Heads up! On Monday night, May 30, we may witness a new meteor shower and impressive display of shooting stars, thanks to a comet that’s breaking apart! Will a newcomer—the Tau Herculids showers—make an epic appearance? Bob Berman fills us in on the latest astronomy news.
Some words in English are frustratingly ambiguous. “Earthquake” can mean a tremor that no one can feel or a city-destroying cataclysm!
Astronomy also has such terms. We just had a very beautiful total lunar eclipse last week. But in the two years prior (2020, 2021), we had eclipse varieties in which you never saw the slightest thing happen.
The Meteor Shower: Not All Are Equal!
The same is true of the term “meteor shower.” Every night between midnight and dawn, an average of six shooting stars are visible each hour, and virtually nobody bothers to put out a lawn chair and watch for them. Only slightly better are the two dozen minor meteor showers we get annually. Though the TV weather-person sometimes announces them in grand fashion, on such nights a diligent observer might merely see one or two every ten minutes, with most observing far fewer if viewing from a big town or city, or if there’s a bright Moon.
A giant step upward is a major meteor shower, in which one-a-minute graces the heavens. This is definitely worth the trouble, and we’ll get the next one of those on December 13 with the Geminids—the biggest meteor shower of the year. (Note: The Perseid meteors of August are a major shower as well, but this year they will compete directly with a full Moon.)
The Grand Prize: A Meteor Storm
But the grand prize, called a “meteor storm,” is a whole different kettle of fish. We last had one of those in the late night hours of November 18, 2001. Then, the Northeast US had cloudless, moonless skies, and seven dazzlingly bright, green shooting stars trailed by lingering trains that glowed for a while were seen every single minute for several hours. The meteor storms of 1966, 1866, and 1833 displayed as many as 50 meteors per second—for several hours!
Such a spectacle makes “meteor storm” a top-tier visual natural spectacle that competes with a total solar eclipse or a major display of the aurora borealis. Alas, after the 2001 event, the next likely storm won’t happen until November 18, 2099. But there’s a chance we’ll get one this Monday night!
The Chance for a Mind-Bending Meteor Storm
That’s right, as Monday, May 30, comes to an end at midnight, that’s just when planet Earth may start plowing through the debris left behind by a shattered comet.
On that night, we may be gifted a new meteor shower—the Tau Herculids—and it may one of the best displays of the year.
Let me caution you: The chances are only poor-to-fair. But at least there’ll be no sky-spoiling bright Moon, as it’s a “New Moon” the prior day. So, if it’s mostly clear that night, why not stay up and look overhead between midnight and 1 AM on Monday night?
Maximum activity is expected on May 30-31, 2022 at 5:00 UTC, which translates as follows by time zone:
1 A.M.EDT on May 31
Midnight CDT on May 30
11 P.M MDT on May 30
10 P.M.PDT on May 30
Happily, most of North America will have the chance to see this phenomenon. The shower’s radiant or point from which the meteors stream will be above Baja, California near the bright star Arcturus. However, you don’t really need a sky map. Meteor showers can be viewed anywhere in the sky, especially with no Moon to steal the show this year.
Above: The shower’s radiant will be almost straight above Baja California Credit: Josselin Desmars (IMCCE/IPSA)
The most important thing is finding a dark site far from any bright lights. Also, give your eyes 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness. Sit back in a reclining chair, bring a blanket if it will be cool, and let your eyes wander all over the sky.
A Story of a Crumbling Comet
If you’re curious as to the story behind this possible meteor storm, here’s the scoop.
In 1995, a comet (Comet SW3) exploded and split apart and continues to deteriorate as many, many fragments break off. This year is the first time since this catastrophic breakup that the Earth will cross one or more of the comet’s debris streams.
SW3 (short for “73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3”) is a tiny comet that orbits the Sun every 5.4 years. After its discovery in 1930, astronomers observed a handful of meteors emerge from a radiant near a star called tau Herculis, so the shower has since been called “the tau Herculid meteor shower.”
Normally, we don’t see a display from the tau Herculids. Will the big 1995 explosion and fragmentation event of SW3 spawn a meteor shower on May 30—or, even a spectacular meteor storm?
If we pass through large pieces from the crumbling comet AND the speed is also strong enough AND the debris isn’t too spread out, we may see dozens of bright meteors.
Better yet, if we pass through a particular dense concentration of debris, the display could be as intense as a meteor storm (1000 or more meteors per hour!) In 1966, the Leonid meteor storm was so stupendous that meteors were falling at a rate described by many as “too numerous to count.”
So, yes, there are a few conditions to create that “perfect storm.” It’ll probably be a false alarm, but if we get lucky it may be the greatest sight of your entire life.