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Camelopardalid meteor shower arrives on schedule, despite busted 'storm' forecast

 Gavin Heffernan captured this Camelopardalid meteor from California's Joshua Tree National Park on Saturday, May 24, 2014.

Gavin Heffernan captured this Camelopardalid meteor from California's Joshua Tree National Park on Saturday, May 24, 2014.

By Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer
Tuesday, May 27, 2014, 9:27 AM

So, it was likely a disappointing experience for anyone who headed outside early on Saturday morning, hoping to see hundreds of meteors flashing across the sky from the predicted Camelopardalid meteor storm. At best the event only produced a handful of meteors per hour. However, although the 'storm' forecast was a bust, it's still an amazing accomplishment that astronomers accurately predicted that this brand new meteor shower would show up!

Meteor showers occur as Earth passes through the debris stream left behind by a comet (whether it's a typical ice comet or a 'rock comet'). As the comet approaches the Sun, the heat and radiation causes material to be blown off the comet's surface, and this debris material forms a trail that generally follows the same path as the comet's orbit. When Earth passes through one of these trails, the tiny particles of ice, dust and rock encounter our atmosphere. Since these meteoroid particles are travelling at anywhere between 11 and 72 kilometers per second, relative to the Earth, when they enter the atmosphere they compress the air in front of them and heat it up, causing the bright 'meteor' flashes we see in the night sky. 

There are several regular meteor showers that we see during the year, both major and minor, ranging from just a handful of meteors per hour up to around 100 per hour. Sometimes, though, one of these will go through an unexpected 'outburst', producing a meteor storm that can deliver up to 1,000+ meteors per hour. Exactly when a meteor storm will happen isn't an easy thing to forecast, though. 

Astronomer David H. Levy (who co-discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9) coined a famous saying about the predictability of comets (or more precisely the lack thereof): "Comets are like cats; they have tails, and they do precisely what they want."

The debris trails they leave behind aren't quite as unpredictable as the comets themselves, but it's close. Some are known to produce outbursts periodically, as Earth and a particularly dense part of the debris stream meet up every so often. It definitely helps if the comet responsible for the particular meteor shower passes by just before the Earth encounters the debris stream it's leaving behind. This happened with the Perseid meteor shower in 1993, as Comet Swift-Tuttle crossed Earth's orbit on December 31, 1992. However, for a meteor shower that noone had ever seen before, where the specific material we'd be passing through was left behind over 100 years before the comet was discovered, the chances of accurately predicting an outburst were slim. There wasn't even a guarantee that we'd see anything at all.

However, just the fact that the astronomers were able to predict the meteor shower happening, at all, is incredible. Based only on Comet 209P/LINEAR's orbit and some observations of its activity since it was found in 2004, astronomers were able to figure out exactly when it would be visible, and from where. The only part that didn't work out, was the rate they were hoping to see from it.

Computer model of the debris stream from Comet 209P/LINEAR, courtesy of NASA via YouTube.

Computer model of the debris stream from Comet 209P/LINEAR, courtesy of NASA via YouTube.

Still, from the pictures seen online, there were some very nice meteors from this shower, despite there being so few.

The next regular meteor shower we can look forward to seeing is the Delta Aquarids, which are expected to peak at the end of July, but this has always been a faint shower and it tends to favour the southern hemisphere. The next big one to watch out for is the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks from August 10-13.

More by this author
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Camelopardalid meteor shower could bring fireballs and pepper the moon with impacts, too!
How to watch the Eta Aquariid meteor shower
Fireball over southern Ontario may be debris from famed Halley's Comet

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