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Rare Meteor Storm Sighting May Light Up Memorial Day Weekend

Remnants of a broken comet could collide with the Earth to create a brief but intense meteor shower.

Meteor showers are nature’s light show.

Meteors are space rocks, and as they fall to Earth, they leave a bright trail, among the most enjoyable astronomy events. These shooting stars streak through the sky as Earth plows through a field of debris left behind by a comet. Most meteor showers are predictable, but the end of the Memorial Day weekend could bring a celestial wild card that outshines every other meteor shower of 2022.

Or not.

On Monday night, May 30, into Tuesday morning, May 31, the Earth may cross paths with the remnants of comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann (SW3), a defunct comet that broke apart in 1995.

After SW3 splintered into countless pieces nearly three decades ago, debris from the breakup could intersect the Earth at the end of the holiday weekend. If this comes to fruition, it could spark a brief but intense meteor shower over North America.

A time-lapse image of a meteor shower showing dozens of meteors lighting up the sky. (NASA/JPL)

The viewing window for the potential meteor storm is anticipated to last about 30 minutes, spanning from 12:45 to 1:17 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, May 31, according to the American Meteor Society.

“We believe this event has a chance of being something spectacular,” the American Meteor Society said on its website. “When viewing events such as these, one should expect nothing extraordinary to happen, but hope for the best!”

A rare meteor outburst is possible if the Earth encounters a rich field of debris from the comet, although the number of meteors visible is still uncertain. EarthSky said that if it evolves into a true meteor storm, it could be on par with the famous Leonid meteor storm of 1966, when there were as many as 40 meteors per second.

However, the event could be a dud if the cloud of fragments from SW3 misses the Earth.

Meteor storms are rare and can be difficult to predict with precision. Those hoping to see the show should head outside well before the anticipated start time of 12:45 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, May 31.

“Start your viewing session at least an hour prior to the time of the expected outburst, just in case the predictions are off,” the American Meteor Society said. “This will also allow your eyes to be fully adjusted to the dark surroundings.”

That’s important, as the meteors could be rather faint when compared to other meteor showers throughout the year. To preserve your night vision, avoid looking at any light sources while sky watching, such as a cell-phone screen or a streetlight.

Favorable weather is predicted for around half of the United States on Monday night, with mainly cloud-free conditions expected from Southern California to the Ohio Valley.

Clouds will be a concern for those hoping to catch a glimpse of the potential meteor storm along most of the Atlantic seaboard, as well as across the northern Plains and parts of the Pacific Northwest.

Clouds will also be an issue for most of Canada, although some breaks over southern Ontario and Quebec could be enough to see part of the show if the meteor storm comes to fruition.

After Memorial Day weekend, the next chance to watch a meteor shower won’t occur for another two months — and it will be a far cry from an all-out meteor storm.

Two meteor showers, the Southern delta Aquarids and the alpha Capricornids, will reach their peak on the final nights of July. The two will join forces to produce around 20 meteors per hour, including the chance to spot incredibly bright meteors known as fireballs.

Produced in association with AccuWeather.

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