Late Friday night into Saturday morning, North America will probably see a brand new meteor shower, and there's a good chance that these gentle shooting stars will become a torrential meteor storm and provide quite a light show.
The new meteors — the Camelopardalids — are dusty remnants of a comet discovered in 2004. With clear skies, sky gazers may see meteor activity beginning at 10:30 p.m. Friday, according to Bill Cooke of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
Astronomers predict that the peak will occur between 2 and 4 a.m. Eastern time Saturday, but Cooke believes that gazers may be able to catch sight of shooting stars through the dawn before sunrise washes them out.
"The general consensus is that this week's Camelopardalids will be comparable to a very good Perseid meteor shower with an added possibility of a storm," said Geoff Chester, astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory. "I'm planning to be out watching."
The best way to see the shooting stars? Look up, Chester said. The meteors will be visible in all parts of the sky. The shower's radiant — from which meteors seem to come — will loom in the northern sky, close to Polaris, the North Star. Specifically, the meteors will appear to emanate from the constellation Camelopardalis, the giraffe. Chester suggested star watchers find coffee, have patience and look toward the dome of the heavens.
For this never-before-seen shower, astronomers are predicting from 30 to perhaps hundreds of meteors an hour at the peak. It is expected that the meteors will be relatively plodding, traveling 12 miles per second. Perseid meteors, which usually appear in August, scoot along at 25 miles per second, and the Leonid meteors, which show up in November, zip through the skies at 45 miles per second.
But the thing about slow meteors is that they look like a bright star falling, Chester said.
Meteors occur when Earth's atmosphere strikes the dusty trail left by comets long ago. These trails contain sand-grain-size particles, and when these flecks encounter Earth's atmosphere, they light up and vaporize, creating beautiful streaks.
Cooke said the comet that created the Camelopardalids, Comet 209P/LINEAR, was discovered in 2004. Astronomers calculated that the comet returns about every five years, in an orbit between the sun and Jupiter. "We don't know what the meteor shower's intensity will be," Cooke said. "If Comet 209P/LINEAR was a poor producer of debris, we'll see nothing. But if the comet was more active 200 or 300 years ago, we'll see a decent show. What happens this Saturday morning was determined a few hundred years ago."
The comet passed the sun May 6, and it will pass within about 5 million miles of Earth on May 29. It will be will be a telescopic object, beyond the range of the human eye.
Cooke said that thanks to Jupiter's gravitational pull, the comet's debris trail is intersecting the Earth's orbit for the first time.
New meteor showers are found fairly often, Cooke said, but with falling star rates so low "even an experienced observer would not notice them." He added, "New showers with rates of tens or hundreds per hour are very rare."
Chester, of the Naval Observatory, said photographers with a digital SLR camera will easily be able to capture the shooting star glory. On a tripod, aim the camera to the northern sky, above Polaris. Use a wide-angle lens, set the film speed to its highest rating. Set the shutter for a long exposure.
The best part of this kind of cosmic light show is that no experience is needed, only the willingness to step outside.
"You don't have to be an expert to enjoy the meteor shower," said Greg Redfern, an astronomer with the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. "This shower favors North America, the one time when we luck out. We're in a prime time burst window."