Few events this year have been more anticipated than tonight’s surprise Camelopardalid meteor shower. Are you ready to stay up late? The shower, which consists of small pieces of rock and dusty grit left behind by the obscure comet 209P/LINEAR , will flash into view just below the North Star in the dim constellation of Camelopardalis the giraffe.
Expect the action to begin around 1 a.m. CDT, peak at 2 a.m. and drop off by 4. If you watched last month’s total lunar eclipse, the shower only lasts about that long. Skywatchers in North America are in the right place for seeing the ‘Cams’ because the sky is dark and the radiant well-placed during the sharp but brief maxiumum.
Estimates from several meteor experts put the peak activity at 100 meteors per hour with the possibility of as many as 400 per hour. This is how many you’d see with the radiant (point in the sky from which the meteors appear to stream) overhead under a dark sky untainted by city lights. Few of us live in this land of Oz, so to be realistic you should knock 20% off those numbers.
What does that leave us? A darn nice display! Even the lower rate would equal the Perseid meteor shower of August or December’s Geminids. The only other wild card is the weather, which every skywatcher carries like a weight around his or her neck. We know too well that the rarest and most wonderful sky events are sometimes snuffed out by clouds.
NOAA’s cloud cover map / forecast shows lots of clear skies tonight across the northern and eastern Midwest clear across to the Southeast. Parts of the West look good too, while Texas and the central plains may have to deal with clouds. Check your local forecast and then decided whether you can stay put to enjoy the show or where you might consider driving to find clear skies.
All this fun and excitement is being brought to you by comet 209P/LINEAR, discovered back in 2004. The comet returns to the inner solar system every 5.1 year. It’s near the Earth right now and will pass closest next Thursday May 29.
What an oddball though. Normally, comets this close are bright and often visible with the naked eye or binoculars. Not 209P. I finally got to see it in the telescope the past two nights and it’s anything but bright. Shining only at magnitude +13, you need at least a 10-inch telescope to spot it. As I wrote in an earlier blog, 209P/LINEAR may be shutting down, evolving from comet to inert asteroid.
Still, it has steadily brightened in the past weeks and is expected to coast to magnitude +11 later this month. That should make it a reasonable target for amateurs with 8-inch scopes. To help you find this visitor responsible for making us get up in the small hours before dawn, you can use the provided maps. They’re “black on white” for easier legibility at the telescope. The comet’s moving fast, so you’ll be able to see its movement in the scope in 15 minutes or less.
If the shower does happen as predicted, picture for a moment what will happen tonight. The Earth, traveling at 67,000 mph (107, 000 km/hr) around the sun, will be ‘driving’ through a snow squall of comet particles much the same as you and I drove through one of last winter’s famous snowstorms. When we enter the squall, activity will start to pick up and then peak as the planet tears through the densest clouds of debris. On the ‘other side’, the storm lets up, the number of meteors drops off and we’ll be out in the clear again.
Good luck tonight and watch for a report here tomorrow morning. I will try to do a live update around 2 a.m. Saturday around the predicted maximum.