Sky watchers could be in for a memorable spectacle Monday night and early Tuesday morning as the Earth passes through debris from a disintegrating comet, leading to a potential meteor shower with thousands of shooting stars per hour.
The meteor shower, known as the tau Herculids, could be spectacular, or it could be a total dud, astronomers said.
“This is going to be an all or nothing event," NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke said in a statement. If it does reach thousands of meteors per hour, it would be a "meteor storm," as opposed to a shower.
There is "a small chance of something extraordinary – perhaps one of the most dramatic meteor displays since the spectacular Leonid meteor showers of more than 20 years ago," said Joe Rao of Space.com.
Maximum activity is expected around 1 a.m. EDT Tuesday, the Space Weather Archive blog said.
The comet is known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (SW3), named after the two German astronomers who discovered it in 1930. The comet is breaking into dozens of pieces as it orbits the sun, which it does every 5.4 years, NASA said.
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In all, SW 3 has broken into more than 68 fragments. At its most recent appearance in March 2017, it showed signs that it sheds pieces in each return through the inner solar system, Rao said.
If it makes it to us this year, the debris from the comet will strike Earth’s atmosphere at 10 miles per second, which is on the slow side for a good meteor shower.
However, the event could be a dud if the cloud of fragments from SW3 misses the Earth, according to AccuWeather.
Stargazers will pay attention this year because meteors should be high in the night sky at the forecast peak time, NASA said. The higher the radiant point is in the sky, the more meteors you are likely to see.
Even better, the moon is new, so there will be no moonlight to wash out the faint meteors.
For ideal viewing of this or any meteor shower, find a spot away from city lights. Your eyes will need to adjust to the darkness, which could take 15 to 20 minutes. Watching meteor showers can take time, so be patient, experts advise. It could be worth the wait!
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tau Herculid meteor shower will happen Monday night, Tuesday morning