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"Lost" Andromedids meteor shower offers a celestial surprise tonight

The Andromedids meteor shower, historically significant and fascinating from both astronomical and historical perspectives, offers a unique spectacle in the night sky. This “lost” meteor shower is associated with the Biela’s Comet, which was discovered in 1826 by Wilhelm von Biela, and has the potential to put on a brilliant celestial display this weekend.

The Andromedids, also known as the Bielids, are so named because their radiant point, from where they appear to emanate, lies in the constellation of Andromeda.

Historical significance

The Andromedids have a rich history, marked by an intense meteor storm in 1872 and another in 1885. These events coincided with the expected return of Biela’s Comet, which had split into two pieces during its 1846 perihelion passage.

The meteor storms were caused by Earth passing through the debris left by the disintegrating comet. The 1872 storm was particularly noteworthy, with observers reporting up to several thousand meteors per hour, a truly spectacular event.

Observational features

The Andromedids are known for their low velocity, appearing slower in the sky compared to other meteor showers. This characteristic is attributed to the relatively small relative velocity between the meteoroids and Earth. The meteors are generally faint, lacking the bright fireballs associated with more active showers.

However, in December 2011, astronomers unexpectedly observed a burst of predominantly faint meteors originating from the Cassiopeia constellation. Further analysis identified these meteors as remnants from the 1649 closest approach of the once-lost comet 3D/Biela.

This comet is famously associated with the remarkable Andromedid meteor storms of 1872 and 1885. Research also suggests the potential for a more intense display of these meteors in early December 2023.

Andromedids current activity

In contemporary times, the Andromedids are a minor meteor shower, significantly less intense than their historical peaks. This decline is primarily due to the dispersal and depletion of the debris from Biela’s Comet. The shower typically peaks in late November, with a variable and often low rate of meteors.

However, this year may be a different story. The anticipated peak of the Andromedids display is expected around 19:00 Universal Time on December 2nd, offering an advantageous viewing opportunity for Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia.

In North America, the sun will set approximately 3 to 4 hours following the predicted peak, making it an ideal location for observation should the activity occur later than anticipated. Observers worldwide are encouraged to keep an eye on the sky during late November and early December and to share any sightings from this meteor shower.

Scientific importance

The study of the Andromedids has contributed to our understanding of cometary physics and meteoroid streams. The disintegration of Biela’s Comet and the resulting meteor storms provided early evidence of the connection between comets and meteor showers. Observations of the Andromedids help astronomers understand the evolution and life cycle of cometary debris in the solar system.

Andromedids viewing tips

For those interested in observing the Andromedids, the best viewing conditions include a dark sky far from city lights, clear weather, and minimal moonlight interference. While the current rates are low, patient observers might still spot a few meteors emanating from Andromeda during the shower’s peak.

The Andromedids meteor shower, though now a shadow of its former glory, remains a topic of interest for astronomers and skywatchers alike. Its historical significance and the insights it provides into cometary behavior make it an important chapter in the story of our solar system’s dynamic and ever-changing nature.

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