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When and where to watch the Camelopardalids meteor shower

A 23-minute exposure of a meteor shower in Joshua Tree.
A 23-minute exposure of a meteor shower in Joshua Tree.
Retro Traveler/Flicker
A 23-minute exposure of a meteor shower in Joshua Tree.
NASA map showing where the Camelopardalids will be visible in May, 2014.

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Look up in the sky tonight and you might get quite a show.

A never-before-seen meteor shower called the Camelopardalids is predicted to light up the sky late tonight across North America. It could rival the August Perseids and December Gemenids that we can see each year.

"Predicted" is a key word here, because as planetary scientist Bruce Betts explains, it could be a spectacular thousand-meteor-per-hour show, and it could be a total dud.

Betts says people should keep their expectations low, but shouldn't miss it, because it could be great, "If it comes in the way people hope, or even the middle range prediction, it'll be well worth people's time." 

When and where will the meteors be best viewed?

What exactly is a meteor shower?

"When you see meteors you're seeing a little bit of dust or sand-sized particle usually thats hitting the earth's atmosphere really high up. It's hitting it really, really fast at many kilometers per second. Miles per second. It burns up very quickly due to friction and glows as its burning up, makes a streak of light. When the earth passes through debris leftover from comets that they shed and their tails and comas, that can create a meteor shower. There are meteors every night, but you get more during a so-called shower as we pass through a pile of gunk leftover from comets passing by in the past. In this case we've got a new one."

What's so special about this meteor shower?

"What's special is that there's a comet, which orbits out towards Jupiter and comes in by Earth, it has a 5-year period, fairly mundane comet, but in this case its orbit has changed over time...modified, evolved. Earth is passing through the comet's orbit for the first time this year...This is the only year we will not only be crossing this comet orbit, but also crossing kinda near the comet, so there may be a spectacular thousand meteors per hour, there also may be 10 meteors per hour. So go out with low expectations, but don't miss it because it could be great."

We only have one chance to view this particular shower?

"This is the only time in that three decades that we'll be passing in an area that we think there's at least a higher likelihood of a concentrated bunch of dust and debris. You have periodic meteor showers that happen every year. The two best are the Perseids in August and the Gemenids in December. Those are from constant orbit comets, lots of debris over thousands of years orbiting the sun, very regular, very good to go see. This is the opposite...One time shot, may be unbelievable spectacular or may really stink, so go out with the intent to look at the sky and have fun."

Watch a LIVE stream here.