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Mystery meteor shower disappoints skywatchers, but wait till next year

Thomas Ashcraft via Vimeo

New Mexico skywatcher Thomas Ashcraft captured this view of what appears to be a Gamma Delphinid fireball. Click on the image to watch the video on Vimeo, or watch the embedded version below.

Skywatchers were hoping for a fireworks show from the Gamma Delphinid meteor shower early Tuesday, but what they got were merely a few snaps, crackles and pops. That's not totally surprising, because some experts said in advance they weren't sure whether the meteor shower actually existed.

"I think it exists," Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office told NBC News, "but there was certainly no outburst last night."

Cooke, who's based at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, said "a few people" in Colorado reported sightings of meteors apparently emanating from the double star Gamma Delphini. That assessment was seconded by Robert Lunsford of the American Meteor Society, who said the typical observation "mentioned none or perhaps one Gamma Delphinid being seen" along with several other random meteors.

One observer in New Mexico, Thomas Ashcraft, captured an impressive video of what he said was a probable Gamma Delphinid fireball. Other skywatchers posted their pictures to the Meteorobs discussion forum. But the display was nothing like the outburst reported on June 11, 1930. Astronomers had hoped that something similar would be seen late Monday and early Tuesday, because Earth was traveling through what should have been the same field of cosmic debris.

"It was a very minor shower — but that's why we look, right?" Cooke said.

The next significant event on the shooting-star schedule is the always-reliable Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on the night of Aug. 11-12. But the biggest meteoric mystery surrounds what will happen on May 23-24, 2014. That's when Earth is due to make its first orbital trip through the stuff left behind by Comet 209P/LINEAR (2004 CB).

"We've never seen meteors from this one before," Cooke said. The apparent point of origin for the meteor streaks, known as the radiant, will be in the northern constellation Camelopardalis.

The peak time is expected to come somewhere between 2 and 5 a.m. ET on May 24, and some experts are speculating that the meteor count could range upwards of 400 flashes an hour. Astronomers Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, who sounded the alert about the Gamma Delphinids, say there's a chance that next May's shower could turn into an honest-to-goodness meteor storm. They're calling for more observations of Comet 209P to determine whether multiple streams of debris will come together in 2014.

Will there be fireworks from the 209P-ids, or the Camelids, or whatever this new meteor shower ends up being called? Or will it turn out to be another disappointment? Wait till next year!

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.