The Sky Is Falling! Surprise Meteor Shower May Strike Saturday Morning

A brand new meteor shower shooting 100 and potentially as many as 400 meteors an hour may radiate from the dim constellation Camelopardalis below the North Star Saturday morning May 24. This map shows the sky facing north around 2 a.m. from the central U.S. Saturday.  Stellarium

Get ready for what could be the most awesome meteor shower of the year. On Saturday morning May 24 between 1 and 4 a.m. skywatchers across much of North America are in prime position to witness the birth of a brand new meteor shower – the Camelopardalids. At least 100 meteors per hour and possibly as many as 400 meteors per hour are expected with a peak viewing time around 2 a.m. Central Daylight Time. Short but sweet!

If predictions by meteor experts Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and Esko Lyyttinen of Finland hold true, that morning, Earth will pass through multiple filaments of sand and pebble-sized debris trails boiled off comet 209P/LINEAR during previous passages near the sun during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The comet was only discovered in 2004 by the Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) automated sky survey. Unlike Comet Hale-Bopp and the late Comet ISON that swing by the sun once every few thousand years or million years, this one drops by every 5.1 years.

When closest at perihelion, 209P/LINEAR passes some 90 million miles from the sun. At the far end of its orbit it’s about Jupiter’s distance from the sun. In 2012, during a relatively close pass of that planet, Jupiter perturbed its orbit, bringing the comet and its debris trails to within 280,000 miles (450,000 km) of Earth’s orbit, close enough to spark a meteor shower.

When a comet nears the sun, heat vaporizes dust-laden ices from the comet’s nucleus. The solar wind ‘blows’ the dust particles into a tail which spread out along the comet’s orbit. Under the right circumstances, as with returning comet 209P/LINEAR, Earth can pass through the debris stream and we see a meteor shower as comet grit burns up in the atmosphere.

This time around, the comet itself will fly just 5 million miles from Earth on May 29 a little more than 3 weeks after perihelion, making it the 9th closest comet encounter ever observed.

You’d think this close pass would make 209P a bright sight, but it’s only predicted to reach magnitude +11, faint enough to require an 8-inch or larger telescope to see. Most likely the comet is either very small or producing dust at a very low rate or both.

Next week I’ll post maps here on how to find it. For the moment, 209P/LINEAR glows dimly at around magnitude +14 and visible in large amateur telescopes. As it speeds from the Big Dipper south to Crater the Cup over the next couple weeks, we’ll be watching it closely. Check here for updates if the comet experiences any hiccups.

The shaded area shows where the shower will be visible on May 23-24. North of the red line, the moon (a thick crescent) will be up during shower maximum around 2 a.m. CDT May 24. Click for more details. Credit: Mikhail Maslov

Meteors from 209P/LINEAR are expected to be bright and slow with speeds around 40,000 mph compared to an average of 130,000 mph for the Perseids. Most shower meteoroids are minute specks of rock, but the Camelopardalids (Cam-el-o-PAR-duh-lids) – let’s just call them ‘Cams’ –  contain a significant number of particles larger than 1mm, big enough to flare as fireballs.

Viewers in the northern half of the U.S. and southern Canada have the best seats for watching the potential shower because the radiant is midway up in the northern sky during peak viewing time Saturday morning. For points farther north, all-night twilight will blot out the fainter meteors. For observers in the far southern U.S. the radiant will be low in the northern sky, reducing meteor counts.

There’s always the chance the shower won’t materialize, so prepare yourself for that possibility. At worst we may see zero meteors, but even the most conservative estimates predict a show at least as good as the Perseids and Geminids, two of the strongest showers of the year.

But if you’re an optimist – and what skywatcher can’t afford not to be? – plan to be out before the peak and face north in a comfortable lawn chair. Bring a friend and share a cup of your favorite hot drink while you watch this ultimate wild card event.

Shower observing times across Canada and U.S.:

* Eastern Daylight Time 1:30-5 a.m. with the peak around 3 a.m.

* Central Daylight Time 12:30-4 a.m. with a 2 a.m. peak

* Mountain Daylight Time 11:30-3 a.m. with a 1 a.m. peak

* Pacific Daylight Time 10:30-2 a.m. with a peak at midnight

The dark “finger” represents streams of dust and rocks left behind by 209P/LINEAR during passes made from 1803 to 1924. Earth is shown intersecting the debris on May 23-24, 2014. Click for more details. Credit: Dr. Jeremie Vaubaillon

If it’s cloudy or you’re not in the sweet zone for viewing, the SLOOH will cover comet 209P/LINEAR live on the Web with its telescopes on the Canary Islands starting at 5 p.m. CDT (6 p.m. EDT, 4 p.m. MDT and 3 p.m. PDT) May 23 Follow-up live coverage of the new meteor shower starts at 10 p.m. CDT. The broadcast will feature astronomer Bob Berman of Astronomy Magazine; viewers can ask questions during the comet show by using hashtag #slooh.

Astrophysicist Gianluca Masi will also have a live feed of the comet at the Virtual Telescope Project website scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. CDT (8 p.m. Greenwich Time) May 22. A second meteor shower live feed will start at 12:30 a.m. CDT (5:30 a.m. Greenwich Time) Friday night/Saturday morning May 24.

No matter what, you’re covered. Later this week I’ll update with a forecast and fresh comet photos and observations. Cross your fingers!

24 Responses

  1. Edward M. Boll

    I suppose that when the comet is closest it could to the end of it’s tail stretch longer than the 5 million mile distance to Earth? I was hoping for magnitude 7. It does not look like it will be near that bright. If the shower materializes does that mean we will possibly have one next year.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Edward,
      I can’t get to an orbital diagram right now but I don’t believe the 209P’s tail is pointed our way at closest approach since the comet will be south of the ecliptic. Good question about whether the shower will return next year. I haven’t heard if this is a one-off/occasional event or if might become annual.

  2. Troy

    This is very interesting. Just curious about photographing meteor showers. Is the camera usually pointed at the radiant? As you know the meteors actually can appear anywhere in the sky, but is the radiant the best territory to cover?

    1. astrobob

      Hi Madhi,
      Acccording to all the predictions I’ve read, North America is the best location because the brief peak happens under a dark sky, but it’s a good idea to look anyway just in case. Good luck!

  3. Gonzalo

    Hi Bob!! Any chance for southern observers?? My south latitud is – 17
    Bolivia!! Clear Skies for all north observers for May 24!!!!

    Congratulations Bob for Your nice web site!!

    1. astrobob

      Thank you Gonzalo! Yes, there is a chance that you could see a few meteors. Even though the radiant is below your horizon, you might – just might – spot an earth-grazing meteor or two rising up in the northern sky. Earth-grazes often are long-lasting. So yes, there’s a chance.

  4. Chris

    If this materializes – 400 meteors an hour could be a once in a lifetime experience, I think. I am definitely going to get out of bed to watch this one Friday PM/Sat AM. And here in northern MN, looks like we have some of the best viewing.

    Mother Nature better cooperate this time (and yes, the comet too). Thanks Astro Bob – I always check your column to find out what to look for. Much appreciated!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Chris,
      Yes, at least the weather looks good. I’ll be out there too with camera ready to go! Good luck.

  5. Dave Brumfield

    Is this a one night only meteor shower or will there be some left over debris for Saturday night to produce meteors?

    1. astrobob

      Supposed to be very brief. We head through the multiple filament band of debris in hours and then we’re out.

  6. Gonzalo

    Hi Bob!! Thanks for Your answer to my question !! There is a chance for all we are in the southern latitudes, look the Moon for light meteors impact on it!!!

    Earth won’t be the only body passing through the debris zone. The Moon will be, too. Meteoroids hitting the lunar surface could produce explosions visible through backyard telescopes on Earth. The inset in this picture of an actual lunar meteor shows the region of the crescent Moon on May 24th that could be pelted by May Camelopardalids:

    Take a look in

    Bye bye and Clear Skies for all!!!

    1. astrobob

      Thanks Gonzalo! I’m going to see if I can get more information on it. Meanwhile, I’ll be watching the moon now too!

  7. Jonathan

    Hi and thank you for such a informative website, from the looks of it, us here in the UK, we have no chance then of seeing this show then?

    1. astrobob

      According to several predictions, the shower lasts only a few hours from about 6-9 a.m. Greenwich Time or after sunrise for you. However you could look for possible impacts of meteors on the earthlit crescent moon from the UK when it comes up.

    1. astrobob

      You might try shortly before morning twilight on Saturday the 24th but according to several predictions, the shower will be active only from about 6-9 a.m. Greenwich time well after sunrise for Europe.

  8. Lynch

    When is 209P/LINEAR’s next close approach to earth after may?

    I have searched around and either get no info or unsure info.

    JPL says the next close visit will be in 2060 and other sites provide little information

Comments are closed.