If the computer models are correct then we could be in for a spectacular new meteor shower on May 23/24. At least two different research teams have independently arrived at the conclusion that southern Canada and the continental U.S. (sorry Alaska, you are going to be mostly left out) will be positioned to witness this event.
Meteor showers are created when the Earth plows through the debris trails of comets. When these masses of ice and rock get close to the Sun they begin to vaporize and create long tails composed of ionized gas and sand grain-sized material. Every now and again the Earth slips into these debris fields and the sand grain-sized material burns up in our atmosphere to create magnificent streaks of light as they vaporize into nothing.
The source for this potential shower is a dinky and otherwise insignificant comet named 209P/LINEAR (named for the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research program, an MIT program funded by the United States Air Force and NASA to detect near-Earth objects). The comet was first discovered back in 2004. It is a periodic comet that the planet Jupiter keeps on a very short leash. Every five years it completes one orbit around the Sun and then back out to around Jupiter. Every time it gets around Jupiter the gas giant’s gravity gives the comet’s orbit a bit of tweaking. Long story short, astronomers have been able to compute not only its future orbital path but its past ones as well. If the comet has behaved like most others then it has left behind trails of dust debris over time and the computer models show that the Earth will have a close encounter with several that have been accumulating over the years (perhaps as far back as the 1800’s).
Right now the forecast calls for some 200 to 400 meteors per hour. That’s a lot when you consider that our most spectacular meteor shower, the Perseids, usually only produces about 90 to 100 per hour. Some folks are saying that we cannot yet rule out the possibility of a “meteor storm” where we could see up to 1,000 meteor streaks an hour! I’m keeping my expectations low in that regard and suggest you do too.
Ok, when and where to look:
Stay up past midnight on Friday, May 23rd and go outside around 12:00am. Let your eyes get well adapted to the dark (the better dark adaptation you have the more meteors you will see).
Right now the projected peak time for our area will be around 1:00am to 3:00am
The radiant (center of origin) for these meteors will be in an obscure constellation known as Camelopardalis in the northern part of the sky. You will see meteors in just about any portion of the sky but you might want to focus your attention on the north.
Location, location, location! I cannot reiterate how important it is that you get yourself to a dark sky locale in order to really see a meteor shower. Get outside of a city, town, or neighborhood that has enough light pollution to keep you from seeing a star-filled sky. This will be a great opportunity to go camping at one our state or federal parks. Petit Jean, Mount Magazine, Queen Wilhelmina, White Rock Mountain, Buffalo Point, etc are some recommendations that I can make.
Dress appropriately for the weather and make sure you have lots of liquid refreshment, snacks, and insect repellant on hand.
BTW, this shower is also expected to have not just sand grain-sized material in it but also small rock-sized rocks material. The rock material will create some truly spectacular fireballs streaking across the sky!
Get out, look up!