When fragments of a shattered comet approach Earth tonight, the chances of a meteor storm are “fickle,” says NASA. But astronomers are still excited about the potential of a swarm of new shooting stars.
The agency advises sky watchers to look at the constellation of Hercules tonight (May 30-31) for piece marks of 73P / Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (also known as SW 3). If the fragments arrive on Earth in the right way, they could create a spectacle high enough in our planet’s atmosphere.
But NASA says it’s important to keep your expectations open. “We are also excited about the meteor showers,” the agency wrote in a blog post (opens in a new tab) May 27. “But sometimes events like this don’t live up to expectations – it happened with the 2019 Alpha Monocerotid shower, for example.”
At the time, the most optimistic forecasts said there could be an explosion of 400 to 1,000 meteors per hour, even though the agency warned in 2019 that the show could end up being a failure. This is what happened, so NASA urges people to “channel their inner scientists and look beyond the headlines” to make sure they are prepared for their night under the stars.
If you are unable to see the event in person, you can watch the potential meteor storm tau Herculids online tonight with a live stream from the Virtual Telescope Project.
Related: Meteor Showers Guide 2022: Dates & Viewing Tips
Some of the keys to this rain’s success will include debris traveling at the right speed (no less than 220 mph or 321 km / h) and whether the Earth passes through the thickest part of the debris stream.
Incidentally, footage from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope suggests that at least some fragments were moving quite fast in 2009, which is “one of the reasons astronomers were so excited,” the agency said.
Even as meteors hit our atmosphere, however, tau Herculids are moving slowly by meteoric standards and will generate a faint sight, NASA warned. Previously, NASA astronomer Bill Cooke also called the potential meteor shower an “all or nothing event” in an agency blog post.
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While there will be a new moon that will allow for the best possible seeing, and Hercules will be high in the sky and away from the dense atmosphere on the horizon, the agency pointed out that there are no guarantees. “We can only hope it’s spectacular,” NASA said.
You should also take your local weather forecast into consideration. Coastal California between San Francisco and Portland, for example, should have overall clear skies except for possible clouds inland from Humboldt Bay, the National Weather Service tweeted (opens in a new tab) Sunday (May 29).
Independent meteorologist Mark Molnar has included a suit cloud cover map (opens in a new tab) forecast for the United States on Sunday, showing clear skies forecast for most areas apart from parts of the Northwest.
Rush hour to watch is around 1am on the east coast or 10pm on the west coast, according to NASA. For the best possible sighting, bring a garden chair, get as far away from artificial lights as possible, and give your eyes at least 20 minutes to adjust to the dark. If you have to use a flashlight or your phone, be sure to use a red filter to preserve your night vision.
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The agency suggests people look at the constellation Boote, a little north-northwest of its bright star Arcturus, to see shooting stars. (Your culture may use different names for these regions, for which we are using the monikers of the International Astronomical Union.)
Don’t worry if the tau Hercolides don’t end up happening as expected, however, as meteor showers happen quite often. August is a good bet as the Perseids from 11 to 12 August are among the brightest events of the year. Check out our upcoming 2022 meteor showers to plan your next excursion.
If you are hoping to photograph the Tau Herculid meteor shower or want to prepare your gear for the next skywatching event, check out our best cameras for astrophotography and best lenses for astrophotography. Read our guide on how to photograph meteors and meteor showers for more helpful tips for planning your photo shoot.
Editor’s Note: If you take an amazing photo of the Tau Herculids meteor shower and would like to share it with Space.com readers, please send your photos, comments, your name and location to firstname.lastname@example.org.