Meteor showers occur when the Earth, in its orbit around the sun, plows into debris trails of dust, sand and pebbles left behind by melting comets. The individual bits of debris burn up in our atmosphere. As they slam in at speeds that can be over 40 miles a second they chemically excite the columns of air they come through, producing the multi-color streaks and a great show.
Comets are basically the dirty snowballs of the solar system. They originate from the far outer reaches of the solar system in the Oort cloud.
Because of gravitational perturbations from nearby stars these dirty cosmic snowballs can get directed toward our sun and wind up in highly elliptical orbits around our home star. The giant planet Jupiter and its gravitational tug can also have an effect on comet orbits. When they get close to the sun and the Earth comets partially, and sometimes totally melt, releasing tons of potential meteors. Because of this we get to enjoy these annual shows.
Some meteor showers are better than others though, especially the Perseids in August and the Geminids in December. In those showers it's possible to see more than 50 meteors or “shooting stars” an hour with dark skies and little or no moonlight. This new shower on Saturday morning, called the Camelopardalids could be equal to or maybe much more prosperous.
The parent comet for the Camelopardalids is Comet Linear, first discovered in 2004 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research Observatory, operated by the U.S. Air Force, whose main mission is to keep an electronic eye out for menacing near-Earth asteroids. The comet is named after the observatory. The comet last came by this part of the solar system in 2009 and will pass by the Earth again this early May. Linear's pass is a lot closer to the Earth this time because of the huge gravitational tug from Jupiter. It actually reshaped the comet's orbit so that this month Linear will pass within 280,000 miles of Earth, which isn't that much farther away from us than the moon. To make a long story short, that basically means the Earth will be crossing into a lot more comet debris.
Comet experts don't want to get too carried away and declare the Camelopardalids meteor shower a meteor storm because much is unknown about this comet, including its dust productivity and even its precise orbit. The heaviest part could be short-lived too, lasting perhaps between a few minutes to less than an hour. There might even be multiple peaks of the meteor shower in the predawn hours next Saturday morning. The best advice I can give you is to be ready for anything from an astronomical spectacular, but also be psychologically prepared for a fizzle. The Camelopardalids are anything but a sure bet.
If Saturday morning's meteor shower does meet or beat expectations we're at the right place at the right time. The United States and North America will be in the best position on the globe to watch the shower and there won't be much interfering moonlight either, as all we'll have is a waning crescent moon rising around 4 a.m. To increase your chances even more, get out into the dark countryside. You don't want to waste a potential great meteor shower mired in city lights.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist.
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