Get a glimpse of new, potentially intense meteor shower this week

By Roy Gephart, StargazingMay 17, 2014 

"Teaching children about the natural world should be treated as one of the most important events in our lives." -- Thomas Berry

When I was an avid golfer, I savored stepping into the quietness of a tree-shaded morning and watching my first putts curve across a dew-covered green like hounds tracking a rabbit's scent.

My fondest memories focus on attempting, and sometimes making, difficult shots. One golf swing stands out -- driving the ball over a stand of elms hugging a sharp dogleg and dropping it next to the flagpole.

No memory of that day remains except for one incredible swing of my five-wood. The challenge was worth taking.

This Friday night offers a different type of challenge: witnessing the celestial birth of a new and potentially intense meteor shower peppering the northern sky with slow-moving shooting stars mixed with bright fireballs.

The continental United States and southern Canada are the best places on Earth to watch this shower. And, fortunately for us, the premier viewing seats are right here in the Northwest.

Friday's meteor display will be created by Earth plowing through rocky particles released by a little- known comet named 209P/LINEAR discovered 10 years ago by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) sky survey. The 209P means this is the 209th comet discovered that periodically (P) loops through the warmth of the inner solar system.

The entire shower is predicted to last a mere three hours -- from about 11 p.m. Friday until 2 a.m. Saturday.

The shower's peak intensity centers between 11:30 p.m. and 12:40 a.m., when meteor prognosticators anticipate dozens to perhaps a few hundred meteors will radiate from near the North Star. This star, also known as Polaris, rests halfway up and in the center of the north sky.

Such a brief meteor display suggests this is a young shower with particles still hugging to the comet's past orbital paths. Otherwise, these meteors would be spread across days or weeks -- not just a few hours.

A few cautious predictions suggest a meteor-outburst, boasting several meteors each second, might be possible during the midnight hour.

However, because this meteor shower does not have a long history of observation to confidently base meteor counts, no one is certain how the shower will behave.

Astronomers do suggest Comet 209P/LINEAR has shed enough large particles during previous orbits to create bright fireballs when this debris plunges into Earth's atmosphere.

Comet 209P/LINEAR orbits the sun once every five years. Two years ago, Jupiter's gravity nudged the comet, teasing it to pass within just 5 million miles of Earth later this month. This makes 209P/LINEAR one of the closest comets to have approached our planet in recorded history.

This closeness, coupled with the fact that on Friday the Earth passes through numerous intertwined dust tails remaining from previous orbits of Comet 209P/LINEAR, adds optimism for high meteor counts.

Meteors originating from 209P/LINEAR debris will move unusually slowly compared with meteors in other showers because these particles are trying to catch up with Earth, like a fox slowly overtaking a rabbit, rather than slamming headlong into Earth.

For example, the Perseid meteors, visible each August, enter Earth's atmosphere at a speed of 35 miles per second. In comparison, Comet 209P/ LINEAR's meteors will travel just one-third of that speed -- 11 miles per second.

That's like meteors sauntering through a cosmic park. Slow meteors, especially bright ones, are fascinating to watch.

Want to join others stargazers this Friday night? Visit the LIGO Hanford Observatory, north of Richland. Doors will be open from 8:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Restrooms are available. Search their website under "public events" for details.

Friday marks the beginning of Memorial Day weekend. This is a perfect time to let the night sky draw you outside to experience one of its wonders.

-- Roy Gephart is a retired environmental scientist and an avid amateur astronomer. He can be reached at roygephart@yahoo.com.

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