Rare 'unicorn' meteor shower predicted to light up skies for first time in over 2 decades

Alex Lasker

A spectacular "unicorn" meteor shower may be visible to the naked eye Thursday night, thanks to a rare outburst by a mysterious comet.

Renowned meteor scientists Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen have predicted the alpha Monocertoid shower will begin around 11:50 p.m. ET on Nov. 21 and last for about an hour in total, much shorter than the span of an average meteor shower, which can last for several hours.

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Should the scientists' predictions be accurate, we can expect to observe a rate of nearly 7 meteors per minute — close to 400 per hour — at the moment of maximum activity.

Although the alpha Monocerotids are active every year, producing a few annual meteors around Nov. 22, they are best known for four heavy outbursts of activity that occurred in 1925, 1935, 1985 and 1995, the American Meteor Society reports — and, if conditions align, we may get to witness the phenomenon tonight, for the first time in over two decades.

According to Jenniskens and Lyytinen, the alpha Monocertoid outbursts are caused by dust released by an unknown comet. The shower got its name because it is thought the meteors may originate from the constellation Monoceros, (or the unicorn), National Geographic reports. 

Tonight's spectacle should be visible from parts of South America, eastern North America, western Europe and northwestern Africa. Those attempting to view the show should begin stargazing around 11 p.m. ET or risk missing it entirely. Remember to dress for the weather and remain far away from areas heavily affected by light pollution, such as large cities.

The brightness of the moon should not interfere with viewing, as it will be waning. 

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