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Comet 209/P LINEAR to spawn meteor shower tonight, 1,000 per hour possible!

A bright meteor.
A bright meteor.
NASA.

Tonight, Earth will pass through a stream of debris shed by the short-period comet 209/P LINEAR, which will produce a meteor shower that will radiate from the obscure constellation of Camelopardalis, which is located near the North Celestial Pole. For observers living in the Continental United States (and Alaska), the show will be well-positioned for its 2-4am peak on Friday morning. To make matters better, the Moon will be a non-factor, too.

So, how are things looking in regards to the shower? Well, it depends on who you ask!

First the certain. Earth will definitely pass through a trail of cometary debris on the Night of May 23-24, reaching the deepest concentration between 2 and 4am EST. The meteors will appear to radiate from the obscure constellation of Camelopardalis, which is located between the more famous constellations of Ursa Major and Cassiopeia, which are easy to find for even inexperienced star gazers.

Now for the unknowns.

For starters, no one knows how dense this trail of debris is in the first place, which will have a direct impact on whether these meteors sizzle or fizzle. Long story short: if there's a lot of junk, there will be a lot of meteors, a little junk, only a few meteors. This being a new shower, no one knows what to expect.

See also: the biggest meteor storm in history

Another interesting possibility: in an interview with space.com, French astronomer Jeremie Vauballion did some calculations and came to an intriguing conclusion: all of the trails of debris shed by the comet between 1803 and 1924 were along roughly the same path, which is the one Earth will pass through on the night of May 23-24. On the high end, some estimates place meteor rates at 1,000 per hour.

However, other research is decidedly less optimistic, suggesting that 209P/LINEAR, thanks to its short orbital period and many trips around the Sun, barely produces any dust anymore, having shed most of all of what it could shed eons ago, meaning that, despite all the debris shed for those 121 years between 1803 and 1924, there might not be much floating in space for Earth to run into. Most estimates max out in the 200-400 meteor per hour range.

Bottom line: no one knows what's going to happen until the night of May 23-24 arrives, so hope for clear skies. If you can, stay up (or get up early) and head out, turn your eyes skyward, and hope for the best, which could be spectacular.

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