Comet to pass by Earth closely after meteor shower

Story highlights

  • May Camelopardalids meteor shower dazzles some, bores others
  • But it's connected to a comet making a rare close pass by Earth, NASA says
  • You can see 209P/LINEAR with a telescope
  • Or you can catch it online at observatory service Slooh

So after all the hype, was the lost sleep and the sore necks from looking at the sky worth it?

People throughout North America could ask that question Saturday, hours after witnessing a unique meteor shower that was visible in the middle of the night.

Judging from social media responses, this cosmic event appeared to have little bang in some places, while delivering a few prize goods elsewhere.

But for die-hard star geeks, there will be an Act II, an even bigger treat, as the last part of the shower -- a comet -- passes by Earth, beginning Saturday evening.

Whatever the verdict, there will probably never be a second chance for the May Camelopardalids meteor shower. Many showers come annually, in October, December, January and April, said NASA meteor observer Bill Cooke.

In August, for example, we will see the return of the spectacular Perseid meteor shower.

But the Camelopardalids shower, named for the constellation the shooting stars appeared to fly out of, was a rare gift from the planet Jupiter.

Slooh meteor shower visible to some
Slooh meteor shower visible to some


    Slooh meteor shower visible to some


Slooh meteor shower visible to some 01:06
Perseid meteor shower lights up the sky
Perseid meteor shower lights up the sky


    Perseid meteor shower lights up the sky


Perseid meteor shower lights up the sky 01:10
Time-lapse of the Perseid meteor shower
Time-lapse of the Perseid meteor shower


    Time-lapse of the Perseid meteor shower


Time-lapse of the Perseid meteor shower 00:52

The biggest planet in the solar system bent the meteors' orbit with its powerful gravitational pull so that they would collide with Earth.

"Next year, it will tug the debris field away from the Earth, and we won't see a meteor shower, so this is kind of a one-shot deal," Cooke said.

Rare comet pass

The debris field derives from the coming comet, which bears the uninspiring name 209P/LINEAR.

Astronomers have stopped coming up with fancy nomenclature for the hundreds of comets they spot and instead give each new one a number and the name of the project that discovered it.

LINEAR stands for Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research.

Jupiter will fling the comet our way, too, causing it to fly by our planet at a distance of 5 million miles.

"A comfortable distance, which is good," Cooke said. Its core is 1 to 2 miles wide, and a direct hit to Earth would be disastrous.

Even though 209P/LINEAR passes by every five years while orbiting the sun, this time around it will offer a rare sight to hobby astronomers.

"The comet normally doesn't pass this close," Cooke said.

Anyone with a consumer model 3-inch-reflector telescope should be able to see it in the north sky late Wednesday, if the heavens are clear.

Those who want a sneak peek through a more powerful telescope can get it from 6 p.m. ET Saturday via the online observatory service Slooh.

To have 209P/LINEAR's debris field pass the Earth ahead of its comet is like putting the tail before the dog.

Usually debris fields follow comets just like their tails do. Again, Jupiter was the culprit. It ripped off the debris field and threw it out in front of 209P/LINEAR.

"Jupiter is a big gravitational bully of the solar system," Cooke said. This particular comet and its field just happen to pass through that planet's orbit.

After many passes around the solar system, the comet also doesn't have much of a tail left, so gazers shouldn't expect to see a long, stunning ribbon trailing it, just a short dash.

Surprise package

Cooke said from the start that the Camelopardalids could be a star-studded gala or a dud.

NASA couldn't predict it ahead of time, because the debris field was formed some 200 years ago, when astronomers couldn't see it, Cooke said. They merely knew that it was coming.

"It's kind of like being able to predict rain at 11:30 in the morning but not being able to predict a drizzle or a thunderstorm."

Reactions from shooting-star gazers across the country ran the gamut on social media, and judging by some, it did deliver fireworks.

"Izzi and I literally just saw and heard a meteor explode right before our eyes," .hannaH posted to Twitter

"Just saw a awesomely bright meteor with a blue tail!! #MeteorShower," Twitter user Carmen said from Chicago.

But it served up some anticlimax, too. A few netizens called it a complete bust.

CNN iReporter Jean-Francois Gout had only one word to describe the event: "Disappointing."

Gout stayed up for more than seven hours to watch the much anticipated meteor shower from Lake Monroe near Bloomington, Indiana.

Despite the poor showing, Gout still managed to photograph a few passing meteors overhead. But the night was not a complete loss. "It was a great excuse to spend the night out in a remote area with some good friends and enjoy the night and the first fireflies of the season, which sometimes we would think for a fraction of a second were meteors," he said.

Despite the lackluster showing, iReporter Cat Connor enjoyed staying up to watch the celestial event.

She photographed the meteor shower over Mono Lake in California, and she wasn't alone. There were dozens of other photographers camped out at the lake hoping to catch a glimpse of Camelopardalids. "There were many photographers there. All you could see were the lights of their cameras scattered around the lake," she wrote.

"Guess anyone who invited someone on a date to watch the 'meteor shower' is looking like a pretty big creep right about now," New Yorker Kevin Depew tweeted.

Some found moments of serendipity in the event.

Barry Shupp, a Pennsylvania astrophotographer and iReporter, wrote that he was shooting time exposures for the meteor shower when he noticed the International Space Station "creeping along the horizon."

"Quickly setting up a shot, I also captured a meteor in the upper right of photo," he said.

A tweet from Los Angeles Times reporter Deborah Netburn seemed to sum up neatly reactions to the shower.

"Watched the #Camelopardalids from the Eastern Sierras. Not exactly a meteor storm, but the 3 I saw were so cool. Long streaks across the sky."

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