Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a newly discovered comet may someday pose a threat to Earth. But we haven’t spotted the comet quite yet. Instead, astronomers at the SETI Institute saw its dust. On New Year’s Eve, cameras in New Zealand captured a meteor shower that had never been seen before. Coming from the direction of the southern sky Volans constellation, it was named the Volantids. But a shower coming from that direction seems to indicate a comet with a highly eccentric orbit, one of a class of so-called Jupiter-family comets. These comets are so named for the forces Jupiter exerts on them, confining them to the inner edge of the outer solar system.
One such comet, Shoemaker-Levy 9, crashed into Jupiter in 1995. The weird, elongated, eccentric orbits of these comets makes them harder to spot, though the chance observation of the new meteor shower could give a few clues. Now, scientists are on the hunt for a culprit. There’s a small chance it could’ve been an isolated cloud of dust, but the SETI Institute describes any cometary culprit as “potentially dangerous.” However, they caution that all scenarios in the near future don’t seem to call for any sort of collision. READ MORE