Is a rogue comet on a collision course with Earth?

By Richard Gray

A network of cameras in NZ detected a surprise meteor shower that had not been seen before (pictured). Photo: Desert Fireball Network/Curtin University
A network of cameras in NZ detected a surprise meteor shower that had not been seen before (pictured). Photo: Desert Fireball Network/Curtin University

• Meteor shower was spotted in New Zealand during New Year celebrations
• Never previously detected, the shower has been named the Volantids
• Astronomers say they yet to trace the comet that produced the shower
• They say the shower has provided an early warning of a potential hazard

Revellers in New Zealand were treated to a New Year's bonus during the first hours of 2016 with a meteor shower that lit up the sky, but there was one problem - no one saw it coming.

The surprise meteor shower, which have been named the Volantids, has left astronomers desperately searching for the comet the meteors came from.

And they say that the as-yet unidentified comet may be on a potentially hazardous orbit around Earth.

Dr Peter Jenniskens, a meteor astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) Institute in California, said: "In a way, the shower helped chase bad spirits away."

"Now we have an early warning that we should be looking for a potentially hazardous comet in that orbit."

The meteor shower was picked up by a new network of cameras peering at the sky across New Zealand.

The meteor video surveillance project was established to search the southern hemisphere for the warning signs of dangerous comets.

The Voltanids (above with the constellation Volans highlighted) are possibly caused by dust left in the wake of an unknown comet burning up in the atmosphere, say astronomers. Photo: Desert Fireball Network/Curtin University
The Voltanids (above with the constellation Volans highlighted) are possibly caused by dust left in the wake of an unknown comet burning up in the atmosphere, say astronomers. Photo: Desert Fireball Network/Curtin University

In a paper submitted to the Journal of the International Meteor Organisation, Dr Jenniskens and his colleagues calculate the trajectories of 21 Volantids that streaked across the sky on 31 December.

There were two more that swept the sky on 1 January.

Dr Jenniskens said: "These were naked-eye meteors and rates peaked at the time of the local New Year's Eve celebrations.

"One out of three meteors that night came from this shower."

The meteor shower is named after the constellation Volans, the flying fish where the meteorids appear to stream towards us from.

It had not been detected the year before and it was not seen using past radar observations.

Rachel Soja, a researcher on meteorid stream dynamics at the University of Stuttgart in Germany, analysed the path taken by the meteors.

She said they were unable to identify the parent comet that may have created the asteroids but added there did not appear to be any immediate danger to the Earth.

"A confined stream of dust particles must have been steered into Earth's path for a brief moment.

"The parent body of this stream still eludes us. It may not be active now and the high inclination may make it difficult to spot."

Professor Jack Baggaley, from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, who helped set up the network of cameras, said they could identify other unknown meteor showers in the future.

"New Zealand, lying between 35 and 47 degrees southern latitude, has a long tradition of meteor studies," he said.

"While radar observations in the past were efficient at observing sporadic meteors, the video cameras can see the meteor showers really well."

- Daily Mail

- Daily Mail

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