Crumbling comet might give Maine its most dazzling meteor shower in 25 years
The possible nighttime show could appear Monday night into Tuesday morning, courtesy of a passing comet currently disintegrating into chunks as it zooms through the solar system. “It’s hard to predict comets and meteor showers,” said John Meader, who teaches astronomy through the Maine-based mobile Northern Stars Planetarium. Comets are large celestial objects made of dust and ice leftover from the formation of the solar system 4. Meteors, sometimes called shooting stars, are space particles burning up with a dramatic flash upon entering Earth’s atmosphere. Late Monday night, we will pass through comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann debris trail, and it could set off an astonishing show. The comet, also known by the shortened moniker SW3, was first observed in 1930 by German skywatchers Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann. Looking into the matter further, astronomers realized SW3 had fractured into a few pieces, with increased dust and particles trailing behind in a brilliant tail of reflected sunlight. By late Monday night, when skies are dark over Maine and the new moon is at the dimmest point in its cycle, Earth will pass through its cosmic crumbles, possibly causing hundreds of shooting stars per hour.
According to a paper published by the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office last October, six different scientific models trying to predict what will happen all came up with different answers. Some are predicting a comet show above Maine on par with the spectacular Leonid meteors showers of 1998 through 2001. Maine astronomer Larry Berz, former director of the Francis Malcolm Institute planetarium in Houlton, remembers the 1998 event well, calling it easily the most impressive meteoric event in the last 20 years. “Normal meteoric events like the Perseids or the Geminids produce an average of one a minute,” Berz said. However, Berz points out that the coming event is unpredictable because of how the SW3 comet has broken up. It all depends on how fast the comet detritus is moving when we pass through it. The only way to know for sure will be to hope for clear skies and then go outside and have a look. You’ll need to find a dark spot, away from streetlights or other artificial lights.
Remember to dress warm, fill your travel mug with hot chocolate and apply some good bug spray. Follow the handle’s arc to the bright, reddish star Arcturus, which is the brightest star in the constellation Bootes. They will not come from the shower’s namesake star Tau Herculis, as they once did, due to the complicated, wobbling orbits of objects in our solar system. Meader said trying to view possible celestial events like the Tau Herculids can be frustrating. But the unpredictability is also what keeps him gazing up into the infinite darkness while most people are sleeping. “As astronomy educators, we want the public to be excited but also understand things going on in space,” he said.
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