This Memorial Day weekend, Earthlings — especially those in North America — may be treated to the sight of another meteor shower.
Those meteors could erupt when our planet passes through the pieces of a disintegrating comet called Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (SW3). It’s not just a exciting opportunity for sky watchers; comet scientists are also eagerly anticipating the encounter. According to NASA, the meteor shower could surprise (or disappoint) overnight after Memorial Day (Monday, May 30) and end early Tuesday.
SW3 is quite close to the sun by comet standards; it completes an orbit around our star once every five years. In 1995 it began to shatter, shattering into dozens of small pieces and leaving behind a cloud of debris that continues to orbit the sun.
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We have seen comets separate before. According to William Reach, an astronomer at the SOFIA Science Center at NASA Ames Research Center in California, one in 100 periodic comets — and possibly even more — could eventually shatter.
Famous, in the 1990s, Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collapsed and large pieces hit Jupiter. But even though SW3’s ongoing decay looks somewhat similar, the process is “almost certainly not the same,” Reach told Space.com.
Scientists don’t know exactly what causes comets to break apart. It can be one or a combination of several factors. Shoemaker-Levy 9 collapsed under the pressure of Jupiter’s powerful gravitational pull, for example. But some other comets could break apart when volatile compounds within them, such as water, heat up and change from solid to gas.
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Additionally, the constant rocking of a comet from the inner solar system to the much colder outer reaches puts thermal stress on the body. With enough repeated stress, something might give way.
Anyway, SW3 is going their separate ways. And, over the past few decades, Earth’s orbit has brought our planet closer to traversing the resulting cloud of debris. This year, finally, seems to be the year we go through it. If this is indeed the case, much of the debris from the comet will fall into earth’s atmosphere and burn like meteors, some of which could be spectacular.
Astronomers certainly hope that will happen; they are eager to see the fragments of a celestial object up close. In fact, an astronomer, Jeremy Vaubaillonplans to get even closer by flying in a jet over New Mexico and Arizona during the meteor shower.
“Hovering over it, even just knowing it exists, shows that the particles survived,” Reach told Space.com. “We don’t really know. Some of them are frozen and they don’t survive.”
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When comet shards enter Earth’s atmosphere, scientists can observe their fragmentation, which can reveal information about their composition. And some of those shards may come from deep within a comet, an area astronomers can’t access just by looking at an object with a telescope.
Additionally, the potential meteor shower offers a rare chance for astronomers to get their hands on cometary material. In the past, after all, NASA has flown particle sensors through meteor streams to collect dust falling from the early days of the solar system.
“It’s basically like having a space mission, going to the comet and bringing it back, except the comet just shot them here,” Reach said.
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