Meteor showers — those spectacular sky shows that light up a special night with bursts of hundreds or even thousands of shooting stars — occur when the Earth crashes through the debris stream of a desintegrating comet. As the mostly-tiny particles left over from the comet slam into the upper atmosphere, their enormous speed (tens of thousands of miles per hours) causes them to burn up and from the ground we see a bright fiery streak — a “shooting star.”
From any dark location on any night you’ll see at least a few shooting stars, but on some special nights the Earth in its orbit crosses places where there are thicker debris clouds from an old comet, the number of shooting stars (more properly known as “meteors”) goes up — way up. Instead of handful per hour you may find a veritable rain of meteors, sometimes more than 100 per hour, and in rare spectacular “meteor storms” may show bursts of thousands per hour that light up the entire sky like nothing else.
But now something new!
But a new thing is happening later this month: A new meteor shower is making its first appearance in our night skies. On May 23rd and the 24th the Earth, traveling at our usual 66,000 mph (107,000 kph) around the Sun, will plow through the cloud of space debris last seen as comet 209P/LINEAR, a little comet that was little noticed after its initial discovery in 2004, but may now blossom into a magnificent worldwide sky show for those willing to stay up to see it.
And one of the great things about it is that nothing special is required to observe the new meteor shower — no telescope, no binoculars, no instruments of any kind, just your naked eyeball and the willingness to stay up after midnight. (Because of the orbital geometry involved, meteor showers really get going after midnight and their intensity rises as daybreak approaches.) You’ll also want warm clothes and a comfy seat –see this brief guide for more info on how to watch a meteor shower.
Tantalizing: a meteor storm?
Because this is the first time this debris cloud has been encountered this way, astronomers say a big surprise is possible: If the debris concentration is much higher than expected, the meteor shower could turn into a meteor storm, with rates over 1000 per hour, at times a dozen or more at a time, a dazzling fiery sky-wide display unlike anything else ever seen on Earth. The odds are against that, but it’s happened before with other meteor showers (such as with the Leonids meteor shower, which has turned into a meteor storm four times in the last 200 years) and the possibility is there with this new storm — a rare and spectacular mega-event not to be missed.
Get out there!
May 23 & 24 are a Friday and Saturday, great nights to find a dark site outside of town, stay up late, bring something warm to drink, and enjoy a night under the wonders of the night sky. Just get out there and, in addition to enjoying the light show, marvel at the Universe in which we all live but seldom stop to consider. It’s the greatest mind adjustment there is — don’t miss it!