In 1995, a small comet, known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, unexpectedly broke in to several fragments. Since that initial disruption, this comet continued to disintegrate as it orbited the Sun about every five and a half years. Dozens of bits and pieces have crumbled off of the original fragments over the last twenty years. This following clip, from 2006, demonstrates this:
May 30-31: Look For Meteors!
Astronomers world-wide have investigated the prospect of Earth’s passage through this swarm of freshly ejected material, which could lead to a meteor shower. While some think Earth will not interact with this comet’s material, others suggest our planet will have a direct interaction with the comet debris, and possibly produce an outburst of meteor activity late on the nights of Memorial Day, May 30, and May 31, 2022. (Check our Memorial Day forecast to see if the weather will be good for stargazing in your area.)
Where and when to Look
If the meteor display does materialize, it would appear to dart from a part of the sky near the brilliant orange star Arcturus, in the constellation of Boötes, the Herdsman. To find it, locate the stars in the handle of the Big Dipper; they make a curve that is easily translated into a smooth arc. Continue that imaginary arc about the length of the Big Dipper and you will arrive at Arcturus.
As to when the shower should reach its peak, for those in the Pacific Time Zone, it should be 10 p.m. on May 30th; for those in the Eastern Time Zone, that translates to 1 a.m. on May 31st. Unfortunately, for the Pacific Northwest, the twilight sky will likely be too bright, probably precluding a view of any possible display.
Let’s just hope that Mother Nature is in “show-off mode” that night.
Check our website FarmersAlmanac.com for updates and more information.
A Disclaimer for Meteor Watchers
We have never encountered this swarm before, so we can’t say for sure exactly what to expect. In the best-case scenario, a bevy of slow, bright meteors, glowing with a ruddy or orange tint, falling at the rate of hundreds of miles per hour could happen.
On the other hand, we may encounter very few comet particles—possibly none at all. There is also a chance that the meteors will be so faint that they will not be visible to the naked eye.
The occurrence of a meteor shower requires a unique set of circumstances:
1) Typically, meteor showers are caused by tiny dust or sand-grain-sized particles. In this case, the comet bits are believed to be larger: nugget-sized.
2) When the comet fractured, the material was expelled at unusually high velocities. Such material would tend to migrate ahead of the comet as it makes its way around the Sun, ultimately colliding with Earth. Unfortunately, such calculations are fraught with uncertainties.
In any event, it will be worth taking a chance at catching what could be the greatest new sky spectacle.
Will you be watching for meteors this Memorial Day? Let us know in the comments below!
Curious about other stargazing events in the month of May? Look at our Night Sky Guide!
Joe Rao is an esteemed astronomer who writes for Space.com, Sky & Telescope, and Natural History Magazine. Mr. Rao is a regular contributor to the Farmers' Almanac and serves as an associate lecturer for the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.