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Rare meteor shower may turn into a storm next week

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Tuesday, May 13, 2014, 3:23 PM - Stargazers in North America may be in for a treat for the early morning of May 24, 2014. Apparently a never-before-seen meteor shower - the Camelopardalids - might be putting on a show in the northern sky, and it could even blossom into a full-fledged meteor storm!

Ever since astronomers spotted Comet 209P/LINEAR in 2004, they've been tracking its roughly five-year journey around the Sun, as it travels from out past the asteroid belt at its farthest from the Sun, to near Earth's orbit at its closest. Just like any other comet, as it swings around its closest approach to the Sun, the heat and radiation melt some of Comet 209P/LINEAR's ice and it throws off a cloud of gas, dust and debris that surrounds it and follows it along on its orbit. As the Science@NASA video above shows (at roughly 1:30s), the debris trail from Comet 209P/LINEAR isn't very consistent, so unlike with other meteor showers we see regularly year-to-year, Earth doesn't always pass through this particular stream. However, this year, we're passing near the comet's debris trail just as the comet itself is sweeping past us. Astronomers are hopeful that this fortuitous flyby will put on a spectacular show in the night sky, but unfortunately there's one added complication to their ability to forecast this one. The part of the debris trail we'll be passing through this year was laid down throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, before they even knew that the comet existed, and before there were any reports of a meteor shower from it. Some astronomers have produced research that points to a possible sighting before this. However, since the timing doesn't match up perfectly, their findings may not be related to this shower. So, this going to make the Camelopardalids a bit unpredictable. 

It's possible that the forecasts could be off and it turns out to be a dud. However, that's no reason to write this one off. Just the fact that it's a brand new shower should be enough of a draw to check it out, and if it happens it could produce around 50 meteors per hour (which is fairly decent). An even better reason to give the Camelopardalids a chance is that some forecasts are saying that this could turn out to be a meteor storm, producing up to 400 meteors per hour! Witnessing that would be incredible!

To see the Camelopardalids, it's best to find a spot away from big cities, where the light pollution won't be as bad, and this shower will appear to radiate out of the northern sky, from a somewhat obscure constellation known as Camelopardalis - the Giraffe. 

Since this will be a very short shower, and it's radiating out of the north rather than tracking across the sky from east to west, those wanting to go outside to see it will have to sync up their efforts, so that everyone is out at roughly the same time on May 24 - shortly after midnight on the west coast and after 5 a.m. local time on the east coast, and adjust for time zone in between. The meteor shower page at Seti.org has a great little tool to plot exactly when you'll see the shower's peak, based on your location. 

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