Have you ever spotted the faint constellation Camelopardalis? Spread across the stars between the Plough and the ‘W’ of Cassiopeia, this relatively barren constellation depicting a giraffe (or camel-leopard if you prefer) will play host to a new meteor shower this weekend, as the Earth barrels through clouds of debris crossing our orbit around the Sun.
We see meteors, also known as shooting stars, when our planet collides with small fragments of dust left drifting through the solar system by comets. A periodic comet discovered just over ten years ago, now known as 209P/LINEAR, makes a close approach to the Sun every 5 years. With each encounter it deposits a tail of material, and it so happens that the cumulative dusty cloud left behind from over twenty orbits between 1803 and 1924 is now fair game for being scooped up by our atmosphere at hypersonic speeds for the first time. The forecast for the peak of this new meteor shower favours our friends in the United States and Canada, but there's no reason not pop out and have a go at seeing or photographing it wherever you are, since we expect to see a reasonable rise in activity throughout the weekend. The precise time of the peak can't be predicted, but for observers in the UK, the early hours of the morning of Saturday 24th are the best time take a look. Wrap up warm, find a dark spot and get ready to see one of nature's most spectacular shows.
Where to look
Any meteor shower has what's known as a radiant. This is the part of the sky from which the meteors appear to originate. For the Perseids shower in August, the radiant is in the constellation of Perseus. Therefore, since our new May shower will appear to radiate from Camelopardalis, we're calling it the Camelopardalids. The radiant gives us a rough idea of which direction to face, but since meteors are relatively fast-moving objects, travelling tens of miles per second, they can quickly cover large areas of the sky. So it's best to look broadly towards the radiant, observing a wide circle of sky around it. Camelopardalis is a faint, relatively modern constellation with no mythology and no particularly bright stars. You might struggle to pick it out, but the radiant for the shower will be easy to find since it lies quite close to Polaris - the North Star. Therefore, you'll need to face north, allow your eyes to adapt and relax focus on the stars of the Plough and Cassiopeia (see our star chart below) and then... wait.
Patience is essential to meteor-watching. An hour might pass before you see anything, but don't lose heart - one bright meteor makes it all worth it! Curiously, scientists have determined that the density of particles in 209P/LINEAR's debris cloud is relatively low, but they're also individually quite large. Larger fragments produce brighter meteors, including fireballs, and sometimes bolides - astonishingly bright flashes blaze their way into your memory. With the waning crescent moon rising after 2:30am on Saturday, there may be an opportunity to see an impressive number of bright shooting stars.
In fact, the predicted rates for the peak of the shower are very good indeed, with some forecasters comparing it to a meteor storm - a short-lived event during which meteors are seen about every ten seconds for under half an hour. It's debatable, and it usually pays to be skeptical about such a display occurring, but even conservative estimates predict that the rates will be comparable to the much loved Perseids.
There is also some confusion about whether or not the Camelopardalids will become an annual event, so it's well worth taking this opportunity to try and see catch it. Even if you don't spot any meteors, who knows...? You might find Camelopardalis!