If you follow astronomy news, you’ve likely heard some excited headlines in the last few weeks: for the first time in decades (at least), there’s a chance we’ll see a new meteor shower in just a few days.
Astronomers have been monitoring a comet which began breaking up almost thirty years ago and has now created a cloud of dust behind it strong enough – if at the right speed and angle – to create a potentially bombastic meteor shower we’ve never seen before. That’s right: I’m here to talk about the Tau Herculids meteor shower, what we know about it, if it will happen, and how to see these meteors if it does.
If your skies are looking clear for the next few nights and you’re up for the gamble of heading out on a night where nothing may happen at all, read on. The Tau Herculids could be one of the best meteor showers of the decade – or nothing at all. Such is the fun of loving astronomy (we’re always learning!) and trying to see astronomical events.
What are the Tau Herculids?
So what exactly are the Tau Herculids? While I don’t normally share a detailed “origin story” in my meteor shower guides, it’s helpful in the case of this particular meteor shower since it is brand new.
If they occur, the Tau Herculids will be caused by comet comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (which astronomers – and I – will call “SW3” just to make life easier). SW3 was discovered by German astronomers Friedrich Carl Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann in 1930, and its orbital data was quickly mapped. SW3 orbits the sun every 5.4 years, but it’s a tiny comet and hard to spot – in fact, it wasn’t spotted at all between 1935 and 1974 (probably a great disappointment to the two astronomer who discovered it, as Schwassmann passed away without ever seeing it again).
In any case, SW3 has been continuing its repeated journey through the solar system, and has been acted on by the dynamic forces of our system in the process. While astronomers predicted an uneventful visit from SW3 in 1995 where it would be visible from only moderately-powerful telescopes, they were shocked when reports of a comet visible to the naked eye began coming in when SW3 was expected.
During its 5.4-year orbit between early 1990 and 1995, SW3 began to break up; that year, the European Southern Observatory in Chile verified that the nucleus (core) of the comet had fractured into four parts. By 2006, there were dozens of fragments, observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. (For a tiny comet, SW3 has gotten a lot of attention!) During its most recent visit in early 2017, SW3 appeared to be in 68 fragments.
Why does this all matter? Well, as SW3 breaks apart, the larger pieces are roughly staying together during their journey through the solar system – but smaller pieces and dust are being cast off in a wide cone behind SW3 – much like those iconic images you’ve seen of cometary tails. The dust trail left by comets is what the Earth passes through to experience a meteor shower such as the Perseids or Geminids; SW3 is leaving a heck of an interesting trail behind it, and that means there may be a new meteor shower, which has been named the Tau Herculids meteor shower.
However, as I have alluded to several times, there are some factors which we don’t know that mean we may not see a meteor shower at all. It turns out, the orbital mechanics of the dust and debris play a huge role in meteor shower phenomena. If the dust and debris from SW3 has not jettisoned at a certain angle and speed, we won’t see anything at all on the night of peak activity, even as the Earth passes through SW3’s messy trail – if they did eject in a Goldilocks-just-right way, we’ll have a heck of a show. The fun part? We won’t know until it happens!
When to See the Tau Herculids
So if the Tau Herculids occur this year, as they are predicted to possibly do, you need to know when to look to the skies to see them.
The Tau Herculids meteor shower is expected to occur around 5am GMT on Tuesday, May 31, 2022.
That’s 1am EDT for those in the Eastern U.S., and 10pm PDT on Monday, May 30, 2022 for those out on the West Coast.
Additionally, May 30, 2022 is the New Moon, making it literally the best night of the month to spot Tau Herculid meteors if they are visible.
We know for sure that the Earth will pass through the trail left by SW3, but we don’t know what will be seen. If your skies are clear, it’s worth staying up to enjoy the show if it happens!
Where to See the Tau Herculids
When you ask “where can I see the Tau Herculids?,” again – there are two answers:
- The first answer is about where you can see the Tau Herculids in the night sky
- The second is about where you should go on earth to see the Tau Herculids
Let’s break each one down.
The Tau Herculids get their name from the constellation Hercules, which appears in the northern hemisphere near the constellations Lyra, Corona Borealis, and Boötes. However the expected radiant point of the Tau Herculids is actually predicted to within Boötes rather than Hercules, so you’ll want to find the eye-catching square “Keystone of Hercules” (use a star-finder app, like Night Sky) then shift your view westward to Boötes to be looking in the right part of the sky.
In terms of where on earth to see the Tau Herculids, there’s a lot of flexibility. The map aboveshows the angle of visibility and direction one should look to see Tau Herculids on the night of May 30/31; from the Baja Peninsula, Mexico, the radiant is directly overhead. Only locations on this map in the shaded part will be able to potentially spot Tau Herculids by looking in the appropriate direction and at the corresponding angle.
Also, it helps to be in a dark sky location, rather than near a city or town with bright lights. The darker the sky you can drive to, the better experience you’ll have! Here are more tips on seeing how to see the Tau Herculids if they occur.
Tips to See the Tau Herculids Meteor Shower
Here’s a quick list of tips to help make your Lyrids viewing a success:
- Find a dark sky location. If you can’t travel far, my urban stargazing guide is a good places to start. Use one of the city stargazing guides to find a place 1-2 hours from where you live, or peruse our World Space Tourism Guide to find dark sky places around the globe.
- Go out during the peak window. As mentioned, there is a very specific time the Tau Herculids meteor shower is expected to be begin (10pm PDT/1am EDT on May 30/31). If there is activity, it is not expected to last more than a few hours.
- Look throughout the whole sky, rather than focusing on the radiant point. While the radiant point is helpful in trying to spot meteors, it’s actually better to scan the whole sky around the radiant point so you’ll see Tau Herculids as they streak away from that area.
- Bring layers. Though the Tau Herculids occur during the warm beginning of summer, it can still get chilly at night. Bring extra clothing so your night of spotting meteors isn’t affected by being cold!
Equipment for Viewing the Tau Herculids
You don’t need any special equipment to view the Tau Herculids meteor shower, which is great. A telescope and binoculars won’t really work because meteors move so fast as they enter the atmosphere – your eyes alone are good enough!
If you want to try and photograph meteors, here are some resources to help:
- Here is my list of the best cameras for astrophotography, based on any budget.
- I have a list of astrophotography tips that will help you get acquainted with all the mechanics of shooting photos at night.
In general, the best thing to do is find a shutter speed, aperture, and ISO setting that allow you to capture the stars and any meteors in the frame you’re shooting. You may or may not see meteors with your eyes, but if you have your camera settings right, they’ll show up in the photos! (Many astrophotographers discover meteors in their photos even on non-meteor shower nights!)
Do you have any other questions about trying to see the 2022 Tau Herculids meteor shower? Let me know in the comments!