How to See 209P/LINEAR, the Comet Brewing Up Saturday’s Surprise Meteor Shower

As we anxiously await the arrival of a potentially rich new meteor shower this weekend, its parent comet, 209P/LINEAR, draws ever closer and brighter. Today it shines feebly at around magnitude +13.7 yet possesses a classic form with bright head and tail. It’s rapidly approaching Earth, picking up speed every night and hopefully will be bright enough to see in your telescope very soon. 

As it approaches Earth in the coming nights, comet 209P/LINEAR will appear to move quickly across the sky, traveling from Leo Minor to southern Hydra in little over a week. All maps created with Chris Marriott's SkyMap software
As it approaches Earth in the coming nights, comet 209P/LINEAR will move quickly across the sky, traveling from Ursa Major to southern Hydra in just 10 days. When closest on May 28-29, the comet will cover 10 degrees per day or just shy of 1/2 degree per hour. All maps created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap software

The comet was discovered in Feb. 2004 by the Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) automated sky survey. Given its stellar appearance at the time of discovery it was first thought to be an asteroid, but photos taken the following month photos by Rob McNaught (Siding Spring Observatory, Australia) revealed a narrow tail. Unlike long period comets Hale-Bopp and the late Comet ISON that swing around the sun once every few thousand years or few million years, this one’s a frequent visitor, dropping by every 5.09 years.

This detailed map shows the comet's path from Leo Minor across the backside of the Sickle of Leo May 23-26. Hopefully it will be bright enough then to spot in an 8-inch or larger telescope. Click to enlarge and then print out for use at the telescope.
This detailed map shows the comet’s path from Leo Minor across the backside of the Sickle of Leo May 23-26. Hopefully it will be bright enough then to spot in an 8-inch or larger telescope. On May 25, it passes close to the colorful double star Gamma Leonis and a pair of NGC galaxies. Stars plotted to magnitude +9. Click to enlarge and then print out for use at the telescope.

209P/LINEAR belongs to the Jupiter family of comets, a group of comets with periods of less than 20 years whose orbits are controlled by Jupiter. When closest at perihelion, 209P/LINEAR coasts some 90 million miles from the sun; the far end of its orbit crosses that of Jupiter. Comets that ply the gravitational domain of the solar system’s largest planet occasionally get their orbits realigned. In 2012, during a relatively close pass of that planet, Jupiter perturbed 209P’s orbit, bringing the comet and its debris trails to within 280,000 miles (450,000 km) of Earth’s orbit, close enough to spark the meteor shower predicted for this Friday night/Saturday morning May 23-24.

Track of the comet through from May 27-29 through the dim constellation Sextans south of Leo.
Track of the comet from May 27-29 through Sextans to the Hydra-Crater border with positions shown every 3 hours. Times are CDT. Click to enlarge.

This time around the sun, the comet itself will fly just 5.15 million miles (21 times the distance to the moon) from Earth around 3 a.m. CDT (8 hours UT) May 29 a little more than 3 weeks after perihelion, making it the 9th closest comet encounter ever observed. Given , you’d think 209P would become a bright object, perhaps even visible with the naked eye, but predictions call for it to reach about magnitude +11 at best. That means you’ll need an 8-inch telescope and dark sky to see it well. Either the comet’s very small or producing dust at a declining rate or both. Research published by Quanzhi Ye and Paul A. Wiegert describes the comet’s current dust production as low, a sign that 209P could be transitioning to a dormant comet or asteroid.

Light curve for comet 209P/LINEAR predicts a maximum magnitude of around 11. Click for more information. Credit: Seiichi Yoshida
Light curve for comet 209P/LINEAR forecasts a maximum magnitude of around 11. Dates are shown along the bottom and magnitude scale along the side. Click for additional information. Credit: Seiichi Yoshida

Fortunately, the moon’s out of the way this week and next when 209P/LINEAR is closest and brightest. Since we enjoy comets in part because of their unpredictability, maybe a few surprises will be in the offing including a brighter than expected appearance. The maps will help you track down 209P during the best part of its apparition. I deliberately chose ‘black stars on a white background’ for clarity in use at the telescope. It also saves on printer ink!

A brand new meteor shower shooting 100 and potentially as many as 400 meteors an hour may radiate from the dim constellation Camelopardalis below the North Star Saturday morning May 24. This map shows the sky facing north around 2 a.m. from the central U.S. around 2 a.m. Saturday.  Stellarium
A brand new meteor shower shooting 100 and potentially as many as 400 meteors an hour may radiate from the dim constellation Camelopardalis below the North Star Saturday morning May 24. Each is crumb or pebble of debris lost by 209P/LINEAR during earlier cycles around the sun. This map shows the sky facing north around 2 a.m. from the Saturday May 24 from the central U.S. Stellarium

We’re grateful for the dust 209P/LINEAR carelessly lost during its many passes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Earth is expected to pass through multiple filaments of debris overnight Friday May 23-24 with the peak of at least 100 meteors per hour – about as good as a typical Perseid or Geminid shower – occurring around 2 a.m. CDT (7 hours UT).

If it’s cloudy or you’re not in the sweet zone for viewing either the comet or the potential shower, astrophysicist Gianluca Masi will offer a live feed of the comet at the Virtual Telescope Project website scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. CDT (8 p.m. Greenwich Time) May 22. A second meteor shower live feed will start at 12:30 a.m. CDT (5:30 a.m. Greenwich Time) Friday night/Saturday morning May 23-24.

SLOOH will also cover 209P/LINEAR live on the Web with telescopes on the Canary Islands starting at 5 p.m. CDT (6 p.m. EDT, 4 p.m. MDT and 3 p.m. PDT) May 23.  Live meteor shower coverage featuring astronomer Bob Berman of Astronomy Magazine begins at 10 p.m. CDT. Viewers can ask questions by using hashtag #slooh.

A very exciting weekend lies ahead!

Can You Say Camelopardalids? Observing, Weather Prospects and More for the May 24th Meteor Shower

It could be the best of meteor showers, or it could be the…

Well, we’ll delve into the alternatives here in a bit. For now, we’ll call upon our ever present astronomical optimism and say that one of the best meteor showers of 2014 may potentially be on tap for this weekend.

This is a true wild card event. The meteor shower in question hails from a periodic comet 209P LINEAR discovered in 2004 and radiates from the obscure and tongue-twisting constellation of Camelopardalis.

But whether you call ‘em the “209/P-ids,” the “Camelopardalids,” or simply the “Cams,” this weekend’s meteor shower is definitely one worth watching out for. The excitement surrounding this meteor shower came about when researchers Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen noticed that the Earth would cross debris streams laid down by the comet in 1803 and 1924. Discovered by the LIncoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) automated all-sky survey located at White Sands, New Mexico, comet 209P LINEAR orbits the Sun once every 5.1 years. 209P LINEAR passed perihelion at 0.97 AUs from the Sun this month on May 6th.

Starry Night
Looking north from latitude +30N at 7:00 UT on the morning of May 24th. Created using Starry Night.

The meteor shower peaks this coming U.S. Memorial Day weekend on Saturday, May 24th. The expected peak is projected for right around 7:00 Universal Time (UT) which is the early morning hours of 3:00 AM EDT, giving North America a possible front row seat to the event. Estimates for the Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of the Camelopardalids run the gamut from a mild 30 to an outstanding 400 per hour. Keep in mind, this is a shower that hasn’t been witnessed, and it’s tough enough to forecast the timing and activity of known showers. It’s really a question of how much debris the 1803 and 1924 streams laid down on those undocumented passages. One possible strike against a “meteor storm” similar to the 1998 Leonids that we witnessed from Kuwait is the fact that the “Cams” have never been recorded before. Still, you won’t see any if you don’t try!

Cams
The orientation of the Earth, the day/night terminator, the Sun, Moon and radiant of the meteor shower on May 24th at 7:00 UT. Created by author.

Comet 209P/LINEAR passes 0.055 AUs — about 8.3 million kilometres — from the Earth on May 29th, shining at +11th magnitude and crossing south into the constellation of Leo Minor in late May. Interestingly, it also passes 0.8 degrees from asteroid 2 Pallas on May 26th. Though tiny, comet 209P/LINEAR’s 2014 passage ranks as the 9th closest recorded approach of a comet to the Earth.

209/P LINEAR
A recent image of comet 209/P LINEAR. credit: The Virtual Telescope Project.

The Moon is also at an ideal phase for meteor watching this coming weekend as it presents a waning crescent phase just 4 days from New and rises at around 4:00 AM local.

The expected radiant for the Cams sits at Right Ascension 8 hours and  declination 78 degrees north in the constellation of Camelopardalis, the “camel leopard…” OK, we’ve never seen such a creature, either. (Read “giraffe”). Unfortunately, this puts the radiant just 20 degrees above the northern horizon as seen from +30 degrees north latitude here in Florida at 7:00 UT. Generally speaking, the farther north you are, the higher the radiant will be in the sky and the better your viewing prospects are. Canada and the northern continental United States could potentially be in for a good show. Keep in mind too, the high northern declination of the radiant means that it transits the meridian (crosses upper culmination) a few hours before sunset Friday night at 6 PM local; this means it’ll have an elevation of about 38 degrees above the horizon as seen from 30 degrees north latitude just after sunset. It may well be worth watching for early activity after dusk!

Weather
A look ahead at the cloud cover prospects for the morning of May 24th. Credit: NOAA.

Clouded out or live on the wrong side of the planet to watch the Camelopardalids? Slooh will be carrying a live broadcast of the event starting at 3:00 PM PDT/ 6:00 PM EDT/ 22:00 UT. Also, the folks at the Virtual Telescope Project  will carry two separate webcasts of the event, one featuring the progenitor comet 209P LINEAR starting at 20:00 UT on May 22nd and another featuring the meteor shower itself starting at 5:30 UT on May 24th.

Observing meteors is fun and easy and requires nothing more than a good pair of “mark-1 eyeballs” and patience. And although the radiant may be low to the north, meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. We like to keep a pair of binocs handy to examine any lingering smoke trains left by bright fireballs. Counting the number of meteors you see from your location and submitting this estimate to the International Meteor Organization may help in ongoing efforts to understand this first time meteor shower. And capturing an image of a meteor is as simple as setting a DSLR on a tripod with a wide field of view and taking time exposures of the sky… something you can start practicing tonight.

P_20140518_110518
Our humble meteor observing rig… (Photo by author).

Don’t miss what could well be the astronomical event of the year… I’d love to see a meteor shower named after an obscure constellation such as the #Camelopardalids trending. And we fully expect to start fielding reports of “strange rocks falling from the sky” this week, which the cometary dust that composes a meteor shower isn’t. In fact, Meteorite Man Geoffrey Notkin once noted that no confirmed meteorite fall has ever been linked to a periodic meteor shower.

Don’t miss the celestial show!

-Got pics of the Camelopardalids? Send ‘em to Universe Today. There’s a good chance that we’ll run an after-action photo-round up if the Cams kick it into high gear.

-Read more about the Camelopardalids here in a recent outstanding post by Bob King on Universe Today.

 

May Meteor Storm Alert: All Eyes on the Sky!

On Friday night/early Saturday May 23-24 skywatchers across the U.S. and southern Canada may witness the birth of a brand new meteor shower.  If predictions hold true, Earth will pass through multiple tendrils of dust and pebbly bits left behind by comet 209P/LINEAR, firing up a celestial display on par with the strongest showers of the year. Or better.

Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute, who predicted a possible meteor storm associated with comet 209P/LINEAR. Credit: NASA
Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute, who predicted a possible meteor storm associated with comet 209P/LINEAR. Credit: NASA

Earlier predictions called for a zenithal hourly rate or ZHR of 1,000 per hour, pushing this shower into the ‘storm’ category. ZHR is an idealized number based on the shower radiant located at the zenith under ideal skies. The actual number is lower depending on how far the radiant is removed from the zenith and how much light pollution or moonlight is present. Meteor expert Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and Finland’s Esko Lyytinen first saw the possibility of a comet-spawned meteor storm and presented their results in Jenniskens’ 2006 book Meteor Showers and Their Parent Comets.

Approximate location of the radiant of the 209P/LINEAR shower at the peak of the brief maximum around 2 a.m. CDT May 24. Between 100-400 meteors may radiate from the dim constellation of Camelopardalis near the North Star. This map shows the sky from Des Moines, Iowa. Created with Stellarium
Approximate location of the radiant (blue) of the 209P/LINEAR shower at the peak of the brief maximum around 2 a.m. CDT May 24. Between 100-400 meteors may radiate from the dim constellation of Camelopardalis near the North Star. This map shows the sky from the central U.S. Created with Stellarium

Quanzhi Ye and Paul Wiegert  (University of Western Ontario) predict a weaker shower because of a decline in the comet’s dust production rate based on observations made during its last return in 2009. They estimate a rate of ~200 per hour.

On the bright side, their simulations show that the comet sheds larger particles than usual, which could mean a shower rich in fireballs. Other researchers predict rates between 200 and 40o per hour. At the very least, the Camelopardalids – the constellation from which the meteors will appear to originate – promise to rival the Perseids and Geminids, the year’s richest showers. Motivation for setting the alarm clock if there ever was.

Comet 209P/LINEAR on April 14, 2014. It’s currently very faint at around magnitude 17. Material shed by the comet during passes between 1898-1919 may spawn a rich meteor shower overnight May 23-24. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes, Martino Nicolini
Comet 209P/LINEAR on April 14, 2014. It’s currently very faint at around magnitude +17. Material shed by the comet during passes from 1898-1919 is expected to contribute to a May 23-24 shower. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes, Martino Nicolini

Comet 209P/LINEARdiscovered in Feb. 2004 by the automated Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) sky survey, orbits the sun every 5.04 years with an aphelion (most distant point from the sun) near Jupiter. In 2012, during a relatively close pass of that planet, Jupiter perturbed its orbit, bringing it to within 280,000 miles (450,000 km) of Earth’s orbit.

That set up a remarkably close encounter with our planet on May 29 when 209P will cruise just 5 million miles (8 million km) from Earth to become the  9th closest comet ever observed. Multiple debris trails shed by the comet as long ago as the 18th century will intersect our planet’s path 5 days earlier, providing the material for the upcoming meteor shower/storm.

Shining meekly around magnitude +17 at the moment, 209P/LINEAR could brighten to magnitude +11 as it speeds from the Big Dipper south to Hydra during the latter half of May. Closer to the BIG night, we’ll provide helpful maps for you to track it down in your telescope. Cool to think that both the shower and its parent comet will be on display at the same time.

The shaded area shows where the shower will be visible on May 23-24. North of the red line, the moon (a thick crescent) will be up during shower maximum around 2:10 a.m. CDT. Credit: Mikhail Maslov
The shaded area shows where the shower will be visible on May 23-24. North of the red line, the moon (a thick crescent) will be up during shower maximum around 2:10 a.m. CDT. Credit: Mikhail Maslov

The shower’s expected to last only a few hours from about 12:40-3:50 a.m. CDT with the best viewing locations in the U.S. and southern half of Canada. This is where the radiant will be up in a dark sky at peak activity. A thick crescent moon rises around 3-3:30 a.m. but shouldn’t pose a glare problem.

Meteors from 209P/LINEAR are expected to be bright and slow with speeds around 40,000 mph compared to an average of 130,000 mph for the Perseids. Most shower meteoroids are minute specks of rock, but the Camelopardalids contain a significant number of particles larger than 1mm – big enough to spark  fireballs.

The dark streak is a series of filaments of dust and grit left behind by 209P/LINEAR mostly between 1803 and 1924 that Earth (shown on path) will pass through on May 23-24, 2014. Credit:
The dark “finger” represents streams of dust and rocks left behind by 209P/LINEAR during passes made from 1803 to 1924. Earth is shown intersecting the debris on May 23-24, 2014. Credit: Dr. Jeremie Vaubaillon

The farther north you live in the shaded area on the map, the higher the radiant stands in the northern sky and the more meteors you’re likely to see. Skywatchers living in the Deep South will see fewer shooting stars, but a greater proportion will be earthgrazers, those special meteors that skim the upper atmosphere and flare for an unusually long time before fading out.

To see the shower at its best, find a dark place with an open view to the north. Plan your viewing between 12:30 and 4 a.m. CDT (May 24), keeping the 2 a.m. forecast peak in mind. Maximum activity occurs around 3 a.m. Eastern, 1 a.m. Mountain and midnight Pacific  time.

No one’s really certain how many meteors will show, but I encourage you to make the effort to see what could be a spectacular show.