Meteor storm ‘due next year’

A comet which last passed us nearly a century ago could produce a spectacular storm of meteors over Earth next year.

Experts say our planet will sweep through a vast trail of debris left by Kiess’s Comet, which only makes an appearance from the depths of the solar system about every 2,000 years.

For around two hours, bright fireballs could rain down over us according to US astronomers Peter Jenniskens and Jereme Vaubaillon. The date for the predicted shower is September 1 next year with the peak happening during nighttime over the western USA.

Scientists are excited because the meteors will be made up of fragments of the comet’s original crust found in the Oort Cloud on the fringes of the solar system. They are more than 4.5 billion years old and older than the rocks on Earth.

The comet was discovered from the Lick Observatory, California, in 1911. The scientists say it last crossed the Earth’s orbit in 82 BC when Julius Caesar was a junior officer and Rome was ruled by the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla.

Jenniskens, of the SETI Institute, and Vaubaillon, of Caltech, call the oncoming storm the Alpha Aurigids because the meteors will appear to stream in from the direction of the brightest star Capella in the constellation of Auriga, the Charioteer. They told delegates at the International Astronomical Union conference in Prague: “A two-hour outburst of Alpha Aurigids will occur. The typical meteor will be so bright that the Moon won’t dim much of the display.”

They added: “What makes this shower so special is the opportunity to see bits and pieces of the comet’s original crust. Long-period comets have just recently returned from cold storage in the Oort cloud and are still covered by a crust that resulted from 4.5 billion years of exposure to cosmic rays.

“When the comet returns to the inner solar system, that crust is crumbled and creates peculiar meteors.”

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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