A Comet Is Tearing Apart And Will Make For A Spectacular Night Sky Meteor Shower

meteor shower
The tau Hercluid meteor shower could provide an epic display in the late night sky at the close of May this year. If predictions come to fruition, the nights of May 30-31st may provide for a rare meteor outburst, or there may simply be nothing at all.

The comet responsible for all the hype is 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, also known as SW3. It was first detected in 1930 from the Hamburg Observatory by astronomers Arthur Wachmann and Carl Schwassman, as SW3 moved through the constellation Hercules. However, even though the comet passed only 5.7 million miles (9.2 million km) from Earth, it was never bright enough for the human eye to spot in the night sky. It was only viewable through a pair of good binoculars or a telescope.

SW3 performed a disappearing act of sorts, as it went missing between 1935 and 1974. During that time, it passed by eight times without being seen. It wasn't until March of 1979 that it finally reappeared, with its next viewing not until early 1990.

Then in 1995, numerous reports from observers throughout the world began rolling in to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams of a naked-eye comet, low in the western sky and having a dust tail 1 degree long. To the surprise of many, the comet was in fact SW3. It was shining 6.5 magnitudes brighter than had been anticipated, which equated to a nearly 400-fold increase in brightness.

sw3 comet
Fragments of Comet 73P, imaged by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/W. Reach

The reason for SW3 finally being viewable by the naked eye was due to the fact it had fractured into four parts. The discovery of the comet coming apart was made by observations at the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile.

It remained bright as it passed by once again in the fall of 2000, revealing that two of the fragments that were spotted in 1995 were still there, along with a new one which more than likely broke off during the 1995 passing.

By the time SW3 came back around in the Spring of 2006, it initially showed at least eight remnants, with some of the fragments now showing their own sub-fragments. The Hubble Space Telescope recorded dozens of fragments on April 18, 2006, and the Spitzer Space Telescope showed 45 comet chunks between May 4th and 6th. All in all, SW3 had broken up into more than 68 fragments, with its most recent showing in 2017 showing signs of it continuing to break apart.

With SW3 breaking apart as it is, it has brought up the conversation of possible new meteor showers being produced as it passes close to Earth. Studies by experts around the world suggest that the passing of SW3 in late May of this year could very likely produce a new meteor shower in the night sky. Predictions point to 1 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, May 31st, or 10 p.m. PDT on Monday, May 30th (depending where you are located).

Bill Cooke, who leads NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office as NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said, "This is going to be an all or nothing event. If the debris from SW3 was traveling more than 222 miles per hour when it separated from the comet, we might see a nice meteor shower. If the debris had slower ejection speeds, then nothing will make it to Earth and there will be no meteors from this comet."

Anyone who is hoping to view the possible tau Herculid meteor shower should do so from a location away from as much city light as possible. City lights can pollute the night sky and make it more difficult to view comet debris as it enters Earth's atmosphere. Be sure to share any photos and/or videos of the possible meteor shower with us here at Hot Hardware as well.

*Updated 5/14/2022 7:59 a.m. EST

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