Friday, August 31, 2007

Possible meteor flurry Saturday morning

Most of the time, we know in advance when meteor showers will happen. Some, like the Perseids in August, put on a good show every year. Others, like the Leonids in November, put on a fairly lazy show every year, but occasionally produce a big storm (like in 2001). And some showers are so pitifully poor that we don't even bother much with them.

Tonight (actually tomorrow morning), though, there is a chance that, for a few minutes, a brief meteor storm will light up the skies. I don't know how good the chance is -- maybe 50/50, maybe lower. But, if you are up early tomorrow morning, you might as well take a look.

The meteor shower is called the Aurigids, as they appear to come from the constellation Auriga, which will be part-way up the sky in the east tomorrow morning, above the constellation Orion (though any meteors would be visible across the sky). Most years, the Aurigids produce nothing, but three times in the past, they have produced short bursts of activity.

The still-emerging field of meteor prediction has found that those previous bursts happened when the Earth crosses the orbit of a comet that last came through in 1911 (and won't come again until about 3900). Saturday morning, at 4:27am Pacific (give or take 20 minutes), the Earth will pass through the meteor stream left by the comet when it passed through the solar system in 82 BC.

If a meteor burst happens, it may produce 1 meteor a minute or as many as one every 5 or 6 seconds! Or, maybe nothing will happen at all.

So, if you live in the western US (the meteor burst will be after sunrise for those in the east), and if you are up before dawn tomorrow, see if you can spot any meteors appearing to come from a spot in the northeastern sky. And, if you do, know that these meteors were shed off a comet over 2100 years ago, when Julius Caesar was about 20 years old.

To read more on the Aurigids, see this page from Sky & Telescope magazine. (This article was also my main information source for my post.)

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