SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS)— A new and potentially impressive meteor shower could be visible (if conditions are right) for most of North America Friday night. The first-ever May Camelopardalis starts around 11 p.m. and should last until around 2 a.m., potentially producing 100 to 200 meteors per hour.
But why haven’t we seen this meteor shower before? Senior Contributing Editor of Sky and Telescope Magazine, Kelly Beatty had some answers regarding Comet 209P/LINEAR.
“A couple of years ago, Jupiter affected this comet and its orbit and brought it closer to Earth than it’s ever been before,” he said.
The comet was discovered about 10 years ago and has been going around the sun every five years. According to Beatty it has developed quite a debris trail. Meteor showers are caused when Earth crosses the orbit of a comet, he said. It’s hard to know exactly what we’ll see on earth because this is the first time this field of debris will pass by.
“When it comes close to the sun it gives off a lot of gas and dust. All those dust particles, those comet crumbs hang around the comet’s orbit even when it’s not there. When Earth passes through the orbit of a comet, we get peppered with all these particles and they create a meteor shower.”
As for the size of these tiny particles, Beatty compared them to the size of Grape Nuts cereal at only a fraction of an inch across.
“They slam into the Earth at 40,000 miles an hour. When they do that, they heat up the air to a couple thousand degrees. That’s what we see as a meteor or a shooting star.”
You may be aware of the Perseids meteor shower, which happens every August, but that’s different. The unpredictability of this unprecedented event adds to the meteor showers mystique. Several factors affect what we may or may not see in the skies. “In San Francisco you have to get rid of the marine layer, which is prevalent this time of year.”
Beatty said you won’t need any equipment for viewing and that you can use your naked eye. Simply find a place that’s dark and look anywhere in the sky.
“When you see a meteor, if you trace its path backwards, they’ll all seem to be radiating from a point near the northern horizon underneath the North Star Polaris in the constellation called Camelopardalis, the constellation of the giraffe,” he said.
A team from Mountain View’s SETI Institute will be taking a plane to study the meteor shower’s rate, which could range anywhere from two meteors a minute to about 10.