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New meteor shower may burst into meteor storm Friday night

It’s something old creating something new: On late Friday night into Saturday morning, North America will likely see a brand new meteor shower called the Camelopardalids – with a compelling chance that these gentle shooting stars could become a torrential meteor storm and provide quite a light show.

These new meteors are dusty remnants of Comet209P/LINEAR, discovered in 2004.

“The general consensus is that this week’s Camelopardalids will be comparable to a very good Perseid meteor shower with an added possibility of a storm,” says Geoff Chester, astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory. “I’m planning to be out watching.”

With clear skies, sky gazers may see meteor activity late Friday night – at about 10:30 p.m. – according to Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala. Astronomers predict the peak will occur from 2 to 4 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time, on Saturday morning, but Cooke believes gazers can catch shooting stars all the way through dawn, when the sunrise washes them out.

The best way to spot shooting stars: Just look up, says Chester. It’s that simple. The meteors can be seen in all parts of the sky. The shower’s radiant looms in the northern sky – close to Polaris, the North Star. Specifically, the meteor will appear to emanate from the constellation Camelopardalis, the giraffe. (Link: Merriam-Webster pronunciation of the constellation Camelopardalis.) Chester suggests finding coffee, patience and looking toward the dome of the heavens.

For this brand new, never-before-seen shower, astronomers are predicting from 30 to perhaps hundreds of meteors an hour at peak. Likely, these meteors will be a plodding 12 miles per second. In contrast, Perseid meteors (August) scoot along at 25 miles per second and the Leonid meteors (November) zip through our heavens at 45 miles per second. Slow meteors mean they will look like a bright star falling, says Chester.

Meteors occur when the Earth strikes the leftover dusty trail from comets flown-by long ago. These trails contain sand-size particles and when Earth’s atmosphere meets these flecks, they light up and vaporize – creating beautiful streaks.

For the Camelopardalids, its parent Comet 209P/LINEAR was discovered in 2004 by the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research telescope – hence LINEAR – run by MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. The telescope is located in Socorro, New Mexico and funded by the United States Air Force and NASA. It’s a serious mission – to find asteroids that threaten to hit the Earth.

Cooke explained that astronomers calculated Comet 209P/LINEAR’s orbit and found that it returns about every five years in an orbit between the sun and Jupiter. Astronomers have traced it back to 1703. “We don’t know what the meteor shower’s intensity will be,” he says. “If Comet 209P/LINEAR was a poor producer of debris, we’ll see nothing. But if the comet was more active 200 or 300 years ago, we’ll see a decent show. What happens this Saturday morning was determined a few hundred years ago.”

On Comet 209P/LINEAR’s current orbit, the comet passed the sun (perihelion) on May 6 and it will pass within about 5 million miles of Earth on May 29 – at a substantially dim 11th magnitude, beyond the visible range of the human eye. It will be a telescopic object.

Why hasn’t the Earth run into these meteors before? Cooke explains that thanks to the planet Jupiter’s gravitational pull, the comet’s debris trail is intersecting the Earth’s orbit for the first time.

Cooke says there are new meteor showers found fairly often, but with falling star rates so low “that even an experienced observer would not notice them. New showers with rates of tens or hundreds per hour are very rare,” he says.

Video overview of shower from NASA:

The Naval Observatory’s Chester explains that photographers with a digital SLR camera can capture the shooting star glory. On a tripod, aim the SLR to the northern sky, above Polaris. Use a wide-angle lens, set the ISO to its highest rating. Set the shutter for a long exposure.

The best part of this kind of cosmic light show is no experience is needed, only the willingness to step outside. “You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the meteor shower,” says Greg Redfern, an astronomer with the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. “This shower favors North America – the one time when we luck out. We’re in a primetime burst window.”

Live online guided tours

Mostly clear skies are forecast for the D.C. area overnight Friday, but if the weather doesn’t cooperate where you are and/or you seek some expert narration of the shower, there are online viewing options:

  • Join Bill Cooke on a live web chat on Friday at 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. EDT, as he leads a discussion on the meteor shower. Also, a live video feed of the meteor shower – from Huntsville – will be available through Ustream, which can be reached via the Marshall Space Flight Center front page.
  • On Friday, will cover both Comet209P/LINEAR and the meteor shower. Slooh offers a free webcast the comet’s visit via its telescopes at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands, starting at 6 p.m. EDT. That webcast will be followed by live coverage of the new meteor shower starting at 11 p.m. EDT. Discussions during Comet 209P/LINEAR live image stream will be led by host Geoff Fox, with Slooh observatory director Paul Cox, and astronomer Peter Jenniskens. Viewers may ask questions during the comet show by using hashtag #slooh on Twitter. The live meteor shower will be accompanied by expert commentary by Slooh astronomer Bob Berman.