June 30, 2022

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Stunning new meteor showers from Tau Hercules may light up the skies over North America

Stunning new meteor showers from Tau Hercules may light up the skies over North America

This infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows a fractured comet 73P/Schwassman-Wachmann 3 spewing along a path of leftover debris during its multiple flights around the sun. The flame-like bodies are the comet fragments and tails, while the dusty trail of a comet is the line connecting the fragments. credit: NASA

Astronomers are excited about the possibility of new meteor showers on May 30-31, the tau Hercules shower expected to reach its peak on the night of May 30 and in the early morning of May 31.

In 1930, German observers Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann discovered a comet known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, or “SW3,” that orbited the Sun every 5.4 years. Being so faint, SW3 wasn’t seen again until the late 1970s, and it looked very normal until 1995, when astronomers realized that the comet had become about 600 times brighter and went from a faint smudge to being visible to the naked eye as it passed. Upon further investigation, astronomers realized that SW3 had shattered into several pieces, scattering debris on its orbital path. By the time we came our way back in 2006, it was roughly 70 pieces, and it has continued to break up further ever since.

If it reaches us this year, the SW3 debris will hit Earth’s atmosphere very slowly, traveling at 10 miles per second – meaning meteorites much lighter than those belonging to eta Aquariids. But stargazers in North America took special note this year because tau Hercules radiation will be high in the night sky at the expected peak time. Even better, the moon is new, so there will be no moonlight to wash away the faint meteors.

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“This would be an all-or-nothing event. 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,” said Bill Cook, who leads NASAThe Meteorite Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

All the excitement from astronomers and the public stirred up a lot of information about the Tau of Hercules. Some were accurate and some weren’t.

We’re excited about meteor showers, too! But sometimes such events do not live up to expectations – they happened with 2019 Alpha Monocerotid Shower, for example. And some astronomers speculate that a remarkable display of tau Herculids can “make or miss”.

Therefore, we encourage eager sky watchers to channel their inner science, and look beyond the headlines. Here are the facts:

  • On the night of May 30 through the early morning of May 31, Earth will pass through the trails of broken comet debris called 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, or SW3.
  • The comet, which broke into large fragments in 1995, will not reach this point in its orbit until August.
  • If the shrapnel is ejected at speeds greater than twice normal speeds – fast enough to reach Earth – we might get a meteor shower.
  • Spitzer Observations published in 2009 indicate that at least some parts are moving fast enough. This is one reason astronomers are so excited.
  • If a meteor shower occurs, the tau Herculids are slowly moving by meteorite standards – they will be faint.

North American observers under clear and dark skies have the best chance of seeing the tau Hercules shower. Peak viewing time is around 1 a.m. on the East Coast or 10 p.m. on the West Coast.

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We can’t be sure of what we’ll see. We can only hopefull she’s amazing.