By Brad Lendon
(CNN) — Look to the heavens this week and you may see something no earthling has seen before — meteors from the comet Wirtanen.
The comet was discovered in 1948 and orbits the sun every 5.4 years, but 2012 will mark the first time the Earth’s orbit will cross the comet’s debris field, possibly producing meteors, according to a NASA press release.
“Dust from this comet hitting Earth’s atmosphere could produce as many as 30 meteors per hour,” Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office said in the release.
The Wirtanen meteor show could come any time between Tuesday and Friday as Earth will cross the comet’s tail four times during that span, the NASA release said.
But just because you spot meteors this week, don’t think they’re automatically from Wirtanen. That’s because the Geminid meteor shower is expected to peak Thursday night.
The Geminids, which come around every December, were first observed shortly before the Civil War. They come when the Earth passes through debris from the extinct comet 3200 Phaethon. NASA says an extinct comet is the rock that remains when a comet loses its ice. This meteor shower is called the Geminids because if you trace the path of the meteors, it looks as if they are coming from the constellation Gemini. And that’s how you can distinguish these meteors from those that may be the product of Wirtanen. Wirtanen meteors would come from the constellation Pisces.
Cooke also said the meteors from Wirtanen should be visible early in the evening, while Geminids should show up later.
Cooke and other comet experts will hold an online chat about the meteor showers beginning at 11 ET Thursday night. NASA will also provide a Ustream feed of the meteor showers. As many as 120 meteors an hour may be visible, NASA said.
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