A rare meteor shower will brighten the night skies above the metro area Saturday. Learn more about where these meteorites came from and the best viewing times.
WASHINGTON – In the early morning hours of midnight to dawn Saturday, astronomers predict a new meteor shower will be visible.
The predicted new meteor shower is called the Camelopardalids (ca-meh-low-PAR-duh-lidz).
And the best part for the DMV and North America is that the predicted peak of the shower, 2:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. EDT, will be prime time viewing for us.
There are eleven major meteor showers every year and they occur when our planet in its orbit around the sun encounters a debris stream left behind by comets and in one meteor shower, the Geminids, an asteroid. These debris streams are caused by the sun heating up the meteor shower’s parent comet or asteroid as it gets close to the sun. At some point the parent body becomes warm enough to shed tons and tons of water, rubble and dust every second into space. This process is what creates a comet’s tail and the left behind debris stream.
These cosmic bits hit our atmosphere at high speeds and create a “falling or shooting star” – a meteor – in the process. What we are really seeing is the Earth’s atmosphere being ionized by the intense heat caused by the friction between the cosmic bit – a meteoroid as astronomers call them – and the atmosphere. Even though they may range in size from a small pebble down to a grain of sand, when you are traveling at 11 km/sec (25,000 mph) to 72 km/sec (160,000 mph) that is a lot of friction!
Meteor showers are named for the constellations from which the meteors seem to originate. If you were to trace the meteors, which you will hopefully see Saturday, backwards along a straight line, they would seem to come from one area in the sky, or the radiant. For this new meteor shower the radiant is the dim constellation Camelopardalis (pronounced ca-meh-low-PAR-duh-lis), the Giraffe, located in the northern sky just below the North Star Polaris.
The dim constellation Camelopardalis (pronounced ca-meh-low-PAR-duh-lis), also known as the Giraffe, is found in the northern sky just below the North Star Polaris. Saturday morning’s meteor shower will seem to come from this constellation midway between the Big Dipper in the northwest and W-shaped Cassiopeia in the northeast. Stars are shown as they will appear at 2 a.m. local time for viewers in mid-northern latitudes. However meteors during the early-morning display can appear anywhere in the sky. (Sky and Telescope Illustrations)
The comet that created the debris we will be encountering is called 209P/Linear and it was discovered in 2004. It is a small and currently somewhat dim comet that orbits the sun every 5.1 years and goes out to Jupiter. When astronomers did some detective work on this comet’s past, they discovered that 209P/Linear had been by the Earth back in the 1700s and 1800s.
It will be these multiple debris streams we will be passing through on Saturday.
The 209P/LINEAR passed close to Jupiter in February 2012 and had its orbit, as well as those of its debris streams, altered so that they now pass closer to Earth. At closest approach on May 29, the comet will pass Earth at a distance of 5 million miles, the ninth closest comet in history. This encounter with Jupiter has set the stage for the creation of the new meteor shower but there is a bit of uncertainty as to what we will see.
How many meteors an hour the Camelopardalids will produce is the biggest question and is unknown since it is a new meteor shower. Predictions by several astronomers who have studied Comet 209P/LINEAR estimate the shower could produce 100 to 200 an hour from a very dark sky site and some say it could “storm” at a rate of 1,000 per hour. It is also possible that slow moving bright fireballs could be part of this shower – a real plus for observers.
The comet 209P/LINEAR comes just 5 million miles from Earth on May 29. It was a very faint 14th magnitude with a short tail when this image was taken May 17th. It will probably never get brighter than 11th magnitude, which is 100 times fainter than can be detected with the naked eye. Straight lines and dashes are trails from background stars. (Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope Project)
The only way to know how many meteors there will be is to go out and watch the sky.
To watch the “Cams,” as I now call them, is easy as it requires nothing but your eyes, a good lounge chair or blanket and a decent observing location that has a clear view of the sky and no bright lights. Unless you are in Downtown D.C. or next to a major shopping mall, you should try to see the Cams. I recommend being outside and ready to go no later than 2 a.m. EDT if not earlier on Saturday.
I plan to be at my observing site in rural Central Virginia with friends and family at about midnight and will stay until the onset of dawn.
Unless it is totally overcast, I would still go outside and observe. If the clouds win or you want to observe the Cams by “armchair” there will be online coverage of the Cams here and here.
I am not aware of an event like this occurring during my lifetime and it may not happen again so I plan to make the most of this observing opportunity. I will admit that I am very excited about the Cams. But please realize that we may see nothing. Such is the nature of predicting anything involving a comet.
I hope you will give the Cams a try. It is very enjoyable to sit back and relax under the stars with friends and family waiting to see what happens. Add food and your favorite beverages. Have blankets and bug spray available. Best of all it is a three-day weekend so you can catch up on your sleep.
Let us know how it goes, and tweet your photos of the Cams to #WTOP.