How to watch tonight’s Tau Herculids meteor shower
As a periodic meteor shower, the Tau Herculids tend to be pretty boring, but astronomers have reason to believe this year’s version might be different. Here’s what you need to know about when, where and how to watch this promising celestial spectacle.
The Tau Herculids meteor shower occurs every year between May 19 and June 19, but hardly anyone notices it. This meteor shower is produced by debris from Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, and it’s usually very quiet, but the situation is a bit different this year. To understand why, we have to go back 27 years.
In 1995, comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 broken into parts into dozens of pieces. Tonight and into the early morning hours of May 31, Earth will pass through the comet’s debris tail, potentially including parts of the tail containing splinters. This paves the way for a possible explosion, but only if enough cometary debris reaches Earth. and that this debris is moving fast enough to create a light show in the atmosphere. Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 was discovered in the 1930s and orbits the Sun once every 5.4 years.
“If the fragments…were ejected at speeds greater than twice normal speeds – fast enough to reach Earth – we could have a meteor shower,” according to a NASA Press release. Excitingly, observations made with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope in 2009 “indicate that at least some fragments are moving quite quickly” and “that’s one of the reasons astronomers are excited,” added the space agency.
An unusually active meteor shower may or may not occur tonight. However, the fact that you want to stay awake and witness this promising display is justified, as the next Tau Herculids storm will not occur until 2049, according to to research from Western University in Ontario, Canada. And even then, the storm may not rival what may come tonight, as the dust tends to clear over time.
Observers in North America will have the best view, although it depends on clear and dark skies. The meteor shower will peak at 1:00 a.m. ET on the morning of May 31 or 10:00 p.m. PT on the evening of May 30. People living in areas where the sky will be clear, such as Australia, may watch the meteor shower online to the virtual telescope project.
Fragments are expected to move slowly across the sky and produce faint meteors. Debris will come from the direction of the Bootes Constellation, but you don’t necessarily have to look to that exact location. Western University astronomer Peter Brown said up to 30-40 meteors may be visible every hour, but it could be more.
“Some people say if the comet breakup happens you’ll see thousands of them per hour, but that’s extremely speculative,” Brown said. Told the CBC. “It will require a lot of big, centimeter-sized objects… I mean, yeah, it would be spectacular, but I think it’s like a lotto ticket. But I hope I’m wrong.
The intensity of meteor showers is difficult to predict, but tonight’s Tau Herculids, even if missed, are still important because the resulting data could help astronomers make more reliable predictions in the future.