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Japanese Scientists Solve Mystery of Disappearing Meteor Shower

I’ve lost track of a lot of things in my day, but a meteor shower isn’t one of them. You’d think such a visible, prominent phenomenon would be a difficult thing to go missing, but that’s exactly what happened to the Phoenicids meteor shower for nearly sixty years. The rare meteor shower was first observed by stargazers in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and parts of the Asia Pacific region in December 1956. During this event, as many as 300 meteors an hour exploded and streaked across the sky in a brilliant and colorful display, but then were never seen again, leaving astronomers puzzled.

The Japanese observation ship Soya spotted the shower on a 1956 expedition to Antarctica.

The Japanese observation ship Soya spotted the shower on a 1956 expedition to Antarctica.

Until now, of course. Researchers from the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Japan have published a study which explains the mysterious disappearance of the Phoenicids meteor shower. A team of astronomers including 91-year-old Junji Nakamura, a witness of the 1956 shower, believe that a now-dormant comet called Comet Blanpain was behind the Phoenicids and that its current slow-moving state is the reason for the shower’s disappearance.

Comets can break or be pulled apart, leaving a ghost fin the form of a meteor.

Comets can break or be pulled apart, leaving behind boring ol’ garden variety meteors.

According to their recent article in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Japan, the researchers believe the comet, now classified as an asteroid due to losing its tail of gas and ice, is the cause of the Phoenicids:

We conclude that the parent body of the Phoenicids, comet 289P/Blanpain, decreased its activity after the 19th century. At the same time, it continued ejecting meteoroids as a comet, although its activity level decreased to not more than 10% by the early 20th century. [However,] it is clear that this asteroid is still active as a comet to a certain degree. According to our observation results, the parent body of the Phoenicids had sufficient activity as a comet to create meteor showers in the early 20th century.

The Phoenicids we see today are remnants of Comet Blanpain, chunks of space rock which were pulled away from their parent comet by gravitational forces. While noteworthy in solving this astronomical mystery, this study is also the first of its kind which was able to correctly predict meteor shower activity without actual observations of the meteor shower itself. The researchers hope this type of study could shine further light on the interactions of the many smaller bodies of our solar system and help explain many of our other unsolved celestial mysteries.