There's some talk that a usually obscure meteor shower, the Tau Herculids, may this year become a meteor storm.
For details, see EarthSky News: Will the Tau Herculid meteors produce a storm?
The Tau Herculids come from periodic Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, which in 1995, began to break up, creating lots of debris scattered across its orbit. It's hard to know exactly where the fragments ended up ... but comet experts like Don Machholz think there's a good chance that we'll be passing through an unusually dense clump of particles when we cross 73P's orbit this year.
I'm not a big meteor watcher — I find most meteor showers distinctly underwhelming. But in November 2002, I was lucky enough to view the Leonid meteor storm from Fremont Peak, near San Juan Bautista, CA. Local (San Jose area) meteor expert Peter Jenniskens had predicted a storm that year, and Dave and I had faith in his predictions.
Unfortunately, the night of the storm, we were both sick with a terrible cold. But we didn't want to miss a possible storm, so we piled blankets and a thermos of something hot and our portable chair into the car and headed up to Fremont Peak, to join the hundreds of other people looking for a dark place to see the Leonids.
A November night is not really the best place to be sick with a cold, on a mountaintop in the wind, shivering under a couple of blankets. I had prepared a meteor counting program (Tux Meteor) but since we were barely functional, we decided not to try counting, left the laptops in the car and just bundled ourselves up and waited.
And soon after it got dark, it was clear that this was like nothing we'd ever seen.. Big, bright meteors coming every few seconds — a far cry from a normal meteor shower where you're waiting minutes to see one streak across the sky.
We stayed several hours. I don't remember how long, exactly, but the peak had passed and the number of meteors was diminishing (though still much better than a typical meteor shower), and we decided we'd better stop fighting the cold and leave before we got so sick neither of us could be trusted to drive back down the windy mountain road.
It wasn't til the next day that it occurred to me that if I'd mustered the energy at the beginning to walk to the car and get the laptops with the meteor counting programs, we would have had two excellent heat sources on our laps under the blankets. (This was back before laptops with cool-running CPUs.) That November night, we were too physically miserable, our brains too addled, to think straight.
Uncomfortable? Yes. Sicker the next day? Probably. But it was so worth it. We were both very glad we'd gone. It was certainly an unforgettable experience.
Will this year's Tau Herculids compare to the 2002 Leonid storm? Machholz's article suggests he thinks it might be even better. And it will certainly be easier to watch. The peak is at a convenient time for US viewers (11pm MDT, 9am PDT) and the new moon won't interfere at all. And it's May, not November, so the night will probably be pleasantly warm (though of course, you should always bring cold-weather clothing when going to any nighttime astronomy event).
It's even easier for me now that I live in a place where I can just turn off the house lights and step out onto the patio. (I just hope our typical afternoon clouds clear before 11.) Folks in Los Alamos might want to get to the east end of town, like the Anniversary Trailhead (the trail is still closed, but the trailhead isn't) or the Canyon Rim trailhead, somewhere where the town's light dome isn't interfering. Or better yet, drive down to Overlook Park. Bay Area folks have a harder time finding dark skies: I suggest either Fremont Peak or Henry Coe state parks. For the rest of the world, I have no specific suggestions, but if this storm happens, you'll see much more of it if you try to get to a place with as dark a sky as possible, and you'll be very glad you made the effort.
I wish you all good luck, dark skies, and many meteors!
[ 17:42 May 28, 2022 More science/astro | permalink to this entry | ]