Meteor shower likely this week from near-Earth comet’s debris

Meteor shower’s observation would be of ‘tremendous scientific interest,’ researchers say

Vishwam Sankaran
Monday 11 December 2023 06:58

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Debris from a near-Earth comet could enter the planet’s atmosphere and trigger a new meteor shower this week, scientists say.

Researchers, including those from Observatoire de Paris, say the comet Comet 46P/Wirtanen, which orbits the Sun every 5.4 years, could spark a meteor shower on Tuesday as its debris enters and burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

“The results show a possible encounter forecast for 12 December 2023, between 8:00 and 12:30 UT [0300 and 0730 EST]. The activity level of the shower is highly uncertain due to the absence of reported past showers,” they wrote in a yet-to-be peer-reviewed study posted in arXiv.

Scientists say the most optimal observations of the meteor shower on the forecasted day would likely be from Eastern Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania.

Such meter showers are observed when the Earth passes through clouds of debris left behind by comets.

Sunlight can turn materials in these comet fragments into gas directly from a solid state in a process called sublimation.

This gas can blow off other fragments of the debris, creating comets’ distinct tails and auras, scientists say.

The comet 46P/Wirtanen was discovered in January 1948 and its core size is estimated to be about 1.4 km.

It is categorised as a near-Earth comet, meaning it can potentially be the parent body of a meteor shower.

While scientists found the likelihood of the comet producing a stream of debris during several past encounters with the Earth, there were however no meteor shower observations reported.

In the new study, researchers simulated the past orbital evolution of the comet’s orbit and found that in a likely encounter between the comet and the Earth this week, a stream of its fragments may spark a meteor shower.

They predict the new meteor shower can be witnessed on 12 December, 2023, between 8:00 and 12:30 UT while the exact time “may vary by a few hours.”

Scientists say the meteor shower’s observation would be of “tremendous scientific interest” as it can put constraints on the distribution of large particles for the comet.

However, they say the relatively small sizes of the debris could make observation of the meteor shower challenging.

“Nevertheless, we strongly encourage meteor enthusiasts to perform scientific observations and send their reports to the International Meteor Organization (IMO),” scientists wrote in the study.

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