A meteor shower outburst from a shattered comet may spawn a new tau Herculids display on May 30
New for 2022, the tau Herculid meteor shower may make an appearance on the night of May 30-31. Come the end of May, things could turn exciting, thanks again to this same tiny comet. Yet, there is also a small chance of something extraordinary — perhaps one of the most dramatic meteor displays since the spectacular Leonid meteor showers (opens in new tab) of more than 20 years ago. Related: These meteorites contain all of the building blocks of DNA This rather compelling story begins 92 years ago, on the night of May 2, 1930. After discovery, orbital data for comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (opens in new tab) (which from here on we will refer to as ‘SW 3’) show it passing only 5. Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann and its fragment fly through the view of Slooh’s high-magnification telescope in Chile. Astronomers expected comet SW 3 to make another uneventful return in the fall of 1995. But this wasn’t a “new” comet at all — it was SW 3! This was astonishing because the comet never came closer to Earth in 1995 than 122 million miles (196 million km). The comet was still quite bright on its next visit in the fall of 2000, showing that two of the fragments spotted in 1995 had returned, together with a new one, which probably broke off during the 1995 return.
In the spring of 2006, the disintegrating comet made its return appearance (opens in new tab), initially showing at least eight remnants, and some of the fragments were themselves forming their own sub-fragments. On April 18, 2006, the Hubble Space Telescope (opens in new tab) recorded dozens of fragments (opens in new tab). A disintegrating comet with an orbit that comes very close to our Earth, opens up a discussion about the possibility of a new meteor shower (opens in new tab) being spawned. As a consequence, those larger particles expelled in 1995 may have migrated to a position forward of the comet, not behind. Studies by teams of reputable meteor shower experts, including one from Germany, and others from Japan (opens in new tab), France, (opens in new tab) as well as by this author (opens in new tab), have all come to the same conclusion: Earth will have a direct interaction with material released from the splitting of SW 3 at the end of May 1995. If you’re hoping to photograph the tau Herculid meteor shower, or want to prepare your gear for the next skywatching event, check out our best cameras for astrophotography and best lenses for astrophotography (opens in new tab). If this meteor outburst comes to pass, their possible radiant, or emanation point would be positioned within the boundaries of the constellation of Boötes the Herdsman (opens in new tab), about 6 degrees north-northwest of the brilliant yellow-orange star, Arcturus (opens in new tab). As for the zone of visibility, a large portion of the contiguous United States, south-central and eastern Canada (including the Maritime Provinces), Mexico, Central and South America and a small slice of West Africa are the regions of the world well-positioned for this event. This map shows the visibility of a potential meteor outburst and is based on the assumption that peak activity will occur close to 5h UT on May 31. Across parts of the Pacific Northwest, the northern Rockies and Great Plains, as well as for a slice of the Canadian Prairies, northern Ontario, central Quebec, most of Newfoundland and Labrador, the peak is expected to come during astronomical twilight (opens in new tab) (sun 12 to 18 degrees below the horizon), but the sky should still be sufficiently dark for sighting the brighter stars as well as any bright meteors. Unfortunately, for far western and northern North America, as well as for the rest of the globe, the sky will either be too bright, bathed in sunlight or facing away from any incoming meteors, precluding a view of any possible display.
As far as the moon is concerned, it will be new on May 30. The tau Herculids might produce a similar number of meteors observed during the annual Geminid meteor shower in December. On the other hand, we might see meteors coming by the dozens; a strong outburst similar in numbers to the annual December Geminids (opens in new tab). And if we pass through a heavy concentration of comet debris, then there is a possibility of a full-fledged meteor storm! (opens in new tab)As for how long any outburst might last, it would probably be short-lived; not more than several hours at most. To best view the possible meteor shower, go to the darkest possible location, lean back and relax. You’re going to be outside for a while, as you’ll need to wait for your eyes to become dark adapted. The most important thing concerning your possible meteor watch is finding a dark site far from any bright lights from which to observe. And here is the reason: The particles will encounter the Earth at a very low velocity of just 10 miles (16 km) per second. So, remember: The darker your sky, the more meteors you’ll see.
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