Incoming! A major meteor shower is set to streak across the skies this week as Earth passes through dust streams released by a comet two centuries ago. Counting the meteors may give clues to the comet's past.
"There are several new meteor showers discovered every year," says Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Ala., but most are spotted only by skilled observers because the meteors are so scarce. This time, people in North America may see more than 200 per hour.
The meteors are dust that was ejected from comet 209P/LINEAR in the 1800s. Earth is due to cross the dust stream for the first time on May 24. Meteors will be visible from a point in Camelopardalis, a faint constellation near the North Star. The best viewing time in North America probably will be between 2 and 4 a.m., according to NASA's Web site. Astronomers aren't sure when the two will next cross paths. "It's a one-night thing," Cooke says.
"In case of a dud," the Web site reports, "there is a consolation prize. On May 24th the crescent Moon and Venus are converging for a tight conjunction the next morning, May 25th. Look for them rising together just ahead of the sun in the eastern sky at dawn."