May's lunar eclipse and a wild-card meteor shower may offer double spectacle
May offers an unusual skywatching bounty: the possibility of two major celestial highlights occurring within the span of a single month. The first, a total lunar eclipse, is a certainty, but the second, a potentially strong meteor shower at month's end, is a wild card. Here's what you need to know to prepare for both skywatching opportunities. Related: Lunar eclipses: What are they & when is the next one? This event is almost perfectly timed for most of the Americas; observers in the Eastern and Central time zones will be able to catch the entire eclipse, from start to finish, and many skywatchers farther west will still be able to catch the total phase of the eclipse. For observers along the Pacific coast of Oregon, the moon will become totally eclipsed near or just after moonrise, transforming the moon into a ruddy, ghostly orb. From Hawaii, moonrise nearly coincides with the end of totality; unfortunately for northern and western Alaska, the eclipse ends before moonrise.
Totality will last quite a bit longer than average: one hour and 25 minutes. However, the brightness and colors that appear on the moon will solely depend on the state of our atmosphere and a chaotic brew of clouds, volcanic dust and other contaminants, so it's hard to say in advance exactly how the totally eclipsed moon might look. At the end of May, there's a chance we could be treated a brand-new meteor shower with the potential to be the best such display of 2022. In the autumn of 1995, a small, dim comet known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, unexpectedly broke into several fragments. Astronomers worldwide have since investigated whether Earth will pass through this swarm of freshly ejected material and if so, whether it might lead to a meteor shower. And maybe, just maybe, enough of those larger pieces of debris fell into faster orbits than the main comet, allowing it to pass through the intersection point before Earth does. Unfortunately, such calculations are fraught with uncertainties that could mean the difference between all or nothing.
In the best-case scenario, we could see a bevy of slow, bright meteors, glowing with a ruddy or orange tint, falling at the rate of scores or even many hundreds per hour. On the other hand, perhaps Earth will encounter very few comet particles or even none at all. If the meteor display does materialize, the "shooting stars" would appear to dart from a part of the sky near the brilliant orange star Arcturus, in the constellation of Boötes, the Herdsman. As to when the shower should reach its peak, for those in the Pacific time zone it should be 10 p. Let's hope Nature is in a "show-off mode" that night! Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium.
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