On May 24, 2014, Earth will plow through a dense stream of dust particles shed by Comet 209P/LINEAR. Dynamicists think the crossing could result in an intense meteor shower - maybe even a "storm" - and North Americans will have front-row seats.
Over the past two decades, celestial dynamicists have gotten very good at divining when meteoric activity will spike. Their computer models can track how dust ejected by a comet near each perihelion pass gets distributed into strands of particles over time. Their calculations show that dust tends to stay concentrated close to the nucleus, and that the strands themselves often converge in space close to the orbit's perihelion.
© NASA / JPL / Horizons
According to predictions, a little-known comet will pass perihelion in early May of 2014 and, two weeks later, sandblast Earth with dust particles spread along its orbit.
Now these number-crunchers are telling us make sure May 24, 2014, is circled on our skywatching calendars. On that date, we might experience the most dramatic display of "shooting stars" in more than a decade.
The source of all this buzz is a little-known periodic comet called 209P/LINEAR. Discovered by an automated sky survey in 2004, it follows a looping but relatively tight path that carries it just inside Earth's orbit every 5.04 years. According to dynamicist Syuichi Nakano, Comet 209P/LINEAR's next perihelion
occurs on May 6, 2014, at a point 0.969 astronomical unit from the Sun and with Earth not far away.
Just 18 days later, we should cross through dozens of particle streams shed during past orbits. The predictions are still rough, but three different models suggest the sky show could be spectacular. "All the trails ejected between 1803 and 1924 cross Earth's path in May 2014," notes Jérémie Vaubaillon (IMCEE, France). "As a consequence, this shower might as well be a storm," with the potential to see more than 1,000 meteors per hour under ideal conditions.