Skygazers tonight will have a rare opportunity to witness the arrival of a brand new meteor shower. Astronomers aren't sure what to expect, but many predict we could see the skies flood with hundreds of meteors per hour, which would make tonight's far and away the most spectacular shower of the year.
Above: Perseid Meteor Shower seen over Mobius Arch, Alabama Hills. Photo Credit: Kartik Ramanathan // CC BY 2.0
The new shower is called the Camelopardalids. It takes its name from the constellation Camelopardalis, from which its meteors will appear to originate. In actuality, the shower's origins extend all the way back to the early 1800s, when dust and debris trailing from a comet named 209P/LINEAR embarked an elliptical collision course set to intersect with Earth's atmosphere over two centuries later. That intersection is expected to occur in a matter of hours. In fact, it is projected that all trails emitted by the comet between 1803 and 1924 stand a chance of colliding with Earth's atmosphere this very night. When they do, astronomers forecast, they will vaporize, igniting the sky in a luminescent meteor storm the likes of which we haven't seen in years.
But – and this is a big but – the shower could also be a dud. According to Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait, astronomers studying 209P/LINEAR believe that it may shed less debris than other comets. That would mean fewer fireballs tonight. On the other hand, those same astronomers concluded that the particles 209P/LINEAR does shed may also be larger than those emitted by other comets, which means they'll appear brighter as they burn up in the atmosphere. "It could be practically nothing, or it could be a couple hundred meteors per hour," says William Cooke, head of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. In the end, astronomers really aren't sure what to expect from the Camelopardalids, because, well, nobody's ever witnessed them before.
And that may be the most important takeaway of all. Whether the Camelopardalids bring 30 meteors per hour or 300, anyone watching the skies tonight will be witness to an astronomical-first centuries in the making. Here's how to watch:
The When: According to Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, skygazers can expect meteor activity to begin late Friday night at around 10:30 local time, with peak activity occurring Saturday morning between 2 and 4 a.m. Eastern Time. If this shower develops into a storm, however, there's a good chance you'll be able to see meteors all the dark night long, straight through until dawn.
The Where: The radiant for the Camelopardalids (the point from which the meteors will appear to originate) is the constellation Camelopardalis.
Camelopardalis appears hight in the northern sky, near the North Star. Some people will tell you to look there. In actuality, meteors can appear almost anywhere in the sky. Your best bet is to get as clear a view of as much of the sky as you can, and look straight up. Remember also to avert your eyes from any ambient light and allow your vision to adjust to the darkness. Good news for tonight: the moon is currently a waning crescent and won't rise until early morning Saturday, so it won't be washing out the sky.
The Where (Part II): If you're in North America, you are in the perfect geographical location to observe tonight's shower. Pretty much everyone else on Earth is out of luck (Image Courtesy of NASA):
Avoid Light Like the Plague. Tonight's Moon is a waning crescent, and isn't set to rise until early morning Saturday. With the moon out of sight, its light shouldn't interfere with your viewing, but there's still plenty of other ways to wash out the sky or effectively blind yourself. City lights, street lights, house lights, flashlights. Even checking your phone can zap your eyeballs and ruin your nighttime vision.
If you're in the country, go find a big open field. If you're in the city, get out if you can. If you can't get out, try to find a high point. These measures can make a significant difference in your viewing experience. The pictures featured at left compare the night sky as seen from two points in Utah located just 75 miles apart. The difference? The bottom photo was taken in a major metropolitan area, the top photo a rural town. See more info here.) The Clear Sky Chart website has a great list of optimal viewing locations organized by state, so go check it out.
Once you're all settled in, give yourself at least 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adapt to the dark. How do you know if your eyes have adapted? A good rule of thumb says if you can see all seven of the Little Dipper's main/brightest stars you'll see plenty of meteors. If you can't spot all 7 it's not a big deal, that's just under optimal conditions.
Watch Online. Don't live in North America? Clouds ruining your view? Hit up Slooh's live broadcast of the shower, which is set to kick off at 8:00 p.m. PT.
Pack the Right Stuff. Bring a reclining lawn chair, a blanket and some pillows — whatever you need to get comfortable and still keep your eyes on the sky.
Bringing hot chocolate and/or coffee is strongly encouraged. Don't try to stand. Standing and looking up may seem like a decent enough idea, but eventually your neck will get tired, and the second you take your eyes off the sky is invariably when the brightest meteors of the night will go blazing by — it's like a code that all meteors live by. If you absolutely HAVE to look away, make sure it's for something awesome like taking a sip of hot chocolate.
You shouldn't really need a telescope or binoculars, because you'll want to keep your eyes on as much of the night sky as possible. Bring something to snack on, but nothing you have to look at to eat. And finally, bring some good company, so you have somebody to "ooh" and "ahh" with while stargazing on this beautiful spring night.