Meteor Shower Early Saturday Morning Could Be a Memorable One

This could be a once or twice in a lifetime event.  During the early morning of May 24th, dozens or maybe hundreds of meteors per hour could be visible!  However, it’s also possible this meteor shower could be a dud.  We just don’t know enough about it.

One of the most famous meteor storms occurred in 1833 when the Leonid meteors erupted into a display of thousands of meteors per hour.   This likely won’t happen early Saturday morning because the source comet is not all that big and the amount of debris in space is likely not as plentiful.

Adolph Vollmy's woodcut of the 1833 Leonid Meteor Storm
Adolph Vollmy’s woodcut of the 1833 Leonid Meteor Storm

Comet 209P/Linear

The meteors are from Comet 209P/Linear.  Research has indicated that all the debris trails from the comet between the years 1803 and 1924 fall in the path of the Earth’s orbit this month.  This will be the first time the Earth will pass through these debris trails, which is why researchers believe this could be a significant meteor event!

Comet 209P/Linear was named for the observatory where the comet was discovered.  The Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project is a collaboration between the Air Force and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.   MIT is in Cambridge, MA, but the actual observatory is located on the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.  Comet 209P/Linear will actually make a close pass to Earth on May 29th, coming about  5.2million miles from us.  That’s astronomically close, but the comet is of no threat to us.   It is unknown when the Earth will pass through this debris again.

Comet 209P/Linear: Courtesy NASA
Comet 209P/Linear: Courtesy NASA

The comet is believed to be small.  It’s very dim, not seen with the naked eye.  In fact, it has been difficult, at times, to find with telescopes.  It makes one full circle around the sun in approximately 5 years.  During some of its orbits, Comet Linear gets influenced by the gravitational pull of Jupiter.  These gravitational tugs slightly alter the path of the comet, so there are multiple streams of debris left behind by the comet.

Comets are made of rock and ice.  As comets move closer to the sun, the ice boils off and rocky debris is shed off the comet’s nucleus.  This debris can be as small as a piece of dust or as large as a boulder.  The stream of debris remains in space until a planet moves through it and the debris burns up in the atmosphere.   The Earth will be moving through the debris trails of Comet 209P/Linear during the early morning of May 24th.

Courtesy NASA: Comet 209P/Linear's Orbit
Courtesy NASA: Comet 209P/Linear’s Orbit


The Debris Field

Computer model data indicates that the Earth will be moving near the heart of the debris between 2am and 10am on May 24th.   This computer estimation, courtesy of the University of Western Ontario, shows the path of the Earth (moves left to right) relative to the amount of debris believed to be in space.  Again, we will be moving through the debris from many orbits of the comet.

Courtesy Quanzhi Ye and Paul A. Wiegert The University of Western Ontario
Courtesy Quanzhi Ye and Paul A. Wiegert, The University of Western Ontario


There is some question as to how many meteors we will see.  The display could be epic, but it could also be a dud.  Most estimates are on the order of  dozens of meteors per hour.  Since this is the first time we will be moving through this rocky debris, it’s also possible that hundreds of meteors per hour could be seen.  It’s believed many of the meteors could be quite bright, meaning large particles will be burning up in our atmosphere.

Courtesy Bog Horton, Brown University
Courtesy Bob Horton, Brown University:  Leonid Meteor Storm of 1998

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How to see the Meteors

Look to the north sky between 2 and 4am early Saturday morning May 24th.  After 9pm Friday evening, you may actually see some of these meteors because the Earth will be entering into some of the debris trails, and our skies will begin to get darker.  The hours 2-4am is the peak.  After 4am, the sky will begin to brighten, and the meteors will get fainter.  The meteors could come in waves because we will be moving through the various debris trails, which are slightly separated in space.  There may be a burst of meteors that last five to twenty minutes, then it’ll get quiet for awhile before another burst of meteors begins.

They will appear to come from the constellation Camelopardalis which is near the Big Dipper in the north sky.  Camelopardalis is known as the giraffe.  It’s a faint constellation, but finding it in the night sky won’t impact whether you can see the meteors early Saturday morning…just look to the north.

Courtesy Camelopardalis
Courtesy Camelopardalis

You won’t need any special equipment to see the meteors….just get a clear view of the northern sky.  Of course, we’ll need clear skies to see this show.

-Meteorologist T.J. Del Santo

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