[ Watch the Video: ScienceCasts – NASA On The Lookout For A New Meteor Shower ]
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
May isn’t exactly known for its meteor showers. In fact, this month’s Camelopardalid meteor shower, caused by dust from periodic comet 209P/LINEAR, has technically never even been seen before. However, astronomers have predicted that May 2014 could see a Camelopardalid meteor shower that rivals the year’s biggest display – the Perseids of August.
This year could be such a historic display, NASA’s head of its Meteoroid Environment Office, Bill Cooke, said, adding that he plans to head out and see the display with his own two eyes, instead of simply reviewing images of the meteor shower captured by the space agency’s nationwide network of fireball cameras.
“There could be a new meteor shower, and I want to see it with my own eyes,” Cooke said. “Some forecasters have predicted more than 200 meteors per hour.”
When a comet crosses Earth’s orbit as it circles the Sun, it leaves behind streams of debris for the Earth to plow through around the same time every year. The relatively faint comet behind the Camelopardalids, Comet 209P/LINEAR, was discovered in 2004 and was found to orbit the Sun once every five years.
In 2012, meteor experts Esko Lyytinen of Finland and Peter Jenniskens at NASA Ames Research Center said Earth was due to have an encounter with debris from Comet 209P/LINEAR as streams of dust released by the comet during the 1800s would intersect with Earth’s orbit on May 24, 2014. The end result, they explained, might be a major meteor episode.
The consensus among astronomers seems to be that the Camelopardalids will indeed be visible this year. However, experts aren’t certain if the meteor shower will be a major event or a major fail. The amount of activity will depend on how much debris was ejected more than 100 years ago.
“We have no idea what the comet was doing in the 1800s,” Cooke said, adding, “there could be a great meteor shower—or a complete dud.”
To see just how much activity there will be, NASA suggested watching the skies between 2 and 4 a.m. (EDT) on May 24. That’s when models project Earth is probably going to come across most of the comet’s debris. North Americans are in an ideal situation because peak activity should occur during nighttime hours while the location in the sky where the fireballs will originate from, called the radiant, is high in the sky.
“We expect these meteors to radiate from a point in Camelopardalis, also known as ‘the giraffe’, a faint constellation near the North Star,” Cooke said. “It will be up all night long for anyone who wishes to watch throughout the night.”
NASA warned that major fireball outbursts could take place before or after that early morning window. Since this could be the first time anyone has seen the Camelopardalis, skywatchers should be ready for anything, the space agency said.
If the Camelopardalis do turn out to be a major letdown, NASA said the crescent Moon and Venus are expected to converge closely together the next morning as a bit of a consolation for amateur astronomers.
Image 2 (below): Map of projected peak viewing for 2014 May Camelopardalids meteor shower. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser