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Stars in our eyes

Starry-eyed enthusiasts across New Zealand should take time to look up tonight because a rare meteor shower is expected to light up our night skies.

New Zealand is the prime location to observe the once-in-a-lifetime celestial spectacle, and Wairarapa’s Dark Sky reserve could provide some of the best views.

Star Safari’s Sam Leske said that depending on the weather conditions, Wairarapa residents could be in for a spectacular treat.

“But the big caveat is that we’ve never seen this shower before, so we don’t know what it’s going to be like,” he said.

Leske explained that what we will be able to see during the meteor shower is still unknown but, that regardless of visibility, it will still be an interesting event.

“If we don’t see anything, that tells us quite a lot too,” he said.

“We don’t know the debris that came off the comet.”

The best viewing time is estimated to be between 8pm and 12.30am, although Leske anticipates that the prime time will be closer to 10pm and slightly to the west.

The meteor shower is the result of a close encounter between Comet 46P Wirtanen1 and Jupiter back in 1972, which caused a significant amount of debris to be dislodged from the comet.

“As it was whizzing past Jupiter, that disrupted it a bit, and parts came off, and so that’s the cloud,” Leske said.

This year marks the first time that debris will intersect with Earth’s orbit, hopefully giving us a box seat to view the meteor shower.

Star Safari has a meteor camera set up as part of Fireballs Aotearoa’s meteor camera network, which involves about 100 cameras that have been set up nationwide.

The network will document the meteor shower and hopefully be used to triangulate the locations of any meteors should they make it through the atmosphere.

The project, which is run in collaboration with Canterbury and Otago universities, also aims to “recover freshly fallen meteorites”.

“It’s a really good citizen science programme,” Leske said.

Wairarapa’s Dark Sky status makes it one of the best spots in New Zealand to watch the shower – assuming there are good weather conditions.

“To see meteors hitting the upper atmosphere you want to be in the darkest spot possible,” Leske said, suggesting that it would be best to travel away from towns and their lights.

“The best way to look at it is to lie down on the ground, look up, and enjoy,” Leske said.

Wirtanen orbits the sun every 5.4 years, much quicker than the 75-year orbit of the more famous Halley’s comet.

Another meteor shower is expected on the night of December 14, though the best views won’t be until it peaks at about 2am on December 15.

The Geminids meteor shower will have a different trajectory to Wirtanen, meaning that the best views will be found by looking north.

Historically, the Geminid meteor shower can involve hundreds of shooting stars streaking through our night sky. a significant amount of debris to be dislodged from the comet.

“As it was whizzing past Jupiter, that disrupted it a bit, and parts came off, and so that’s the cloud,” Leske said.

This year marks the first time that debris will intersect with Earth’s orbit, hopefully giving us a box seat to view the meteor shower.

Star Safari has a meteor camera set up as part of Fireballs Aotearoa’s meteor camera network, which involves about 100 cameras that have been set up nationwide.

The network will document the meteor shower and hopefully be used to triangulate the locations of any meteors should they make it through the atmosphere.

The project, which is run in collaboration with Canterbury and Otago universities, also aims to “recover freshly fallen meteorites”.

“It’s a good citizen science programme,” Leske said.

Wairarapa’s Dark Sky status makes it one of the best spots in New Zealand to watch the shower – assuming there are good weather conditions.

“To see meteors hitting the upper atmosphere you want to be in the darkest spot possible,” Leske said, suggesting that it would be best to travel away from towns and their lights.

“The best way to look at it is to lie down on the ground, look up, and enjoy,” Leske said.

Wirtanen orbits the sun every 5.4 years, much quicker than the 75-year orbit of the more famous Halley’s comet.

Another meteor shower is expected on the night of December 14, though the best views won’t be until it peaks at about 2am on December 15.

The Geminids meteor shower will have a different trajectory to Wirtanen, meaning that the best views will be most likely found by looking north.

Historically, the Geminid meteor shower can involve hundreds of shooting stars streaking through our night sky.

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