Meteor showers like the Perseids have been around for centuries, but this weekend Utahns will have a chance to witness the 21st century beginning — replete with live streams, live chats and live tweeting — of a brand new meteor shower known as the Camelopardalids.
Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the debris left by a comet. In this case, the debris comes from a dim comet known as Comet209P/LINEAR, which was discovered in 2004 and circles the sun roughly every five years. This weekend marks the first time the Earth will pass through the comet's leftovers.
The peak for the shower is expected to occur around 3:20 a.m. EDT on Saturday morning, or — for Utahns — between midnight and 2 a.m. early Saturday.
Estimating the quality of a meteor shower is no easy task, and the Camelopardalids, which are named for the giraffe constellation where the meteors will appear to radiate from, are no exception.
There are even rumblings of a meteor storm, which are rare events that occur when the Earth crosses through a young meteor stream where most of the particles are still concentrated in one area, according to the American Meteor Society.
"We have no idea what the comet was doing in the 1800s," Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office said. "The parent comet doesn't appear to be very active now, so there could be a great show, or there could be little activity."
Astronomers Quanzhi Ye and Paul Wiegert predicted roughly 200 meteors per hour in a recent journal article, but warned that rates could be much lower. However, they said, simulations indicate that the comet's tail could contain a number of larger particles, meaning that, "the meteor outburst, if detectable, may be dominated by bright meteors."
Online, 21st century meteor shower viewing options abound, from live streams to chats and listening options.
The Virtual Telescope Project is planning live coverage of the shower, and Slate writer Phil Plait suggests Twitter as a way to stay connected with "up-to-the-second info on the shower." NASA's Bill Cooke will also be hosting a live Web chat from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. EDT on the night of May 23-24, while the NASA website will be home to a live Ustream viewing event. Slooh will also have a live stream showing on YouTube.
If you want to hear the meteor shower as you watch it, Spaceweather Radio offers the option of listening to meteor showers via a live stream of meteor echoes, or the signals reflected from meteor trails.
In Utah, there will be a free public star party at Wheeler Farm from dusk until 10 p.m. on Friday and a second free public star party from dusk until 10 p.m. at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex on Saturday.