A Meteor Outburst on May 24th?


Geminid Meteor Near Orion. Shot in Gleichen, Alberta, Canada on December 12, 2004.

Credit: Alan Dyer

Early on Saturday morning, May 24th, just as the Memorial Day holiday weekend begins, there appears to be a chance that a new, and very significant meteor shower could take place and pepper our skies with comet debris in the form of bright meteors streaking from out of the northern sky.

The progenitor of this possible display is comet 209P/LINEAR, a tiny periodic comet discovered in 2004, by the LIncoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project (“LINEAR”). This comet takes roughly five years to circle the Sun and now several reputable meteor scientists agree that Earth is on a collision course with a number of dusty trails of debris shed by 209P/LINEAR which would may cause an outburst of meteor activity this month. Computer simulations show all the trails of dust ejected by this comet between 1803 and 1924 falling directly in the Earth’s path on May 24. As a consequence, an unusually strong meteor display appears to be a possibility.

But just how much dust has the comet released into space is questionable. Two astronomers at the University of Western Ontario, Quanzhi Ye and Paul Wiegert, find the comet is relatively depleted in dust production and might only produce a handful of bright meteors. Meanwhile, French astronomer, Jérémie Vaubailion is forecasting anywhere from 100 to 400 “shooting stars” per hour, while two other meteor sleuths, Mikhail Maslov (Russia) and Esko Lytinnen (Finland), think that a full-blown meteor storm of up to 1,000 per hour cannot be totally discounted.

We see the path of the Earth through space running along a brown line going from upper left to lower right. “+” shows the Earth’s location on May 23 (23/5), May 24 (24/5) and May 25 (25/5). Recall that Mr. Vaubailion is French and in Europe it is customary to place the day before the month.

The black smear that crosses the Earth’s path roughly one-third of the way from May 24 to 25 is where the more than two-dozen trails of dust left in the comet’s wake are predicted to be . . . with the Earth expected to go right through all of them! Moving at 67,000 miles per hour in its orbit around the Sun, it will take our Earth just over 3 hours traverse the 210,000 mile-wide “river of rubble” left behind by comet 209P/LINEAR.

The meteors are predicted to dart from the direction of the dim constellation of Camelopardalis, the Giraffe, for a few hours centered on May 24th, at around 3:00 a.m. Eastern Time (or 12 midnight Pacific Time). That means that the United States and Southern Canada will be in the best position to see whatever activity occurs, since it will be taking place in a dark sky between midnight and dawn. Camelopardalis will be situated low in the north-northwest sky below and slightly to the left of Polaris (the North Star). So the meteors will appear to be shooting up from out of the northern part of the sky. 

There will be no mistaking this new meteor display if it shows up on schedule. The meteors are likely to be bright and unusually slow-moving. They’ll be bright because the simulations suggest the debris trail should be skewed strongly toward relatively large particles, larger than 1 millimeter. We could be treated to some outstandingly bright fireballs. As for their apparent speed, the meteors will hit the atmosphere at a mere 18 km/second (40,000 miles per hour), far slower than any of the more familiar annual meteor displays. The Geminids of December arrive at about twice that speed, the Perseids of August three times and the Leonids of November four times.

The moon will be a waning crescent, just 4½ days from its dark "new" phase, and will be of little or no hindrance for prospective observers.

All we need is a clear sky.