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The Night Sky in May 2014

May 2, 2014 3 comments

This month sees a glut of amazing stargazing sights in the night sky, even as the days lengthen towards summer.

Saturn, image by Kenneth Crawford and Michael A. Mayda

Saturn as it might look through a large telescope, image by Kenneth Crawford and Michael A. Mayda

Saturn is coming to opposition this month (10 May) meaning it shines in the sky all night long throughout the month. A small telescope (even a pair of binoculars on a tripod) will show Saturn’s beautiful rings and one of its moons.

Mars is even brighter than Saturn, shining a soft orange colour in the constellation of Virgo, near the bright star Spica.

Jupiter is still an evening object although it sets in the west around 1am.

There’s the possibility of a spectacular new meteor shower on 23/34 May as the Earth passes through the dust trail of comet 209P/Linear.

And May sees the start of the noctilucent cloud season, where these elusive high-altitude begin to shine in deep twilight.

Full moon this month is on 14 May, when the Moon will sit near Saturn.

A New Meteor Shower for 2014: The Camelopardalids

January 9, 2014 Leave a comment

UPDATE: See below

This year sees a brand new meteor shower possibly gracing our night skies, on 24 May 2014.

Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through a cloud of dust left behind by a comet. These clouds hang in space in the same place, and so meteor showers occur at the same time every year as the Earth revisits them.

But every so often a new comet comes along and creates a cloud of dust where none existed before. In the case of this anticipated shower the comet that left the cloud behind goes by the name of 209P/Linear. It was discovered in 2004 and passed near the sun in 2009, and will do so again this year in early May.

Current predictions are that the Earth will pass through the cloud of dust left by 209P/Linear on 24 May 2014. Quite how many shooting stars will be visible is unknown, but given that this is a fresh cloud of dust that hasn’t been “used up” before in previous meteor showers, we might expect a good display.

Stargazers in North America are probably best suited to see it, but in the UK it’s still worth looking out for. More accurate information regarding timings will become available nearer the time, but regardless of when exactly the Earth passes through the dust stargazers in the UK will have to wait until the sky is dark. It never gets truly dark in the UK in late May except in the south, and the Channel Islands, but the best time is between 0000 and 0200.

And where to look in the sky? As with all meteor showers it doesn’t matter where you look; the shooting stars streak across the sky in all directions. However if you trace the trails back they will all converge at the same part of the sky, called the radiant. Meteor showers are named after their radiants (e.g. the Perseids emerge from Perseus, and the Geminids from Gemini) and this new shower will appear to emanate from the dim constellation of Camelopardalis*, so they’ll be known as the Camelopardalids! Just flows off the tongue…

* Camelopard comes from the romanised Greek words for “camel” and “leopard”, and is the name for a giraffe, which the Greeks thought were part camel, part leopard!

UPDATE: The International Meteor Organisation repeats the need for caution in predicting how good this meteor shower might be:

[M]uch is unknown about this comet, including its dust productivity and even its precise orbit. Consequently, while tentative proposals have been made that ZHRs at best could reach 100+, perhaps up to storm proportions… these are far from certain. The strongest activity could be short lived too, lasting perhaps between a few minutes to a fraction of an hour only. In addition, the number of dust trails involved means there may be more than one peak, and that others could happen outside the “key hour” period, so observers at suitable locations are urged to be vigilant for as long as possible to either side of the predicted event to record whatever takes place. Remember, there are no guarantees in meteor astronomy!

They suggest that independent calculations show that the peak of activity (which might be very narrow, see above) will fall some time around 0700-0740UT (0800-0840BST) Saturday 24 May which obviously means that UK observers will miss the peak (US meteorwatchers will be perfectly placed).

However it is still worthwhile keeping an eye out during the darkest part of the night on the nights of 23/24 and 24/25 May in case there are multiple peaks, or the main peak is broad.

We just don’t know yet what is going to happen with this meteor shower: it might fizzle out to nothing, or it might reach storm levels, meaning hundreds of shooting stars per hour. Good luck!

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