Meteor captured during the Eta-Aquarid meteor shower in 2013 by Justin Ng.

New, major meteor shower possible May 23-24

Meteor showers come and go annually, often timed with the seasons. The Leonids, Perseids, and Quadrantids are staples in the calendar. Accordingly, many have become accustomed to not only the meteor showers timing — but the rate at which meteors fall (per hour) during each shower. Some even are able to recognize and remember where in the sky, or the constellations, from which the meteors radiate from. But what happens when an entirely new meteor shower comes into the picture, with the potential to reach “storm” level?

Enter: The Camelopardalid Meteor Shower, peaking on the night of May 23 – 24 2014

Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. The new meteor shower was discovered and timed by scientists last year — and was known to be possible before that. It is occurring, as most meteor showers do, due to the Earth passing through the debris path of a comet.  For instance, Earth has been passing through Comet Swift-Tuttle debris to create the Perseid meteor shower for thousands of years. This time, it’s Comet 209P/LINEAR which is causing the meteor shower — and Earth has never crossed paths with its debris before. (Featured image, meteor captured during the Eta-Aquarid meteor shower in 2013 by Justin Ng.)

Comet 209P/LINEAR is a dim comet which circles the sun every five years. But it’s debris field has been analyzed to have the potential to provide quite a show. From our friends at Earthsky:

In 2012, meteor experts Esko Lyytinen of Finland and Peter Jenniskens at NASA Ames Research Center were the first to announce that Earth was due for a May 2014 encounter with debris from Comet 209P/LINEAR. Other meteor experts quickly confirmed this prediction.

Guarantees? Absolutely none.

Despite the favorable prediction, meteor showers remain extremely difficult to predict. It is almost impossible for scientists to precisely forecast the intensity of debris and exactly when and where it will cross the Earth during the meteor shower. Essentially, this new meteor shower — while confirmed to be occurring — has a tremendous amount of uncertainty associated with it. Even recently, there have been conflicting reports and forecasts dating back to November 2012.The latest available publication, from Ye Qhuanzi in November 2013, suggests that the comet’s lessening dust production could keep a meteor storm (More than 1000 meteors per hour) away, but a bright shower is still likely.

Given that the comet is found to be depleted in dust production, we concluded that a meteor storm (ZHR>=1000) may be unlikely. However, our simulation also shows that the size distribution of the arrived particles is skewed strongly to larger particles. Coupling with the result of syndyne simulation, we think that the event, if detectable, may be dominated by bright meteors.

This only adds to the drama as we approach the event. With the potential for a meteor storm — and the introduction of a new meteor shower — it is absolutely worth watching. So we suggest setting up on Friday Night into Saturday Morning and checking it out, if the weather cooperates.

What to watch for

On the Night of May 23 – 24, 2014, find a position outside where you can see the sky without tremendous light pollution. Look up, and enjoy. There are more specific ways to enjoy the shower, too, including finding the Constellation of Origin, which in this case is Camelopardalis. Named for a giraffe, the constellation is a bit difficult to find but is located near the North Pole of the sky, near Polaris. The easiest way to find the constellation will be to locate the Big Dipper and then track yourself a bit toward Polaris from there.

Camelopardalis is near the celestial north pole. You can track it by finding the Big Dipper.

Camelopardalis is near the celestial north pole. You can track it by finding the Big Dipper.

You’ll also want to be, as mentioned above, away from significant light pollution. If predictions are correct, these meteors will be plenty bright — so you’ll be able to see the bright ones even in New York City. But viewers who take the trip out to the suburbs of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut will inevitably see much more activity in the sky. Make sure, also, to allow your eyes some time to adjust to the light once you move outside into the darkness. Don’t give up on viewing after just a few seconds.

The weather will be a bit of a wild card in this situation — as forecast models indicate the potential for some in and out clouds. The good news? There won’t be any widespread rain or 100% overcast conditions. So we’ll keep a close eye on it.

We’ll leave you with this thought: The debris field which Earth is expected to pass through on Friday Night into Saturday is from Comet 209P/LINEAR’s pass around the solar system in the 1800’s. And the origin of the icy, dusty comet dates back hundreds of thousands of years prior to that, when it first was tugged from deep space into our solar systems orbit by the suns orbit.

So grab some friends and family, head out to a dark or favorable viewing spot — and enjoy a brand new meteor shower; pieces of thousand-year old history streaking through the night sky which we have the amazing ability to view.