Ready for May’s Surprise Meteor Shower?

The dim, obscure periodic comet 209P/LINEAR is about to pass close by Earth — and bring with it a trail of debris that could make for an exciting meteor shower during the predawn hours of Saturday May 24th for North America.

Update, morning of May 24th: Meteor watchers across North America who went out in the early morning hours report seeing few if any Camelopardalids. There was just a bit of shower activity, with only a handful of meteors seen per hour coming from the new radiant at best. For more details, see our first reports from amateur and professional observers.
Where to see the Camelopardalid meteor shower

Meteors from May 24th's early-morning display can appear anywhere in the sky, but their flight paths will trace back to a point (called the radiant) in the constellation Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, in the northern sky near Polaris. The stars are plotted for 2 a.m. local daylight time as seen from mid-northern latitudes.
Sky & Telescope illustration.

Most skygazers are familiar with the usual "biggies" among meteor showers, such as the Perseids and Geminids. But if the calculations of celestial dynamicists are correct, we could experience a terrific meteor shower that virtually no one's ever heard of: the Camelopardalids.

Don't blame yourself for not knowing about this one — historic records show little evidence that the "Cams" have ever made an appearance before. They are bits of dust cast off from periodic comet 209P/LINEAR, an obscure, dim comet that orbits the Sun every 5.1 years. It's much too faint for naked-eye visibility (13th magnitude as of May 22nd).

What's got dynamicists excited, however, is that Earth might might pass right through relatively dense streams of debris shed by the comet long ago. This could create a strong burst of "shooting stars" on May 24th.

Several predictions suggest that you might see anywhere from 100 to 200 meteors per hour from a dark location free of light pollution. That would mean a couple per minute on average. Some (but not all) dynamicists think there's even an outside chance that the celestial spectacle could briefly become a meteor "storm," with more than 1,000 visible per hour! But it's also possible that the display might be weak, with just a few dozen meteors or fewer per hour even in a dark sky.

In any case, a high proportion of the meteors may be bright. And compared to other meteors, the Camelopardalids will move across the sky relatively slowly.

Timing is Right for North America

Camelopardalid meteor prediction for San Francisco

This plot shows that, from dark areas outside of San Francisco, a skywatcher out just after midnight on the morning of May 24th might see more than 100 meteors in an hour from new Camelopardalid shower. You can use the same "Fluximator" to estimate how many meteors you'll see from various cities (and using different predictions).
Peter Jenniskens / SETI Institute

Storm or no storm, predictions agree that the peak will likely occur between about 6:30 and 7:30 Universal Time on the 24th. This timing favors North Americas, though it means you'll have to be out around 3 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time; midnight Pacific Daylight Time. The outburst will be brief, lasting just an hour or two, though a somewhat longer duration is possible. Moonlight from a slender waning crescent won't be a problem.

The rest of the world will miss out; all other land areas are either in daylight or on the side of the globe facing away from the incoming meteors.

The meteors will appear all over the sky, so you'll want to look in whatever direction gives you the darkest view. But if you trace their bright paths backward far enough, and they'll lead you to a location in the northern sky in the dim constellation Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, about 12° from Polaris.

Interestingly, in the past week there've been a few reports of really bright fireballs from this radiant direction. Are these early arrivals from the Camelopardalids? Maybe! They've certainly gotten the attention of dynamicist Esko Lyytinen. "This made me think that if the sky is clear here in Finland during the predicted shower, I will try to tune my fireball camera to observe in the daylight for a possible daylight fireball," he says.

Close visit from Comet 209P/LINEAR

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

Discovered in 2004, Comet 209P/LINEAR went through its perihelion on May 6th and will pass just 5 million miles (0.055 astronomical unit) by Earth on May 29th. That will be the 9th closest approach of any comet on record. But the comet itself won't get any brighter than 11th magnitude at best. Besides, the meteors we'll see are not from this pass — instead, they'll be from perihelion passes as long ago as the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Adding to the uncertainty is that while the comet is active now, it might not have been all those years ago. "We do not know what rate to expect, because the comet was not observed in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries," explains meteor specialist Peter Jenniskens (SETI Institute).

For those who might have the misfortune of cloudy weather during the Camelopardalid shower — or if you live where it won't be seen — Italian astronomer Gianluca Masi (Virtual Telescope Project) is planning an online meteor watch. "We will have several observers in the U.S. and Canada using wide-field imaging and all-sky cameras to send us images, assuring live coverage," he says. Coverage begins at 5:30 Universal Time May 24th.

You can also watch a webcast using the Slooh robotic telescopes. The Slooh team will view and discuss the comet starting at 6 p.m. EDT (22:00 UT) and follow with live coverage of the new meteor shower a few hours later at 11 p.m. EDT (3:00 UT May 24th).

Should this event tempt you to pull out your camera, read our article on How to Photograph a Meteor Shower for equipment and techniques that will help you toward success.

23 thoughts on “Ready for May’s Surprise Meteor Shower?

  1. StarChaser55

    Will definitely stay up late that Friday night; am in Fort Davis Texas just four miles from the McDonald observatory – hope it is a good show!

    1. robert-simpson

      Happy hunting! It looks like we will not make it for the shower but hope to make the Texas Star Party. We’re moving to DMR as soon as we can close on our home.

  2. Joseph Slomka

    Kelly,
    May’s S&T Observing at a Glance for the 26-31 talks about Comet 209P/Linear.
    The last line of the entry says” see sky pub.com/209p for finder charts.”
    I tried to access that URL, but it says that the comet is below the horizon.
    Can S&T fix the link before the event?
    Thanks
    Joe Slomka

      1. Faye_Kane_girl_brainFaye_Kane_girl_brain

        ==-
        Your “Fluximator” link (in the photo caption) is broken, too. It’s too bad, because I have a good view of the radiant and never saw a meteor shower, just one or two “shooting stars”.

  3. jen-adams

    Can’t wait! Hope to see some fireballs and earthgrazers! Maybe we’ll all get lucky and see hundreds of meteors! Wouldn’t that be a spectacular surprise! Let’s all watch or you might miss out on the meteor shower of the year!

  4. Peter WilsonPeter Wilson

    With a name almost as hard to pronounce as an Icelandic volcano, expectations are high.

  5. Isaac-Davis

    We will be watching here in Central Texas with bated breath…Hope its something spectacular…

  6. PouriaZ

    Would this be any good in Australia? the peak hour is 4:30 in the afternoon AEST, but since it gets dark around 5:30 this time of the year, it shouldnt be too bad ? should it?

  7. Osiris-CastilloOsiris-Castillo

    Hello! Here in Nicaragua (Central America) our expectations are not so good because the radiant in just below the horizon and these days are very cloudy due to the winter (rainy season), but we hope to see some earthgrazers at least.

    1. RobMcNaught

      Nicaragua will have the OBSERVED radiant above the horizon during the peak. Note that the radiant coordinates being quoted are the TRUE radiant, the direction the meteors would have if the Earth wasn’t there! However, the observer’s location will have an effect on where the radiant appears to be. This effect is called zenithal attraction. The bending of the incoming path of the meteoroid will be 11 degrees for Camelopardalids grazing the Earth, so even northern S. America, Galapagos, Samoa and Fiji will have the OBSERVED radiant above the horizon during the predicted peak. Even from regions of N America where the true radiant is 35 deg elevation, the OBSERVED radiant will be around 5 degrees higher. In Australia it will be daylight, and you will have to be north of the tropic of Capricorn, but the latter stages may be visible in a dark sky, if the shower lasts long enough. See the visibility maps on David Asher’s webpage at
      http://star.arm.ac.uk/~dja/209P/

  8. TaurusTaurus

    Is there a chance for people on the Northern&Eastern hemisphere to see any part of it? If so, what is the best timing and direction (constellation) to watch?

  9. rocksnstarsrocksnstars

    For those of you asking questions, the answers are in Mr. Beatty’s article, but here is another way of saying it: “… this display is limited to North America due to the timing and the high northern declination (celestial latitude) of the radiant. Even observers in high North American latitudes will have to deal with twilight all night long as the sun never sets far enough below the horizon to allow it to become totally dark. Observers in the eastern hemisphere will be in daylight at the time of predicted maximum and the sun will obscure any possible display. Lastly, observers in the southern hemisphere will see very little of this possible display as the radiant is invisible from most of the southern hemisphere. Little activity is expected to be seen away from the time of maximum activity.” (Robert Lunsford, http://www.amsmeteors.org)

    Clouds need to be considered also of course. I’d say not looking good for the northeast and a lot of TX up thru ND. TSP area maybe…

  10. John-Erickson

    Nice article–except for the lead sentence in blue at the beginning which says that the shower will be brought on by an upcoming near-Earth pass of the comet. The rest of the article makes it clear that that is not the case. Does a headline writer add the lead sentence after the author is done with the article?

  11. DaveNagognog

    Thanks for supplying the link to SLOOH! As I had predicted, it would be pouring rain all night here in northern Vermont. Good to see all is not lost. But I know the rain is all my fault – I just got a new telescope. I know a ‘scope is the wrong tool for a meteor shower, but ol’ Murphy is working overtime anyways.

    Clear skies all!

  12. Faye_Kane_girl_brainFaye_Kane_girl_brain

    Next time, you might want to point out that while the radiant’s celestial coordinates and time of peak flux are the same everywhere on earth, the actual meteors you see are very LOCAL phenomena. A meteor overhead to you is over the horizon 300 miles away. So don’t just watch the NASA TV feed, go outside!
    -faye,
    sexiest homeless astrophysicist you’ll ever see naked

  13. Isaac-Davis

    It was a total washout here in Central Texas. Clouds and drizzle and not able to see anything. Sad…Isaac

  14. Michael-Brewster

    I saw one very good candidate “shower” member in 40 minutes of watching. It was slow with a train, about 2nd mag, and was in Ursa Major, so tracing it back toward the radiant was pretty easy. I saw it at 1:49 am Central Daylight Time, or 6:49 UTC. Here in Central Texas the skies were about 50% clear, with moving clouds, and a tremendous amount of haze. Limiting mag was about 4, depending on which direction I looked due to the clouds. I also saw 5 sporadic meteors in my 40 minutes of observing, so if there had been a lot more “shower” members I think I would have seen them.

  15. Melanie c

    I was not expecting much as I was out at 11:30 eastern time. However I was surprised that I saw 3 meteors in about 5 minutes of looking before the clouds came in. They were bright and surprisingly long.

  16. Albert-FosterAlbert-Foster

    In south Georgia, USA, the meteor shower was more like a sprinkle. Our “peak” was from 2:55 a.m. to 3:40 a.m. EDT, and that was only a dozen or so streaks at our location. Pretty much everything outside of that time was probably late passing Aquariids and Bootids since they did not originate anywhere from the direction of Polaris.

  17. StarChaser55

    The clouds stayed away and the skies were dark here in the Davis Mountains for most of Friday night, so we set up close to our new Sky Pony observatory (still waiting for our dome!) and took a few 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 – the weather held out and the skies were dark; and the Milky Way looked like fog rising to the east! Check out our Facebook page ( facebook.com/skyponyobservatory ) to see the pics with the meteors. Adios!

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