This Friday night, there will be a meteor shower: The Camelopardalids. North America is the right place for viewing one of the solar system’s premier celestial shows — if the weather will only cooperate.
Meteor Shower: What Is It?
To the naked eye, a meteor shower is an abundance of flashes of light in the nighttime sky, normally emanating from a single point. It’s as if flecks of starlight were being sprayed from a giant cosmic hose.
In fact, those moving bright objects are commonly known as shooting stars. They are not being sprayed; they are remnants from a long-since-passed comet, just orbiting the sun, minding their own business, until the earth comes by.
A comet is a pile of space junk left over from the formation of the solar system. It consists of ices (water, methane, and ammonia), dust, and rock. When a comet approaches the sun, the ices melt and some of the dust and rock are ejected as particles ranging in size from a speck of dust to a boulder as much as a meter across. These particles are congregated along the path of the comet.
If the path of the earth in its orbit around the sun intersects the comet’s path, the comet particles enter the earth’s atmosphere, where they burn up. We see them as streaks of light.
This Friday night, the earth will pass through the debris trail of comet 209P/LINEAR, which was discovered in 2004 and passes the sun every five years. A celestial body does not revolve around its primary in a perfect circle. Due to minor changes in the earth’s and the comet’s orbits, the paths do not cross very often. Careful calculations show that this Friday night the earth should cross a trail that the comet left in the mid-1800s.
What’s With The Name? Camelopardalids?
A meteor shower is normally named after the constellation from which the shooting stars appear to emanate. In this case it is an obscure constellation, camelopardalis, near the north star that is supposed to look like a cross between a camel and a leopard and is often described as a giraffe. As you look to the north Friday night, if you can see such an animal you have much better eyesight (or a better imagination) than I.
Where Will The Meteor Shower Be Visible?
Because of the orientation of the orbits, you’ll have the best chance of seeing the meteors between two and four Saturday morning (EDT) in southern Canada and the United States.
The weather pattern is mostly favorable, but the best places to view this event will be the midwest and the southeast, where clear skies will prevail. Elsewhere there may be a chance of showers or even thunderstorms, but there will be clear patches between. Wherever you are, it’s worth a look.
The general forecast shows high pressure covering most of the eastern half of the country. Slow moving low pressure systems in the northeast, southwest, and northwest coast will make viewing iffy in those areas. These low pressure centers extend well up into the atmosphere, and lifting of the air column that produces rain will continue into the nighttime hours. Other places may have showers and thunderstorms due to the lifting of air caused by daytime heating, but most of this activity will subside by late night.
Camelopardalids Viewing Conditions in Specific Locations:
The forecasts for specific locations is as follows:
- The northeast including New England and New York: The upper air low pressure is reluctant to move. Northern and eastern parts of this area are probably a washout, with better chances of breaks in the clouds to the south and west.
- The mid-Atlantic through the midwest: Most of this area should have a fine view of the meteors. High pressure centered over the midwest dominates and the skies should be clear.
- The southeast, west to the eastern half of Texas: This area will also be under the influence of high pressure and skies will be mostly clear after any daytime convective activity has subsided. The exception could be along an old frontal boundary through northern parts of Georgia and the Carolinas, but even here there should be breaks in the clouds.
- Southern plains, southern Rockies, and the desert southwest: A large low pressure center over this area will make catching a glimpse of the meteors hit or miss.
- Northern plains: An approaching frontal system could bring some clouds, but most of the area has a pretty good chance to see clear skies.
- California and Nevada: On the fringe of the low pressure that will plague much of the west, these areas could escape with good viewing.
- Coastal northwest as far south as the northern California coast: An approaching front will keep much of this area cloudy. Best chance for a meteor sighting will be in the southern part of the zone.
- Interior Washington and Oregon, and most of Idaho: Between frontal systems, there should be mostly clear skies.
What About Seeing The Camelopardalids In Europe?
Because the best viewing of this meteor shower is after daylight in Europe, there is less chance for a good show. Furthermore, the UK and western Europe will be cloudy and rainy. Still, early risers might want to take a peek just before dawn. Some breaks in the clouds could materialize.
What Will You See? Are The Camelopardalids Worth Losing Sleep Over?
Meteor showers are notoriously unpredictable. There could be hundreds of meteors per hour or just a trickle. If nothing materializes, you can go back to bed. But if you sleep through, you could miss a spectacle that rivals or even surpasses the recent total lunar eclipse.