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US skywatchers get Earth's first peek at new meteor shower

NASA promises natural fireworks display

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Astronomers, both professional and amateur, are gearing up for the first glimpse of a meteor shower as our planet moves thought the trail of a recently discovered visitor from the stars.

Comet 209P/LINEAR was first spotted in 2004, and was first thought to be a large asteroid or minor planet – but as it fell sunwards it began to grow a tail and was reclassified as a comet. The object is between one and three miles wide and swung around the Sun on May 6 and is going to speed past Earth later this month.

"What's really nice about this particular comet [209P/Linear] is that we're going right smack in the middle of these dust trails and the meteors are going to be pretty slow," said astronomer Carl Hergenrother from the University of Arizona.

"They're actually going to last maybe for a second or two. It's going to look almost like slow moving fireworks instead of the usual shooting stars that we're used to."

The meteor shower, dubbed the Camelopardalids since it will appear from that constellation in the northern hemisphere of the sky, will be best viewable from the US, Canada, and Mexico, given its timing. NASA expects at least 200 meteors per hour to be visible from the ground.

The cometary debris that will give the display aren't from the body's current trip around the Sun, but were probably deposited around the 1800s, say the team that discovered it. By working backwards from its discovery point, the astronomers have backtraced its route and Earth's intersection with the debris cloud.

According to the astronomers, the meteor shower will reach its peak at between 2am and 4am EST on May 24, and if you want some background, NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center will host a live web chat to discuss the phenomenon.

The space agency will be focusing on the shower because the types of debris falling and their distribution will tell astronomers a lot about how the comet was formed and what exactly it is made of.

"Right before your eyes you're seeing a grain of dust that was released from a comet hundreds of years ago that resided in that comet for billions of years," Hergenrother said. "It may have even existed before the Earth existed, and there it is burning up right in front of you. So you're watching a billions of years journey end right in front of your eyes.”

Don't bother looking for the comet itself, however. The closest comet 209P/LINEAR will come to Earth is around five million miles, and it's too faint to be seen without specialized equipment. ®

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