A Gargantuan Field of Space Dirt Is Coming Our Way

The unprecedented event could turn into the best meteor shower of the year. 

The Camelopardalids could be twice as big as the annual Perseid shower, pictured here in 2011.  (Ognen Teofilovski/REUTERS)

Our planet is about to pass through a sprawling burst of 200-year-old space dust that could make for a dazzling, never-before-seen meteor spectacle. East Coasters should go outside between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. Friday night/Saturday morning for the best chance to see the sparkly show.

The May Camelopardalids could bring more than 200 meteors per hour, double what you'd expect at the peak of the well-known Perseids shower. Stargazers have had the chance to see Perseids every July for centuries, but Camelopardalids is brand new to us. The reason: We're about to encounter the debris field—the stuff that showers into our atmosphere—from the 209P/LINEAR comet for the first time since it was discovered 10 years ago.

On May 24, scientists say, Earth will cruise through the debris from 209P. No longer attached to the comet, the field will actually pass Earth five days before 209P does. When we see the debris, the comet itself will still be millions of miles away.

If we see the debris. We still don't know how much of the meteor shower we'll actually be able to see from Earth.  "We find new meteor showers all the time, but they're like one meteor a night so you wouldn't even notice them," said Bill Cooke, lead for NASA's Meteroid Environment Office. "This is a very rare event... It could be nothing or it could be the best meteor shower of the year."

The determining factor comes down to the size of the debris chunks—bits of ice and dirt that broke off of 209P/LINEAR back in the 19th century. We already know that the chunks themselves are relatively slow moving at about 37,000 miles per hour compared with Perseids debris that clocks in at 150,000 miles per hour. Slower debris isn't as bright when it burns up in the atmosphere, so it has to be bigger in order for us to see it. "Even if you're a piece of dirty ice, if you hit the atmosphere moving at 37,000 miles per hour, you're going to burn up and make a spectacular streak," Cooke told me. "But these guys will have to be fairly large."

The Draconid meteor shower of 2012, for instance, seemed like a dud from Earth because, even though it had a "huge number of meteors," they were small and could only be seen on radar. The Camelopardalids shower is part of a debris field that's about 700 thousand miles wide—about 28 times the circumference of the Earth. "You can think of the debris as on its own little orbit around the solar system," Cooke said.

Cooke will be up late Friday night, watching the sky and hosting an online chat for NASA. You can catch him between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. Eastern Time.