Article image

Powerful meteor storm may light up North America's skies

The “most powerful meteor storm in generations” could light up North America’s skies on Tuesday morning. Americans can look up to watch the meteor storm between 00:45 and 01:17 am ET. According to Forbes, there could be an outburst of between 1,400 to 100,000 meteors.

The storm will be the result of a dying comet, SW3. Its fragments are predicted to cross through the Earth’s orbital path, and become visible in the skies above the United States and Canada. 

The SW3 comet is responsible for the fragments of dust that cause the Tau Herculids meteor shower. In 1995, the SW3 split into large fragments, and has fragmented even further since. 

The Earth could have a direct interaction with the debris from the comet for the very first time. NASA remains uncertain on whether the debris will reach the Earth this year, as they have cautioned the event will be “all or nothing.”

Meteor showers happen when the Earth passes through comet or asteroid debris. Meteor showers can recur annually, and as a result, can be predicted. 

Meteor storms, however, are less predictable. They happen when the Earth passes through a narrow and dense clump of space dust, turning into thousands of fast-moving stars. These fast moving stars provide an amazing show for star-gazers. 

The Tau Herculids meteor shower is a pattern associated with the Hercules constellation, the fifth largest constellation in the sky.

In 1930, SW3 was spotted by German observers Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann. In 1995, it unexpectedly became 400 times brighter, visible from the naked eye. This is because the comet’s core split into four, releasing gas and debris. 

By 2006, the comet had shattered into 68 pieces, and has now likely broken down even further. Computer modeling suggests that fragments have spread out of its orbit like tentacles. These fragments could become visible once the Earth plows into them. And this is set to happen on May 31st for the first time since 1995.

The result could be a dramatic meteor storm, depending on the concentration of debris Earth passes through. If visible, the meteor shower could last for up to two hours. 

Bill Cooke, who leads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center, explained that if the debris from SW3 was traveling more than 220 mph (354 km/h) when it separated from the comet, we might see a 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,” said Cooke. “It’s a perfect opportunity for space enthusiasts to get out and experience one of nature’s most vivid light shows.”

The best view will be from the southwest of the USA and Mexico, and could also be seen from the southeastern provinces of Canada.

For more information, here are some details that outline the differences between an asteroid, meteorite and other space rocks: 

  •  An asteroid is a large chunk of rock left over from collisions or the early solar system.
  • A comet is a rock covered in ice, methane and other compounds with an orbit much further out of the solar system.
  • A meteor is a flash of light in the atmosphere when debris burns up. The debris itself is known as a meteoroid. Most are vapourised in the atmosphere.
  • If the meteoroid makes it to Earth, it is called a meteorite.
  • Meteors, meteoroids and meteorites originate from asteroids and comets.
  • For example, if Earth passes through the tail of a comet, the debris burns up in the atmosphere, forming a meteor shower.

Here is a predicted schedule for the remaining meteor showers of 2022: 

  • Delta Aquarids: July 30 – 25 per hour – Steady stream over days
  • Alpha Capricornids: July 30 – 5 per hour – Yellow slow fireballs
  • Perseids: August 12-13 – 100 per hour – Bright, fast meteors with trains
  • Draconids: October 8-9 – 10 per hour – From comet Giacobini-Zimmer
  • Orionids: October 21-22 – 25 per hour – Fast with fine trains
  • Taurids: October 10-11 (Southern), November 12-13 (Northern) – 5 per hour – Very slow
  • Leonids: November 17-18 – 10 per hour – Fast and bright
  • Geminids: December 14-15 – 150 per hour – Bright and plentiful, few trains

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day