It’s still a few days away, but our next issue may come out too late for my information to be helpful to some of you. So I’ll give it to you now, and perhaps you’ll mark it on your calendar: The date is Friday night, May 23. The time is 2 a.m. – meaning the wee hours of Saturday morning.
A new meteor shower is a rare event. After all, some of the existing annual displays of shooting stars have been around for millennia. The Chinese reported watching the Perseids every August 2,000 years ago. Of course, they did not call that shower the Perseids, nor did they call it August. Indeed, meteors were not recognized as an outer-space phenomenon until modern times. They were widely regarded as oddities of our air; the word meteorology means “pertaining to the atmosphere.”
Ever since 2004, we’ve been aware of Comet Linear. At its best (but not currently), it has looked pretty nice in amateur telescopes, even if it never reached naked-eye visibility. What’s important is that our planet is about to sweep through debris shed by that iceball. On this point, meteor experts are in total agreement: We will collide with fragments from that comet next weekend. The US and Canada, alone among all the world’s nations, are in an optimal position to observe this event.
The fireworks will persist for only two to three hours. The show will start around 2 a.m. and end between 4 and 4:30. The meteors will streak away from the northern sky, radiating from the dimmest of all far-northern constellations: Camelopardalis the Giraffe. Since meteor showers are named using the Latin possessive form of the constellation in which the radiant is located, this shower should properly be called the Camelopardalids. Try saying that three times fast!
You don’t have to know that. The important thing is that the radiant will be located just beneath the North Star, Polaris. The meteors will fly away from that direction and appear throughout the sky.
So what can we expect? The most optimistic estimates come from famed meteor expert Peter Jenniskens, who thinks that there will be something like a meteor a second and that, moreover, they will tend to be brilliant. If this materializes, it will be the best meteor event of our lives. Other meteor experts think the rate will be closer to two or three every minute, which is still excellent – though slightly inferior to be fabulous Leonid meteor shower that we saw in the wee hours of November 18, 2001. These more pessimistic meteor people also believe that the particles from the comet will be a bit smaller than the initial projections, making most of the meteors nice, but not brilliant.
Bottom line: If it’s clear that night, it would be wise to set the alarm and watch the sky, starting at 2 a.m. Use a lawn chair and a warm blanket and take in as much sky as you can in any direction, with the north favored. Don’t try merely to peek through spaces between trees; get to a wide expanse of sky. By 2:30 or 3 a.m. we will have the verdict: Either an amazing event is unfolding and you should wake your friends, or it will be a fizzle, which is always possible.
Of course, if it’s mostly cloudy, we’re screwed. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.