(CNN) — Earth is expected to pass through the debris trail of a fragmented comet on Monday evening and Tuesday morning. This could produce a new meteor shower.
Night sky watchers in North America have the best chance of seeing the Herculid tau shower, with NASA recommending around 1 a.m. on the east coast or 10 p.m. on the west coast as the best times to look up. The moon is new, so there will be no moonlight to obscure the meteors.
However, there is no guarantee of a dazzling spectacle even if the sky is clear and dark, NASA pointed out. It really could be nothing.
The comet, officially known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, or SW3, was discovered in 1930 by German observers Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachman. It was not seen again until the late 1970s, and in the 1990s the comet broke into several pieces, according to NASA.
When SW3 passed Earth back in 2006, it was in nearly 70 pieces and has continued to fragment ever since, according to the release.
NASA said observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope published in 2009 indicated that some fragments were moving fast enough to be visible, which excites space scientists.
Every year there are about 30 meteor showers, which occur when Earth passes through the trail of debris left behind by a comet or asteroid, visible to the naked eye.
Some meteor showers have been around for centuries. For example, the Perseid meteor shower, which occurs every August, was first observed around 2,000 years ago and recorded by Chinese astronomers, according to NASA. New meteor showers like this, if they do materialize, are relatively rare.
It’s all or nothing
Debris from SW3 will hit Earth’s atmosphere more slowly than other meteor showers, and it’s the speed at which the debris hits, rather than the size of the debris, that causes the shower.
Even if they are visible, that means the meteors will be much fainter than, say, the eta Aquarid meteors seen this month.
“It’s going to be an all-or-nothing event. If the debris from SW3 was moving faster than 354 km/h when it separated from the comet, we could see a nice meteor shower. If the debris had a speed of ‘slower ejection, then nothing will reach Earth and there will be no meteors from that comet,’ said Bill Cooke, who directs NASA’s Office of Meteorological Environment at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, in a statement.
Meteor showers are usually named after the constellation from which they appear to radiate in the night sky, although Robert Lunsford, secretary general of the International Meteor Organization, said the tau herculids were given the wrong name. The scientist thinks they appear to radiate from a constellation known as Bootes, northwest of the bright orange star known as Arcturus (alpha Bootis).
“The radiant should be a large area of the sky and not a landmark. Therefore, any slow-moving meteor in this general area of the sky may be from SW3,” Lunsford said in a blog post.
“You don’t have to look straight up, because meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. In reality, they’re more likely to appear in the lower parts of the sky, because at that height, you look through a much thicker portion of atmosphere than looking up.
more meteor showers
If the Tau Herculeid shower turns out to be a dud, fear not, there are other opportunities to witness more meteor showers this year.
Delta Aquarids are best seen from the southern tropics on July 28-29, when the moon is nearly full.
Interestingly, another meteor shower peaks the same night: Alpha Capricorns. Although it’s a much weaker shower, it’s been known to produce glowing fireballs at its peak.
This rain will be visible to everyone, no matter which side of the equator they are on.
The most popular Perseid meteor shower of the year will peak between August 11 and 12 in the Northern Hemisphere, when the moon is 13% full.
Here is the list of remaining meteor showers in 2022, according to EarthSky:
- Southern Delta Aquarids: July 29-30
- Alpha Capricornids: July 30-31
- Perseids: August 11-12
- Orionids: October 20-21
- Southern Taurids: November 4-5
- Northern Taurids: November 11-12
- Leonidas: November 17-18
- Geminids: December 13-14
- Ursids: December 21-22
— Ashley Strickland contributed to this report.