Ready to embrace searing uncertainty?
The Tau Herculids meteor shower could light up North American skies on May 30-31. Or not. It is possible that we will cross the thickest part of the comet fragment that creates the debris, in which case the night sky will be filled with shooting stars.
If the shower happens in the right way, it could lead to a spectacular “meteor storm,” in which Earth passes through a particularly thick forest of space rock, leading to up to 1,000 shooting stars per hour, according to the Washington Post (opens in a new tab). And as a bonus, the moon will be new and the radiant, or apparent, direction of the sheaf is in the high constellation of Hercules in the northern sky. This means that there will be minimal natural light pollution to contend with when searching for shooting stars.
But the sky show is no guarantee, NASA warned. If the comet that spawned the storm has debris traveling at less than 220 mph (321 km/h), “then nothing will reach Earth and there will be no meteors from that comet”, Bill Cooke, who directs NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in a recent agency blog post. (opens in a new tab).
(opens in a new tab)
Meteors are best seen around 2 a.m. local time, and to best see them, people should get as far away from city lights as possible. Wear comfortable clothes, arm yourself against mosquitoes, and sit on a lawn chair to look up. The best meteor streaks appear away from the radiant.
The small solar system body causing this shower is a comet, much like an icy snowball, known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, or SW3 for short. The comet has been collapsing for some time and nearly 70 pieces have been observed as early as 2006, although NASA suspects other fragments lurk in the solar system.
“If it does reach us this year, debris from SW3 will hit Earth’s atmosphere very slowly, traveling just 10 miles [16 kilometers] per second,” the agency warned. Slower moving meteors tend to produce fainter trails across the sky, but we might be surprised.
Astrophotographers wishing to capture meteors should consult the Beginner’s Guide (opens in a new tab) on our partner website, Space.com. But if you can’t catch any this time, don’t worry because there are many more meteor showers every year. A usual big bet is the Perseids (opens in a new tab)which peaks around mid-August.
Editor’s note: If you take a great meteor photo and want to share it with Live Science readers, send your photo(s), comments, and name and location to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace.