Week of May 18-24, 2014
Astronomers predict that, on the night of May 23 and early morning of May 24 (May 23/24 in "astrospeak") our planet will streak through a swarm of dusty particles left behind by a periodic comet 209P/LINEAR. As we do, we may experience a new meteor shower that could rival — or even surpass — the displays put on by the annual Perseid shower of mid-August.
The problem, of course, is that no one has ever seen this meteor shower before and, therefore, no one knows what to expect. And that's what has everyone so excited.
If you've ever gazed into a clear dark sky, you've almost surely seen a burst of light appearing out of nowhere, and disappearing just as quickly. We call such a startling sight romantic like a "falling star" or a "shooting star," but a more accurate term is "meteor."
What we see is a tiny particle from space (a meteoroid) that slams into our upper atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour and radiates brilliantly as it meets its fiery demise (a meteor). Amazingly, most meteors are about the size of a sand grain.
At times throughout the year, the Earth encounters swarms of such particles, and we experience a meteor shower. These can encompass the entire sky, but are named for the constellation from which the meteors all seem to radiate.
Those on May 23/24 will originate from the direction of the constellation Camelopardalis, the giraffe (good luck trying to find this one!), which lies about midway between Polaris, the North Star and Capella. Camelopardalis has to be one of the most obscure constellations in all the heavens.
It was probably the 16th-century Dutch theologian, cartographer and astronomer Petrus Plancius who conjured this one up, though some believe it might have been named by German astronomer Jacob Bartsch who published Plancius' star maps in a 1624 constellation book.
Astronomers expect the peak of the Camelopardalids shower to occur over the West Coast of North America between 11:00 p.m. (on May 23) and 1:00 a.m. (on May 24). Stargazers on the East Coast should reach the peak between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.
And what might you see? Well, no one really knows. That's because we've never passed this way before — through the swarm of dust particles left behind by Comet 209P/LINEAR — and, therefore, have no idea what might be in store. Predictions range from a few dozen to over 200 meteors per hour, with some of the more optimistic suggesting we might experience a meteor "storm" of a thousand per hour. At this point, it's anyone's guess.
But don't expect to see anything if you live near a large city. The trick is to get as far from city lights as possible, dress warmly, lie on a sleeping bag or reclining chair, and scan the entire sky with your eyes.
So will we get a great meteor shower that night — a truly once-in-a-lifetime event? I can't say for sure; what I can guarantee, however, is that if you're not out looking you'll definitely see nothing!
To learn more about this new meteor shower, visit the following website: science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2014/06may_newshower/
Visit Dennis Mammana at www.dennismammana.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.