Meteor Light Show Made Its Debut

A never-before-seen meteor shower expected to make a dazzling debut early Saturday morning instead fizzled over a nearly moonless sky.

A few meteors did streak by — but they were far fewer than astronomers had hoped to see.

“Predicting the strength of a meteor shower is far from an exact science,” John Scholl, president of the Pontchartrain Astronomy Society, said in an email. “So it is not unusual for one to fall below expectations.”

For would-be stargazers watching the spectacle from a bar in the French Quarter, the city’s bright lights most likely drowned out much of the show, according to Christopher Kersey, a manager at Highland Road Park Observatory in Baton Rouge.

The meteors originated from a comet called Camelopardalids after the giraffe constellation Camelopardalis. They are tiny remnants from when the comet passed through this orbit in the 18th and 19th centuries. It will pass 5 million miles from Earth on May 29, Mr. Kersey said.

Astronomers were not sure if the display would be dazzling or a dud — but, like Mr. Kersey, most were optimistic. Some astronomers said the shower might shoot as many as 800 to 1,000 meteors across the sky every hour.

If that had happened, Mr. Kersey had said, it would have looked like Earth was “plowing through a snow globe.”

Merrill Hess, president of the Baton Rouge Astronomical Society, likened comets to dirty snowballs that leave behind a trail of debris as they fly through their orbit. The tiny bits of comet dust zoomed through space at 40 miles per second until they hit the earth’s atmosphere and ignited in a bright flash fed by a rush of air as the specks hurtled down. This is what we call shooting stars.

The night’s dim crescent moon made the meteors that people did see more visible than they would have been through the light pollution that typically obscures the sky. Astronomers said we would likely see this shower only once.

Some who watched the meteor shower early Saturday said they found it hard to see through a bank of clouds, and they did not see as many shooting stars as they had hoped.

“This was the first time the earth was going to pass through the path of the comet,” Jack Huerkamp, a member of the Pontchartrain Astronomy Society, said in an email. “The big unknown was how much debris was in the path. Obviously not much!”

Though it wasn’t as spectacular as predicted, those who did catch a glimpse of the Camelopardalids shower saw something special, according to Peter Jenniskens, a NASA meteorite hunter at the SETI Institute, a nonprofit for scientific research in California. Mr. Jenniskens believes he was the first to discover the potential of the meteorite shower back in 2004.

“If you see some of these, then you are the very first person to ever see this particular meteor shower,” he said before the event. “This one hasn’t happened before, and it won’t happen again.”

Astronomers had high hopes for Camelopardalids because no one had seen it before. Even better, it was coming around on the kind of dark night perfect for viewing shooting stars, even in a well-lit place like New Orleans.

Like many urban areas, Mr. Kersey said, the city has many streetlights that illuminate tiny reflecting particles in the sky, creating a glowing haze. The stronger the haze, the fewer stars that can be seen.

A campaign to reduce nighttime illumination — called the the “dark sky” movement — has gained strength in recent years, in large part because of efforts from groups like the Arizona-based International Dark-Sky Association, which organizes a seven-day event annually to get people to help reduce light pollution.

Mr. Kersey said light fixtures were a big part of the problem in New Orleans. Many of the city’s street lamps are not capped and allow light to shine in all directions, rather than just down. That unchecked light blots constellations from a city’s night sky or dims brilliant meteor showers, unless stargazers seek out an unlit area.

“I don’t think people should have to waste gas money and vacation time to see the Milky Way,” he said.