NASA via NBC News
A meteor crackles in the night sky. Will the Gamma Delphinids produce sights like this?
The Gamma Delphinid meteor shower hasn't made a splash since 1930 — but astronomers say this just might be another big year for the outburst, due to Earth's changing orbital path.
If the outburst comes, it's expected to last for about a half-hour starting at 4:28 a.m. ET Tuesday, according to Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, who specialize in comets and meteor tracking. That would be prime viewing time for observers in the Americas and points as far west as Hawaii. But don't get your hopes up too high.
"No one knows the strength of this display, or whether it will occur at all," Robert Lunsford of the American Meteor Society says in his preview.
On the evening of June 11, 1930, observers reported seeing a flurry of meteor activity even amid the glare of the full moon — but there's not been a repeat of the display since. That led some experts to question whether the original reports were authentic. Jenniskens and Lyytinen think that they were, and they have determined that our planet should be going through the same region of its orbit on Tuesday. If a long-period comet left behind the type of cosmic grit that sparks shooting stars in the upper atmosphere, we should be seeing a similar display this June 11.
The meteors would appear to radiate from the double-star gamma Delphini, which will be high in the southern sky for East Coast observers around 4:30 a.m. Lunsford advises beginning your night's watch a couple of hours before that, just in case the outburst comes early.
"This is not something one can stand outside and try to witness," he says. "Serious observers should be comfortable in a lounge chair and watch for at least an hour. I would not expect strong rates such as that occurred with the Leonid outburst near 2000. Rather, these meteors are more likely to appear a minute or two apart."
This chart indicates the area of visibility for Gamma Delphini, the double star that is considered the radiant for a meteor shower that may or may not occur on June 11. The green and yellow colors indicate how high the radiant will be in the sky at the expected time of maximum meteors, around 4:30 a.m. ET (08:30 GMT).
While you're waiting, you can click into an online chat with Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. ET. The chat page will also feature streaming video from a telescope monitoring the skies over Huntsville, Ala., in Marshall's neck of the woods.
If you snap a picture of the Gamma Delphinids, please share it with us via NBC News' FirstPerson photo upload page — and be sure to tell the American Meteor Society, too. You can use the AMS online report form or send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. "Even reports with no activity will help," Lunsford says.
More about meteors:
- Springtime Lyrid shower blooms in the sky
- Flash interactive: The science of meteors
- Cosmic Log archive on meteors
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.