The Coma Berenicid Meteor Shower is active this year from December 12, 2009 through January 23, 2010. The Coma Berencids enter Earth’s atmosphere at just over 40 miles (65km) per second- or 144,000 miles per hour- which is almost as swift as the showy Leonids that shower over Earth every thirty-three years in November at the rate of 160,000mph. Their radiant lies just north of the star Denebola (Beta Leonis) in the eastern portion of the constellation Leo that later became known as the asterism (pattern of stars) Coma Berenices. This asterism eventually came to be considered as one of the eight modern constellations.
Prepare for Berenicids-watching. Dress in warm outwear. Take along a down sleeping bag, a comfortable recliner deck chair, and a thermos of your favorite hot drink. You don’t need equipment for observing. If the moon is bright, bring along a newspaper to partially eclipse it.
Viewing Conditions 2009. The peak period for the Coma Berencids this year is between December 25 and 30, thus placing it late in the fourth quarter of the moon phase- which is when the moon waxes nearly full and makes the sky unfavorably bright for viewing any meteor shower, but particularly for viewing the minor Coma Berencids Shower (the full moon will show its face on December 31). One reputable source places the peak date as December 25 at about 21:00 hours.
Only experienced sky-watchers are likely able to observe Coma Berencids and discern them from sporadic meteors, which are not associated with a meteor shower and which occur randomly. Sporadic meteors fall at a vernal rate of 3-4 meteors per hour and at an autumnal rate of 8-10 meteors per hour. The Coma Berencids at their zenith are expected to fall at only five meteors per hour. If you want to see them, find a local experienced astronomer or astronomy group who can advise you. Many Coma Berencids have been photographed in the USA and Russia.
About Coma Berenices. The Coma Berenices constellation is home to the galactic north pole. Its name means ‘Berenice’s hair’ and commemorates an incident involving Queen Berenice II of Egypt, whose second husband was Ptolemy III- while her husband was on an expedition to Syria, Queen Berenice II cut her hair and placed it the goddess Aphrodite’s temple at Zephyrium as a dedication to Aphrodite with the hope of securing Ptolemy III’s safe return. The constellation’s brightest star is Comae Berenices.
The Mechanics of a Meteor Shower. Earthlings observe meteor showers peaking when a comet’s orbit brings the comet into Earth’s inner solar system along with the comet’s stream(s) of debris, which typically consists of icy space dust the size of sand grains or, as in the case of some Leonids, the size of peas- these are meteoroids, shed by the comet. As Earth moves through the center of a comet’s stream, the meteoroids collide with earth’s atmosphere. Upon impact, they become meteors, which begin to burn up and vaporize. The speed of their disintegration depends upon how fast the meteoroids are traveling and upon how dense their substance is. For example, the flake-like November Leonid meteors burn up quickly whereas the dense mid-December Geminids blaze brightly longer.
About the Coma Berenicids Comet Parent. The Coma Berenicids do not have a verified parent. However, this minor meteor stream has an orbit similar to that of an unconfirmed comet that was reported circa 1912-1913. The comet was observed in the early morning of December 30, 1912. It was officially designated 1913 I. The discoverer was an amateur astronomer in South Australia by the name of B. Lowe, who was able to continue his observations on January 2, 4, 5, and 9, before the comet entered morning twilight (dawn) in 1913. Fred L. Whipple also associated the Coma Berenicids with the comet 1913 Lowe I in 1954. So did Roger E. McCrosky and Annette Posen in 1959- McCrosky and Posen were part of the Harvard Meteor Project of 1952-1954.
According to the proceedings of the International Meteor Conference, Frasso Sabino, Italy, 23-26 September 1999, the unconfirmed Comet Lowe 1913 I has a minimum distance between its orbit and that of the Earth… the impossibility to write up reliable ephemerids renders this comet a potentially dangerous object for the possibility of collision with the Earth with a short period of warning’.
Read about United Kingdom eyewitness reports of terrifying streaking fireballs on New Year’s Eve 2010 HERE.