During the last week of May a meteor shower called the Camelopardalids generated quite a bit of a buzz in the news media. Some of them hyped it as a dazzling celestial fireworks display with several shooting stars per minute, while more science-based sources were more reserved about the possibility of a spectacle.
They were right.
The Camelopardalids ended up being more like a gentle drizzle than a shower, and anyone who did a little bit of research could have suspected as much. It wasn’t nearly the annual display of the Perseids in mid-August or the Geminids in mid-December but it did produce some lovely slow-moving fireballs, some even with distinctly different colored tails. Quality definitely trumped quantity in that one.
The meteor shower was the result of the Earth crossing paths with the dust trail of Comet 209P/Linear. Yeah, that’s a wet blanket of a name, right? It was only discovered in 2004 and apparently nobody was all that excited to give this chunk of frozen rock a fancy name. Although it’s right around two miles in diameter, Comet 209P/Linear doesn’t produce a lot of dust. And for comets, more dust means a better show.
If a comet doesn’t leave much dust in its wake there isn’t much for sunlight to reflect off, and thus the comet remains nearly invisible. Ho-hum, dude.
One thing that is exciting about the Camelopardalids, however, is the fact that it’s actually a brand-new meteor shower that has never been witnessed by anyone on Earth before. That’s because the comet’s path and Earth’s orbit were never on an intersection course, but over the past few hundred years Jupiter’s gravity has altered the path of the comet enough that this year for the very first time the two paths crossed.