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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.