When it comes to meteor showers, most people have probably heard of the Perseid, which lights up Earth’s atmosphere every August. But come late Friday night and early Saturday morning Colorado residents may get to witness the birth of a new meteor shower when the Earth passes through the orbit of a comet named LINEAR.
This is a very rare event and it has astronomers like Doug Duncan, director of CU- Boulder’s Fiske Planetarium, excited to see how many meteors will streak across the night sky.
“In my whole life I have never seen a new meteor shower," Duncan said. "We have the old, dependable meteor shows. Every August 11 and 12, for instance, we get the Perseid Meteor Shower. And now, all of a sudden, there’s the chance of a brand new meteor shower and nobody knows how big it might be. So whether there’s thousands of them, hundreds of them, dozens of them, millions of them nobody really knows which is why it’s exciting to go out and see what we are going to be hit by.”
The comet was discovered in 2004, but this will be the first time Earth will encounter its debris field of tiny bits of ice and rock -- some no larger than the size of a pea, according to Duncan.
“What you normally see as a meteor shower, or ‘shooting star’ as people call it, is surprisingly small. If you have a bit of rock the size of a pea it is going so fast that it will streak across the sky and make a beautiful meteor," he said.
The best time to view the meteor shower is from midnight into early morning because that’s when the Earth’s Western Hemisphere rotates toward the sun.
“As the Earth continues to spin into the early morning hours you are on the forward-facing side of the Earth in our orbit and so you are going to smash into a lot more meteors after midnight than before," Duncan explained. "Calculating the orbit of this comet the best predictions are that about 1:30 early Saturday morning is when we’ll be right in the midst of the orbit of this comet.”
At that time he says look to the northern sky just to the right of the big dipper. And if you really want to see a lot of meteors flashing across the night sky then get out of town.
“A very important piece of advice is the darker the sky, the more meteors you are going to see," he said. "At the very same time, a person in Denver might see one meteor, while a person in the suburbs sees five, but someone who has driven up to where the sky is truly dark might see 50 in one hour. So it is very much worth your while to get away from the city lights if you possibly can.”
Duncan says there is no way for astronomers to know just how many meteors will streak through the atmosphere since the debris that make up a comet field are too small to see with a telescope. But then, he says, not knowing is part of why this meteor shower is so exciting.