Thursday, November 21, 2019

setting meteor expectations

File under the Selling-More-Newspapers category.

CNN ran the headline, "Mysterious comet will cause a rare 'Unicorn' meteor storm this week." Really?! Sheesh. said that "hundreds of meteors will grace the skies tonight (Nov. 21) in a rare event known as the 'unicorn' meteor shower." Please.

This is one of those cringe worthy situations where I like that the media outlets are talking about astronomy but on the other hand, it is sensationalised and amplifies expectations. I also worry about the crying wolf effect and that will be detrimental to the curious public.

Some quick facts:

The alpha Monocerotid meteor shower is a mild or minor meteor shower in the grand scheme of things. A couple per hour is the normal rate. By comparison, the Perseids in August have around 70/hr, the Geminids in December, 120/hr, and the Quadrantids, 100, in January. See my table for considering the major meteor showers for 2019.

In fact, the alpha Mon meteor rate is so low a casual observer is more likely to see a random sporadic meteor.

Most meteor showers are active over several hours. The predicted outburst activity from the alpha Monocertids will be over within an hour. So easily missed. Therefore to properly view, a serious observer would sit outside for hours, centred on the predicted peak, and see what they can see. Does that sound fun? To astrogeeks maybe.

Meteor showers are produced by old comets, sometimes old asteroids. The word "mysterious" is misleading here. In the case of the alpha Monocerotids, scientists currently do not know the source. So there's interest in the scientific community to conduct more research. You can help if you're interested by doing proper meteor counts.

I think the word "rare" is improperly used here. Outbursts with meteor showers are rare, yes. Meteor showers are not rare—there are about a dozen major showers each year. Meteors are not at all rare. Amateurs see meteors every night they are out observing. See my graph showing the big meteor showers for the year.

The unicorn moniker cracks me up. That's just everyone jumping on the bandwagon. Pinkie Furiosa approves!

Alpha Monoceros!

The general public, especially anyone located inside a large town or city, is not going to see anything, given rampant light pollution. Go to a dark sky site if you want to dramatically improve your chances of seeing anything.

Sitting around waiting for a fireball to happen in a minor meteor shower is like watching paint dry. Only hardcore keener amateur astronomers are gonna do this.

If you want correct, proper scientific information, visit the American Meteor Society or the International Meteor Organisation.

And, as usual, take your other unofficial sources with a grain of salt.

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