Sunday, May 25, 2014

So Much for the "May Camelopardalids"... least from my extremely limited perspective as a lone amateur astronomer who observed the night sky from about 8:45 PM to a little past 11 PM Friday evening from my home in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Perusing my emails early Friday evening, I read an article from Astronomy magazine about a brand-new meteor shower predicted to occur that very night, so I jumped at the chance to witness it for myself. The new shower has been nicknamed the "May Camelopardalids" because the meteors would appear to radiate from a point in the northern sky in the large but faint constellation Camelopardalis the Giraffe (I can identify quite a number of the constellations, but haven't learned this one yet). The shower was caused by our planet Earth crossing through a stream of dust particles along the orbit of an obscure comet, 209P/LINEAR. The article predicted rates of anywhere between 100 and 400 meteors per hour in the early morning hours, which would have put it in a class by itself since the year's traditionally best meteor shower is the Geminids in December, which produce up to 120 meteors per hour under excellent conditions. So despite partly cloudy skies, I headed out to see if I could get at least a little slice of this spectacular show, keeping watch on the northern sky. However, I only saw two meteors radiate from the expected location, one at 10:18 PM EDT and the other at 10:23 PM.

Going to bed around midnight, I wondered what I would be missing in the early morning peak of the show. Apparently I didn't miss much, as other observers recorded just a handful of meteors early Saturday morning. See, for example, this image taken on the northern shore of Lake Erie from NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day website (note that the long bright streak across this image is not a meteor but the International Space Station passing through the field of view). So the expected show failed to materialize. But at least the astronomy professionals were correct that we would see a new shower, because we did. We mustn't be too hard on them for being so far off on the numbers, because even annually recurring meteor showers are notoriously fickle and hard to predict. They can be dazzling one year and boring the next, even if sky conditions are similar. More often, the opposite happens--an unusual outburst will occur entirely unpredicted, and only those who happened to be observing will see it. A good reason to observe on a regular basis, because you never know when you might be treated to something special.

So much for the "May Camelopardalids," at least for this year. Only time will tell whether this will develop into a major shower or sink into obscurity alongside the South Taurids and the Ursids. Despite the lackluster performance from this new meteor shower, however, I enjoyed looking at the stars and planets Friday evening. God's creation is magnificent and communicates to us His awesome power, glory, wisdom and intelligence, and above all His infinite love for us human beings, the masterpiece of His creative work, regardless of the occasion or time of year.

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