By: Bill Cooke
Lead, NASA Meteoroid Environment Office
The media is currently broadcasting the prediction of an outburst of the alpha Monocerotid meteor shower on the night of November 21. The researchers making the prediction, Dr. Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, have made calculations that indicate that there may be zenithal hourly rates as high as 400 to 1000 meteors per hour around 11:50 PM Eastern Standard Time (10:50 PM Central and 9:50 PM Mountain; you will note that I am not giving a Pacific time – more on that later). These are impressive numbers, generating lots of buzz in the media. I love meteor outbursts and storms, so I was initially quite excited – I mean, what’s there not to like about an impromptu display involving lots of meteors from a yet-to-be discovered comet?
But as the media inquiries increased, I began to wonder if all the attention is justified. Being a meteor shower forecaster, I am all too aware of the fact that such predictions (including mine), while pretty accurate on the timing, often estimate a shower intensity higher (factors of a few) than what actually takes place. So I decided to take a more detailed look, starting with some dumpster diving for old papers about this shower and making a few calculations of my own. That’s when the skepticism kicked in – I now think there is a pretty good chance there may be no outburst at all. And even if there is, it won’t be as impressive as many think. Allow me to share…
In Dr. Jenniskens and Lyytinen’s work, the Earth is forced to pass through the center of alpha Monocerotid meteor stream (AMOs for short) during the shower’s 1925 and 1935 outbursts. We have no idea if this actually happened, but it is a reasonable assumption if these outbursts were more intense than the last one in 1995. Based on this, they conclude that the AMOs are produced by a long period comet that takes about 500 years to orbit the Sun. IF this is right, then we should pass very close to the center of the meteor stream this year, missing it by a scant 15,000 miles. That’s just a tad closer than we got back in 1995, when the observed zenithal hourly rate was about 400 per hour. And it’s why the forecast rate is so high – closer means the same intensity or better.
However, the intensity of the outburst is very dependent on the size of the parent comet’s orbit. If it is much smaller, or larger, the distance from the stream center will be bigger, and there will not be any sky show, just the normal AMOs, puttering along with their normal rate of 3 or so meteors per hour. And since we have not yet discovered this mysterious parent comet, who knows how close the estimate of the orbit is to the actual? A good reason to step outside Thursday night, because the cool thing is that if an outburst does occur, we will have a pretty good idea of the orbit of this comet – not from observing the comet with telescopes, but by counting its debris as they burn up in our atmosphere.
The old papers I dug up also proved enlightening. I could find no meteor rate numbers for the 1925 outburst – just that it was short, with a fair number of meteors. The 1935 AMO outburst was observed in 2 places – a meteor observer in Begumpet, India and the commanding officer of a U.S. ship in the Philippines each reported seeing a total of just over 100 meteors in a 40 minute span of time. That’s nice, but it certainly is nowhere close to the spectacular rates produced by the Leonid and Draconid meteor storms of the 1900’s. A moderate outburst, yes, but not a meteor storm. Even fewer were seen in 1985, when one observer reported 36 meteors seen over 16 minutes of time. It is true that the calculated rates were in the hundreds per hour, but what matters to the average person is the total number of meteors they will see. Zenithal hourly rates give the theoretical rates for a perfect observer under perfect skies with the shower radiant straight overhead (something that never happens in reality), and while they may be a good way to scientifically measure meteor shower activity, they are poor indicators of what will actually be seen. The observer reports, however, do tell us what we might expect.
And then we come to 1995, the best-observed AMO outburst. Quite a few observers in Western Europe saw about 100 meteors over an hour’s time, consistent with the observations of the previous AMO outbursts. These data do not indicate that we were closer to the AMO stream center in 1925 and 1935, as Jenniskens and Lyytinen suggest; in fact, it appears that AMO outbursts are fairly constant with regard to numbers, with about 100 meteors seen over the less-than-an-hour duration of the outburst. At face value, this would mean no outburst. However, the numbers seeming to be not strongly dependent on distance is possibly good news; even if the researchers’ distance assumptions are wrong, we still may have a chance of a respectable, albeit short, outburst, provided Earth gets “close enough” to the stream center.
At the beginning of this post, I gave times for the predicted peak in the Eastern, Central, and Mountain time zones, but left out Pacific. That’s because the AMO radiant – the point in the constellation of Monocerotis from which the meteors appear to originate – is below the horizon at the peak time for locations west of Denver. That means people on the Pacific Coast will not see this outburst, even if their skies are clear. So if you live there and want to experience the shower, you need to go quite a bit east. If you do, please don’t blame me if the outburst is a no show; as I said, I am a bit skeptical. For the eastern United States, the radiant is not very high in the sky at the forecast peak time (about 23° in Orlando), which is unfortunate since the observed number of meteors is tied to the radiant altitude. The higher the radiant, the more meteors people see. So my computer savvy colleagues have generated this map, which shows the total numbers of meteors you can expect to see if the outburst is similar to that of 1995. Blue is good, red is worse, white means no meteors at all. The decrease in total expected meteors is pretty obvious as you move west
And of course, there is the weather. Remember, you need clear, dark skies to see meteors, and it looks like Mother Nature is going to be mean, with clouds forecast over much of the part of the U.S. that has a chance of observing the outburst. So, if you are gifted with good seeing, give yourself about 45 minutes to adjust to the dark – go out about 10:35 PM Eastern, 9:35 PM Central, or 8:35 PM Mountain. Lie flat on your back, look straight up, and enjoy looking at the night sky (maybe listen to some appropriate tunes, but don’t look at your cell phone, as the bright screen will ruin your night vision). If Jenniskens and Lyytinen are right, you might see some pieces of a comet that awaits discovery, burning up in the atmosphere 60 miles above your head.
That’s worth a couple of hours, I think. Even if there is no outburst, it doesn’t hurt to get out under the stars for a bit.