Meteor Shower Alert on March 22! Camelopardalids and March Geminids Arrive…

by Tammy Plotner on March 21, 2009

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On Sunday, March 22, two meteor showers will grace the dark evening sky – the Camelopardalids and March Geminids. Would you like to learn more about what makes them special and why? Then let’s head out into the dark…

We’ll start first with the Camelopardalids. These have no definite peak, and a screaming fall rate of only one per hour. They do have a claim to fame however – these are the slowest meteors known – arriving at a speed of only 7 kilometers per second and activity has been historically recorded on this date. Any bright streaks you might see belonging to the Camelopardalids will appear to emanate from the north. While this might seem rather boring, any member of the Camelopardalids you might spot are anything but boring. “A search for parent bodies for 22 short-period meteoroid streams with an account of long-period planetary perturbations was carried out. Five minor body complexes are found among short-period comets, Earth-crossing asteroids and meteoroid streams.” say Y.V. Obrubov, “There are ten members in the major complex : two comets, P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 and P/Pons-Winnecke ; four asteroids, 1984 KD (3671), 4788 PL, 1987 SJ3, 1987 PA…” So where does the stream for the Camelopardalids fit in? Try possibly asteroid Amor (1221) and/or asteroid Selevk (3288) as part of Complex 5.

1221 Amor is the namesake of the Amor asteroids – a group of near-Earth asteroids whose orbits range between those of Earth and Mars. Amor-types often cross Mars orbital path, but not Earth’s. However, on March 12, 1932, Belgian astronomer Eugene Delporte photographed Amor as it approached Earth to within 16 million kilometers (about 40 times the distance from Earth to the Moon). This was the first time an asteroid was witnessed so close to Earth and became our virtual wake-up call to potential hazards. Not surpising, 3288 Selevk is also a planet crossing asteroid, too. According to Obrubov’s research there are 22 meteoroid swarms from bodies with orbital period of less than six years that could account for up to 104 meteor showers – 72 of which have been confirmed either photographically or by radar. “The Camelopardalids has a twin – the Gamma Aurigids.” says Obrubov, “We may therefore assume that the remnants of the parent bodies have been found for two more meteor showers. The existence of complexes of minor bodies again raises the question of the possibility of the simultaneous existence of active comets and products of disintegration – meteoroid swarms and possibly asteroids of the Apollo, Amor and Aten groups…”

So, now we have meteors possibly coming from an asteroid, but what about the other meteor shower that occurs tonight? That’s right… the March Geminids. These were first discovered and recorded in 1973, then confirmed in 1975. With a much improved fall rate of up to 40 per hour, these slightly faster meteors will greatly increase your chance of spotting a shooting star. Like the Camelopardalids, the March Geminds are slower than average – but what causes them? Let’s turn to the work of Miroslav Plavec for an answer:

“In 1947, Whipple published new elements of the Geminid meteor shower, obtained photographically. An extremely short period, 1.65 years, moderate inclination and considerable eccentricity together make the orbit of this shower an extraordinary one both in comparison with comets and with minor planets. But, according to Hoffmeister, the existence of similar meteor showers seems to be indicated. Such a short-period meteor shower as the Geminids presents new aspects in meteor astronomy. Planetary perturbations are likely to play a great part in its nature. The study of secular perturbations is especially important, both in investigating the connection with comets, and also from the observer’s point of view; for example, Adams’ classical work on the Leonids.”

So, when do you start watching? Just as soon as the sky is good and dark at your local time. Use your own best judgement on where to loosely face based on the position of both Camelopardalis and Gemini at the time of your observation. (For most northern hemisphere locations, I would simply suggest facing roughly north and focusing your attention overhead.) Grab a friend, a blanket, a thermos… take your notes and a timepiece, too.

You can make an important contribution by observing when possible. Since the shower wasn’t reported until 1973 and confirmed by a high rate of activity 2 years later, scientists aren’t really sure if the Earth had passed through that particular particle stream until that time. By observing and reporting, even to sources like Universe Today, you are providing an invaluable Internet record to help determine if the stream is genuine. It the March Geminids truly are a viable annual shower, this trail might lead to an undiscovered comet.

If you wish to report your findings elsewhere, please visit the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers (ALPO) and locate the meteor observing tab. In these pages you will also find links to information from the North American Meteor Network (NAMN), and other things to assist you like charts to understand the meteor’s magnitude, the limiting magnitude of your location, and details for recording what you see and how to fill out an observation report. While it’s certainly true you may see absolutely nothing during an hour of observing, negative observations are also important. This helps to establish if the March Geminids should be considered an annual shower or not. You may also just happen to step outside at the right time and see a flurry of activity as well. Just remember…

When opportunity knocks, you’ve got to be there to open the door!

About 

Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

star-grazer March 21, 2009 at 1:19 PM

Interesting. My thinking is, >95% of ‘stray’ meteors we see at night not related to current meteor showers are actually ‘long dead showers’ thousands of years old. These ‘strays’ somehow escaped being thrown out of the Solar System by Jupiter or the other planets due to being in the part of the old comets’ orbit when the big planets were not around. The comets probably broke up tens of thousands of years ago and for all intends and purpose, the ‘true’ showers ended thousands of years ago. There was 3 times in my life when I saw brief meteor ‘storms’- the first about 30 years ago, I saw 8 in 12 seconds in the Orion area when no shower was expected, about 25 years ago, I saw 7 in about 30 seconds in the big square of Andromeda and about 12 years ago I saw 10 in 40 seconds in the big dipper area-there was nothing of a shower expected and I’m sure many others saw other ‘long dead’ brief meteor storms’ in their life, but can;t document them as they don’t happen again in those areas, besides, people will think you are either ‘seeing things’ or ‘on drugs’ lol. It is interesting how Astronomers can relate meteors to comets and their orbits.

Layman March 21, 2009 at 1:58 PM

I too have seen what I believed to be several a stray meteors blazing a streak across the night sky. And once stupidly with an excited voice I mentioned this to a close friend after such an observation- you are correct- I was questioned about hitting the bottle a might to heavy the preceeding evening. Of course eye witnesses have no validity. All the same, I enjoy the memory of whatever I did or did not see.

star-grazer March 21, 2009 at 3:17 PM

Layman-you most likely saw them, but can’t prove it also, as many many others saw brief meteor ‘storms’. I’ve read past articles of people who saw brief ‘storms’, but the author said they can’t correlate those to known ‘active meteor showers’.I am certain many read the same articles but do not want to announce it as they figure it would be a waste of time. I do not doubt there are hundreds if not thousands of ‘dead’ cometary orbits with some debris still left but can’t be classified as active. There are perhaps many that are visible only during the daylight lasting for perhaps a few minutes with perhaps a few dozen to a few hundreds but can’t be predicted. It is a wonder to see these
brief ‘storms’., but, unfortunately, can’t share them with others.

marcellus March 21, 2009 at 11:10 PM

I wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment, Silver Thread. It looks like rain and clouds for the next 3 nights where I’m at.

This article really underscores the importance of keeping notes on when and what you see. On the night of Feb. 28, a friend and I caught a fireball at 9:27:25 pm from my favorite observing spot south of Spring Grove, MN. 70 miles away west of Rochester, MN other members of the Rochester Astronomy Club spotted the same fireball.

Our reports went to the American Meteor Society. That’s proof positive we weren’t hitting the bottle.

Tammy Plotner March 21, 2009 at 4:49 PM

i think it’s wonderful that you are sharing your experiences here!

like you, i, too, have seen activity that i simply couldn’t validate with another witness or hard data. but… don’t take for granted that anything you might report would simply be discarded. All information is valuable and it isn’t hard to report… there’s just a few things you have to note such as what time you saw it, how bright it was, what direction did the meteor appear when you first saw it and what direction did it move, how bright was it, how long did it last, how far above the horizon was it when it disappeared and was there a persistent train or tail? also make note if there was a sonic boom – or noise – like you wouldn’t notice! but, remember… sound moves a lot slower than light. ;)

hey, reporting isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – but we citizen scientist do make a difference. believe it!

Silver Thread March 21, 2009 at 8:04 PM

It’d be great if we could go ahead and move this up to the 21st since I actually have a modestly clear sky tonight!

Brian Sheen March 22, 2009 at 1:05 AM

Hi Tammy,

Thanks for another thought provoking feature.

For the benefit of those new to meteor showers the Adams mentioned in the paragraph starting “In 1947, Whipple” was John Couch Adams the co-predictor of the position of Neptune – a hero of mine.

Roseland Observatory.

Jon Hanford March 22, 2009 at 6:18 AM

After seeing several clustered meteors in the the same part of the sky in chronologically close order, I surmised that these meteors may originated with a small piece of a meteoroid that may have fragmented deep in space but remained in close orbital alignment, thus producing a a brief flurry of activity when their orbit intersects earth, but not an officially full-fledged meteor ‘storm’. Still, an awesome sight to behold!

star-grazer March 22, 2009 at 12:40 PM

Tammy-In all my 3 sightings of the meteors clumps I seen, I had a clear backyard with moderate light pollution but no streetlights or household lights visible in my backyard-stars to 4.2-4.5 seen with naked eye.The first batch I seen 30y ago from Orion, only 1 bright as Sirius, the others about Rigel and the ‘belt star’ quick,nothing special, the one 25y ago,near overhead most about -1 to +1 slow ,a few yellowest and seen from 3-10 seconds each, the last also near zenith, about 0-+1, each time I was stoned SOBER, each time I saw them I froze for about 10 minutes thinking I saw things or wish things but said they had to be meteors-needless to say I checked charts, books of meteor showers,looked for months in Sky&Telescope or Astronomy if others saw a ‘brief storm’ but none-I figured none of these warranted saying anything because none made sounds or ‘out of the ordinary’
Jon Hanford had the best description. I figure Earth is constantly crossing untold number of extinct cometary orbits and for all intents and purpose, the probable associated meteor shower is also extinct, but somehow, some fragment remains and it is a wonder to see and remember.!

Sangrant March 22, 2009 at 8:46 PM

I am an amateur star gazer. the one i saw appeared roughly around 8:39. Came in to post. I’ll keep posted.

santafedog March 22, 2009 at 11:34 PM

I went to ALPO and left an email with one of the meteor people, but couldnt find the meteor tab you mentioned.
The wife and i want out in our yard in Santa Fe, New Mexico from 2330 (0530Z) to Midnight local looking for the ‘shower’ but only saw a lot of light polution, a few puffy clouds, and a handful of stars, like gemini and Capella……..not a meteor in sight. Light reading on SQM 1337 a few minutes before midnight was 1926 at 9 deg C.

star-grazer March 23, 2009 at 1:57 PM

santafedog- there was many times in my life of telescope observing and expecting a good ‘dependable’ shower , saw nothing in 3-4 hours, while when no shower is expected while telescope observing, I will see 40-50 in an hour from no certain spot in the sky, a few are perhaps -1 in brillance. It appears to me meteoroids have no timetables and refuses to space themselves for our purpose.lol. I do admit a few expected showers did what was expected, but usually, do not really have a timetable-it is usually just a matter of timing and luck.

Jon Hanford March 24, 2009 at 8:36 AM

I somewhat agree with star-grazer’s observation, but I also recognized that preparation, practice, stamina and perseverance also come into play. Most showers are at their best after midnight, and making sustained observations can be a big problem for those of us (still) employed. Still, major meteor showers are are definitely worth the loss of sleep to view these grand nightime spectacles. Also, a growing number of amateurs are using film or electronic all-sky cameras to record meteors & bolides while they sleep. Some of these events may be valuable in tracking possible meteorites through triangulation.

joe March 25, 2009 at 7:47 PM

We live on Kauai and are ameteurs but saw an amazing show last night, 3-24-09 about 9pm HST. It was like a fireworks show coming from the north. Large with long tails, and intense brightness we had never witnessed anything like this. Guess it was still going on as of last night.

allie April 22, 2009 at 1:51 AM

you said on march 22 there will be a shower…….. its really april 22!

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