TORONTO – It could put on a breathtaking display…or it could be a dud.
Either way, the new meteor shower — the Camelopardalids, a mouthful, for sure — presents a perfect opportunity to get out under the night sky and enjoy the universe. The best part? You don’t need to have anything but your own two eyes to appreciate it.
First a bit of background:
Debris is constantly entering Earth’s atmosphere. But almost every month, our planet passes through debris left over from comets whizzing around our solar system. As we plow through the debris, some bits of tiny dust and particles enter out atmosphere. As they do so, they create fast, bright streaks of light – what we call meteors.
Comet 209/P LINEAR, discovered in 2004, orbits the sun roughly once every five years. In 2012, a pair of astronomers calculated that Earth would be passing through its debris, and that it could put on a new meteor shower on May 24. Some initial estimates were close to 1,000 meteors an hour – a meteor storm. However, since then, estimates have been more conservative with a possible 200 an hour, a highly respectable number. (Two of the best showers are the Perseids in August and the Leonids in November with roughly 100 an hour.) Other astronomers believe that it may not be that high, or happen at all.
The truth is, because this is a first, we don’t know what to expect.
But if you’re looking to take the chances — and have clear skies — here are a few tips:
- Plan on being up very late. The peak of the shower is estimated to be around 7:00 UTC on May 24. That’s 3 a.m. Eastern, 12 a.m. Pacific, 1 a.m. Mountain, and 4 a.m. Atlantic. Unlike other meteor showers, there is a very narrow window for this. So the best plan would be to get out about an hour or two before hand. You can catch up on your sleep Sunday.
- No need for binoculars or a telescope. Just bring a blanket to lie on the grass or a lawn chair. But make sure you dress warmly and bring a few extra blankets and maybe a warm beverage. It gets chilly in the wee hours of the morning.
- Get to a site as dark as possible. Though some astronomers are predicting bright meteors, once again, there’s no guarantee. So if you go to a dark site, you’ll be able to see even faint ones, and likely even ones that aren’t associated with the shower.
- No lights! White light ruins your night vision. As soon as you look at a phone or at a flashlight, you reduce your ability to see faint objects and it could take you as long as 15 to 30 minutes to regain that sensitivity. Red light is the least disruptive, so if you have a red-light flashlight, that’s okay.
- Face north. The radiant – or the point from which all the meteors seem to be originating – is in the constellation Camelopardalis (hence the shower’s name). It is not far from the north star, Polaris. Just look for the Big Dipper and follow the last star from the spoon up towards the first bright star you see. That’s Polaris.
- Look up. That’s the best tip and, though it may seem fairly simple, people often forget it and turn to talk to others. If you do that, you might miss a meteor!
And even if this shower doesn’t put on the spectacular show that many of us are hoping for, you’ll have fun counting satellites, rogue meteors and gazing at the Milky Way. And remember: if you’re thinking that it’s too late to go out and look, you can always rest up on Sunday.
If you’re clouded out, you can catch a live stream of the shower on Slooh.
Now, let’s hope we get a show.