Jimmy Westlake: New meteor shower due Friday night
May 19, 2014
Steamboat Springs — One of things I enjoy most about astronomy is the occasional surprise that the universe can spring on us, like an unexpected bright comet or supernova. This coming Friday night and Saturday morning, if astronomers' calculations are correct, we might be treated to a brand-new meteor shower, possibly even a meteor storm.
Maybe you already are familiar with the annual Perseid meteor shower, which happens every August, or December's Geminid meteor shower. We experience these meteor showers every year on the same nights when the Earth sweeps across dust ribbons left in the wake of their parent comets. The Perseids and Geminids are the best of our annual meteor showers, and they reliably produce between 60 and 120 meteors per hour at their peak.
Now, thanks to a little gravitational tug from the planet Jupiter, it seems that the centuries-old dusty trail of a little comet called 209P/LINEAR has been pulled into the path of the Earth for the first time, and we are likely to get pelted with comet dust when we hit it late Friday night and into Saturday morning.
Computer models suggest that the resulting meteor shower briefly could produce 200 meteors per hour, maybe more, at its peak. The estimated time of peak activity is between midnight and 2 a.m. Saturday — perfect for observers in North America.
If, by chance, the meteor rate reaches 1,000 per hour — that's one meteor every 3 or 4 seconds — it would become the first meteor storm visible since the famous Leonid meteor storm of 2001. Astronomers are downplaying that possibility, but they cannot discount it completely. Comet 209P/LINEAR was discovered only in 2004, so no one knows how active this comet was back in the 1800s when it created the dust ribbons that we are expecting to hit this weekend.
I watched that unforgettable 2001 Leonid meteor storm from Arches National Park and counted more than 1,100 meteors during the peak hour. Meteors were seen two or three at a time, shooting across the sky. The Leonid meteor storm comes around once every 33 years, so I didn't expect to see another such storm until the 2030s. This weekend's unexpected meteor surprise might change all of that (fingers crossed).
The meteors from this new shower will seem to spring from an obscure little constellation named Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, which will be located just below the North Star during the expected meteor outburst. But don't worry if you can't locate the Giraffe — meteors should be visible in all parts of the sky. Trace their fiery trails backwards, though, and they will all meet in Camelopardalis.
Astronomers daring to go even further out on a limb predict that the particles Earth encounters from Comet LINEAR might be larger than your average comet dust, so the resulting meteors might be brighter than your typical meteor. When one of these dust grains hits the Earth's atmosphere traveling upward of 30 miles per second, it will incinerate in a brief streak of light — a meteor — about 60 miles up.
Meteor scientists are getting pretty good at predicting these sorts of things, but it is important to remember that this meteor shower never has been seen before — it's brand-new — so we don't really know what to expect. It might sizzle, or it might fizzle.
One thing you can be certain of, though, is that I'll be outside somewhere Friday night, watching the sky for the first-ever Camelopardalid meteor shower. Stay tuned for pictures!
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.