Infrared image of comet SW3 taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in 2006. The comet has been crashing since 1995, providing possible conditions for a meteor shower on Monday evening. (NASA, JPL, Caltech)
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SALT LAKE CITY — Patience could pay off for stargazers on Monday night as a new meteor shower with the potential to dramatically light up the sky could appear.
Astronomers suspect that material from a small comet, SW3, could cause a major meteor shower, called Tau Herculids, which will peak around 11 p.m. Monday, according to space.com.
Space.com columnist Joe Rao says the rain could have the intensity of stronger annual meteor showers. These showers are known to produce up to a hundred meteors per hour, as noted in a look at the 2022 meteor showers by the same space blog.
As an added bonus, there is a small possibility that the Tau Herculids are preparing for a larger outburst or meteor storm, where thousands of meteors per hour could be seen pouring down from the night sky, Rao explains in his post.
However, all models and forecasts could be wiped out and the night sky could remain dark from Monday evening to Tuesday morning. It all depends on the timing of the orbits of Earth and Comet SW3.
Patrick Wiggins, a local astronomer and NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador in Utah, said if the Tau Herculids reached their full potential, the resulting display would rank among the strongest meteor storms in history. Rao compared the best-case scenario to Leonid Meteor showers 20 years ago.
However, no one can say for sure what will happen. A recent blog post by NASA is more conservative, not even listing a storm as a possibility.
Wiggins calls the potential for a storm a “big if.” Still, that won’t deter him from watching.
“The only certain thing is that I’m going to watch,” he said.
The possibility of a shower
Meteor showers occur when Earth encounters a swarm of debris left behind by a comet.
In a a newspaper article for the International Meteor Organization on the 2022 Tau Herculids shower, Rao wrote that at 11 p.m. Monday from the mountains, Earth will cross SW3’s orbit just ahead of the comet itself. This seemed to make the possibility of any meteor activity in 2022 non-existent.
Additionally, Rao points to a similar comet breakup in the early 1800s, which resulted in the Andromeda meteor storms of 1872 and 1885. Rao’s paper suggests that the similarities between these two comets could support a tau Herculids storm prediction. .
Notes for watching
If you plan to watch, Rao suggests following the normal protocol for viewing a meteor shower: warm clothes and a hot drink to ward off the cold, a reclining chair to support your neck, and a red flashlight to persevere. in your night vision.
Meteor shower names are usually formed after the point in the sky from which the meteors radiate, usually a constellation. When discovered in 1930, the Tau Herculids must have radiated from the constellation of Hercules, according to Rao’s article.
Today, the radiant will be closer to the Bootes constellation. To find this constellation, locate the handle of the Big Dipper and direct your vision to the first bright star you see: Arcturus, the brightest star in Bootes.
You don’t have to look directly at the radiant to see meteors in a shower. science writer and former director of the Hansen Planetarium Mark Littman wrote a book about the Great Leonid meteor storms of the 19th century, in anticipation of the downpours of 1998 and 1999, titled “The Heavens on Fire”. In this book, he explains that looking away from the shower heater will actually allow you to see longer tails.
If a storm does occur, however, and thousands of meteors rain down, looking directly at the radiant will give the illusion of flying through space, similar to a Federation ship on the television series “Star Trek”, illustrated Littman.
Rao warns that since the expected meteors will catch up with Earth on Monday evening, they will also appear fainter, making dark skies imperative. He adds that a possible storm would be “short-lived, no more than several hours”.
And of course, weather is the ultimate factor in any astronomical event.
“Look at the sky,” said Wiggins, borrowing from the old sci-fi adage. “Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep looking at the sky.”
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