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NEW Meteor Shower? How Does THAT Happen?

There's supposedly a new meteor shower in town and his name is Camelopardalid (camel-Oh-par-... Oh, just watch the video at the bottom of this post!). The shower's parent, Comet 209P/LINEAR, is streaking through the sky currently, leaving in her wake bits of dust. The comet has been doing this for decades and it just so happens that Earth will be making its way through this trail of dust on the evening of May 23rd into the early morning hours of May 24th (Pacific Time). As the tiny particles of dust slam into the Earth's atmosphere, the particles get super-heated and light up the night sky to become what we call meteors or shooting stars.

So, how can we have a new meteor shower? Don't things in the solar system pretty much stay the same year after year, decade after decade, and millennium after millennium? Yes and no. The rings of Saturn have been around for thousands of years and have looked essentially the same. But on closer inspection with spacecraft, we find that the "grooves" appear, disappear, and shift based on the proximity of tiny moons of Saturn. The Great Red Spot on Jupiter has been around for at least hundreds of years. But we're now seeing it dwindle. It may not be too long before it's gone.

There are quicker changes too. The volcanoes on Io (one of Jupiter's many moons) spew out material every day, changing the appearance of the landscape. There are geysers of ice on Enceladus going off all the time (almost). No one would posit that the weather on Earth remains the same day after day, yet Earth is very much a part of our solar system just like any other planet, moon, or smaller body. The solar system is dynamic, in motion, and not static by any stretch of the imagination.

Along those lines, there are asteroids and comets jockeying for position in various places in the solar system. Occasionally, collisions or the influence of gravity the bodies have on each other, nudges something out of its ordinary orbit or place in the solar system. This describes the very nature of comets. They are giant clumps of dirt, ice and gas surrounding what we consider the basic solar system, the sun and planets. When one gets hurled out of its normal orbit, the Sun's gravity lures it toward it. As the icy body warms, the ice turns directly to gas and starts leaving a trail consisting of that gas along with larger bits of debris that are roughly the size of grains of sand and smaller. Every meteor shower that we observe on Earth is due to the existence of comets and their dust trails. In other words, every meteor shower has a parent comet. 

Here's the important bit of news that you want to know... Will it be a big, impressive, cataclysmic meteor shower? Some sources are saying, "YES!" Others are saying, "Yes." Others still are saying, "Maybe." The least sensational of them are telling the truth when they say, "We don't know." Keep in mind that the various astronomy news sources out there are often grossly inaccurate when it comes to predicting the nature of new or unusual astronomical phenomena (they're typically great for nailing the timing when it comes to normal stuff like solar and lunar eclipses but not so great when it comes to predicting the level of awe for things like comets, meteor showers, expected impacts, etc.). For the LCROSS mission NASA stated that anyone with a 12" aperture telescope or larger should be able to see the debris cloud of the impact on the lunar surface. The 200" Hale telescope at Palomar didn't even detect anything. And remember the hype around Comet ISON?

The safest advice is to go ahead and plan on a night under the stars and enjoy it, regardless of what the meteors do. If you can get to dark skies where it'll be clear, just go out there with your favorite cot or beach lounger, take a blanket or sleeping bag, maybe a propane heater, and a Thermos with some hot cocoa or coffee, and enjoy the tranquility and beauty of the night sky. As long as the weather cooperates, it's always rewarding and never disappointing, meteor shower or not. If a meteor shower presents itself, it will emanate from the constellation Camelopardalis (meteor showers are named for the constellation from which the meteors appear to radiate) to the north (look toward the Big Dipper). The shower, if it materializes, will likely be best between about 10PM and 2AM local (Pacific) time. Keep your eyes open, let them adapt to the darkness, stay awake, and enjoy!

Here are some sources of additional info (but don't fall for the hype):
Universe Today
ABC News
LA Times


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