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Up in the Air

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Weekend forecast: Chance of late-night meteor shower

By Daniel B. Caton
Daniel B. Caton
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Daniel B. Caton

 Meteor storm? Well, maybe and maybe not. A predicted new meteor shower this Friday night or early Saturday morning (May 23-24) is likely to be at least as good as the best annual meteor showers – and has a chance to be much better.

Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through the orbit of a comet and its debris enters our atmosphere at high speeds, incinerating miles up in the air in a “shooting star” event. A handful of the best showers occur between August and December, bookending the main season with the Perseids and Geminids, respectively. Those showers have maximum rates of about 100 meteors per hour, and we expect the newly discovered shower to be similar. Meteor experts in France and Russia predict a possible 100 to 400 per hour but say it will be a long shot for it to be a meteor “storm” with a rate of 1,000 per hour.

This shower is new and is composed of debris from a comet that was discovered only a decade ago. Comet 209P/LINEAR was found by telescope in 2004 during the scope’s routine of scanning the skies for dangerous near-Earth asteroids. The comet only orbits out to near Jupiter, which regularly affects the orbit of the comet and its debris. These effects are predicted to have produced an accumulation of rock and ice that will make for a good shower.

The event is going to be short, predicted to start about 1:40 a.m. Saturday morning, peak about 3 a.m. and end just before dawn. That’s optimal for the United States; for the rest of the planet, it will be too low or during daylight. That’s late, but at least it’s on a weekend night!

The meteors will appear to radiate from a point in the sky that is in the direction of the comet’s orbit. In this case, it is near Polaris, the North Star, which is easy to find in the sky. The two end stars of the bowl of the Big Dipper point to it, and it is about 3 1/2 fist-widths (at arm’s length) above the north point on the horizon. Note that Polaris is not the brightest star in the sky; it is comparable to the Dipper’s stars.

No equipment is needed except perhaps a lounge chair and a pot of coffee. You will benefit from dark skies, but this shower could have a lot of bright meteors, so as long as you don’t have bright lights shining right at your eyes, you should be fine. Host a neighborhood meteor party!

Remember, this meteor shower is not guaranteed. But, like fishing, it’s not really about the catch!

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: catondb@appstate.edu. More on this month’s column: www.upintheair.info.

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