A Mysterious & Rare Unicorn Meteor Outburst May Bring Tons of Meteors Tonight
It hasn't been the greatest year for meteor showers. Most have been average, and many have had to contend with bright moonlight on the night of the shower's peak. That could change the night of November 21 if a prediction by two meteor scientists comes to fruition.
The Earth is passing by a stream of debris left by an unknown comet. On rare occasions, this pass creates an outburst of the alpha Monocerotid meteors (AMO). If the outburst occurs, you could see as many as 400 meteors per hour. Though, a more tempered prediction from Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office projects that 100 is a more reasonable ceiling. Additionally, that "if" is important. There's a chance it doesn't occur at all, in which case you'd see something more like three meteors per hour.
Nonetheless, if the shower -- with the potential to be labeled a "meteor storm" -- does arrive, it will be the first time since 1995, when the AMOs produced more than 400 meteors per hour. For the mathematically lazy, that's multiple meteors shooting across the sky every minute. (Other outbursts occurred in 1985, 1935, and 1925.)
As Cooke notes, some projections are even higher because we may pass closer to the center of the comet's debris stream than we did in 1995.
How to see the meteor shower outburst
The shower could occur on Thursday night, starting at 11:50pm EST, per the projections of Esko Lyytinen and Peter Jenniskens, the meteor scientists who predict a "good chance" of the shower's rare outburst. That timing is more important than with the majority of meteor showers. "Unlike most meteor outbursts which last for several hours," the American Meteor Society says, "strong activity from the alpha Monocertids is over within an hour and easily missed."
The location of the shower will make for favorable viewing in western Europe and the eastern United States. The further west you're located in the US, the fewer meteors you'll see. Cooke says that anywhere west of Denver isn't likely to see anything at all. The map below from NASA shows how you'll see fewer and fewer meteors the further west you are located until you hit the white area where no meteors will be seen. Even so, around 75 meteors per hour throughout much of the map would make for a stunning display.
To get a good view, go far from the lights of the city. Light pollution in urban centers will wash out meteors. Since the AMOs occur so quickly, you'll want to be in a rural area with a good view of the sky and a clear look at the eastern horizon. The meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Monoceros (greek for unicorn) that can be found to the left of Orion.
You'll also want to be sure the sky is clear. You won't see meteors streaking above you through the clouds, and it looks like parts of the east coast are likely to be overcast.
Since it takes your eyes a while to adjust at night, it'd be smart to arrive at your preferred watching spot a little early. Your eyes need about 45 minutes to properly adjust to the darkness. So, take some time, listen to some music -- do not look at your phone as that will damage your night vision -- and have a hot toddy to ward off the cold. The worst-case scenario is you spend a little time enjoying the starry sky.