Science

May’s lunar eclipse and meteor shower could offer double spectacle

May offers an unusual reward for skywatching: the possibility of two major celestial phenomena occurring within the same month.

The first, a total lunar eclipse, is certain, but the second, a potentially massive meteor shower at the end of the month, is a wild card.

Here’s what you need to know to prepare for both skywatching opportunities.

On the subject: Lunar eclipses: what are they and when is the next one?

May 15-16: Total lunar eclipse.

This event is almost perfectly timed for most of America; observers in the eastern and central time zones will be able to catch the entire eclipse, from beginning to end, and many skywatchers further west will still be able to catch the total phase of the eclipse.

For observers on the Pacific coast of Oregon, the Moon will become completely eclipsed shortly before or just after moonrise, turning the Moon into a reddish ghost ball. The moon will also be “magnified” by an optical illusion when it appears above the horizon from east to southeast, which could bode well for astrophotographers, who can beautifully frame an already eclipsed moon with distant landmarks.

In Hawaii, moonrise almost coincides with the end of the full moon; unfortunately for northern and western Alaska, the eclipse ends before moonrise. Across the Atlantic Ocean, the moonset will pass through most of Africa and Europe; much of Central Europe will experience the drama of totality when the moon sets.

Here is the schedule for observers in the US:

PhaseEDTCDTMDTPDMoon enters shadow10:2828:2820:28InvisibleTotal eclipse begins11:2910:2929:2929:29Mid eclipse12:12 May 1611:12pm22:1221:12Total eclipse ends12:54 May 1611 :54pm22:5421:54Moon leaves shadow 16:12:56 May 16:11:56 pm 22:56

Totality will last a little longer than average: one hour and 25 minutes. The Moon will pass south of the center of the Earth’s shadow, so during full phase, the lower part of the Moon will appear brightest, while its upper part should appear noticeably darker and more muted.

However, the brightness and colors that appear on the Moon will depend solely on the state of our atmosphere and the chaotic mixing of clouds, volcanic dust and other pollutants, so it is difficult to predict exactly what a completely eclipsing Moon might look like in advance.

May 30-31: New meteor shower?

At the end of May, there is a chance that we will see a completely new meteor shower, which could potentially be the best such manifestation of 2022. This is a one-time event, and the circumstances for the occurrence of meteor activity are rather unique.

In the fall of 1995, a small, dim comet known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 suddenly broke up into several fragments. This comet, which orbits the Sun roughly every 5.5 years, has continued to decay since its initial breakup. Over the past 27 years, dozens of pieces have crumbled from the original fragments.

Since then, astronomers around the world have been investigating whether the Earth will pass through this swarm of freshly ejected material, and if so, whether it could lead to a meteor shower. Sky watchers will likely not come to a consensus until the meteor shower arrives late at night on May 30th, or appears.

A meteor hits New Jersey on April 22, 2022. (Image credit: Typhoon Koskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Several factors make it difficult to predict the situation. Typically, meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through tiny particles that follow the comet, with the comet crossing the point where the two orbits intersect before the Earth. But during this meeting, the Earth will actually pass the intersection of the first.

This usually means no meteor shower. However, when this particular comet broke apart, it did so in a terribly violent manner, throwing matter in all directions at high speeds. And while solar radiation pressure would have pushed all the dust-like fragments into the tail, it should not have affected larger debris the size of gravel or pebbles.

And maybe, just maybe, enough of these large pieces of debris got into faster orbits than the main comet, which allowed it to pass through the intersection point before the Earth. While this material will enter Earth’s atmosphere at a much slower rate than most meteors, the larger size could make them bright enough to be observed.

Unfortunately, such calculations are fraught with uncertainties that can mean the difference between “all or nothing”.

At best, we might see a flock of slow, bright meteors glowing red or orange, falling at tens or even hundreds per hour.

On the other hand, it is possible that the Earth will encounter very few or no cometary particles. Another possibility is that the meteors will be numerous but so slow that they will eventually be very faint or not visible to the naked eye at all. Since we’ve never encountered this swarm before, we can’t say exactly what to expect.

If the meteor does materialize, “shooting stars” would appear to fall from a part of the sky next to the bright orange star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes the Shepherd. To find it, the stars on the handle of the Big Dipper make a curve that easily turns into a smooth arc. Continue this imaginary arc to the length of Ursa Major and you will come to Arcturus.

As for when the downpour should reach its peak, for residents in the Pacific time zone, it should be 10:00 pm on May 30; for those in the Eastern time zone, this corresponds to 1:00 am on May 31st. Unfortunately for the Pacific Northwest, the twilight sky is likely to be too bright, likely to interfere with any possible display.

For those more technically inclined, you can check out a research paper I wrote for the International Meteor Organization (IMO) about this potential meteor explosion.

Let’s hope that Nature will be in “show mode” this night!

As we get closer to both of these events, Space.com will provide more information on how you can get the best view of them, so stay tuned!

Joe Rao is an instructor and guest lecturer at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He writes about astronomy for Natural History, Farmers’ Almanac, and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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