May: Maybe a New Meteor Shower in May

Maybe a New Meteor Shower in May

By Calvin L. Chrisman

Later this month, a recently discovered comet that you can’t see is expected to cause a meteor shower that you can see – big time! Comet 209P/LINEAR was discovered only ten years ago by a sky survey telescope dedicated to finding near-Earth asteroids. This May, the comet will make an unusually close pass to Earth but will only reach magnitude 10-12 (much too faint for the naked eye). Faint though it will be, the comet will be leading a tail of debris which could result in a spectacular meteor shower on the evening of May 23-24. As the Earth passes through this rocky rubble, friction caused by the Earth’s atmosphere will cause an eye-catching light show. We are lucky to be where we are on the globe. North America and southern Canada are the only parts of the planet that will face the incoming meteors. The rest of the planet will be facing away or in daylight.

So what will we see? There is some uncertainty in the predictions. The big question is how much debris (dust, sand particles and small rocks) the comet has shed over the years. If it has kicked off many sand and pebble-sized meteoroids; the show could be breathtaking. If you have ever wondered, a meteor is the streak of light you see crossing the sky. If it survives a trip through the atmosphere and makes it to the Earth, it is then referred to as a meteorite. The light trail that you see is not the space rock (aka meteoroid) burning up; it is a trail of ionized gases caused by the shock wave of the rock passing into the atmosphere at high speed. Current predictions are that the hourly rate of meteors could be 2-4 times greater than the annual Perseids and Geminids showers.

The meteors will be visible during a three hour window starting about 1:30 a.m. on the morning of the 24th peaking about 3:30. If predictions hold true, you should be able to see several meteors each minute at peak time. Because we are in the southern part of North America, we may see less than the predicted peak activity, but could be treated to some “Earthgrazers” which just skim the atmosphere. They will move slowly but last longer than usual. Overall, these meteors are predicted to be much slower moving than in some other meteor showers, so the show will be arresting.

The radiant (point of origin) of the meteors will be in the northern sky near Polaris, the North Star. You do not really need to look toward Polaris, which is visible all night. The meteors will be visible across the entire sky and their tails will point in the direction of Polaris. Go out around 1:30 a.m., lie back in a lawn chair with a blanket or sleeping bag and watch a dark part of the sky. If the weather is clear, you may be treated to many meteors and maybe a fireball or two.

Clear Skies!