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60-Second Science

Meteor Storm Went from Sizzle to Fizzle

The May Camelopardalids meteor outburst turned out to be a dud, because meteor storm prediction is not a sure thing, unlike, for example, calculating the next eclipse

 

What if they held a meteor storm and no meteors came? That's what many people are asking after the well-hyped May Camelopardalids meteor outburst turned out to be a dud.

Most meteors arise from mere dust grains and pebbles in space. When Earth passes through a stream of this debris shed by a comet, the particles burn up in our atmosphere, and we see a meteor shower.

Some astronomers had predicted that on the night of May 23, particles from a comet called LINEAR would bring many meteors to the night sky. North America had the best seats for the event.

And so a lot of people watched and waited. But no one saw much

Meteor showers are common, and the best produce about a hundred meteors per hour. But meteor storms, which can send out thousands of meteors per hour, are rare and notoriously unreliable.

Not only can predicted storms go bust, but great storms can erupt without warning. In November 1966, the normally weak Leonids surprised everyone and roared back to life, producing more than 100,000 shooting stars in a single hour.

You can still count on astronomers to tell you exactly when the next eclipse will be. But if they ever promise you a meteor storm, you should take it with a grain of, well, meteor dust.

—written by Ken Croswell, voiced by Steve Mirsky

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]
 

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