Watch New Meteor Shower Peak in the Sky and Online

This composite photo of a meteor shower created from multiple exposures over the course of a night. A similar sight may be in store this week if a new meteor shower performs at its peak. Courtesy of NASA

Sky-watchers across North America are waiting with great anticipation for the predicted peak of a never-before-seen meteor shower this weekend.

Latest computer models suggest that there may be dozens  if not hundreds of shooting stars per hour at peak time. This sky show has the potential to rival even August’s famed Perseids.

If the most optimistic predictions hold true, then a genuine meteor storm may be in store for sky-watchers, with as many as 200 or more shooting stars per hour flying across our skies at its peak, which will occur in the morning in Europe and very early in North America, on Saturday, May 24.

The new shower, dubbed the May Camelopardalids, is a result of dust shed from the faint periodic comet 209P/LINEAR. The comet regularly crosses Earth’s orbit as it rounds the sun every five years.

illustration shows comet 209P/LINEAR orbit and its current location - about 11 million km from Earth. Credit: SkySafari
This illustration shows comet 209P/LINEAR’s orbit and its current location, about 11 million kilometers from Earth. Courtesy of SkySafari

The coming shower’s parent comet was discovered in February 2004 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research Project. Meteor experts predicted three years ago that the particles ejected by the comet back in the 1800s may await Earth as it circles the sun.

By calculating the movements of the comet’s particle cloud, scientists have been able to determine that Earth should cross this historic debris stream on May 24.

This illustration shows Earth's predicted path through the densest part of the comet debris cloud. Credit: QuanZhi/NASA
This illustration shows Earth’s predicted path through the densest part of the comet debris cloud. Courtesy of  QuanZhi/NASA

Many researchers looking at the data are a bit skeptical, however, on how well the shower will perform. Some believe that it’s hard to tell exactly how much debris Earth will be encountering. They say that the strength of the meteor shower really depends on how active the comet was centuries ago when it deposited the dust.

“We have no idea what the comet was doing in the 1800s,” explained William Cooke of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, in a NASA video. “As a result of this uncertainty, this could be a great meteor shower or a complete dud.

“Will this new shower pan out? No one can say for sure, but the only way to know is to head outside and look up.”

Where and When to Look

As with other established showers, the new meteors are named for the constellation from which they appear to radiate—the faint northern constellation Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, in this case. It resides near the North Star.

To find the constellation, face north in the early morning hours before dawn and look for the Big Dipper in the sky. The giraffe constellation is located to its far right and is about 30 degrees below Polaris, the North Star. That’s about equal to the width of three fists held at arm’s length and stacked on top of each other.

This skychart shows the constellation Camelopardis - the radiant of the new meteor shower as seen in the northern hemisphere in the predawn hours of May 24, 2014. Credit: SkySafari.A.Fazekas
This sky chart shows the constellation Camelopardis, the radiant of the new meteor shower as seen in the Northern Hemisphere in the predawn hours of May 24, 2014. Credit: SkySafari/A. Fazekas

The absolute peak of the shower—when Earth is predicted to make its way through the thickest part of the debris stream—is expected to arrive between 6 and 8 a.m. Universal Time, or 2 to 4 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, on May 24.

North Americans are favored for the sky show because the peak time occurs during the darkest hours of nighttime, when the radiant is at its highest point in the sky. Look downstream of the radiant to catch sight of the meteors.

World map showing regions where meteor shower will be visible on May 24, 2014. Credit: NASA
World map showing regions where meteor shower will be visible on May 24, 2014. Credit: NASA

Since this is a new shower, predictions may be off by a few hours—and surprises may be in store. So the best bet is to plan on staying up overnight. Start brewing some hot chocolate and get those blankets ready. It’s going to be a long night!

And if you get clouded out then check out the shower through a live webcast thanks to a network of all-sky cameras set up by NASA and web-baed astronomy outreach comapny, Slooh.

Slooh will broadcast the comet event from its telescopes located off the west coast of Africa, at the Institute of Astrophyiscs of the Canary Islands, on May 23rd starting at 3 PM PDT / 6 PM EDT / 22 UTC – International Times – and then will follow up with live coverage of the new meteor shower starting at 8 PM PDT/ 11 PM EDT/ 03 UTC (5/24) – International Times.

Viewers can ask questions during the comet show by using hashtag #slooh.

Comet Broadcast: Starts 6 pm EDT


Meteor shower broadcast: starts 11 pm EDT


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Changing Planet

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.