Camelopardalid Meteor Show More A Trickle Than A Storm

A bright Camelopardalid meteor flashes across the sky near the Cassiopeia-Andromeda border this morning (May 24). Credit: Bob King

I could have stayed up all night. Wait a minute, I did. On the way home after hours of meteor watching I stopped the car on the empty road and got out to admire the crescent moon. It was 3:30 and already dawn brightened the northeast sky.

A long-trailed Cam tears across the Milky Way inside the Summer Triangle asterism late last night May 23. Credit: Bob King

From e-mails, online reports and my own 3-hour vigil staring into one of the most beautiful star-studded skies in months, the ‘Cams’ weren’t the spectacle we anticipated. Many skywatchers sacrificed sleep to stand outside in the small hours of the morning and saw at best a handful. Some none at all.

The train from the near-fireball Cam seen at 12:34 a.m. CDT this Saturday morning. The five bright stars outlining the W of Cassiopeia are seen at right. Credit: Bob King

One of our readers aptly called it a ‘meteor sprinkle’. At first I thought we were in for the real deal when a near-fireball meteor blazed from the radiant to the right of Cassiopeia at 12:34 CDT. If this was the start of the shower, what a way to begin! Tinted orange like a fall maple and traveling very slowly, the meteor left a trail (called a train in meteor lingo) that lasted more than 20 minutes.

Not only did I have plenty of time to make a half dozen 2.5 minute time exposures of the expanding train but also got to view it in my telescope. The ghostly snake was definitely one of the coolest temporary nebulas I’ve ever seen.

Sequence of photos showing the expanding and fading train over the next 15 minutes. Credit: Bob King

Trains form when a meteoroid’s hypersonic velocity through the upper atmosphere ionizes or excites the atoms in the air along the object’s path. Soon enough the atoms take back their electrons, releasing light in the process. We see all this subatomic tit for tat as a bright streak that slowly fades from view. Trains expand and change shape depending on the vagaries of upper atmospheric winds. Absolutely fascinating to watch.

Like many of you I kept vigil for the next few hours, hoping for more Cams as the rising Milky Way became ever more spectacular. But the shower really never showered. I saw 10 total plus a few sporadic (random) meteors. Nearly all were slow-movers as predicted; the brighter ones were tinted yellow and orange.

Contrary to predictions, I saw more meteors before the expected 2 a.m. CDT (7 UT) peak. The hour from 2-3 a.m. proved anti-climactic. Before turning in for the night, one ‘farewell Cam’ flashed above the North Star just about the time the first robin burst into song.

Before starting my meteor watch I checked out the shower’s parent comet 209P/LINEAR. It’s a rare treat indeed to have the ‘mother ship’ nearby the same time its progeny dart to Earth. The comet had brightened a bit and even showed a tiny tail visible in 12-inch and larger telescopes.

A strange aurora-like trail drifts across the northwestern sky below the Big Dipper this morning. The starlike object at its center moved northward during the time exposure and looks like a streak inside the cloud. Credit: Bob King

While the Camelopardalids disappointed many I bet those who did go out got some mental refreshment just from sky gazing. I know I did … and a little bit more. Around 1 a.m. I looked over my shoulder toward Leo and the Big Dipper and nearly stumbled to the ground. What looked like a huge meteor train 15-20 degrees long drifted across a cloudless sky. In its center was a bright disk of light about the size of the moon and in the center of that a starlike object.

The trail, likely connected to the launch of a new Japanese mapping satellite expands and fades minutes later. You never know what you might see when you look up at night. Credit: Bob King

Quickly I reset the camera and got a couple shots off as the apparition drifted at slow-satellite speed to the north. The ray fanned out and lingered like a lone beam of northern lights for the next 10 minutes. Fortunately I wasn’t abducted. This morning I learned that the sight was connected to fuel dump after the launch of a Japanese mapping satellite.

I’ll update the blog later today or tomorrow with more information about the shower as it becomes available. And a little sleep wouldn’t hurt either.

26 Responses

  1. Gary Johnson

    Disappointing in Red Wing to say the least. I only saw two small meteors that barely showed up on my 15 second exposures. Here is a 16 sec time lapse. Lots of satellites – including the ISS at the end, on the right. I shot about 350 continuous 15 second exposures from 1:08 to 2:46.

      1. Gary Johnson

        Thanks. ISO 800, 10mm fisheye lens (I cropped only to fit 16×9 for the video). At the time, I almost welcomed the clouds – as they were not impairing any meteor viewing, and they make the time lapse more entertaining.

        1. astrobob

          Thanks. I also used ISO 800 for my stills last night (f/2.8) but the exposures were 2+ minutes on a guided mount.

          1. Gary Johnson

            Yes mine was f/2.8 also. But no guided mount for me, unfortunately. I am going to try and stack them one of these days-when it’s not so nice out. It was a beautiful night last night. Not much wind, good temp, and no mosquitos. Just about perfect.

          2. astrobob

            I always try to make sure I make the best of and appreciate every night when the weather’s pleasant and the bugs aren’t around.

  2. Tim Fleming

    It was mostly to partly cloud all evening here in St. Louis. At 12:30, the sky magically cleared and it was a beautiful sky for night viewing. I stayed up until 2:30 and saw 0 meteors. Disappointing but I never tire of a beautiful night sky. After this non-event and the break-up of ISON, I believe we are due for an unexpected treat.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Tim,
      I’d like to think so too. Let’s see what we’ve got coming up – hmmm – how about the year’s second total lunar eclipse in October?

  3. Edward M. Boll

    That might have been what I saw. It looked like a beam of Northern Light but just took up a very small portion of the sky. It faded out in minutes.

      1. Edward M. Boll

        I believe that it was what I saw at 1 AM. I went out 3 different times and did not record the time or too tired to keep track of it.

  4. Phil A.

    Hi Bob: For once I can say I’m glad we had a “Cloudy Night” here on Cape!. On the bluffs, Cedarville, Ma.! We’ll get em next time…:o) Fishing & Astronomy two of my fav. Hobbies are still pretty special even when “Skunked”!! Being out there “One with the Universe”… I rem. Fishing your State too when I was Stationed @ Grand Forks. The Red River, and all the Lakes of Minn.

  5. Edward M. Boll

    I am quite sure that the final tally of the meteors of 209 is pretty well known about, but I am going to give them another chance tonight just to make sure. I know that there is not much out for comets but am anxious to see Comets this week updated. I just checked and he still has the May 10-17 for the most recent. In June probably the comet to keep track of will be 2012 Panstarrs K1.

    1. astrobob

      I looked at K1 PANSTARRS last night under excellent conditions. It was mag. 8.2 with a 4′ coma and 25′ tail. Very pretty to see and right next to a pair of galaxies.

  6. Edward O'Reilly

    Hi Bob. I,along with several friends,went to a dark site for the shower.Had pristine skies between 1:30-2AM New Brunswick time but saw only 2 meteors,which was the night’s 1st red flag. Low clouds rolled in for next hour but were thin enough to occasionally see Arcturus and a few other stars.But no meteors at all,even though clouds were quite thin. A 2nd red flag. And from most accounts,this shower’s ‘activity’ was less than that for a typical non shower night! Didn’t think that was even possible,lol ! Perhaps a name change from Camelopardalids to Turkeyopardalids in order?

  7. Edward M. Boll

    I just read about the weak display of meteors in Sky and Telescope on the internet. Although a shower is not predicted next year, the years of 2022 and 2045 were mentioned for another possible shower from Linear 209.

  8. Hi Bob,

    Great photos! I was interested to read your analysis of the strange trail, as I believe I picked up the same thing at 00:36 PDT in northern Washington state:

    Do you have a source for where you found out this was a fuel dump for the Japanese launch? I checked Stellarium to try and identify the satellite but it shows nothing in the area, which probably ties in with it being a recent launch, but I’d be interested in further confirmation.

        1. astrobob

          Same here Alexis although I did see a barium cloud ionospheric experiment many years ago and a waste dump once from the ISS.

  9. Edward M. Boll

    This year despite no bright comet so far, 2014 should be fairly good with Jacques, maybe hitting magnitude 4 in July, Panstarrs K1, 4-5 this Fall. And even though we will likely lose sight of Oukaimeden before Sept.1, around Sept. 19, it is just over 0.6 AU from the Sun, and less than 0.5 from Earth, I am thinking that it could brighten to magnitude 4 or perhaps a tad bit brighter.

  10. Edward M. Boll

    Oh, by the way I was out under clear skies for at least 20 minutes last night and despite bright clear skies, I saw no meteors.

  11. Larry Sand

    This is a little late but here’s a timelapse of what we saw from Boulder Lake Dam near Duluth: I don’t quite have the video encoding for Vimeo figured out, so if you download the HD version it’s much better. There’s the fuel dump cloud in the beginning (I do have some other stills from before the time lapse starts of that with what looks like the booster and the satellite in it. There’s a weak aurora there too, great night to be out.

    1. astrobob

      I like it Larry. I see one really bright one below Ursa Major. I like that you got the aurora. It was so faint and hidden by trees from my location so I had no idea it was even happening! Thanks for sharing this.

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