Astronomers say there’s a chance that fragments of a comet will trigger a flurry of shooting stars and fireballs Monday night and early Tuesday morning.
In the evening of May 30 to the morning of May 31, it is possible that we will witness the birth of a new meteor shower called the tau Herculids. And there’s a slim chance it even erupts into a dramatic explosion or historic meteor storm that skywatchers will be talking about for years.
But there is also a chance that most people will see very little action as happened with thewhich never really materialized. What is certain is that our planet is about to cross the orbit of a comet named 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann (also known as SW3) which has been collapsing for at least 1995. This is when astronomers spotted the splitting of the comet’s nucleus. separated into four smaller pieces as it unexpectedly brightened by several orders of magnitude.
Over the past quarter century, the comet has continued to crack even further, into literally dozens of small pieces and countless small pieces of debris, dust and detritus.
While the loose remnants of the comet itself will be nowhere near Earth next week as we pass on its orbital path around the sun, substantial clouds of cinders from its disintegration are literally colliding with our planet. Many of these individual chunks will burn and snap in our upper atmosphere, with the smallest specks creating faint shooting stars and the larger pebbles perhaps exploding into slow-moving fireballs that light up the night for several seconds.
This event is kind of like the sky-watching equivalent of buying a lottery ticket: the chances of you winning/seeing something amazing aren’t great, but if we hit the jackpot and let’s get a real meteor storm with hundreds of meteors visible over a period of less than an hour, it will be something to remember for a lifetime. And, of course, there’s also a chance we’ll see something in the form of a more typical meteor shower, but not the historic grand prix storm.
“There are huge uncertainties here,” astronomer Ye Quanzhi said on YouTube. “We know something is going to happen, but we don’t know the outcome…Is it going to be the big show or is it close to nothing?”
According to the American Meteor Society, the ideal time to go out and look for tau Herculids is Monday evenings from 9:45 p.m. PT to 10:17 p.m. PT.
“The southwestern United States and Mexico are prime locations because the radiant, the area of sky where these meteors originate, will be located highest in dark skies,” Robert Lunsford wrote for AMS. “The explosion can be seen from southeastern Canada and the rest of the United States (from the east), but at a lower altitude.”
To watch the show, plan to go outside to a location as far away from light pollution as possible. Fortunately, the moon will cooperate by staying virtually dark all night. Get out at least 15 minutes before the aforementioned window to give your eyes time to adjust. Then lie down on the ground or in a lounge chair with as wide a view of the sky as possible and just watch.
For the best experience, orient yourself with the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) in your view. Meteors will appear to emanate from a point in the sky just to the left of the dipper handle.
Here’s hoping we all win that lottery ticket and have a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Let me know how it goes @EricCMack on Twitter.