If you enjoy stargazing, get ready for what may be a spectacular one-time-only meteor shower overnight on May 30. Then again, the circumstances around the event are unique, so it might not occur.
Either way, it’ll be worth going outside for what may indeed be “an all or nothing event,” according to Bill Cooke, who leads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at the organization’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
A comet is essentially a giant “dirty snowball” made of frozen gasses with embedded rock and dust particles, according to NASA. Comets, which are about the “size of a small town,” originate outside the orbit of the outermost planets and follow an elliptical orbit around the sun.
As comets orbit the sun, they leave a debris trail of rock and dust. As Earth passes through these debris trails each year on its own orbit around the sun, debris particles collide with Earth’s atmosphere. Because these particles, about the size of grains of sand or pebbles, collide with Earth’s atmosphere at such high speeds, the resulting friction causes the particles to superheat, resulting in what appears to the unaided eye as streaks in the night sky.
That’s usually the case, anyway. Here’s what’s different this time.
In 1930, German observers Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann discovered a comet that became known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3. Then, in 1995, the comet unexpectedly broke into several fragments, exploding in all directions, explains Joe Rao, an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, according to Space.com.
This comet, which takes 5 and a half years to orbit the sun, has continued to disintegrate. In fact, dozens of bits and pieces have been breaking off the original fragments since 1995.
Why The Shower May, Or May Not, Occur
Meteor showers usually occur when Earth passes through a comet’s debris trail when the comet reaches the point where its orbit and Earth’s orbit intersect first. In this case, Earth will pass through the point where the two orbits intersect first, but because the comet’s debris has broken off in all directions, the debris might actually reach Earth.
If that does happen, the debris will strike Earth’s atmosphere very slowly — traveling at just 10 miles per second — explains Cooke. If that happens, the meteors will appear high in the night sky.
“This is going to be an all or nothing event. If the debris was traveling more than 220 miles per hour when it separated from the comet, we might see a nice meteor shower,” Cooke continues. “If the debris had slower ejection speeds, then nothing will make it to Earth and there will be no meteors from this comet.”
Rao adds that “in the best-case scenario, we could see a bevy of slow, bright meteors, glowing with a ruddy or orange tint, falling at the rate of scores or even many hundreds per hour,” according to Space.com.
How To Watch The Meteor Shower
If you’re in the Eastern time zone, the meteor shower should peak at 1:00 a.m. on May 31. In the Central time zone, that’ll be midnight on May 30 and 10 p.m. on May 30 Pacific time, according to Space.com
Watching a meteor shower is simple. All you need to do is go outside and lie down on your back or recline in a chair. Then just look up at the night sky. After about 30 minutes, your eyes will adjust to the darkness, and you will begin to see meteors.
If you really want to increase your chances of seeing the meteor shower, you’ll want to be somewhere dark — away from city lights — so you can see the sky more clearly. You can use this map of dark places to find places for optimal stargazing.
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