Will Comet LINEAR produce a new major meteor shower in 2014?

The list of major meteor showers hasn’t changed much in recent decades, but it has changed a little. Meteor showers are part of nature, after all, and the list of major showers shifts and changes slightly, as all things in nature do, with one shower or another becoming more or less exciting as the years pass. In 2014, though, an exciting new meteor shower might come on the scene. This possible shower stems from a comet – Comet 209P/LINEAR – discovered in 2004. Comet 209P/LINEAR passed near the sun in 2009 and will pass near it again in early May, 2014. On the night of May 24, 2014 – if the predictions hold true – Earth might be sandblasted with debris from this comet, resulting in a fine display of meteors, or shooting stars.

What we know about Comet 209P/LINEAR. An automated observing campaign, the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project (LINEAR), found this small and somewhat dim comet on February 3, 2004. The International Astronomical Union gave it the permanent number 209P on December 12, 2008.

P209/LINEAR is a periodic comet, that is, its orbit around the sun is relatively short so that we see the comet come close to the sun again and again. Comet 209P/LINEAR’s orbit brings it near the sun in just over 5 years. Its next perihelion passage will be May 6, 2014.

The comet itself is not all that exciting. What’s exciting is that calculations of the orbit of P209/LINEAR indicate that – in May 2014 – the comet’s debris trails will pass close to Earth. Debris left behind by the comet may enter our atmosphere and burn up, creating a new meteor shower.

Will Comet 209P/LINEAR create a meteor storm? In 2012, meteor experts Esko Lyytinen of Finland and Peter Jenniskens at NASA Ames Research Center were the first to announce that Earth was due for a May 2014 encounter with debris from Comet 209P/LINEAR. Other meteor experts quickly confirmed this prediction and some did use the words “meteor storm.” The most recent calculations, however, indicate we might get a strong shower, but perhaps not a storm of meteors.

In 2012, Jeremie Vaubaillon of The Institut de Mecanique Celeste et de Calcul des Ephemerides in France told space.com:

So far,given the observations, we estimate a ZHR (zenithal hourly rate) of 100/hr to 400/hr, which is an excellent outburst! But this shower can become an exceptional one. Indeed, given the current orbit of the comet, all the trails ejected between 1803 and 1924 do fall in the Earth’s path in May 2014! As a consequence, this shower might as well be a storm.

The more recent, less optimistic calculations come from Quanzhi Ye and Paul A. Wiegert, both at University of Western Ontario. Their work was published online in November 2013. In a report on their work at skyandtelescope.com, John Bochanski wrote that Ye and Wiegert’s work suggests a rate of 200 meteors per hour under ideal conditions. Bochanski wrote:

But Ye and Wiegert warn that, given the current relatively weak dust production of the comet, rates could be much lower. With the low dust production, as well as the team’s lower estimate of how many debris streams from the comet’s previous passes are hanging around in this region of space, it’s highly unlikely that we’re in for a meteor storm (1,000 per hour) – although the team couldn’t quite rule it out.

Will Comet 209P/LINEAR produce a meteor storm, or at least a strong meteor shower? As with all meteor showers, the only way to know is to go outside on the night of the predicted peak and see for yourself.

When to watch, and who is best placed on Earth? The peak night of the shower is predicted for May 24, 2014.

The meteors will radiate from the constellation Camelopardalis (camelopard), a very obscure northern constellation. Its name is derived from early Rome, where it was thought of as a composite creature, described as having characteristics of both a camel and a leopard. Nowadays we call such a creature a giraffe!

This constellation – radiant point of the May 2014 meteor shower – is in the northern sky, close to the north celestial pole, making this meteor shower better for the Northern Hemisphere than the Southern Hemisphere.

As for the predicted time of the shower – skywatchers in southern Canada and the continental U.S. are said by the experts to be especially well positioned to see the meteors on the night of May 24, 2014.

Bottom line: On May 24, 2014 – if predictions hold true – Earth might be sandblasted with debris from Comet 209P/LINEAR, resulting in a fine display of meteors, or shooting stars. Will it be a meteor storm? Most recent calculations say no, but it might be a strong-enough shower to be thrilling!

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