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Attention Skywatchers: Get Ready For The Camelopardalids

May 20, 2014

By Sr. Meteorologist, John Bateman

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It sounds like the start of a bad joke - "Ever seen a Camelopardalid shower?"

And the punch line would have to be "No one has!"

That`s because the Camelopardalids are a completely new meteor shower and no one is quite sure what to expect from it. In fact, this mouthful-of-a-meteor-shower is expected to happen Memorial Day weekend, and if some predictions are right, it could be a doozy!

First a little background... The anticipated shower is expected to come from a newly discovered comet - Comet 209P/LINEAR to be exact. The comet was identified back in 2004 and was able to elude detection for so long in part because it is quite small and dim. During its 5-year orbit around the Sun, Comet 209P passes between the orbit of the Earth and Sun, and by late-May the Earth is expected to travel through a dust tail that the comet left behind on one of its journeys more than a century ago.

Meteor showers caused by the Earth passing through comet tails is certainly nothing new... that`s how most meteor showers happen, including the most well-known one, the Perseids. However this pass will be the Earth`s first pass through this tail, so what we`ll see is anyone`s guess.

And there`ve been lots of guesses. Some scientists predict the light show will dazzle, others say it could fizzle. Moreover, the forecasts for the number of meteors that could be seen range from a meteor storm of as many as 1,000 per hour, to a trickle of less than 100 per hour.

So assuming we`ll leave our expectations at the door before heading outside and catching a glimpse of this shower... where and when should we look? Well some good news for people in southern Canada and the contiguous United States - you`ll have the best viewing geography-wise.

Plan for your viewing window to be after midnight and before dawn on Friday, May 23, and Saturday, May 24. These nights will also have a waning crescent moon which will help keep the sky relatively dark. The shower will appear to radiate from near the North Star, which is the star on the end of the handle of the Little Dipper.

Remember that for optimal viewing, the number one thing you will need is favorable weather! Cloudless skies and low humidity are best for viewing, so check out your local WeatherBug forecast before you plan your skywatching. Also, you should get as far away from city lights as possible, and let your eyes adjust to the darkness for at least a half hour. Lastly, just use you naked eye, as telescopes and binoculars will not help your see them better and will only limit your field of view.

So why the awkward name? The shower is named after the constellation Camelopardalis, which is Latin for "the giraffe". This dim constellation will be visible just to the southeast of the meteors` radiant. Here`s to a great show!

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Story image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

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