays result in 50 to 100 meteors every hour when viewed under clear, dark skies.
With the Tau Herculid shower, the main comet is Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (SW3), which made its closest approach to the sun on October 16, 2011. Since then, it has been in the process of fragmenting and disintegrating.
The comet was discovered in 1930 and orbits the sun every 5.4 years. However, it was not seen again until late in 1979, making a series of clandestine passes over Earth. The comet unexpectedly appeared in the night skies in 1995 after apparently breaking into four pieces.
There are now more than a dozen pieces, and each fragment, particularly the one from 1995, can give rise to billions of tiny pieces of debris.
Due to the effects of mass, gravity, and pressure due to sunlight, some of the gravel-sized pieces of debris can take smaller orbits than would place them go ahead of the main comet, and on a path of possible intersection with the Earth’s orbit.
What are the chances of it producing a meteor storm?
According to space.com, several astronomers are optimistic that a new meteor shower could be in the offing this year, with some even claiming that meteor storm levels could be reached, corresponding to 1,000 shooting stars per hour.
That said, astronomers don’t know how far the fragments have spread, nor the dimensions of the debris cloud.
Meteor rates can range from one to 1,000 meteors per hour. If a meteor storm happens, it will only last maybe an hour or two, and probably less.
“This is going to be an all-or-nothing event,” wrote Bill Cooke, who heads NASA’s Meteoroid Environmental Office. “If the debris from SW3 was traveling at more than 220 miles per hour when it broke away from the comet, we could see a nice meteor shower. If the debris had slower ejection speeds, then nothing will reach Earth and there will be no meteors from this comet.”
If a storm occurs, you not I want to lose it.
Astronomers have noted that the most likely time for any display to peak may or may not occur around 1 a.m. ET next Monday night/Tuesday morning. The shower’s “radiant” point, or the part of the sky from which the meteors appear to emanate, will be high in the North American sky 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 obstructions and move to an area with a wide view of the sky. It will be if the weather allows it, of course.
Meteor storms have occurred with the Leonid meteor shower, which occurs every year in November. Leonids typically only drop a few shooting stars per hour overhead, making for an uncomplicated show. But from time to time, the skies explode with sudden spikes of extreme activity and meteor rates of 100,000 per hour.
In the year 902 AD. C., astronomers in North Africa and China reported that the stars fell “like rain”. Another meteor storm was sighted over present-day Venezuela in 1799.
It happened again in 1833. “In 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 claimed the storm lasted about nine hours. Clerke placed estimates of meteor rates at the unprecedented level of up to 240,000 shooting stars. per hour. That’s more than 60 shooting stars per second.
The Leonids struck again on the night of November 13-14, 1866. A newspaper in Malta published an eyewitness report describing the scene as “truly grand and awe-inspiring… one of the most sublime I have ever seen.” “.
Another meteor storm hit in 1966, sparking an equally splendid fireworks display in the United States. Eyewitness Christine Downing, driving north from Mojave, California, saw a pair of shooting stars every five minutes, which “at the time…seemed extraordinary.” At 12:30 am, a “meteor shower” started, and at 2 am “it was a ‘snow storm.’ ”
His description, which can be read in its entirety on a NASA website, is one of many from that night. “There was a disconcerting feeling that the mountains were being set on fire,” Downing wrote. “Shooting stars filled the entire sky to the horizon, but everything was silent.”
Additional milder outbursts occurred in 1999 and 2001.
There are no Leonid meteor storms or any other showers explicitly predicted in our lifetimes, nor are we likely to find anything like what past generations saw, but next week might offer a taste.