Image: February Eta Draconid
All Sky Cameras / Peter Jenniskens
This February Eta Draconid meteor streak was filmed by Peter Jenniskens with one of the low-light-level video cameras at the Cameras for All-sky Meteor Surveillance station in Mountain View, Calif., at 07:59:24 GMT on Feb. 4, 2011.
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updated 7/27/2011 10:10:31 PM ET 2011-07-28T02:10:31

A surprise meteor shower spotted in February was probably caused by cosmic "bread crumbs," dropped by an undiscovered comet that could potentially pose a threat to Earth, astronomers announced Wednesday.

The tiny meteoroids that streaked through Earth's atmosphere for a few hours on Feb. 4 represent a previously unknown meteor shower, researchers said. The "shooting stars" arrived from the direction of the star Eta Draconis, so the shower is called the February Eta Draconids, or FEDs for short.

The bits of debris appear to have been shed by a long-period comet. Long-period comets whiz by the sun very infrequently, so it's tough to predict when they last cruised through our neck of the woods — and when they'll come back, researchers said. 

That uncertainty is cause for some concern in this case, they added. [Close Encounters of the Comet Kind]

"If the meteoroids can hit us, so can the comet," said Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and NASA's Ames Research Center, who discovered the February Eta Draconids. "We don’t know whether the comet has already passed us by or is still on approach."

Jenniskens stressed that the chances of such a collision are extremely remote.

Scanning the night sky
Jenniskens heads the Cameras for All-sky Meteor Surveillance (CAMS) project, which has been monitoring the San Francisco Bay Area's night skies with low-light video cameras in an effort to map meteor showers.

CAMS' cameras picked up the FEDs, bringing the tally of officially recognized meteor showers to 64.

The comet that produced the meteor shower is unknown. It may have last zipped by the sun just a few hundred years ago, or many thousands, researchers said. But it apparently came relatively close to Earth on its last trip through the inner solar system. [Comet Dive-Bombs Sun During Big Solar Eruption]

At that time, the comet released a cloud of dust, which is now making its own way around the sun.

"Earth gets hosed typically only once or twice every 60 years by such streams," Jenniskens said. "The stream of dust is always there, but quite invisible just outside of Earth’s orbit. Only when the planets steer the dust in Earth’s path do we get to know it is there."

Learning more about the comet
Jenniskens teamed up with a colleague, Finnish astronomer Esko Lyytinen, to investigate when the FEDs might have another encounter with Earth. Lyytinen calculated a possible return in 2016 or 2023, and after that not again until 2076, researchers said.

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Whenever the FEDs show up again, astronomers will study them closely. Future observations of the shower may reveal key information about its parent comet — including whether or not it poses a real danger of ever slamming into Earth.

However, it can be tough to gauge a comet's path based on how its sloughed-off pieces are moving around the solar system.

"The bits from the comet are not subjected to the same forces that the comet is," said Bill Cooke, head of the Meteoroid Environment Center at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Dusty comet debris is affected primarily by things like radiation pressure and gravity, explained Cooke, who was not part of the FEDs discovery team. But comets' orbits are more of a wild card, since the icy wanderers tend to spawn gaseous jets as they approach the sun and begin heating up. These jets can have a big impact on comet trajectories.

"That's why tracking a comet can be quite a tricky business," Cooke told Space.com.

Don't worry too much
Despite the uncertainty, Cooke said the public shouldn't get into a panic about a potential "doomsday comet."

"Does this shower indicate that a comet's going to whack Earth? I kind of doubt it," he said. "I don't think you can infer from this meteor stream that the parent comet is in a potentially hazardous orbit."

Jenniskens also urged some perspective, drawing on history as a guide.

"Chances are very small that the comet will actually hit us, as such impacts are rare in Earth’s history," he said.

You can follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  5. Accidental art

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  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Interactive: A guide to viewing meteor showers

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