This long-exposure photograph of the Perseid meteor shower, taken on Aug. 12, 2013, shows the Milky Way in the clear night sky near Yangon, Burma. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)
This long-exposure photograph of the Perseid meteor shower, taken on Aug. 12, 2013, shows the Milky Way in the clear night sky near Yangon, Burma. (Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)

It could be spectacular or it could be a total washout. But if tonight’s meteor shower is in top form, it will be a thrilling and unprecedented experience, with perhaps an average of 200 shooting stars an hour hurtling across the sky.

“If all goes well, it will exceed the Perseids and the Leonids,” Ben Burress, an astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center, told KQED. “If this is a real gold strike and we get 1,000 an hour, it’s like something people probably haven’t seen in their lifetimes.”

On Friday afternoon, Burress said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the May Camelopardalids, which are as unpredictable as they are unpronounceable.

“Since this is brand-new, it’s like an unwrapped present,” Burress said. “You don’t know what’s in the box.”

Chabot will open its gates for a star party tonight from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. The fee is $5. Burress said good spots to watch for free include the slopes of Mount Diablo, Sunol, Henry Coe State Park, the Santa Cruz Mountains and up and down the Peninsula near Skyline Boulevard. There is also a list put out by the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers, which rates the best dark-sky sites in the Bay Area. It says 1 is lame and 10 is awesome. In the Bay Area, Del Valle Reservoir near Livermore gets nine stars.

However, given that the meteor shower could be, as Burress put it, a “complete dud,” he suggested driving no more than a half-hour to check it out. As a rule of thumb, he said, people should look for dark skies with a clear view of the northern horizon.

The meteor shower is tentatively named after the constellation it will be flying out of, which is close to the North Star and translates into “camel leopard” or “giraffe-like creature.”  So far, according to NASA’s website, there isn’t even agreement on how to pronounce the shower. Is the accent on the PAR or the MEL or the DAL? Depends on whom you ask.

As NASA explains it, Earth will travel through debris that was ejected from a comet in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. A meteor shower will be the byproduct, provided that this comet, named 209P/LINEAR, was actively producing lots of dust. It will be slow, in terms of meteor speed, but will still be moving at 36,000 mph.

“It goes around the sun every five years,” Burress said, who added that astronomers are interested in keeping an eye on this comet because it crosses Earth’s orbit. A fairly recent shift in the comet’s orbit has moved the dust stream into Earth’s path.

“In the past we never passed through it, even though it was there in space,” Burress said. “Since we’ve never seen this shower before, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. There have been a lot of predictions about meteor storms, where you see 200 or 300 meteors per hour.”

Others have said it could flame out as badly as a Philadelphia sports team. “But the consensus is that people are hopeful this could be a nice, showy shower,” Burress said.

This map from NASA might be helpful. The forecast is for clear skies. But if the weather is crummy or you’re paralyzed by sloth and inertia, you can watch NASA’s live stream, which is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. There will also be a live chat on the NASA website 8-11 p.m. PDT.

NASA, not surprisingly, has posted a lot of information about the showers, and says that “North America has a pretty good seat for this cosmic event.” It also noted that, “Any data we collect about the May Camelopardalids this year will shed some light (no pun intended) on how much dust 209P produced in the past. So even no data is good data, as they say.”

The point-of-origin constellation is not well known, NASA said, but it’s roughly between Ursa Major and Cassiopeia.

Here’s one of the questions in the FAQ put out by NASA:

Q: My skies are dark and cloud-free but I’m still not seeing any meteors! Why not?!

A: There are a couple of possibilities. (1) The comet wasn’t very active 200+ years ago, and therefore didn’t produce many meteoroids. So the meteor shower is much weaker than predicted. (2) You need to have patience. You also need to make sure your eyes are adapted to the dark – this takes about 45 minutes. Make sure you don’t keep looking at your phone or other sources of light, else your eyes will have to start the dark adaptation process all over again.

If tonight’s meteor shower doesn’t wimp out, it could join the ranks of the Gemenids, Leonids and Perseids, Burress said.

“The Old Faithfuls are pretty predictable,” Burress said. “And hopefully this will become an Old Faithful in the future.”

Author

Patricia Yollin

Pat Yollin has written about all kinds of stuff, including wayward penguins at the San Francisco Zoo, organ transplants, the comeback of the cream puff, New York on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, a Slow Food gathering in Italy and the microcredit movement in Northern California. Her favorite stories from last year were an interview with George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch, a profile of Italy's consul general in SF, and a pirate Trader Joe's operation in Vancouver that prompted the grocery chain to sue -- and lose.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor