Major meteor shower possible tonight: Things to know

A few days ago, we detailed the upcoming Camelopardalid meteor shower. The day (and night) is finally here! With the new, potentially major meteor shower peaking Friday Night into Saturday morning, there are still many questions to be answered. We do our best to answer them, provide additional information, and inject our weather knowledge into the potential amazing celestial event — to try and forecast whether or not our area will be able to view it.

The Basics

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, as the Earth passes hrough 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. When Earth passes through the debris fields of comets, the bunches of rock (of varying density) crash through the Earth’s atmosphere, burning up as they do so and creating an amazing spectacle known as shooting stars, or meteors.

Accordingly, on the night of Friday May 23rd into Saturday May 24th, scientists have been able to pinpoint the interaction between Earth and Comet 209P/LINEAR’s debris field. The debris field just so happens to be quite dense, and this has scientists wondering if the meteor shower just may reach “storm level” — or at the very least provide a very strong meteor shower.

What we know about the source

Comet 209P/LINEAR is a dim comet which circles the sun every five years. We won’t be able to see the comet tonight or in the following nights with the naked eye. Known in astronomy as a periodic comet, 209P/LINEAR orbits the sun in relatively short order. This means that us lucky viewers here on Earth, when correctly positioned, can see the comet when it moves near the sun over and over again.

Comet 209P/LINEAR as observed by Bareket Observatory on May 21st, 2014.

Comet 209P/LINEAR as observed by Bareket Observatory on May 21st, 2014.

Probably most interesting is the fact that the debris Earth will encounter Friday Night into Saturday isn’t from the comets most recent trips near the sun. In fact, the debris field which we are traveling through dates back to a pass of the comet in the 1800’s. These are some very special (and old) rocks which will be burning up in our atmosphere!

Questions and Uncertainties (hint: there are plenty)

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.

The average forecast over the past several days has tended to lean between 100 and 400 meteors per hour. From an observers perspective, anything within that range is still remarkably impressive. The numbers which you observe will depend greatly on where you are located.

How to watch, and what the weather will be like

If skies are favorable for viewing, late Friday Night (after 10pm) into the early morning hours of Saturday, 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 as well, including finding the Constellation of Origin and radiant point of the meteors, which in this case is Camelopardalis. Named for a giraffe, the constellation can initially be a bit difficult to find. It is located near the North Pole of the sky, 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 conditions from Friday Night into Saturday will be teetering on the edge of disaster — if you’re an astronomy geek like myself who has been anticipating this shower for months. An upper level low pressure system over the Northeast US will trigger showers and thunderstorms in the late afternoon hours on Friday, which will track from northwest to southeast through the area. Marine air over Long Island will keep a low cloud bank very close to NYC and surrounding areas.

Forecast models show clouds tonight over Eastern areas, but clearing to the west.

Forecast models show clouds tonight over Eastern areas, but clearing to the west.

Newer forecast models from Friday morning show the storms shifting eastward by the late afternoon into early evening, with clouds eventually moving out of the way as well. The forecast is much less optimistic the farther east you go. For instance, areas east of New York City and in Connecticut toward New England are likely to miss out on this celestial event due to low clouds and limited viewing.

Over much of New Jersey, however, it looks currently like clouds will shift eastward just barely in time. The disconcerting thing is that this may still change — as an example, forecast models were wildly incorrect with their cloud forecasts on Thursday throughout much of the state. We’re going to have to keep a very close eye on things through Friday afternoon before we can get a better idea on whether or not the green light is lit for meteor watching.

Bottom Line

A significant meteor shower is possible Friday Night into Saturday morning — and it is very likely to be the best of the year. Depending on the density of the debris field which Earth travels through, it could be one of the more prolific meteor showers in the past several years. Our area is in a prime viewing location for this meteor shower — which could feature 1oo to 400 meteors per hour.

The uncertainties that still exist mainly involve the weather conditions (including cloud cover) and the exact strength of the meteor shower. These likely won’t be resolved completely until the meteor shower is about to begin.

So stay tuned throughout the day, but plan to grab a chair or a blanket and head out to a good viewing spot. We’re about to have the pleasure of watching quite a celestial show; including our planet’s atmosphere being sandblasted by 200 year old comet debris.