A few weeks ago, news circulated of a possible meteor storm in late May – the first in two decades. Now researchers are reporting the possibility of another possible one, and it’s happening in just two days. The culprit could be the binary asteroid 2006 GY2.
Meteor storms are periodic meteor showers on steroids. The best meteor showers may deliver 100 flashes in the sky in an hour, but most fall into the “less than 20” category. In meteor storms, which are far more unusual, thousands of pieces of debris fall through the atmosphere, creating cosmic fireworks.
The conditions for this are rare. Earth must pass through a dense debris cloud for it to take place — 2006 GY2, the type of asteroid known as a double minor planet, can provide a dense stream of debris — and it’s impossible to predict exactly if and when that will happen precise. Meteor showers are formed from the material left behind by comets and some asteroids as they orbit the sun and intersect Earth’s path through the solar system. Denser clumps often occur regularly, but they can provide anything from a slight increase to an epochal increase, such as the Leonid meteor storm of November 17, 1966, when up to 20 meteors were seen per second.
The International Meteor Organization reports that 2006 GY2 left a debris flow large enough to create a meteor storm. All we need is for Earth to cross it, and our planet will do so on Sunday, May 15th. The “little planet” consists of a 400 meter wide (1,310 feet) orbiting asteroid with another 80 meters (260 feet) in diameter.
The time of closest approach, meaning the debris will enter the atmosphere, is expected to be around 10:20 a.m. UT (6:20 a.m. ET) on Sunday. That means the US and Mexico will have the best visibility and a better chance of observing if the meteor storm is actually happening.
But there is a small problem. The moon will be nearly full – we are preparing for the total lunar eclipse that will occur Sunday night – so the brightness of our natural satellite could be hindering observations.
Meteoroids – as meteors are called before they enter the atmosphere – are usually tiny, the size of rice, so it’s very difficult to estimate how many of them are waiting to be caught by Earth’s gravity.
If Meteor Storm 2006 GY2 doesn’t show up, there’s still hope that the May 30-31 Dew Herculids could be the first meteor storm since the Leonid Storms of 2001-2002. But we can only wait and see.