Watchers of the night skies in North America will be granted a treat tonight. A new meteor shower will begin, which is an extrememly rare event. If all goes well, the shower could become a yearly occurrence. If light pollution or cloudy skies are an issue, there will be two webcasts, by NASA and the Slooh Space Camera. Whether viewed with naked eyes or electronic ones, the new meteor shower has the potential to make an historical night for both astronomers and hobbyists.
Meteor showers are what happens when Earth runs into a debris field. The space debris consists of chunks of ice and rock that are flung from the frozen surface of a comet in a process of sublimation caused by the heat from the Sun. Once they enter the Earth’s atmosphere, the chunks burn up and in the process create spectacular streaks of shooting lights in the sky.
Discovered in 2004 by Peter Jenniskens, Comet 209P/LINEAR is the source of tonight’s meteor shower. The comet has an orbit that is slightly tilted relative to the Earth’s orbit, which explains why we have never encountered this comet’s debris field. In 2012, the comet passed Jupiter close enough to have its orbit altered somewhat. This year, the stars have aligned and Earth is predicted to travel only 19,000 miles from the densest debris the comet has dispersed on its travels throughout the centuries.
The new meteor shower has been named after the constellation that it will seem to be illuminating, Camelopardalid. This is the Greek name for giraffe, a combination of camel and leopard. Though it is hard to know for sure, some astronomers are predicting that viewers could see as many as 200 meteors per hour. If that turns out to be the case, this new meteor show will outshine the impressive Geminids.
There is always the chance that the Camelopardalids could simply be just another mediocre meteor shower. There is no hard evidence as to how much debris 209P/LINEAR has dropped at this exact spot in its orbit. If, like people are hoping, Camelopardalids turns out to be an awesome show, it would be added to the meteor shower calendar. The August Perseids, a meteor shower astronomers and fans can count on, has been viewed on an annual basis for more than 2,000 years.
As astronomer, Ethan Siegel, put it, we have never before seen the birth of a meteor shower “in all of recorded human history.” He thinks this will be a night to truly remember and is going so far as to predict 400 meteors per hour.
Telescopes located in the Canary Islands will capture the first part of the show. Live feeds will be broadcast from Arizona for the second show. It is recommended to get away from city lights for optimal viewing of Camelopardalids. Eyes should be given a good 30 minutes to properly adjust to the darkness. For best results, look up to the north, toward Polaris (the North Star) from midnight to 2am PST.
Consider what an awesome opportunity this is for people living on Earth today. To be among the first humans to see the new meteor shower named Camelopardalids could be historically significant, as well as, a cosmic honor.
By Stacy Lamy