How a meteor shower helped solve the case of the vanishing comet

The cosmic streams of dust revealed the missing object became an asteroid

Phoenicid meteor shower

NOW YOU SEE IT  In December 2014, astronomers spotted members of the Phoenicid meteor shower (one shown, bottom left) for the first time since its discovery in 1956.

National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

View the video

The reappearance of a long-lost meteor shower has finally explained what happened to a missing comet named 289P/Blanpain.

That comet was spotted only once in 1819 and never again, unusual for a body orbiting the sun. But in 2003, astronomers found a small asteroid moving along the Blanpain orbit, suggesting the space rock might be the comet (or a piece of it) after it ejected much of its cometary dust.

Some of that dust may have been what Japanese researchers saw in 1956 when they observed a meteor shower from the constellation Phoenix. Meteor showers occur when dust left behind by a comet burns up as it hits Earth’s atmosphere. Those “Phoenicid” meteors hadn’t been seen before — or since.

Astronomer Jun-ichi Watanabe of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan in Tokyo and colleagues traced the meteors to where the comet’s dust trail should have been. In 2010, the group predicted that the remaining dust would create another shower in 2014.

Team members traveled to North Carolina and Spain’s Canary Islands to test their prediction, and on the first two days of December, 2014, they saw Phoenicids streak across the sky. But there were about 90 percent fewer meteors than expected; Blanpain may have lost its dust more quickly than previously thought, the team reports in the Sept. 1 Planetary and Space Science. The astronomers will get a second chance to check — another shower is expected in 2019.

STARRY STREAKS This video caught Phoenicid meteors (green circles) streaking across the sky above Sandy Point, N.C., on December 1, 2014. The bright spot in the center is the moon, and the long streaks are airplanes. NAOJ

More Stories from Science News on Astronomy

From the Nature Index

Paid Content