Possible Meteor Outburst!


What’s Happening

It’s possible that on the night of May 23/24, 2014, some North American observers may be able to see a meteor outburst caused as Earth goes through a debris stream left behind by Comet P/209 LINEAR. The debris will be small and harmless, similar in size to pebbles and dust bunnies, but big enough to cause visible meteors. Studies of the comet suggest that some of the little particles may be a bit larger than those typical in meteor showers, causing a larger proportion of meteors that are bright and impressive, but that is uncertain. This outburst will be mainly visible only in a limited area of North America, but Louisiana is part of that area!

What to Expect

Meteors, popularly called “falling stars” and “shooting stars,” look like streaks crossing the sky. Individual meteors are very brief - one lasting 5 seconds would be very long! The meteors in meteor showers and outbursts appear to come from a particular point in the sky called the radiant, while meteors that are not part of the shower or outburst may appear to come from any part of the sky. For this meteor outburst, you may see predictions of as many as 60 to 100 meteors per hour, but this is called a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) and is more for comparing the strengths of different showers than a prediction of what you will see. The ZHR assumes that the radiant is directly overhead and that many weather and sky conditions are perfect, none which are true in Louisiana. Experience shows that in rural south Louisiana, actual rates will be about º to ? of the ZHR. This means that a more realistic expectation would be 15 to 30 meteors per hour IF the outburst is a good as expected (and if it actually occurs at all - none of this is certain!). Observers with outdoor lights near them or watching from near cities and towns will see fewer meteors, and observers inside cities will see almost none.

When to Look

Calculations indicate that this outburst will be very brief, lasting only two or three hours. Best viewing in Louisiana will be from about 1:00 to 3:00 a.m. Central Daylight Time (6 to 8 hours Universal Time) on Saturday, May 24. Remember to plan to be outside for at least 15 minutes to let your eyes become adjusted to the darkness, and for an hour to have a good chance of seeing meteors. You cannot simply walk outside for a few minutes and expect to see much. Remember also that this outburst has never been seen previously - astronomers can’t be certain if it will happen at all!

Where to Look

The outburst radiant will be to the left of the North Star, Polaris. Locate Polaris by following the Pointers of the Big Dipper’s cup, and remember that Polaris is not even close to being the brightest star of the night sky. Don’t set up looking toward the radiant, though, because meteors seen there can be very short. You’ll see more dramatic meteors by watching an area of the sky about 60∞ above the horizon (almost 2/3 of the way from the horizon to the point overhead) and about 40∞ from the radiant. If that is a light polluted part of your sky, though, look elsewhere.

How to Look

Meteor showers and outbursts are all-sky phenomena best seen with the unaided eye. Basic equipment includes a fold-down lawn chair (or a blanket over a piece of plastic), clothing appropriate to the night’s temperature and damp conditions, and a bright white-light flashlight to check for fire ants and other undesirables as you set up (but turn the flashlight off while observing because it will ruin your night vision). All night sky observing in Louisiana is BYOB - Bring Your Own Bug-spray! Concentrate on your selected part of the sky, but keep your eyes moving. That way, you'll see some meteors in other parts of the sky and can shift your concentration if you find an area that seems particularly active.

Weather Prospects

As this is written on Monday, May 19, weather prospects are gloomy because of likely cloudy conditions. The Lafayette Science Museum will post more information about weather prospects on its Facebook page as the time gets closer, but even on a partly cloudy night it might be worth going out to see if anything can be spotted.