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Total lunar eclipse a certainty, meteor shower possible

May 4, 2022
This NASA image depicts what the appearance of the Moon during the May 2022 total lunar eclipse is likely to be.

By Joe Rao

May offers an unusual sky bwatching bounty: the possibility of two major celestial highlights occurring within the span of a single month. The first, a total lunar eclipse, is a certainty, but the second, a potentially strong meteor shower at month's end, is a wild card. Here's what you need to know to prepare for both sky watching opportunities.

The May 15-16 total eclipse of the moon is almost perfectly timed for most of the Americas; observers in the Eastern and Central time zones will be able to catch the entire eclipse, from start to finish, and many sky watchers farther west will still be able to catch the total phase of the eclipse.

For observers along the Pacific coast of Oregon, the moon will become totally eclipsed near or just after moonrise, transforming the moon into a ruddy, ghostly orb. The moon will also be "magnified" by an optical illusion as it comes above the east-southeast horizon, which could bode well for astro-photographers, who may be able to nicely frame the already-eclipsed moon with distant landmarks.

From Hawaii, moonrise nearly coincides with the end of totality; unfortunately for northern and western Alaska, the eclipse ends before moonrise. Across the Atlantic Ocean, moonset will intervene across much of Africa and Europe; much of central Europe will experience the drama of totality as the moon sets.

Here is a timetable for observers in the U.S.:
Moon enters umbra 10:28 p.m. 9:28 p.m. 8:28 p.m. Not visible
Total eclipse begins 11:29 p.m. 10:29 p.m. 9:29 p.m. 8:29 p.m.
Mid-eclipse 12:12 a.m. 11:12 p.m.  10:12 p.m. 9:12 p.m.
Total eclipse ends 12:54 a.m. 11:54 p.m. 10:54 p.m. 9:54 p.m.
Moon leaves umbra 1:56 a.m. 12:56 a.m. 11:56 p.m. 10:56 p.m.

Totality will last quite a bit longer than average: one hour and 25 minutes. The moon will pass south of the center of the Earth's shadow, so during the total phase the lower part of the moon will appear brightest while its upper portion should appear noticeably darker and more subdued.

However, the brightness and colors that appear on the moon will solely depend on the state of our atmosphere and a chaotic brew of clouds, volcanic dust and other contaminants, so it's hard to say in advance exactly how the totally eclipsed moon might look.

May 30-31: A brand-new meteor shower?
At the end of May, there's a chance we could be treated a brand-new meteor shower with the potential to be the best such display of 2022. It's a one-time-only event and the circumstances for producing meteor activity are rather unique.

In the autumn of 1995, a small, dim comet known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, unexpectedly broke into several fragments. Orbiting the sun about every 5.5 years, this comet has continued to disintegrate since its initial disruption. Dozens of bits and pieces have crumbled off the original fragments over the past 27 years.

Astronomers worldwide have since investigated whether Earth will pass through this swarm of freshly ejected material and if so, whether it might lead to a meteor shower. Sky watchers likely won't reach a consensus until a meteor shower either shows up late on the night of May 30 or fails to do so.

A few factors make the situation difficult to predict. Usually, meteor showers occur when Earth passes through tiny particles that trail behind the comet, with the comet crossing the point where the two orbits intersect before Earth does. But during this encounter, Earth will actually pass through the intersection first.

Normally, that would mean no meteor shower to be had. However, when this particular comet fell apart, it did so awfully violently, shooting out material in all directions at high speeds. And while the pressure of solar radiation would have pushed all the dust-like fragments into the tail, it shouldn't have been able to affect larger debris the size of gravel or pebbles.

And maybe, just maybe, enough of those larger pieces of debris fell into faster orbits than the main comet, allowing it to pass through the intersection point before Earth does. While this material would enter Earth's atmosphere at much slower speeds than most meteors, the larger size might make them bright enough to observe.

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

In the best-case scenario, we could see a bevy of slow, bright meteors, glowing with a ruddy or orange tint, falling at the rate of scores or even many hundreds per hour.

On the other hand, perhaps Earth will encounter very few comet particles or even none at all. Another possibility is that the meteors will be numerous, but so slow that they end up being very faint or not visible at all to the naked eye. Since we have never encountered this swarm before, we can't say for sure what to expect.

If the meteor display does materialize, the "shooting stars" would appear to dart from a part of the sky near the brilliant orange star Arcturus, in the constellation of Boötes, the Herdsman. To find it, the stars in the handle of the Big Dipper make a curve that is easily translated into a smooth arc. Continue that imaginary arc about the length of the Big Dipper and you will come to Arcturus.

As to when the shower should reach its peak, for those in the Pacific time zone it should be 10 p.m. on May 30; for those in the Eastern time zone that translates to 1 a.m. on May 31. Unfortunately, for the Pacific Northwest, the twilight sky will likely be too bright, probably precluding a view of any possible display.

For the more technically inclined, you can peruse a research paper I penned for the International Meteor Organization (IMO) about this potential meteor outburst.

Let's hope Nature is in a "show-off mode" that night!

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

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers' Almanac and other publications.

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Mike Weland, Publisher

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