London, Nov. 15 (Reuters): Star gazers in Europe, Britain and North America are in for a treat next week and have prime viewing positions for what could be the biggest natural fireworks display of the 21st century.
During the early hours of November 19 thousands of meteors, or shooting stars, will light up the night sky as they enter the atmosphere at speeds of about 160,000 miles per hour.
“It is a natural fireworks display, a celestial spectacle,” Professor Mark Bailey, of the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland, told Reuters on Friday.
Known as the Leonids because they originate in the constellation Leo, the meteor storm will occur in two bursts during the night of November 18 to 19.
Britain and Europe will have the best views for the first burst of the shower that scientists predict will occur at about 0350 GMT and residents in North America are best placed to see the second barrage at about 1030 GMT.
“You have two components to the shower, two parts of the world that are potentially able to observe it,” Bailey added.
Although a full moon might dull the spectacle a bit, this year’s storm could be the biggest for the next 100 years, with 1,000 meteors per hour trailing across the sky in the first burst and as many as 6,000 per hour during the second.
“The US is better off than we are but on the other hand a thousand in an hour is probably more than most people see in a lifetime,” Bailey said.
Meteors are bits of rock and dust that hit the Earth’s atmosphere, heat up and glow. Most vaporise as they descend but some explode.
The Leonids are debris from the comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. About every 33 years the comet returns to the inner solar system and releases materials that form new dust trails that stretch from the comet many millions of miles away.
The comet is due to return to the inner solar system around 2033 and 2066 but the meteor storms are not expected to be as spectacular.
“The Earth just happens to be going through this very fine trail of meteoric debris.
“That trail that we run into at four in the morning on Tuesday the 19th was emitted during its passage around the sun in 1767,” Bailey said.
The trail the Earth will pass through during the second part of the storm was emitted 1866.
Thanks to calculating techniques developed by David Asher, of the Armagh Observatory, and Robert McNaught, of the Australian National University, Bailey said meteor storm prediction has become more precise.
“If the weather forecast sounds like it may be vaguely clear, it will be well worth it.”