Spotting the fiery streaks

WHAT: Meteor shower predicted from dust cloud of Comet 209P/LINEAR.

WHEN: Saturday, 2-4 a.m.

WHERE: Find a dark spot with open sky to the north. Shower will appear to be coming from that direction.

sources: EarthSky.org, Terry Richardson.

A brand new meteor shower - at least for earthlings - is expected to streak across the night sky early Saturday. Astronomers say it could be spectacular.

Whether or not it is depends on the past.

The May Camelopardalis could shoot more than 200 meteors per hour, said Bill Cooke, NASA researcher. The blazes could rival the popular Perseids shower in August. A fiery light display would be welcome by local stargazers after a few celestial shows in the past year failed to live up to billing because of weather or other factors. Forecasts are calling for clear viewing skies.

"This one promises even at its weakest to be one worth going out for," said Terry Richardson, College of Charleston astronomer.

The shower will occur as the earth passes through the dust cloud trail left by Comet 209P/LINEAR more than a century ago. Comets have little gravity themselves and their orbits tend to be yawed by the gravity of the planets they pass. Their orbits don't always coincide with the annual earth orbit of the sun.

A pass by 209P in the 1800s evidently left a thick dust cloud. That's the cloud our planet passes through Saturday. Astronomers won't know how thick it is until the sky lights up - or not. It's worth the chance, Richardson said. In 1998, a group of his students was treated to an unexpected display when fireballs erupted from an relatively unheralded shower.

"They were big and bright, and they left a smoke trail (burning up). You could see the upper atmosphere winds mess with the trails. One of them was turned like a corkscrew," he said. "We have never been in this position to be in this cloud before. It's really just a fun thing to watch for, if it's any good."

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