Y aura-t-il une tempête d'étoiles filantes le 31 mai ? Image composite des Géminides, grande pluie d'étoiles filantes, active en décembre. © Craig Taylor Photo, Adobe Stock

An exceptional shooting star storm could occur tonight!

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There are rains ofshooting Starseach month, which are more or less intense (more than 100 per hour for the Perseids), and there are, sometimes, storms of shooting stars which surpass all the others by their hourly rate of more than 1,000 meteors! And that’s what could happen on this night of May 30-31, 2022. Here’s why.

How to explain this sudden storm of shooting stars?

First of all, it is prudent to speak of this potential event in the conditional. The forecasts are based, in fact, on two solid studies by researchers whose models converge to declare this year 2022 as exceptional for themeteor swarm unknown to the Tau Herculides (that’s their name). Tonight, the Earth should meet on its orbit several streams of debris scattered by Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (a.k.a the comet 73P, for short) after its recent fragmentation of 1995. There would also be added older currents, dating from 1892 and 1897, and at the origin of potentials jerks which would amplify the spectacle.

“Our work suggests that the contrail ejected during the 1995 pass will encounter Earth on May 31, 2022, with a peak centered at 05:01 UT (07:01 Paris time), i.e. similar to this that previous studies have found,” writes Jérémie Vaubaillon, of the IMCCE.

What exactly is a shooting star? The answer with Franck Menant, in Futura in the Stars. © Futura

This comet which returns every 5.4 years (orbital period) has been known since 1930, when its discoverers expected it to be very brilliant. They were ultimately disappointed and later observations suggested that the elongated shape of its nucleus was the result of fragmentation. In any case, this is what happened in 1995 under the eyes wide open to several telescopes. Hubble and Spitzer later observed, in 2006 and 2007, the procession of dust and ice debris.

Animation created from Hubble’s multiple observations of Comet 73P. © Nasa

The best time to observe the meteor shower

Be that as it may, it is better to be ready, because if bursts occur it will be fantastic: certainly the most beautiful shower of shooting stars, by far, of the year and even of this beginning of the century. ” […] whatever you do, be prepared for surprises!, launches Jérémie Vaubaillon. And a bad surprise (eg a very weak ZHR) will in any case teach us something about the science of comets, meteors, meteoroids and the celestial mechanics of the Solar system. »

The best time to surprise them, according to the forecasts, will therefore be at the very end of the night for Western Europe, with possible surprises before (this is why we must remain patient and on the lookout) . The situation looks more favorable for the American continent (especially in Baja California, Mexico), where it will still be deep night. Especially since the Moon will be absent, thus avoiding disturbing the observation of these tiny grains which will strike the high atmosphere terrestrial to small speed (about 12 km/s). Rather slow meteors that could rain down by the hundreds, and not always easy to discern, because weak.

The name of tau Herculides comes from the eponymous star of the constellation of Hercules near which the radiant of the meteorite swarm was located when it was discovered in 1930. This year, the radiant is to be sought rather in Bouvier, not far of its brightest star Arcturus, with a red glow and easy to spot in the extension of the handle of the “Grande Casserole”. Good observation, and provided that the shower of shooting stars is torrential!

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Several specialists believe that the night of May 23 to 24 will probably be the scene of an exceptional shower of shooting stars. The debris swarmed several decades ago by comet 209P/Linear could indeed be damaged in our atmosphere. The less optimistic nevertheless predict an intense rain, punctuated by the fall of 100 to 400 meteors per hour. A show not to be missed.

The traditional shower of shooting stars which sprinkles sparks on the balmy evenings around August 12 and 13, the work of the Perseids, is far from being the only meteor event of the year not to be missed: the swarms are numerous to enliven our nights every month, like the recent Lyrids from the end of April or myriads of Leonids (November) and Geminids (december). Of course, it happens that their activity is lower than expected, delayed by a few hours, or even favorable to observers located in another region of the world. The opposite can also happen, to the delight of those who have prepared to admire them.

Let us recall that in each case, it is a question at the origin of comets who have shed part of their gasdust and small grains during their periodic approach to the Sun. Also the flight and the abandonment of debris are unequal and related to currents of variable density. When it happens that the Earth crosses these swarms, their fall in the atmosphere then provokes accesses of fever meteoritics that we love so much to capture. Soon, probably on the night of May 23 to 24, perhaps we will experience an exceptional storm of shooting stars. Why such a phenomenon, and what to expect.

The first to mention the possibility of a meteorite storm on this date were international specialists in the matter. From 2012, Esko Lyytinen, Peter Jenniskens (Nasa) and Jeremy Vaubaillon (Institute of Celestial Mechanics) have indeed realized, after calculations, that the debris currents emitted by the small comet 209P/Linear between 1803 and 1924 should partly penetrate our atmosphere during the night of May 23 to 24. These dusts will be so tiny that only the largest grains would be visible. Also, if they are in large numbers as the researchers predict, then we could witness a real meteorite storm like we haven’t seen in a long time…

Rain or meteor storm?

Corroborating their calculations, other experts nevertheless temper their optimism and prefer to speak of a peak of activity between 100 and 400 meteors per hour. Below 1,000 meteors per hour to speak of a storm, the calculated peak is still enormous compared to the illustrious Perseids, which usually amaze us with 100 to 150 meteors per hour, depending on the year. Anyway, all warn that the activity remains difficult to anticipate, because the veins of debris of this comet discovered only in 2004 thanks to the program Linear are still poorly understood. Small (the size of its nucleus is estimated between 0.8 and 1 km) and very difficult to observe, its orbital period is only five years. This May 6, thestar hair, adorned with its tail of gas and dust, will reach its minimum distance from the Sun, or perihelion, which is 145 million kilometers (or 0.9 AU, a distance almost equal to that which separates us from our star). On May 29, it will be only 8.2 million kilometers, or 0.0554 AU, from Earth.

If its activity is confirmed, the swarm should have for radiant the Giraffe (Camelopardalis), a small and delicate constellation near the north celestial pole, wedged between Cassiopeia and the Big bear. This circumpolar position is very beneficial to observers of thenorthern hemisphere and guarantees visibility for the whole night. Moreover, the Moon will not represent any hindrance, because the fine crescent, in conjunction with the sparkling Venuswill not get up before 4:30 a.m. In order to optimize contemplation, all that remains is to find a clear site and relatively spared by the light pollution invading our cities, to make yourself comfortable and then to wait and count. Naturally, the suspense will remain until this evening of the peak of activity of the Camélopardalides. Good watching!

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