Utahns could witness astronomical history early Saturday morning.
From midnight Friday to 2 a.m. Saturday, Earth is set to pass through a dust cloud left by a comet, and it could result in the Camelopardalid meteor shower, which many scientists believe could rival the August Perseids for the number of meteors seen per minute.
Earth is predicted to make its pass through a dust field left behind by the periodic comet 209P/LINEAR, which was discovered in 2004. The dust was ejected back in the 1800s, but researchers still aren’t sure just how much meteor-creating debris is out there.
“We have no idea what the comet was doing in the 1800s,” Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, said in a statement. “There could be a great meteor shower — or a complete dud.”
The best time to see for yourself how well the meteor shower performs begins about midnight Friday, May 23 through 2 a.m. Saturday, May 24.
“Several years ago, I kind of stopped mentioning meteor showers simply because if I talk about them, they don’t happen,” joked Patrick Wiggins, NASA/JPL solar system ambassador to Utah. “But this is weird enough, and literally no one has ever seen this before, so I’m going to watch.”
It looks like it will be many years before Earth gets to see this meteor shower again, unlike some of the annual showers Earthlings get to witness each year.
A good meteor shower will produce about 1 or 2 meteors per minute, so Wiggins encourages viewers to be patient and spend at least 30 minutes looking up. He warns against using binoculars or a telescope, which severely limit the view of the sky. He recommends grabbing a lawn chair, some snacks and some friends and getting out of the city lights to watch the event.
“Light pollution is the bane to all meteor showers,” he said.
The National Weather Service says there likely will be thunderstorms Friday night in central and southern Utah, but that the Wasatch Front should be dry and partly cloudy with lows in the mid-50s.
“Hopefully, the system doesn’t deviate from its current path,” said meteorologist Steve Rogowski.
The meteor shower will radiate from the constellation Camelopardalis, or the giraffe, which is located near the North Star. North Americans are particularly well situated for viewing as the peak is predicted during a night when the constellation is high in the sky.
“This is our first date with this comet, so let’s hope it’s something to write home about,” Wiggins said. “Keep watching the skies.”
If Utahns want to see even more of the night sky’s wonders, The Salt Lake Astronomical Society is staging two star parties over Memorial Day Weekend. On Friday, one will be at Wheeler Farm in Murray, and the other will be Saturday night at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex in Tooele County.
At those parties, viewers should be able to see Mercury in the west-northwest at twilight. Mars and Saturn also should be shining brightly. Saturn’s rings should be tilted at a good angle from Earth’s line of sight, Ann House, the society’s vice president, said in a statement. The events are free and family-friendly.
Friday, May 23
Dusk (8:30 p.m.) to 11 p.m.
Wheeler Farm north parking lot
6351 S. 900 East in Murray
Saturday, May 24
Dusk (8:30 p.m.) to 11 p.m.
Stansbury Park Observatory Complex (SPOC)