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Bruce BettsMay 22, 2014

One Night Only, a New Meteor Shower that May Be Spectacular?

Smackdown!

Ladies and Gentleman, Boys and Girls: One night only, May 23/24, the challenger -- Comet 209P/LINEAR dusty debris vs. the champion--planet Earth, smackdown! Be there!

Alright, it won’t be much of a fight since all the comet debris will burn up high in the Earth’s atmosphere, but as it does so, it still could make for a spectacular event to watch. A new meteor shower, the Camelopardalids, will be peaking Friday night/Saturday morning (May 23/24, 2014) just after midnight Pacific time. If you are in the U.S. or southern Canada, you are likely well positioned to see what may (or may not) be a spectacular show. In either case, scientists will learn about a comet’s history and you can have a fun night looking at the sky.

Comet 209P/LINEAR

Gianluca Masi / Virtual Telescope Project

Comet 209P/LINEAR
This May 17, 2014 image of Comet 209/LINEAR is the average of 5, 180-second exposures, taken remotely with the PlaneWave 17"+ Paramount ME+STL-6303E robotic unit of the Virtual Telescope Project. The telescope tracked the comet, so stars are trailing. This comet has the potential to generate an exceptional meteor shower (Camelopardalids) on May 24, 2014.

Background

Meteor showers happen when Earth passes through the debris shed from a comet. When that debris (usually dust and sand sized) hits the Earth’s atmosphere at tens of kilometers per second, it heats up due to friction and glows, making a streak across the sky we call a meteor.

The debris comes from Comet 209P/LINEAR which was discovered in 2004. Esko Lyytinen and Peter Jenniskens looked at the comet’s orbit and expected orbital evolution and predicted this week’s shower. Their orbital predictions have been confirmed by others as well, including Jeremie Vaubaillon who calculated that all dust trails of the comet created between 1803 through 1924 will be in Earth's path for the 2014 encounter. What no one knows for sure, because we don’t have the data needed to predict, is how many meteors will there be per hour: a few, tens, hundreds, or even thousands, which would qualify it as a meteor “storm.” 

Geminid Meteor

Bruce Betts

Geminid Meteor
Example of a meteor streaking across the sky, in this case a Geminid meteor from December 2013 passing close by Polaris (the North Star).

The Tale of a Comet

Keep your expectations low…but don’t miss it.

I talked to co-predictor of the shower Peter Jenniskens from the SETI Institute, and he had the following sage advice about the shower, “Keep your expectations low…but don’t miss it.” From him, I learned many other interesting things about this unusual celestial show, including the following:

Another note: the comet pass by Earth will be the 9th closest comet pass on record (counting only those with reliable orbits), but still more than 21 Earth-Moon distances. However, due to its low output of dust and gas making for a small coma/tail, the comet itself is predicted to be very dim, requiring a good amateur telescope to be able to see it.

When and From Where to Look

The meteor shower peak is predicted to be about 07:20 UT (00:20 PDT) on Saturday May 24, so shortly after midnight Pacific time on the night that starts on Friday May 23. If you are going to devote only a small amount of time to this endeavor, your best bet is to focus on the time around that peak time, perhaps an hour before and after if you have the time and patience. More time will increase your chances, particularly due to uncertainties. Because of the timing, the expected sharpness of the peak, and the meteors coming from roughly the north, the United States and some of Canada are the favored locations for observing. The Moon is not up until later in the night, making for incredibly lucky dark sky conditions.

Camelopardalids Radiant

Stellarium (Star Map)

Camelopardalids Radiant
The radiant, the point that all meteor streaks would trace back to, of the May 23/24 Camelopardalids meteor shower is in the constellation Camelopardalis in the northern sky (note the North Star, Polaris). It is often best to focus your attention not at the radiant, but perhaps 45 degrees away from it. Most important is to look at a dark patch of sky.

The Camel Leopard: Where to Look in the Sky

Meteor showers are named after the constellation that contains the radiant of the shower. The radiant is where the meteors appear to emanate from: if you draw a line back along the meteors, all of the lines will meet at a point. It is an effect of us (Earth) moving through a discrete cloud of stuff. This shower’s radiant will be in a rather dim constellation that makes up for it with a really long name, Camelopardalis, which is not too far from the North Star, the Big Dipper, and rest of the gang up by the North celestial pole. (Random Space Fact: Camelopardalis comes from Latin derived from Greek for giraffe, which was a compound of camel leopard, so named because the giraffe had the long neck of a camel and the spots of a leopard.) What this location means for the North America observers that are favored by the time of the event is that you can look most anywhere in the sky. Ideal is often said to be 45 degrees away from the radiant, but probably more important is to find the darkest place you can, don’t have a light in your eyes, and look at the darkest patch of sky you can.

How Good Will the Shower Be?

In terms of science, the shower should be great.  In terms of how many meteors people will see, it is uncertain because of how little we know about how much dusty stuff got kicked off the comet in the last couple hundred years. Predictions range from tens to thousands per hour, with most in the 50 to 200 per hour range from a dark site. For comparison, the best “normal” meteor shower of the year is usually the Geminids with a peak of about 100 per hour from a dark site.

We’ve got a dark sky due to lack of moonlight and a pass through a hopefully high density debris relatively near the comet itself, weighed against the Jupiter family comets being notoriously low producers of dust (we think). The only way to find out the answer to how many meteors will there be will be to watch the event itself, or find out from someone else, but that is not nearly as fun. If you can’t watch your own sky due to location or clouds, some groups are broadcasting live web feeds including Planetary Society Shoemaker NEO Grant winner Gianluca Masi.  He has teamed with several observers in the U.S. and Canada to have images online at his Virtual Telescope page.  Several sites will also post near real time updates on the shower in the hours around the peak including the SETI Institute Meteor Showers page and links therein.

Read more: citizen science, meteors, comets, amateur astrophotos, explaining science, Shoemaker NEO Grants

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Bruce Betts

Director of Science and Technology / LightSail Program Manager for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by Bruce Betts

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