Meteor showers are fairly regular events in the annual astronomy calendar, but Earth could be in for a surprise on May 24 when it encounters a century-old comet stream that it has never encountered before.
The stream was created by Comet 209P/LINEAR, which was discovered in 2004 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project, and it just so happens that this year our planet’s orbit and comet stream are positioned just right for an interplanetary rendezvous. And if some forecasters are correct, this month could see a celestial fireworks display, potentially even outshining the famous Perseid meteor shower that peaks in August.
Meteors are created by particles — usually dust-sized, sometimes bigger — originating from comets (and sometimes asteroids), blasting through our atmosphere. Traveling at hypersonic speeds when encountering our atmosphere, these meteoroids cause an extreme buildup of pressure in front of them, driving ram pressure that generates extreme heating. This creates a visible trail, or “shooting star,” often completely vaporizing the meteor.
Meteor showers occur when our planet orbits through the dust streams created by a number of well known comets. For example, Halley’s Comet is the source of the Eta Aquariids and Orionids, in May and October, respectively.
If the May 24 “surprise” meteor shower shows up, it will be called the “May Camelopardalids,” but forecasters are at odds as to how many meteors it will generate, if any.
The problem, experts argue, is that although we know Earth will pass though Comet 209P/LINEAR’s path, it is a path that was laid down in the 19th Century, over 100 years before the comet was discovered. We simply do not know if the comet was active back then — there is no observational data or reports of sightings. If it wasn’t active, very little dust will have been released into space, making the Camelopardalids a non-event.
“We have no idea what the comet was doing in the 1800s,” said Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “There could be a great meteor shower — or a complete dud.”
On the off-chance of witnessing this “new” meteor shower, the best time to view the Camelopardalids is between 2 and 4 a.m. EDT (06:00-08:00 UT) on May 24 (Saturday morning). North America will be in a favorable position for viewing as the shower, if it happens, is predicted to occur in the early hours of the morning during darkness.
“We expect these meteors to radiate from a point in Camelopardalis, also known as ‘the giraffe’, a faint constellation near the North Star,” Cooke added in a NASA news release. “It will be up all night long for anyone who wishes to watch throughout the night.”
Whether it happens or not, it will be worth staying up late to hopefully catch a glimpse a meteor shower our planet has never seen before. And best of all, you don’t need any special equipment — just hope for clear skies, wrap up warm, lie back on a comfy chair and look up.