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New meteor shower may try to upstage the Leonids

The Leonids may not be the only meteor show in town this month. Astronomers believe that the dust from a newly discovered comet may produce an impressive firework display as the Earth passes close to its orbit at 19:41 UTC on 11 November.

Known as Comet LINEAR (C/1999 J3), the newcomer made its closest approach to the Sun in September and is now on the outward leg of its 63,000 year trek through the Solar System. On 11 November, the Earth is due to pass less than 20 000 km from the comet's orbit, just 40 days after the comet swept by.

During this close encounter, the Earth may plough into the dusty debris thrown out by the comet as its icy nucleus vapourises in the warmth of the Sun. The International Meteor Organisation has issued a warning for meteor observers to keep a lookout during a 48 hour period around 11 November.

Since this will be the first time that anyone has ever seen a Linearid meteor shower, it is impossible to calculate the dust distribution in the comet's wake.

No-one knows what to expect. The only way to find out is to go outside and look. The meteors will seem to blaze across the sky from the direction of the well-known constellation Ursa Major (commonly known as the Big Dipper or the Plough). The phase of the Moon is only just past new, so observers in Europe should be blessed with dark skies.

Comet LINEAR is named after the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research telescope in Socorro, New Mexico, which is owned by the U.S. Air Force. LINEAR uses an automated system and a highly sensitive electronic camera, and has discovered many unknown asteroids and comets.


The red dot shows the region of the sky from which the Linearid meteors might emanate. Image courtesy of NASA MSFC Science news.

For further information visit the following Web sites:
NASA Space Science News: http://science.nasa.gov/
International Meteor Organisation: http://www.imo.net/news/news.html