Best Meteor Shower of the 21st Century: Tau Herculid Meteor Storm
What meteor showers are the most prolific? They’re called meteor storms — strong, spectacular, and, of course, rare. So rare that you might only see one once or twice in a lifetime. And a meteor storm is (probably) going to happen in 2022 — read this article not to miss it!
- What is a meteor storm?
- What causes a meteor storm?
- How often do meteor storms happen?
- Tau Herculids: the possible meteor storm of 2022
What is a meteor storm?
Meteor storms are the meteor showers that provide over 1,000 meteors per hour.
To measure the intensity of a meteor shower, astronomers use the Zenith Hourly Rate or ZHR — the number of meteors an observer might see at the peak of a shower’s activity. “Might see” because to calculate ZHR, we assume conditions are ideal, and the meteor shower’s radiant is directly overhead.
A weak meteor shower produces about 2 meteors per hour, a minor one — from 2 to 10. Major meteor showers surpass 10 meteors per hour and can even have a ZHR of about 100 meteors.
But very occasionally, the number of meteors gets to thousands per hour — such events are called the meteor storms.
Please note that a meteor storm doesn’t last for days; such outbursts are visible only for a short time — usually several hours or so.
What causes a meteor storm?
Meteor storms happen when the Earth passes through those parts of a comet’s path that are very rich in remnant debris.
While traveling through space, a comet leaves behind a trail of debris that the Earth’s orbit crosses from time to time. When this happens, tiny parts of cosmic dust enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, resulting in the bright streaks of light in the sky — meteors. Depending on the density of the debris, this results in a meteor shower or meteor storm.
How often do meteor storms happen?
Meteor storms are inconsistent. For example, the Leonid meteor shower is said to become a meteor storm every 33 years. However, in fact, the Leonid meteor storms took place in 1833, 1866, 1867, 1966, 1999, 2001, and 2002, and their activity within these years varied from 1,000 to about 50,000 meteors per hour.
Due to such inconsistency, meteor storms are hard to predict. So there is no meteor storm calendar for the next decade. If you want to stay abreast with the upcoming notable astronomy events, turn on notifications on our astronomy apps!
Tau Herculids: the possible meteor storm of 2022
The Tau Herculids are the most promising meteor event of 2022. It’s one of the youngest meteor showers, so weak that most meteor showers lists ignore it. But this year, astronomers think that it will create an unforgettable show in the sky visible across North America.
It all depends on the Tau Herculids’ parent body, the comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 or SW3. It broke up in 1995 and apparently keeps fracturing, increasing the amount of debris in its path. According to calculations, in 2022, the Earth might cross the densest patch of debris than it has ever done before, which will provide an intense display. What are the chances for it? Let’s see.
Will there be a meteor storm in 2022?
Two conditions have to be met for the Tau Herculid meteor storm to occur:
The claim that SW3 expelled a large number of particles in 1995 has to be true.
The comet must eject the material at a certain speed — 27 m/sec (60 miles/h).
If just one of these factors isn’t true, there will be no meteor storm in 2022. However, don’t get disheartened too soon. There is a 90% chance that observers will see at least 600 meteors per hour — in comparison, the famous Perseids provide 100 meteors per hour on average.
How to observe Tau Herculids?
When to see meteors?
The meteor storm is expected to occur on May 30-31. Fortunately, the Moon will reach a new phase the day before, so its light won’t interrupt your observations.
Astronomers currently provide three different times for the start of the peak:
- May 31, 2022, at 04:55 GMT (12:55 a.m. EDT);
- May 31, 2022, at 05:04 GMT (01:04 a.m. EDT);
- May 31, 2022, at 05:17 GMT (01:17 a.m. EDT).
Don’t forget to convert this to your local time! For example, 05:04 GMT converted to central North America time is 12:04 a.m. CDT.
We suggest you start observations in advance — your chances of not missing the event will increase. Also, it’s unknown how long the meteor storm will last — the peak might last 15 minutes or several hours.
A slight increase in meteor counts might occur between May 28 and June 1. Dust from the comet’s 1892 and 1897 visits may appear in our sky between about 16:00 GMT on May 30 and about 10:00 GMT on May 31.
Where to see meteors?
The radiant of the Tau Herculids will rise high for much of northern and central North America. But in the northwestern United States and much of Canada, there will be twilight during the potential storm’s peak.
Meteors will appear to fly from the Tau Herculids’ radiant point located near the bright star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes. Find the radiant using the astronomy app Sky Tonight: launch the app, tap the magnifier icon in the lower-left corner, and type “Tau Herculids” in the search field. Then tap a target icon on the corresponding search result, and the app will show you the radiant on the map. Remember that to see the greatest number of meteors, look slightly away from the radiant point.
Tau Herculids’ meteors will be slow and, therefore, not very bright. Excessive light will wash out most of the meteors, so you need to observe from a very dark location. Find more tips for watching meteor showers in our article.
What is the difference between a meteor shower and a meteor storm?
A meteor shower provides from one to several hundred meteors per hour during its peak; during a meteor storm, this number increases by over 1,000. So basically, a meteor storm is the most prolific meteor shower. Learn more about meteors.
In what year did we experience the largest meteor shower or meteor storm?
The last time a meteor storm occurred in 2002; that year, the Leonids provided over 1,000 meteors per hour. Make sure you know how not to miss a meteor event by taking the “Catch a Shooting Star” quiz.
What is the biggest meteor shower in 2022?
If the Tau Herculids occur according to the best-case scenario, it undoubtedly will be the best meteor event of the year. If not, the Perseids, as usual, will provide the observers with the best view. Read more about the Perseid meteor shower in our article.
When is the next meteor storm?
After the Tau Herculids at the end of May 2022, the next remarkable meteor event is expected to be the Leonid meteor shower in 2034. According to the forecasts, that year, the Leonids will provide a ZHR of 400-500. But speaking of thousands of meteors, you’ll need to wait until 2098, when the Draconids might produce up to 20,000 meteors per hour.
Bottom line: Meteor storms are prolific meteor showers that provide more than 1,000 meteors per hour. They can’t be forecasted precisely, so you need to keep up with the latest stargazing news not to miss them. This year, there is a chance that the comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3’s outburst will provide a meteor storm on May 30-31 for much of North America.
We wish you clear skies and happy observations!