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Meteor Shower Points to 'Potentially Hazardous' Comet

While Earth can breathe easy for now, astronomers are on the lookout for a comet that may pose a threat to our planet in the distant future.

While Earth can breathe easy for now, the SETI Institute and other astronomers are on the lookout for a "potentially hazardous" comet that may in the distant future pose a threat to our planet.

The search comes after a new meteor shower was spotted around New Year's Eve. It has never been seen before or tracked in radar observations. Calculations of the stream show the Earth is safe for the foreseeable future, but astronomers will be on the lookout for the parent body.

"In a way, the shower helped chase bad spirits away," said SETI Institute meteor astronomer Peter Jenniskens in a statement. "Now we have an early warning that we should be looking for a potentially hazardous comet in that orbit."

Photos: Russian Meteor Strike Aftermath

The direction from which the new meteor shower approached. Credit: Peter Jenniskens/SETI Institute

The shower was seen in New Zealand with a network of video surveillance camera. It is called the Volantids after the constellation Volans (flying fish). As is traditional with meteor showers, it is named after the spot in the sky from which the meteors appear to emanate.

Meteor showers are in themselves regular and harmless events, but are being used in a new video surveillance project to find comets that could be dangerous to our planet. The project is a collaboration between Jenniskens and Jack Baggaley, a physics professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

"New Zealand, lying between 35 and 47 degrees southern latitude, has a long tradition of meteor studies," says Baggaley. "While radar observations in the past were efficient at observing sporadic meteors, the video cameras can see the meteor showers really well."

Large-ish Meteor Hits Earth... But No One Notices

A likely Volantid meteor captured by the Desert Fireball Network in Australia. | Desert Fireball Network/Curtin University

The network includes 32 video cameras at two stations on New Zealand's South Island, operated by amateur meteor astronomers Peter Aldous at Geraldine and Ian Crumpton at West Melton. The information is then sent to the SETI Institute, and Jenniskens performs calculations on the meteors' path. The parent body, astronomers added, may be hard to find because its orbit is so highly inclined to the Earth.

A study based on this data was submitted for publication in the Journal of the International Meteor Organization, showing 21 Volantid trajectories on Dec. 31 and two on Jan. 1.

This is an artist's illustration of a meteor shower on New Year’s Eve.

Dozens of videos of the Russian meteor were uploaded to Youtube soon after impact on the morning of Feb. 15, 2013, many of which originated from vehicle dashboard cameras (or "dash cams"). During the morning commute many drivers saw the bright orb grow and explode in the atmosphere. The resulting shock wave caused windows to blow out over a huge area injuring over 1,000 people -- mainly cuts and minor concussions.

The fireball light was as bright as a second sun for a brief moment before it broke up over the Urals region of Russia.

As seen in this CCTV footage, the meteor created its own shadows as it exploded during the morning commute.

The meteor contrail hung over the Urals city of Chelyabinsk, about 900 miles east of Moscow, for some time after impact.

A white contrail left by the meteor break-up over Chelyabinsk.

A building damaged by the meteor shock wave in the town of Kopeisk, Chelyabinsk Region. The windows were blown out by the powerful shock wave generated by the hypersonic meteor.

Damage to a pancake bar caused by the shock wave of a meteor in the town of Kopeisk, Chelyabinsk Region.

Damaged caused to the office of a local newspaper in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk by the shock wave of the meteor.

A shopper walks past a broken shop window caused by the meteor explosion over the Urals city of Chelyabinsk.

The meteor traveled faster than sound in the upper atmosphere, creating a powerful sonic boom that slammed into the populated Urals region -- the foce of the blast blew out windows and caused structural damage to some buildings.

Damage caused by the shock wave of a meteor that passed above the Urals city of Chelyabinsk on Feb. 15, 2013.

Bricks from a factory wall knocked down by the force of the meteor shock wave litter a street in the Urals city of Chelyabinsk.

A collection of small meteorite fragments found in the snow after the Feb. 15, 2013 airbust event.

A man holding meteorite fragments found near the Chebarkul Lake.

Detail of one of the suspected meteorite fragments recovered from Russia's Chelyabinsk region.

Replacing broken window panes destroyed by the shockwave from the meteor airburst, at Uralskaya Molniya ice rink.

Replacing broken window panes destroyed by the shockwave from the meteor airburst, at Uralskaya Molniya ice rink.

Replacing windows in the freezing Chelyabinsk region are a priority for the Russian authorities.

A woman replaces a window damaged by the shockwave of the meteorite fall in Chelyabinsk, Russia, Feb. 16, 2013.

Residents wait for a bus in a street in Chelyabinsk, Russia, Feb. 16, 2013, as life in Russia's Chelyabinsk Region returns to normal after Friday's meteor explosion.