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TONIGHT: Meteor storm or bust?

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(credit: Dumitrus)

Tonight’s Memorial Day holiday sky could be filled with a dazzling meteor storm of 1,000 shooting stars per hour or it could be entirely uneventful, scientists say.

This is because tonight, the Earth will pass through the debris from Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, or SW3. Discovered in 1930 by Arnold Schwassmann and Arthur Wachmann, the comet orbits the sun every 5.4 years and was pretty unremarkable until 1995, when it became 600 times brighter.  SW3 had fragmented into several pieces and littered its orbital tail with debris.

By the time the comet made it back around in 2006, astronomers say it had broken into nearly 70 pieces.  It is expected that the pieces have continued to degrade.

“This is going to be an all or nothing event. If the debris from SW3 was traveling more than 220 miles per hour when it separated from the comet, we might see a nice meteor shower. If the debris had slower ejection speeds, then nothing will make it to Earth and there will be no meteors from this comet,” explained Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

But if we do get a show, it is going to be a great one, and a true once-in-a-lifetime event.

NASA recommends skywatchers on the West Coast look up around 10 p.m. and those on the East Coast around 1 a.m.  For us in Mississippi, that’ll be sometime between midnight tonight and 1 a.m.  You want to look between the Big Dipper and Arcturus, the big, bright star to its left.

arc to arcturus

(credit: Astro Bob)

Or, view The Virtual Telescope Project’s livestream here.

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