First Reports: Camelopardalids Disappoint

Dynamicists had predicted that Comet 209P/LINEAR would create an active meteor display in the early morning of May 24th. But reports from observers across the U.S. and Canada suggest that the Camelopardalid meteor shower was weak at best.

Meteor shower Saturday morning May 24, 2014

Meteors in the May 24th early-morning display will appear anywhere in the sky, but all will fly in the direction away from a point near Polaris in the northern sky.
Sky & Telescope illustration

Meteor dynamicists had been unanimous in their prediction that skygazers would witness a new meteor shower — the Camelopardalids — last night. The sharp, brief peak was supposed to last just a few hours, centered at roughly 7:00 Universal Time (3 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time). This timing made the U.S. and southern Canada the prime real estate for meteor watching last night.

However, the predictions of how many meteors we'd see varied widely, ranging from a very weak, inconsequential display to a possible "storm" (1,000 meteors per hour under ideal conditions). The consensus view was that we'd see perhaps one or two meteors per minute, something akin to the best traditional showers like the Perseids and Geminids.

Now the dynamicists will have to recheck their calculations, because early reports from observers suggest that the Camelopardalids were weak at best. Typical is this report from S&T contributing editor Joe Rao, who made a long-distance trek with his wife from soggy New York in order to find clear skies:

"The 'Cams' were pretty much a bust as seen from here in Dunmore, West Virginia. Indeed, these meteors certainly could have done more. Renate and I watched from the comfort of two lounge chairs under a beautiful sky that conservatively was no worse than magnitude 6, with a spectacular Milky Way stretching from Cassiopeia to Scorpius. We were out from 1:45 to 3:30 a.m. EDT and saw 8 possible Camelopardalids. The best one by far was a slow moving dazzler of at least –5 magnitude at 3:20 a.m., which appeared below Arcturus. That was pretty much the highlight."

Astrophotographer Jerry Lodriguss, based in suburban Philadelphia, offered a more blunt assessment, tagging this as the "biggest disappointment of the millennium so far — much worse than Comet ISON." He used two cameras to shoot 455 frames that covered nearly 7,000 square degrees of sky between 6:07 and 8:12 UT. "I think I may have recorded one piddling little meteor . . . We had eight observers and we saw, maybe, 2-3 meteors per hour. And they were extremely unimpressive. No fireballs at all."

Bright (and rare) Camelopardalid

Star-trail specialist Gavin Heffernan staked out a location in California's Joshua Tree National Park and lucked out. This bright Campelopardalid lit up the sky, taking aim at the Milky Way's center in Sagittarius, at 11:35 p.m. local time on May 23rd. Heffernan has also posted a YouTube video of the event.
Sunchaser Pictures

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, home to the agency's Meteoroid Environment Office, hosted a live event that garnered 2,000+ comments from participants. Among them was Gerald Loosehelm, observing near Madison, Wisconsin, who reports, "Went out with my wife for over an hour and we saw about 6 each." Robert Beyer Jr. adds, "I went to an observation point outside Augustus, Missouri. I did see 23 total meteors. About 8 of them were really nice with long tails."

But they were among the more fortunate observers. Others commented "Nothing here in Florida," "I have been waiting for 3 hours now and saw nothing," and "Nothing happening here in Rosemead, CA." Results compiled by the International Meteor Organization suggest that the 2014 Camelopardalids had a zenithal hourly rate of no more than 15. (ZHR is what you'd see under ideal sky conditions with the shower's radiant directly overhead. Your results may vary.)

Did you try to spot these meteors? What did (or didn't) you see? Let me know by posting a comment below.

Observers: Few Camelopardalids seen

Visual sightings of the Camelpardalid meteor shower fell well below expectations, as shown in this plot of sightings by observers worldwide. ZHR, the zenithal hourly rate, is how many meteors you'd see in a very dark sky under ideal conditions.
International Meteor Organization.

All told, it appears that the shower does exist, but its performance last night was weak at best. This matches the prediction of Peter Jenniskens (SETI Institute), who, with help from Finnish specialist Esko Lyytinen, first noted the possibility of a Camelopardalid shower based on Jupiter's perturbation of the orbit of Comet 209P/LINEAR in February 2012. Jenniskens was very conservative in his estimate — more so than his counterparts (including Lyytinen) — because this year's shower involved particles shed by the comet long ago. "We do not know what rate to expect," he told me earlier this week, "because the comet was not observed in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. The present comet activity may not be representative."

Camelopardalid Science Results

Understandably, researchers want to know everything they can about last night's event, which is likely the only display of "Cams" we'll see until 2022 and 2045. "This comet is interesting," Jenniskens explains, "because the periodic disruption of this type of weakly active comets is responsible for many of our meteor showers."

Plot of Camelopardalid meteors

Sets of all-sky cameras recorded roughly two dozen Camelopardalid meteors on the night of May 23-24, 2014. Many of their paths cluster nicely around the shower's predicted radiant. Outlying points are either due to measurement error or because those particles were ejected during different perihelion passages of Comet 209P/LINEAR.
P. Jenniskens / SETI Institute

The various predictions involved using computer simulations to follow the orbital evolution of debris ejected by Comet 209P/LINEAR each time it neared the Sun. In the past 250 years, the comet has done this about 50 times, so it's no easy task. Foe example, last-minute predictions by David Asher (Armagh Observatory) suggest that the densest concentration of debris strands, those shed by Comet 209P/LINEAR at least a century ago, would miss Earth this time around. Only those shed in 1778 and 1903 would yield direct hits.

Figuring out just exactly which strands contributed will require careful analysis of when the meteors arrived and their exact trajectories. Sets of all-sky cameras positioned by Jenniskens at two sites in northern California recorded a broad range of radiant locations, suggesting that many debris streams were involved. Generally, it seems that the oldest surviving particles appeared first and the youngest ones later on.

Just two days ago, Jenniskens chartered a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air 90 to carry him and three other researchers over northern California and the Pacific Ocean to record the display from an altitude of 20,000 feet. Team member Ron Dantowitz, director of the Clay Center Observatory at Dexter Southfield School in Brookline, Massachusetts, raced cross-country to participate.

"It was a big relief when we saw the first Camelopardalids last night," Jenniskens said via email. "We could have seen nothing if the comet hadn't been active in the recent past. Our best meteors came towards the end of the flight when we traveled through the most recently ejected dust. If that result is confirmed, we may see an interesting display with the 2009 dust trail encounter in 2019." Check the website of Jenniskens' airborne campaign for additional results.

Rich sets of observations were collected using radio receivers and radar systems. A network of amateur radio telescopes, located mostly in North America and Europe, recorded a distinct pulse of meteor activity around 17:00 UT on May 24th — roughly 10 hours after the predicted time of the shower's maximum. Japanese radio observer Hirofumi Sugimoto has assembled some plots of radio-meteor activity.

The Canadian Meteor Orbit Radar operated by the University of Western Ontario. "Basically, the picture CMOR shows is that the Cams shower was rich in faint meteors," researcher Peter Brown told me, corresponding to visual magnitudes of just 6 or 7. "This is a consequence of (a) the slow speed of the meteoroids [about 20 km per second], (b) intrinsic dust population in the trail, and (c) dynamics of delivery to Earth for the trails — which seems to have somewhat favored mm-sized particles."

Monday-Morning Meteor Quarterbacking

Close visit from Comet 209P/LINEAR

On May 24, 2014, Earth was near both Comet 209P/LINEAR and its orbit (yellow line). Many dust particles ejected by the comet long ago were predicted to strike Earth's atmosphere that morning, creating a meteor shower.
Sky & Telescope illustration

In hindsight, we all should have paid more attention to the slow arrival speed and, consequently, the low kinetic energy of the arriving Camelopardalid dust particles. After all, KE = ½ mv2 (emphasis on the v2). An incoming particle of just 0.1 gram barely registers when hits Earth's atmosphere at 20 km/s — but it becomes a –1-magnitude showstopper if it strikes at 60 km/s (the arrival speed of August's Perseid meteors).

Meanwhile, Comet 209P/LINEAR is cruising ever closer to Earth. On May 29th it comes as close as 5 million miles (0.055 astronomical unit) — the 9th closest approach of any comet on record. But the comet itself won't get any brighter than 11th magnitude at best. May's issue of Sky & Telescope has finder charts for tracking down the comet.

33 thoughts on “First Reports: Camelopardalids Disappoint

  1. AB

    East coast Canada. Had a look before bed around 1 a.m. AST with beautiful clear sky; most any night you can see a meteor, but I saw nothing in about 20 min. — it was too cold to sit out longer! Got up at 3:30 a.m. but it was hazy by then; only a few stars visible. Glad to know I didn’t miss anything. A big shower would’ve been nice. Appreciate the articles & event notices :)

    1. accurateye

      Viewing from Northern Virginia with clear sky and limiting magnitude of about 4, saw five Camelopardalids between 12:30 and 4:45 AM EDT on 5/24/2014. Also two bright sporadic meteors. Camelopardalids were slow and moderately bright 1 to -2 at best with slightly yellowish-white color. Approximately 50% of sky obstructed by surrounding trees; balance open.

      Not something for the annual list.

  2. mdheaney

    Observing in NW Indiana. Mag 5.5 skies to the south (Chicago to the north) Saw 10 Cams. Most were very bright mag. -3 or better. Very slow moving and left nice trails visible for a second or two. Saw two nice earth grazers, easily mag -8. What lacked in quantity was made up alittle bit in quality

  3. Eric-Holcomb

    Several people attempted to observe the meteors from Pine Mountain Observatory here in Central Oregon. I drove down to the bottom of the mountain where it was clearer but still partly cloudy and observed from 12:15 to 1:00 a.m. (PDT). Only two probable shower meteors in the western sky below Arcturus, at about 12:28 and 12:32 a.m. Neither one bright or long. Also two non-shower meteors after that. So there may have been a very brief “outburst” around 12:30 a.m. (0730 UT), but overall a disappointment. I suspect the comet is simply too small and inactive compared to the comets that produce great meteor showers. Hope to image the comet at PMO this week.

  4. Perseids

    Stayed out all night last night in St. Germain, Wisconsin, and I saw about 15 meteors the whole night. I have confirmed two that I caught on my camera, which took more than 1000 pictures and three time lapses of the Cassiopeia portion of the sky. I saw three meteors that were pretty bright and pretty with a nice tail, but those caught on my camera were faint and short. A huge disappointment, but the sky is miraculous.

  5. StarChaser55

    Our first observation session at the new Sky Pony Observatory! (facebook.com/skyponyobservatory) Still waiting for our dome, but that did not stop us from setting up on the property Friday night and taking a lot of pictures trying to capture a few Camelopardalids – and we were successful! Here are the stats for the night:
    Took seventy-five 25 second exposures from 11:43pm CDT (04:43 UT) until 1:30am CDT (06:30 UT).
    Of the 75 exposures, 11 frames contained meteors.
    A total of 12 meteors were detected in the pictures; 7 were most likely Camelopardalids, and the other 5 were most likely sporadic meteors.
    Guesstimate that the hourly rate peaked at about 30, BUT the rate only lasted a few MINUTES (all around 1:00am CDT), hence the low count. Most of the Camelopardalids we saw came within a few minutes of 1:00am CDT. Not quite the show we had expected! But we still had a good time, and the weather held out and the skies were dark – the Milky Way looked like fog rising to the east! Check out our Facebook page to see the pics with the meteors. Adios!

  6. Larry-Dean

    I watched from about 12:30 until 01:10 CDT near Sparta, TN. My all sky camera took over 1400 photos from midnight until 04:30. Had a few high hazy clouds. Nothing except stars and fire flies.

  7. Stephen Gagnon

    Saw (and photographed) two of them from Southeast Virginia. Since they were only three minutes apart, I thought things might pick-up. Not so much, as it turns out. I observed from about 2:10 EDT to 3:40 EDT, with the two appearing around 2:30 and 2:33.

  8. Jim-Gasser

    Watched from Ida, Michigan site where the Milky Way was quite prominent. From 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. EDT saw 10-11 ‘Cams’ and about the same number of sporadics. 1 very bright negative magnitude Cam leaving a 1-2 second train.

  9. Isaac-Davis

    Here in Central Texas we had total cloud cover with occasional breaks. We watched for about 3 hours, peering through every little crack in the clouds but saw absolutely nothing. The big build up concerning the number of sightings was way off track.

  10. steve.clark44@aol.com

    Shenandoah Valley, near Waynesboro, Staunton Va. Set outside with my 23 year old son (amazing by itself)from about 2:30 till 3:30 and saw 2 meteors, 4 satellites and a cat that wanted to go inside ,very loudly. The sky was 100% good even with light from town. Saw Jupiter Mercury (early after sunset) Mars Saturn many stars the milky way and talked (actually did talk) about a large spring shower we saw many years ago . So it was not a total loss will try again tonite .

  11. Mark-Williams

    At Elizabeth, Indiana. I observed from 0442-0750 UT (12:42-3:50 am EDT) Limiting magnitude was about 4.0. Unfortunately only observed one “Cam” (appx 0450 UT) and two sporadics. Had an enjoyable session, however. Observed about a thousand fireflies, 13 UPS aircraft (I’m just west of the UPS national hub in Louisville, KY), 3 bullfrogs, heard a pack of coyotes, one LEO polar orbit satellite and ISS pass at 0740 UT. Although the “Cams” were disappointing, I enjoyed watching Leo and Mars setting, old friends Lyra, Cygnus and Aquila rising, and my first glimpse of Sagittarius and the Milky Way this season. The local astronomy club received some nice TV coverage but its unfortunate when appartitions like this fizzle and the public, especially kids are disappointed. Clear skies, Mark Steven Williams, StarGeezerAstronomy.com

  12. Michael-Brewster

    I observed from 1:30 am to 2:13 am Central Daylight Time (0630-0713 UTC) and I saw one good candidate shower member at 1:49 am. It moved slowly with a train, about 2nd mag, and was in Ursa Major, so it was easy to trace the path back to the radiant. The sky conditions here in Central Texas were less than ideal, about 50% cloud coverage with a tremendous amount of haze. I could usually put the most of the clouds out of my field of vision. Limiting mag was about 4, depending on which direction I looked to avoid the moving clouds. I also saw 5 sporadic meteors, so if there were a lot more shower members I think I would have seen them.

  13. Doug

    I was in the Everglades area, about halfway between Ft. Lauderdale and Naples Fl., from 2 to 4:30AM EDT. I saw only 1 meteor and it prob wasn’t a “Cam” moving from east to west The sky was clear, except right around the horizon. At 4:12, just above the 2 last stars in the Big Dipper handle, a bright spot appeared, got brighter for 2-3 sec. then faded for almost 5 sec., however it didn’t move, it appeared stationary as if a meteor was headed straight at me. I haven’t seen that happen before. It was a nice night, but no good shower show; only a “fake meteor show”…lots of fireflies.

  14. OrinK3OrinK3

    I went out at 0018 hrs CDT on Thursday and Friday to inspect my observation location for current midwest skyglow. On Thursday morning at 0402 hrs I observed an excellent -4 MAG very slow-moving meteor with a one second persisting white and orange sparkly train. Using my forefingers to mark the path, I traced it back from Hercules to the Camelopardalid Radiant about 10 degrees below the North Star. Thinking this sighting might portend an interesting shower, I also came out on both Friday and Saturday mornings until 0415 hrs CDT. Friday morning skies were overrun with hazy clouds but I could see the Big Dipper stars through the haziness. Saturday morning was better, but I saw no CAM meteors. I did get several useful pictures of the various constellations present in the night’s sky, and several pictures of Venus and the Moon rising over my Chicago Metro horizon’s skyglow. 90 miles to the east-southeast.

  15. Isabella

    In Northern California, we saw about 9 meteors during an approximate 30-minute period between 10:45 and 11:15 PDT. All but one were somewhat faint and extremely quick to flash and fizzle (that’s the appropriate astronomical term, yes?) Similar to what we’ve often seen with the Perseids — not a dazzling shower, but worth staying up for!

  16. chamaedaphne

    I actually saw the most gigantic meteor of my life. It was so big and slow that I saw it rotate and disintegrate in an orange ball of fire, with an asymmetric tail. It utterly blew my mind. Just west of Milwaukee, WI, between 3:30 and 4:00 a.m. Directly overhead. Also saw maybe 15 to 20 others, slow north to south. Many were faint and would not have been readily visible in an area with light pollution. Also a smattering of more typical meteors going south to north and east to west.

  17. dfryback

    Watching from Joshua Tree National Park in southern California from about 10PM to 1:30AM PDT. Partly cloudy off and on. Transparency varied from mag 2 to mag 6 visible, with Milky Way nicely visible from midnight on to 1AM. We were mostly looking easterly from zenith to horizon, watching Vega rise to the zenith and the Milky Way rise, visible from NE to S of Sagitarius and we could see the dark lanes quite nicely. Two nice fireballs with trails, first at 10:20PM and second at 12:20AM (coincidental with the report from Virginia???). The first one went south down the MIlky Way leaving a 4-5 degree trail behind it. The second one traveled from several degrees north of Vega about 2/3 of the way to the SE horizon and may have been double track perhaps just less than 1/4 degree apart; it left a trail that lasted for about 5-10 seconds. Both of these fireballs were pretty slow compared to several sproadics we saw and much slower than traditional showers like Leonids or Perseiids. My wife and I also saw 4 very short dim flashes in the region just SE of Polaris with one looking very much like an Iridium flash about mag 2 and the others a bit faster, but none was more than 1/2 degree long and all were mag 2 -3. The two fireball tracks projected back to about the predicted radiant; the other 4 were consistent but too short to really project. That was the lot: 6 total consistent with Camelopardaliids and 3 dim sporadics moving twice the speed of the 6 Cams.

  18. Osiris-CastilloOsiris-Castillo

    Here in Nicaragua (Central America) we were in a very dark place from 12am to 2am (Nic Time is UTC-6) and we count at least 18 Camelopardalid.

    We could see that the “cams” were much slower that the other showers of the year, and also less brighter.

    First we try to watch to the north (with the radiant just above the horizon) but the major activity was just above our heads.

  19. steve.clark44@aol.com

    Went out again Sunday night Monday morning and same story pretty much as my 24-5-2014 23:54 posting .It was not a total loss read some other reports by others. Good times can still be had when we get together and enjoy an evening with people we like to be with and maybe meet some new ones. Remember it is not the destination but the journey in times like today any good time with friends and family is worth it so at least there were other things in the sky to look at as the weather was very clear and good here! Enjoy the night because we never know what the next day will bring.

  20. David-Anderson

    Near Sequim, Washington, US. Observed from 10:40 pm to 1:40 am PDT. Limiting magnitude 5+, mostly clear, especially around zenith. Saw 19 polar-orbit satellites and nine (9) meteors, of which two were probably sporadics. All were pretty quick, short streaks, perhaps because they were within 20-40 degrees of the radiant. My impression of a few was that they were moving toward the radiant, but I suspect this was an illusion and that they were just too quick to see anything more than the streak.

    A bit disappointing, to be sure, although a great excuse to sit under the stars, and the break in the rain was perfectly timed for us here. It is vital for astronomers to convey the uncertainty associated with predictions like this so the general public doesn’t get turned off when comets and such ephemera fizzle. When so much of the cosmos works like clockwork–eclipse paths predicted centuries in advance, etc.–it’s easy to suppose that all astronomical forecasts should be that confident. (I do think that S&T and the meteor dynamicists generally did express the uncertainties pretty clearly, but on the other hand, the cover did say “meteor storm”.)

  21. Ted-Hauter

    Feeble is the word for all this. A failure for Astronomy to be sure.

    It’s no wonder we can’t get more kids, our main focus outreach, to grow the hobby.

    Forget 18 years – 20 somethings, they are on their own to figure it out :)

  22. steve.clark44@aol.com

    Ted as an instructor I can see you missed the point, never give up .The 18 to 20 somethings are hard to get to but it can be done. Enjoy it while you can…everybody.

  23. Anthony Barreiro

    Friends and I observed near Boonville CA from 2300 PDT 23 May until 0130 PDT 24 May, and again from 2330 PDT 24 May until 0100 PDT 25 May. On the night of 23-24 May, under a slightly hazy sky with limiting magnitude around 5, we saw 8 bright meteors traveling roughly east to west, so definitely not Camelopardids, and two faint meteors traveling north to south, so those could have been camelopardids. On the night of 24-25 May the sky was clearer, limiting magnitude close to 6. We saw five bright meteors, none from the north. One very bright meteor traveling on a long grazing southeast-to-northeast path left a smoke trail that lasted for about ten seconds and flashed brighter just before it disappeared over the northeast horizon. There were three faint meteors out of the north.

    The Camelopardid meteors were an excellent excuse to get out of town, lie back in a reclining lawn chair, and watch the sky transition from Spring to Summer constellations. Maybe I’ll start making up fictional meteor showers to trick people into getting out and looking at the sky.

  24. Cory-Walker

    Would’ve observed, but the blue skies leading up to the supposed peak were blanketed in clouds probably for 50 miles in every direction, here in Oregon. Oh well, there’s always next time. And there will be a next time, and I’ll be there waiting loyally and probably be smited upon with more clouds, while some other people who don’t care are inside with perfect skies. No, I’m not bitter at all. : ) And the news and bandwagoners will show up late. ; )

  25. degrove

    Observed with several other members of the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg, PA, at a state forest location we have access to about 20 miles north of the city. It was cloudy most to the night, but we did have about 45 minutes or so of clear skies from 2:30 AM. Unfortunately, only one meteor was seen, and it was not a Cam. I would certainly consider this “shower” a bust.

  26. Joseph Slomka

    I was wondering what the outcome was.
    The Albany, NY area was clouded out.
    I watched a webcast by an european astronomer, who arranged a loose
    network of North and Central American telescopes.
    The webcast revealed very few meteors.
    I quit at 3 AM – too tired.

  27. j-moeller

    Only one meteor from the South observed in an hour at peak time in Davenport, Iowa. Good viewing conditions. Did not wake rest of family…

  28. Louis CiancaLouis Cianca

    Upstate NY at south shore of Lake Ontario. Went out at 2:15 am. Cloudy skies, which is typical around here any time there is a rare celestial event. Glad I didn’t miss anything.

  29. Henrietta

    South Central Missouri… 5 a.m. local CDT… observed two short trails in north sky; conditions mostly overcast/broken. Went inside to get a coat, back outside to sit in chair for a half hour: Saw one short trail. Was disappointed at the overcast, so thought I had missed the whole thing. Maybe I saw the best of it! Location 37 07, -92 18.

  30. James-Little

    I live on the Central Coast of California. We drove inland to get above the marine layer and found beautiful clear skies. We began observing at 11pm PDT. We continued to observe until 1:30 am PDT.
    During that time we saw ONE meteor. Some other people at our site saw FOUR meteors. The shower was a total bust!!

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