Weather prospects for tonight’s Camelopardalids / Meet the ‘Cams’ parent comet 209P/LINEAR

A bright meteor streaking across the sky. The ‘Cams’ peak tomorrow morning Saturday May 24 around 2 a.m. Central Daylight Time (add one hour for Eastern Daylight Time, subtract one hour for Mountain and two for Pacific). Credit: John Chumack

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.

Comet 209P/LINEAR on May 19 photographed from Austria. Credit: Michael Jaeger

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.

The Camelopardalid shower should produce lots of slow-moving meteors and a fair number of fireballs.

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 cloud cover forecast for 2 a.m. EDT (1 a.m. CDT) Saturday May 24. Click to see the most current map.

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.

Comet 209P/LINEAR travels quickly across the southwestern sky in the coming nights zipping from the Big Dipper south to Crater and Hydra. Credit: Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

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.

Detailed map showing 209P/LINEAR’s position every three hours from May 23-26 as it moves south from Leo Minor across the backside of the famed ‘Sickle of Leo’. On May 25, it passes close to the colorful double star Gamma Leonis and a pair of NGC galaxies. Stars plotted to magnitude +9. Click to enlarge and then print out for use at the telescope.

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.

Comet track every 3 hours May 27-29, 2014 as it passes through the dim constellations Sextans south of Leo. Click to enlarge, print out and use at the telescope. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software.

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.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

19 thoughts on “Weather prospects for tonight’s Camelopardalids / Meet the ‘Cams’ parent comet 209P/LINEAR

  1. Clear here till Sunday. Since the experts were several hour off on the Leonids around 1998, I will look tonight and plan to check again Sunday morning. This is an exciting comet but will be out of view in a week or so.

    • Edward,
      Great to hear you’ll have clear skies. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fainter, closer comet than 209P/LINEAR. Its rapid movement last night in the scope reminded me almost of a near-Earth asteroid. Good luck and stop by again to share your observations of the shower.

  2. I just realized that with the impending meteor shower, this is the most I have been excited about comets since exactly 6 months ago, when just before ISON hit perihelion.

  3. Its 12:18

    I live in West Duluth area.. Sooooo do I go out to Brighton Beach or up the midway out of Proctor to see this????

    Thank you Bob for doing all the extracurricular activity that you are doing for us.

    Bill

  4. I’m in a dark sky outside of Toronto…I called it a night after not seeing a single one over the course of 1 hour between 1:30 am and 2:30 am. ‘

    Disappointed

  5. Congrats to whoever got to see them! We tried last night but here in Texas it was so cloudy we were forced to miss out. By any chance is this meteor shower coming back in the near future? I feel really bummed for missing out because if clouds!

  6. I was out at 11, 1 and 3. I plan to go out again a couple times tonight. I do not expect to see much. After observing for several minutes. I may have missed a few but only saw 2. I conclude then that unless I missed a short lived peak, the meteor shower was far less than 20 an hour. I call it a meteor sprinkle. If I had known that, I would not have bothered.

  7. The “Cams” didn’t keep their appointment with me between 0145 & 0215 this AM. Or they were too faint for me to see in my neighborhood due to light pollution. BTW, Bob, I like your “snow squall on the windshield” metaphor. And, after all, squalls are hard to predict. :-)

  8. Am north of Duluth. Saw one streak that looked like a fireball around midnight. Looked just like a fireworks trail with a leading ball of fire and a tail. Lasted less than two seconds.

  9. Bob,

    I saw 4 plus one sporadic between 2 am and 3 am.

    One must have been aimed right at me, it did not trail, just a dot that flared up then faded away.

    The others were slow moving compared to other showers.

    Nice night under the stars anyway!

  10. Not sure if the one I saw today is the one you mentioned. Im in Singapore, and I saw a very close, fast moving, very bright one, pass over in front of our 5th floor building and end up sparked/blasted just above two building next to ours. Local time was 00.00 a.m. on May 27, 2014. Im just curious, thx.

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