A New Meteor Shower Might Give Us a Beautiful Storm of Shooting Stars Tonight
The tau Herculid meteor shower may or may not happen, but it has the potential to be special.
The details around meteor showers change some from year to year. How many meteors you might see in an hour, the date, and the phase of the moon are all variables. What you don't often see is a brand new meteor shower.
But that is what may happen on Monday night. What you'll see, however, is not clear. The tau Herculid meteor shower is new. It's the result of a comet that broke apart in the '90s. On the night of May 30 into the morning of May 31, Earth will pass through the debris trail of that comet. Astronomers are not quite sure what will happen, though. Some suggest we might not see anything at all. Others say that we could witness a vibrant meteor storm.
The excitement around the potential meteor shower has been building, and NASA says not all of the information about the event has been accurate because of that excitement. Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office calls it an "all or nothing event."
Why is this happening?
Comet 73p/Schwassmann-Wachmann was discovered in 1930 by Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachman. It was again spotted in the '70s, and in 1995 it broke into many pieces, per NASA, which says that it was in nearly 70 chunks when it passed Earth in 2006.
Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through the field of debris and dust left behind by comets or, occasionally, an asteroid. So, a new one appearing is relatively rare, making the potential for a shower on May 30 exciting.
How to see the tau Herculid meteor shower
NASA says the best time to look will be around 1 am on the east coast and 10 pm on the west coast, with viewers in North America having the best view of the potential display. The American Meteor Society (AMS) adds that the viewing window may be short, lasting only around half an hour.
Still, it's important to remember that there is no guarantee here. "If the fragments from were ejected with speeds greater than twice the normal speeds--fast enough to reach Earth--we might get a meteor shower," NASA says. It adds that observations from Spitzer published in 2009 suggest that some of the fragments are moving fast enough. "This is one reason why astronomers are excited."
If we do get a meteor shower, there may be many meteors in the sky, but they will not be bright. These meteors will be relatively slow-moving and somewhat dim. "If the debris from SW3 was traveling more than 220 miles per hour when it separated from the comet, we might see a nice meteor shower," Cooke said in a NASA blog post. "If the debris had slower ejection speeds, then nothing will make it to Earth and there will be no meteors from this comet."
If there is something to see, it's a great night for a meteor shower, as long you have clear skies. (Sorry, Upper Midwest.) There's a new moon, so the moon won't wash out dimmer meteors.
For your best chance of experiencing the potential celestial treat, you'll need to be out under clear, dark skies. You want to be far from the city lights because that rampant light pollution will make it hard if not impossible to see these dim meteors. With such a short window for viewing the peak of the potential shower, it will be important to find your viewing spot well before that window. You want to be ready and to have given your eyes time to adjust to the darkness so you can see as many meteors as possible. Our eyes adjust somewhat slowly to darkness, and that adjustment can be impaired by looking at a phone or using a flashlight that isn't giving off red light.
The AMS sums up the balance of the unknown with excitement on its site succinctly, "When viewing events such as these one should expect nothing extraordinary to happen, but certainly hope for the best!" It may be worth getting out there and hoping you get a Memorial Day weekend treat tonight.