The Great Meteor Storm of 2014: What you need to know about Camelopardalid

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Wikipedia: 1888 Edmund Weiß drawing of the Great Leonid Meteor Storm of 1833 that he observed

AUSTIN, May 22, 2014 – Next Friday night, May 23-24, the Camelopardalid meteor shower will make its inaugural debut. It will be seen for the very first time ever. Upwards of 1,000 meteors per hour are forecast by NASA at Space.com.

Ten days ago, on May 6th, periodic Comet 290P/LINEAR ventured dangerously close to our sun at solar maximum activity. At closest approach, called perihelion, the broiling sun blasted away dust and gas off the hapless comet and into deep space, leaving a long trail of debris.

Comet debris is the source of most meteor showers. It’s very rare for meteors from comet rubble to reach the ground.

Next week the earth will pass through remnants left over from a previous visit by Comet 290P/LINEAR to the sun back in the1800s. Not only that, but old debris fields from several other close sun encounters have merged with that one.

Where and when to look for the meteor shower

Wikipedia: Camelopardalis is on the opposite side of Polaris from The Little Dipper (Ursa Minor)
Wikipedia: Camelopardalis is on the opposite side of Polaris from the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor)

The meteor show will be perfectly positioned high up in dark skies near the north star, Polaris, for North American viewers. Best observing time is said to be Saturday morning from 2-4 a.m. EDT. Europe will be in daylight by then. Sorry, southern hemisphere, you’re totally out of luck this time.


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The new shower is called the Camelopardalids because the meteors will appear to be streaking outward, like spokes of a wheel, from within the obscure constellation Camelopardalis. Camelopardalis, “The Giraffe”, is a little known constellation on the opposite side of Polaris from the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor).

Comet 209P/LINEAR is so named because it was discovered in 2009, it is a periodic comet that keeps coming back and it was discovered by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project (LINEAR), a joint research effort between MIT and the U.S. Air Force at White Sands, New Mexico.

Will there be a spectacular “meteor storm”?

Meteor watchers talk about ZHR, which means Zenithal Hourly Rate. It is the theoretical number of meteors/hr that a human could count if the radiant point of the shower were directly over their head and they have an unobstructed view to the horizon. It assumes a dark sky with meteors visible down to 6.5 magnitude.

Meteor occurrence rates are expressed as ZHR.


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According to a recent scientific paper a “meteor storm” is defined as a ZHR of 1,000 meteors per hour or more. Predictions for the new shower’s inaugural arrival range from 100-1000 per hour. It may reach “storm” status, but probably not.


The granddaddy of all meteor storms is the great Leonid shower of 1833. It’s estimated it had a ZHR of 100,000/hr (1,600/minute) or more, lasting all night.

Another surprise Leonid meteor storm in November 1966 briefly had a 20-minute burst rate estimated at 144,000/hr (2,400/minute) observed at Kitt Peak National Observatory southeast of Tucson, Arizona.

Conclusions

The new Camelopardalids meteor shower will likely be the biggest meteor show of 2014, perhaps the biggest in several decades. It only needs to break 120/hr to be biggest of the year.

If the new shower splits the difference between the low and high predictions to reach a ZHR of 500 then it will be the most intense meteor shower most people will see in their lifetimes.

Everything depends on what happened in the 1800s during Comet 209P/LINEAR’s close encounter with the sun. Nobody knows what happened.

It may not make “storm” status, but scientists who have studied it say the debris field that earth passes through next week contains a lot of course material. That means the number of meteors it produces may not break 1,000/hr, but the ones it does produce will be bright and colorful.

I was a precocious little brat living in Salem, Oregon back in November 1966 at the time of the last great Leonid meteor storm. No one knew how special that night would be, but it was expected to be a good show. So, I pulled an all-nighter in hopes of seeing it. It rained the whole time.

Later the next day I heard on the news what happened on Kitt Peak. I was heartbroken having missed it. I later entered the University of Arizona to study physics and astronomy.

As usually happens, this will probably turn out to be another overhyped dud. But the precocious little brat living inside informs me he refuses to miss a second chance.

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  • Robby

    Thanks for the write-up! We’re looking forward to it.

    For a future column, it’d be fascinating to learn about your personal journey from astronomer to writer and naturalist!

    • Steve Davidson

      Thanks for your kind remarks. My personal story is not interesting, so I’ll spare you the boredom.

      In another venue,occasionally, I tell road-warrior tales from a wandering wilderness landscape photographer. Those are fun. Heck, one might be about the Camelopardalid shower next Friday night.

  • Steve Davidson

    Wellll… carefully packed up the camera gear… went to a meticulously selected, darkest sky I could find about 50 miles from Austin… nice cactus and yucca patch available for foreground interest on a north facing view… disappointment. No big show… no pictures. 🙁

    I saw six Camelopardalids before cloud cover moved in. All were short and ordinary. As it turns out, it was about as good as anyone else saw.

    The best meteor of the night I saw captured on an online tracking site wasn’t a Camelopardalid at all, but a sporatic up in Canada that just happened along last night.

    Astronomy can be a fickle master when it comes to one-of-a-kind events.

    The brat within wants to scold ol’ Mother Nature. 😉