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.
And that’s really cool, if you think about it.
Because only some twenty years ago it would have been impossible to predict the Camelopardalids – it took the development of physics-based dust stream models to figure out how the comet’s path was changed and thus its dust particle trail. Chalk this one up as a major win for the math folks who came up with the calculations! It may not have been the celestial firestorm many had wished for, but it was a perfect proving ground for a modeling program that will be incredibly useful in many future dust trail evaluations.
You can watch meteors any night of the year – you don’t have to wait for a named meteor shower. The trick is to find a really dark spot where you can see as much of the sky as possible. A moonless night is obviously best, far away from bright city lights. Lie on your back and scan the dark sky, and sooner or later you will see one of those ghostly streaks. Be sure to give your eyes time to adjust – it takes as much as 45 minutes for your eyes to get used to such low light conditions.
My favorite meteor-watching spot is the beach on Cumberland Island. Life does not get any better than that!
Check out the Camelopardalids gallery at spaceweather.com at http://spaceweathergallery.com/meteor_gallery.html.
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.