A meteor shower that is expected Friday night has never before been seen by humans, and astronomers think it could be spectacular. (They think it also could be a total bust.) Here's what you need to know. (Bonnie Berkowitz, Richard Johnson and Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)


Tonight’s the night for an astronomical debut: a meteor shower known as the Camelopardalids. It has never before been seen by humans, and astronomers think it could be spectacular. (They think it also could be a total bust, but let’s stay positive.)

Related article: New meteor shower may burst into meteor storm Friday night

Here’s a quick set of questions and answers which can guide you through tonight’s much-anticipated cosmic event.

When is it?

Tonight! Astronomers predict the peak will occur from 2 to 4 a.m., Eastern Daylight Time, on Saturday morning.

I don’t want to get up at 2 a.m.

We don’t, either. Astronomers expect the show to begin about 10:30 p.m., so try looking early.

 What is it? 

This shower will occur when Earth passes through the trail of dust left mostly in the 1800s by wonkily named comet 209P/LINEAR. When the particles hit Earth’s atmosphere, they will vaporize and leave bright trails.

Why did you say it could be a total bust?

Fine, fixate on the negative. Because it hasn’t happened before, astronomers don’t know what to expect. If the comet left a lot of debris, we could see hundreds of meteors per hour. If it didn’t leave much, we won’t see much.

 Where do I look?

Up, basically. Meteors will originate near the constellation Camelopardalis, which is near the North Star, but they could show up all over the sky. People in North America will have the best view.

Why has no one seen it before?

Jupiter’s gravity just recently pulled the comet’s debris into Earth’s orbit for the first time. The comet itself is so small and unobtrusive that astronomers didn’t see it until 2004, when a new, high-tech telescope detected it while scanning the skies for asteroids.

Will clouds get in the way?

For sky watchers in the D.C. area, we may have some partial interference from high clouds overnight, especially in the pre-dawn hours. Weather models suggest partial cloud cover at times (as much as 33 to 50 percent). Fewer clouds may be found just to our south into central Virginia.

Simulated cloud cover at 2 a.m. Saturday morning from high resolution NAM model (WeatherBell.com)

Nationally, viewing conditions should be good in the Southwest, Southeast, and Northern Plains.  Viewing may be more challenging in the Northeast, Northwest, Southern Plains, and parts of the Rockies.

Will light pollution get in the way?

Only if you let it. Try to get away from city and street lights if you can.  Rural locations will offer the clearest views.  But even urban dwellers should be able to see some meteors by going to a nearby park or some place where stars are normally visible.

Fortunately, the moon phase is waning crescent (just 18.6 percent illuminated) and it won’t rise until 3:14 a.m. – greatly reducing the amount of light from that source.

 Will these fall and hit us?

According to NASA, the particles are sand-sized to begin with and will be vaporized long before they reach Earth.

 What if I blink?

As meteors go, these are not in a hurry. They will be bright and will travel at about 12 miles per second — pedestrian compared to Perseid showers at 25 miles per second, and downright sloth-like compared to Leonid showers at 45 miles per second.

Any tips for photographing the meteor shower?

We don’t, but photographer Noel Chenier has some great tips on his blog here: NEW CAMELOPARDALIDS METEOR SHOWER FRIDAY NIGHT! Here’s how to photograph them!

 Sources: NASA, astronomer Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory; Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

CWG’s Jason Samenow contributed to this post.