An infrared image of Comet SW3 taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in 2006. The comet has been disintegrating since 1995, providing the possible conditions for a Monday evening meteor shower. (NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech)
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SALT LAKE CITY – Patience may pay off for stargazers Monday night, as a new meteor shower may appear with the potential to dramatically illuminate the sky.
Astronomers believe that material taken from a small comet, SW3, may cause a large meteor shower called Tau Herculids, which will peak around 11 p.m. Monday, according to space.com.
Space.com columnist Joe Rao points out that the showers may have the intensity of stronger annual meteor showers. These showers are known to produce up to 100 meteors per hour, as shown in a rundown of 2022 meteor showers by the same space blog.
As an added bonus, there is a slight chance that Tau Herculids might propel themselves into a larger meteor explosion or storm, as thousands of meteors per hour can be seen pouring out of the night sky, Rao explains in his article.
However, all models and predictions may go down the drain and the night sky may remain dark from Monday night to Tuesday morning. It all depends on the timing of Earth’s orbit and the orbit of comet SW3.
If the Tau Herculids reach their full potential, the resulting display will rank among the most powerful meteor storms in history, said Patrick Wiggins, local astronomer and solar system ambassador for NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Utah. Rao compares best-case scenarios to Leonid Meteor’s showers 20 years ago.
Nobody can say for sure what will happen. A recent blog post by NASA is more conservative, not even mentioning the possibility of a storm.
Wiggins calls the probability of a storm “if it is significant.” However, that wouldn’t deter him from watching.
“The only sure thing,” he said, “is that I’ll be watching.”
Possibility to take a shower
Meteor showers occur when Earth encounters a swarm of debris left by a comet.
In a press article for Meteor International in 2022, Rao writes that by 11 p.m. Mountain Monday, Earth will meet SW3 orbit before the comet itself. This seems to make the possibility of any meteorite activity in 2022 non-existent.
However, with further modeling, Rao determined that it was possible that the SW3 debris cloud had moved ahead of the comet, enough to produce a shower. He wrote that two other studies support his findings.
Furthermore, Rao notes a similar collapse of the comet in the early 19th century, which occurred in the Andromedeid meteorite storms of 1872 and 1885. Rao’s paper notes that the similarities between these two comets could support the predictions of Storm Hercules.
Notes to watch
If you’re planning on viewing, Rao suggests following the normal protocol for watching meteor showers: warm clothes and a hot drink to combat the cold, a reclining chair to support your neck, and a red flashlight to demonstrate your night vision.
The names of meteor showers are usually formed after the point in the sky from which the meteors radiate, usually a constellation. When it was discovered in 1930, Rao’s paper said, Hercules was expected to radiate tau from the constellation Hercules.
Today, the radiation will be closer to the constellation Bootes. To find this constellation, locate the Big Dipper’s handle and arc your vision toward the first bright star you see: Arcturus, the brightest star in Bootes.
You don’t need to look directly at radiation to see meteors while showering. Science writer and former director of the Hansen Planetarium, Mark Littmann, wrote a book about the great Lynian meteor storms of the 19th century, in anticipation of rainfall in 1998 and 1999, titled Heaven on Fire. In this book, he explains that looking away from the shower’s radiation will actually allow you to see longer tails.
However, if a storm occurred, and thousands of meteors fell, looking directly at the beam would give the illusion of flying through space, similar to the Stars of the Union starring in the TV series “Star Trek,” Littman explained.
Rao warns that since the expected meteors will hit Earth on Monday night, they will also appear fainter, making dark skies a must. He adds that any eventual storm will be “short-lived; no more than several hours”.
Of course, weather is the primary factor in any astronomical event.
Quoted from the old adage about science fiction, Wiggins said, “See the sky.” “Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the sky.”