Rare “Unicorn” Meteor Outburst Could Light up the Sky Tonight

If we’re lucky, scientists say that the Alpha Monocerotids could produce up to 1,000 meteors per hour, causing a meteor “storm.”

Rare “Unicorn” Meteor Outburst Could Light up the Sky Tonight

Leave the city behind to cut down on light pollution for tonight’s show.

Photo by Shutterstock

If you’ve never heard of the Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower, you’re not alone. Unlike the reliably bright Perseids, Geminids, and Orionids that appear each year, sightings of the Alpha Monocerotids have been recorded only four times before: in 1925, 1935, 1985, and 1995.

But there should be a brief “outburst” of meteors from this shower late Thursday night, according to new calculations that two reputable meteor experts, NASA’s Peter Jenniskens and Finnish Fireball Network’s Esko Lyytinen, published in the MeteorNews.

Jenniskens and Lyytinen can’t say exactly how many meteors you’ll see tonight, but the showers in 1985 and 1995 produced between 400 and 700 meteors per hour, the Washington Post reports. The scientists say that tonight’s event could create anywhere from about 100 meteors per hour up to 1,000 per hour creating a meteor “storm.”

Tonight’s event is only expected to last up to 40 minutes, but experts say that you could see as many as five shooting stars per minute. Even if the show doesn’t live up to its full potential, you should still anticipate at least one or two particularly bright meteors during the entire event.

The Alpha Monocerotids are also known as the “Unicorn” meteor shower because its meteors appear to radiate from near the constellation Monoceros, or the Unicorn, CNN reports. However, the shooting stars you may see on Earth tonight will actually come from the trail of debris that an unknown comet—Jenniskens and Lyytinen have yet to identify which one—leaves behind as it orbits the sun. As the planet passes through the comet’s dust cloud, the shooting stars you may see tonight are actually space debris—or meteoroids—burning up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

When can you see the Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower?

The Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower peaks just before midnight on Thursday, November 21, according to MeteorNews. If you’re worried about being cold, this shower will be a quick one. Beginning around 11:30 p.m. ET, the meteor shower is expected to peak at 11:50 p.m. and wrap up around 12:10 a.m. Thankfully, the moon will remain below the horizon until 12:55 a.m., so the skies should be perfectly dark during the shower’s short window of activity.

To give your eyes time to adjust to the dark, put down your phone and head outside for about 45 minutes before the meteor shower starts. So, set an alarm for 10:45 p.m. ET and don’t forget to bring a chair and a blanket to keep warm.

Where can you see the meteor shower?

People in the United States’ Eastern Time Zone have the best chance of seeing tonight’s meteor shower if they face east-southeast and look about a quarter of the way up from the horizon, according to the Farmers’ Almanac.

Those located in the Central and Mountain Time Zones could also have a chance of seeing shooting stars tonight, but the meteors will be emanating from very close to the horizon, making them harder to see.

Once you head farther west, the meteors will be below the horizon so there will be virtually nothing to see if you’re located in the Pacific Time Zone. However, if you’re lucky, you might be able to spot something called an “Earthgrazer” at the shower’s peak at 8:50 p.m. PT. According to the Farmers’ Almanac, an Earthgrazer is a meteor that shoots from below the horizon up into the sky and often has long trails.

For the best viewing conditions, you’ll need to leave the bright lights of the city behind and head to a place with little to no light pollution. Search the International Dark-Sky Association’s website to find the best dark sky locations in the United States near you.

When is the next meteor shower in 2019?

If the Alpha Monocerotids don’t deliver tonight, the next major meteor shower peaks in a few weeks. Active from December 4 to 17, the Geminids are set to peak on the night of December 13 and into the early hours of December 14. Typically, the Geminids are considered to be the brightest meteor shower of the year with 100 to 120 meteors per hour. However, this year the moon will be about 96 percent full on December 13, making it harder to see the meteors as they blaze across the sky.

>> Next: 6 Celestial Events Worth Traveling for in 2019

Lyndsey Matthews is the senior commerce editor at AFAR who covers travel gear, packing advice, and points and loyalty.
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