The month of May could come to an end with a spectacular sky show — or a dud.
That’s what astronomy experts are saying about a fairly new meteor shower known as Tau Herculids, which is expected to be visible during the late-night hours on Monday, May 30, into the early-morning hours on Tuesday, May 31, 2022.
How visible? That’s the big question.
Experts say this meteor shower is not one of the reliable ones that appears every year during the same general time frame, but it is forecast to come into view from our planet at the tail end of Memorial Day night. And some believe the Tau Herculids shower has the potential to become a rare “meteor storm,” potentially producing hundreds of meteors — maybe as many as 1,000 per hour — for a short time.
“This is going to be an all or nothing event,” said Bill Cooke said, who heads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
Cooke said the meteors from this shower are tiny debris from a comet known as SW3, which was discovered in 1930 by two German astronomers, Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann.
The comet had a wide orbit, zipping around the sun every 5.4 years, Cooke said. But it was so faint that it wasn’t noticed again for several decades.
“Being so faint, SW3 wasn’t seen again until the late 1970s, seeming pretty normal until 1995, when astronomers realized the comet had become about 600 times brighter and went from a faint smudge to being visible with the naked eye during its passage, ” he noted. “Upon further investigation, astronomers realized SW3 had shattered into several pieces, littering its own orbital trail with debris. By the time it passed our way again in 2006, it was in nearly 70 pieces, and has continued to fragment further since then.”
Cooke says the speed of the comet’s debris will determine how good, or bad, our view will be from Earth on May 30 and May 31.
“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,” he said. “If the debris had slower ejection speeds, then nothing will make it to Earth and there will be no meteors from this comet.”
Joe Rao, an astronomy expert at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, agrees the upcoming sky event could be a disappointment, or it could turn out to be a dazzling display of shooting stars.
“It all depends on whether the debris has spread far enough out ahead of the comet to interact with our planet. If not, we’ll see next to nothing at all,” Rao wrote in this report on Space.com. “On the other hand, we might see meteors coming by the dozens; a strong outburst similar in numbers to the annual December Geminids. And if we pass through a heavy concentration of comet debris, then there is a possibility of a full-fledged meteor storm.”
How to see the meteor shower
Chris Bakley, an astro-photographer and astronomy expert from South Jersey, says even though a lot remains unknown about this meteor shower, it’s definitely worthy of staying up late to try to catch a glimpse or snap some photos.
“I want to let everyone know that this event has a low chance of happening,” he said. “But some of my best photographs over the years have come from opportunities just like this. This chance is worth taking and if it pans out, it could very well be the most spectacular night sky event we have ever seen here in New Jersey.”
Unlike normal meteor showers, Bakley said the Tau Herculids shower is expected to have a short viewing window because its peak will be short-lived.
“For us here in New Jersey, that peak will be from 12:30 am (on Monday, May 30) to 1:45 am (on Tuesday, May 31),” Bakley said.
“If the (meteor) storm doesn’t happen during that time, I still recommend staying out under the stars a little longer in case predictions were slightly wrong,” he added. “The radiant point will be high in the sky, so the meteors could happen anywhere. But for this event, you really need to venture into the darkest skies to view it perfectly.”
Similar to other meteor showers, this one can be viewed with no special equipment, like binoculars or telescopes. “But using a cell phone with night mode can help you capture an image you can share with all your friends and family,” Bakley said.
He recommends using a tripod (an inexpensive one would work fine), turning on the night mode settings, and choosing “the longest shutter speed your phone will allow.”
“If any meteors streak through in that time, your phone will capture it,” Bakley said. And, in a worse-case scenario, if the meteor shower fizzles out, you can still capture impressive photos of the stars.
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Len Melisurgo may be reached at [email protected].