Will New Meteor Shower This Weekend Sizzle or Fizzle?

Image: Comet 209P/LINEAR
Comet 209P/LINEAR appears as a dim, dusty object at the center of this photo taken by NASA astronomers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. in May 2014. Dust from the comet is expected to create a meteor shower that will be first seen on Earth in May 2014.NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

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/ Source: Space.com

Meteor observing can be relaxing and enjoyable, yet it's also potentially dramatic. There's always a chance that you will observe something new and different, rare or unique, whether it be a new meteor shower, a brilliant fireball or a long-enduring smoke train.

That unpredictably is on display this week, with the return of a periodic comet that may bring a spectacular "meteor storm" as well. [New Meteor Shower from Comet 209P/LINEAR (Gallery)]

This sky map from a NASA video shows the location of the new "Camelopardid" meteor shower spawned by the Comet 209P/LINEAR, which will make its first appearance in Earth's night sky overnight on May 23 and 24, 2014.NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new meteor shower is born

Comet 209P/LINEAR orbits the sun every 5.1 years, with its aphelion (farthest point from the sun) lying just inside Jupiter's orbit. It is a member of Jupiter’s family of comets, which consists of icy bodies whose current orbits are primarily determined by the gravitational influence of the giant planet.

Comet 209P/LINEAR is just one of over 400 Jupiter-family comets known, most of which are extremely faint. This is due to the rapid depletion of their volatiles through multiple trips to the inner solar system, brought about by their short orbital periods. (Jupiter-family comets have orbital periods of less than 20 years.)

We can therefore thank Jupiter for raising the potential of a spectacular meteor shower on Saturday morning (May 24), because the gas giant has clearly shepherded 209P/LINEAR into the orbit we find it in today. Its most recent encounter in February 2012 saw the comet pass within 54 million miles (87 million kilometers) of Jupiter.

As luck would have it, that 2012 encounter perturbed the comet — as well as any dusty debris presumably near it — into a new orbit that now comes within just 280,000 miles (450,000 km) of Earth’s orbit, possibly setting the stage for a never-before-seen meteor shower.

Indeed, Earth will arrive at the comet's orbital plane at around 2 a.m. ET (0600) on Saturday. Some believe that a significant meteor outburst will result. Amazingly, the comet itself will pass through this very same region of space just 3 days later!

The meteoroids that crumble off a comet's nucleus form a thin sheet in the comet’s orbital plane. Whenever Earth plunges through this plane, we have a chance for a meteor shower. Whether we get a spectacular "meteor storm," a strong shower or nothing at all depends on exactly what part of the plane we go through.

-- Joe Rao, Space.com

This is a condensed version of a report from LiveScience. Read the full report. Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmer's Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, N.Y. Follow @Spacedotcom on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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