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Clear with a Chance of Meteors

Hundreds of shooting stars possible this weekend

If you’re not a night owl, you’ll want to set your alarm clock for early Saturday. Before dawn that morning, earth will plow through the trail of a newfound comet, providing what many astronomers are predicting to be the best meteor storm in years.
    Comet 209P/LINEAR orbits the sun over a five-year period, yet it was only discovered in 2004 by the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project. It belongs to a family called the Jupiter Comets, which are steered and propelled by the gas giant’s own gravitational pull. Every so often, these comets come a little too close to Jupiter, and like a leaf buffeted by the wind, their course is set anew.
    That’s what happened in 2012 to Comet 209P/LINEAR. Not only did it alter the comet’s path, but it also warped the centuries-old trails of debris left with every five-year passing. Now the comet’s path comes within 280,000 miles of our own orbit — little more than the moon’s distance from earth.
    Not that the comet will actually pass that close to earth. At its innermost point of orbit, 209P/LINEAR is 90 million miles from the sun — roughly the same distance from the sun as earth, give or take a few million miles. May 29 the comet will be just 5.15 million miles from earth, the ninth closest approach by a comet ever recorded.
    Even at its closest, it’s doubtful you’ll be able to spot this small, dim chunk of ice and rock without a decent-sized telescope.
    In this case the sizzle is far better than the steak, thanks to the countless bits of dust trailing in the comet’s wake after hundreds of years circling the sun. Between sunset Friday and dawn Saturday, earth plows full-steam through these bands of accumulated inter-stellar flotsam.
    Astronomers are predicting a brief but intense period of activity, peaking around 3am with anywhere from dozens to hundreds of meteors an hour. Some models even predict a meteor storm with as many as 400 meteors an hour! And unlike most prolific meteor showers, which streak past in a matter of seconds, those from P/209 LINEAR will drift through the sky like falling snowflakes.
    Cloudy skies? Check out the meteor shower via a live feed starting at 1:30am Saturday at http://tinyurl.com/olywq6k.
    The waning crescent moon won’t interfere with the meteors, but it will make a nice appearance with Venus low in the east before dawn Sunday morning.