By David Ward
The big event up there this month is a brand new meteor shower never seen before, and we are positioned right in the bull’s eye. Bringing us this display of meteors is a tiny comet just discovered a few years ago known as Comet 209P/Linear.
A close encounter with the gravity of the planet Jupiter in February 2012 nudged the comet in an orbit that takes it very close to Earth in May. The comet itself will be too dim to spot without a large telescope, but dust and sandy debris streaming off of it will collide with the earth’s atmosphere right over Canada and the northern United States on the nights of May 23 and 24.
To watch this event, find a dark spot away from distracting lights where you can see as much of the sky as possible. The experts say the shower will only last about three hours with the peak around midnight. Luckily, the moon will not be up at that time and so won’t be drowning out the shooting stars with its light.
How many meteors will we see? That question is being debated in astronomical circles, but since this event has never happened before no one really knows for sure. It should produce as many shooting stars as the Perseid meteor shower, which happens every August, and possibly a lot more. There is even a slight possibility of a meteor storm when the sky may literally be filled with meteors. We will not know that until the nights of May 23 and 24.
The shooting stars will be seen all over the sky, and if you trace their paths back they will appear to originate from the north. They may seem to move more slowly across the sky than most, hitting our upper atmosphere at about 40,000 miles per hour or about one-third the speed of the Perseid meteors in August.
It has been said that the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who first realized that Earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around, never saw the planet Mercury. Indeed this little world, closest of all the planets to the sun, is the most difficult of the five bright planets to see. Named for the Roman messenger god for its rapid movements in the sky, Mercury never stays easily visible for more than a week or two at a time. Also, it never strays very far from the sun and can only be seen in the morning twilight just west of the sunrise or in the evening twilight just east of the sunset.
If you want to catch a glimpse of Mercury, the latter half of May is the best opportunity for the rest of the year.
Find a place from which you can see low into the west just after sunset, before it really gets dark, and look for a fairly bright “star” low in the west above where the sun went down. Upper Bear Creek Road is a favorite place of mine to look for planets and stars low in the west. May 16 to 28 will be the best time to spot the elusive planet Mercury. If you have a small telescope, watch the little planet go through phases just like our moon. Close to May 28, it will be a tiny crescent in your telescope.
Look for a crescent moon near the planet Jupiter on the nights of May 3 and 4 and again on May 31. In the early morning of May 25 a thin crescent moon will be very near the planet Venus in the east.
If you see some meteors on the night of May 23 and 24, be sure to let me know about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.