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Meteor Shower next Tuesday

By Alastair Brickell

On November 12, 1833, there was a meteor shower so intense that it was possible to see up to 100,000 meteors crossing the sky every hour. At the time, many thought it was the end of the world, so much so that it inspired woodcut (see image) by Adolf Vollmy.

Here in New Zealand, we might just have a chance to witness a new meteor shower for the first time ever on the night of December 12, 2023. Whilst not as spectacular as the 1833 event nor as dangerous as Wyndham’s one, it should nevertheless be well worth looking out for. This new shower will be caused by Comet 46P/Wirtanen, which passed very close to Jupiter in the 1970’s and 1980’s causing a lot of debris to be dislodged. The Earth will intersect this cloud of dusty material for the first time in December and dark sky sites in New Zealand will be some of the best places in the world to see it. The bright ‘shooting stars’ will be caused by tiny bits of the comet entering the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of somewhere between 20 to 50 km per second and burning up about 50-70km above our heads.

The great Leonid meteor shower of 1833 gave astronomers the first clue as to just what caused these spectacular events. By noting that this shower occurred regularly every 33 years, they were able to match it up with the orbit of Comet Temple-Tuttle. While not all occurrences were as spectacular as the 1833 one, they nevertheless correctly deduced that these were caused by the Earth passing through debris left in the path of this comet on its 33-year journey around the Sun. Sometimes it passed through thick clumps of cometary dust producing spectacular displays, sometimes it didn’t.

British author, John Wyndham famously turned these events into a wonderful and classic science fiction horror story, as the meteors caused all humans who witnessed the display to become blind. On landing, the meteorites themselves turned into human-devouring plant-like aliens. The next morning these then marched across the landscape in search of a grisly meal of blind humans unable to either see them approaching or to escape.

Local astronomers are already gearing up for the unique event and the observatory at Stargazers Astronomy Tours in Kuaotunu is installing a special meteor camera to record the shower. This is part of the Fireballs Aotearoa network of meteor cameras that already has about 20 cameras online capturing images of other meteors every night. Established by geology Professor, James Scott of Otago University, its aim is to eventually recover fresh pieces of meteors landing in New Zealand for the first time.

Images of the event might also be captured by the recently installed European Space Agency camera located at Opito Bay although this is actually designed more to look for space junk than meteor showers. Both this and the Stargazers’ camera operate within the area of the proposed internationally recognised ‘Kuaotunu Dark Sky Community’ designed to preserve these uniquely dark skies.

So, cancel any other plans you might have for the early evening of December 12 and head outside instead for a look between 9.00pm and midnight. Even if the expected shower turns out to be underwhelming (always a possibility with notoriously unpredictable meteorite showers) there will still be the Geminid meteor shower to watch on the exact same night. Those meteorites are expected to be much faster than the Comet 47P/Wirtanen ones so there is sure to be some action to watch. No telescope will be necessary, just a dark location away from bright town lights, a good chair or blanket to lie on and a bit of patience. Most importantly, there are guaranteed to be no Triffids landing here on that night!

Alastair is a geologist and AMATEUR astronomer, and tireless advocate for establishing The Kuaotunu Peninsula as an official Dark Sky community. He and his team have wide and growing community support for this endeavour.

Alastair and Harriette Brickell own and host STARGAZERS B&B and Observatory nestled in a protected valley in Kuaotunu 16km north of Whitianga. STARGAZERS offers an ideal dark sky site to observe the stunning New Zealand southern night sky in all its dark sky glory.

Go to: STARGAZERSBB.COM

 |  The Informer  | 

By Alastair Brickell

On November 12, 1833, there was a meteor shower so intense that it was possible to see up to 100,000 meteors crossing the sky every hour. At the time, many thought it was the end of the world, so much so that it inspired woodcut (see image) by Adolf Vollmy.

Here in New Zealand, we might just have a chance to witness a new meteor shower for the first time ever on the night of December 12, 2023. Whilst not as spectacular as the 1833 event nor as dangerous as Wyndham’s one, it should nevertheless be well worth looking out for. This new shower will be caused by Comet 46P/Wirtanen, which passed very close to Jupiter in the 1970’s and 1980’s causing a lot of debris to be dislodged. The Earth will intersect this cloud of dusty material for the first time in December and dark sky sites in New Zealand will be some of the best places in the world to see it. The bright ‘shooting stars’ will be caused by tiny bits of the comet entering the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of somewhere between 20 to 50 km per second and burning up about 50-70km above our heads.

The great Leonid meteor shower of 1833 gave astronomers the first clue as to just what caused these spectacular events. By noting that this shower occurred regularly every 33 years, they were able to match it up with the orbit of Comet Temple-Tuttle. While not all occurrences were as spectacular as the 1833 one, they nevertheless correctly deduced that these were caused by the Earth passing through debris left in the path of this comet on its 33-year journey around the Sun. Sometimes it passed through thick clumps of cometary dust producing spectacular displays, sometimes it didn’t.

British author, John Wyndham famously turned these events into a wonderful and classic science fiction horror story, as the meteors caused all humans who witnessed the display to become blind. On landing, the meteorites themselves turned into human-devouring plant-like aliens. The next morning these then marched across the landscape in search of a grisly meal of blind humans unable to either see them approaching or to escape.

Local astronomers are already gearing up for the unique event and the observatory at Stargazers Astronomy Tours in Kuaotunu is installing a special meteor camera to record the shower. This is part of the Fireballs Aotearoa network of meteor cameras that already has about 20 cameras online capturing images of other meteors every night. Established by geology Professor, James Scott of Otago University, its aim is to eventually recover fresh pieces of meteors landing in New Zealand for the first time.

Images of the event might also be captured by the recently installed European Space Agency camera located at Opito Bay although this is actually designed more to look for space junk than meteor showers. Both this and the Stargazers’ camera operate within the area of the proposed internationally recognised ‘Kuaotunu Dark Sky Community’ designed to preserve these uniquely dark skies.

So, cancel any other plans you might have for the early evening of December 12 and head outside instead for a look between 9.00pm and midnight. Even if the expected shower turns out to be underwhelming (always a possibility with notoriously unpredictable meteorite showers) there will still be the Geminid meteor shower to watch on the exact same night. Those meteorites are expected to be much faster than the Comet 47P/Wirtanen ones so there is sure to be some action to watch. No telescope will be necessary, just a dark location away from bright town lights, a good chair or blanket to lie on and a bit of patience. Most importantly, there are guaranteed to be no Triffids landing here on that night!

Alastair is a geologist and AMATEUR astronomer, and tireless advocate for establishing The Kuaotunu Peninsula as an official Dark Sky community. He and his team have wide and growing community support for this endeavour.

Alastair and Harriette Brickell own and host STARGAZERS B&B and Observatory nestled in a protected valley in Kuaotunu 16km north of Whitianga. STARGAZERS offers an ideal dark sky site to observe the stunning New Zealand southern night sky in all its dark sky glory.

Go to: STARGAZERSBB.COM