Back around 1995 humanity started wondering (or more accurately – worrying) that the celestial collision which likely finished off the dinosaurs could happen again. Only this time, the unfortunate big, fat, stupid creatures being threatened, would be us. The U.S. alone has launched no less than 7 programs to detect life threatening “near Earth objects” (NEOs). Just so’s ya know, an NEO is anything passing closer than 45 million km from earth, which is a distance just slightly beyond the orbit of Mars.
Hollywood stepped up to the plate and made its contribution with a number of high budget, yet technically laughable films. My somewhat plebeian tastes tend to favour an episode of Robot Chicken spoofing the film Armageddon, but to each his own eh?
Of the near 2,500 NEOs discovered, one is of particular interest. It’s one of the 279 NEO comets discovered by the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) program. The comet has been named 209P/LINEAR and it was first seen on Feb 3rd 2004. It’s dim, small and won’t likely be visible to the unaided eye even as it passes by at a mere 8.3 million kms from Earth. It orbits the Sun every 5 years, so it’s not a rare treat to experience it. So what’s the big hairy deal ? Why all the fuss over this relatively uninteresting jumble of rocks and ice?
Well, this comet has been orbiting between the Sun and Jupiter’s orbit, spewing out meteor-producing crap along the same path for 120 years. This year, between midnight and dawn of May 24th (peaking @ 3:30 a.m. EDT), we’ll pass through the exact center of all those paths. When I say “we” I mean Southern Ontario specifically. It will best be seen from the Northern US and Southern Ontario. It’s almost as though it was custom made for us.
This pass-through has the potential to be a mega lightshow. Two of the World’s leading meteor scientists, Jeremie Vaubaillon of France and Mikhail Maslov of Russia are both excited about the potential show. They’re cautiously estimating one meteor every twenty seconds. Of course, since we’ve never seen this one before, that estimate could be more like seventeen per minute. There’s also cause to expect large pieces to provide rarely seen “fireballs”. Even the moon is cooperating by being just four days from its dark “new” phase, and so will be of no interference to observers.
Of course, I remember the last “should be spectacular” meteor prediction was a bust. So, I must remind you this is all supposition. But what if ? What if you hauled your sorry butt outa the sack for one Saturday in May around 3:30 a.m. and caught the lightshow of the decade, possibly the century ? Or, keeping in mind that 3:30 is just the peak, you could even check as night falls. If it’s going to be as spectacular as expected, you’ll see activity for hours or even days (nights) before and after the peak time. After all, there’s 120 years worth of detritus to run into, so the chances are pretty good you’ll see something impressive anytime near the peak time.
Mind you, if the weather doesn’t want us to view anything … end of story. I hate it when that happens.