On Tuesday, a meteor storm might be headed our way. The skies may light up with meteors (also known as shooting stars) or we could end up with nothing but clouds.
We often have regular meteor showers, such as the Eta Aquariids that happened earlier this month.
As comets go around the sun, they slowly heat up and as they do, bits of rock and dust fall off.
This leaves a cloud or halo of debris, that as the Earth passes through, we get a meteor shower.
Since the Earth goes around in a fairly circular orbit, we encounter this debris at about the same time, and in the same place in space. Hence, these events become regular events that we look forward to.
These showers usually produce 10 - 50 meteors in an hour, which is great to see, but not the vision of meteors raining down from the sky that some have.
However, on Tuesday, we might be headed for exactly that - a meteor storm. Unlike a shower, this is a one-off event that has the opportunity to produced hundreds of meteors or shooting stars.
These meteor storms get their name because of the intense rates, and are not regular events, but one-off events. As these comets go around the sun, over time, repeated heating from the sun can cause them to break up.
Imagine you have a snowball and you try to take it home with you.
It will start to melt until it loses its structure and falls apart.
Depending on how close to the sun these cosmic snowballs get, they can start to break apart and disintegrate.
When they do, a huge pile of dust and rock is left behind in a really dense cloud.
Over time, the Earth gets closer and closer to this pile until we cross into it, producing lots of meteors.
This storm is caused by comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann.
For a comet, the P designates that it is a periodic comet - it goes around the sun in a regular orbit, like Halley's comet.
The comet is also named after the person, persons, or group that found it, in this case Schwassmann and Wachmann.
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In 1995, this comet as it entered the inner-solar system, disintegrated with multiple large fragments detected. With these large fragments, we also expect a lot of smaller, tiny fragments.
On Tuesday, the Earth is expected to intersect this be cloud from 1995, and people are excited by what it may produce.
The big downside is the peak is expected around 3pm Tuesday Australian Eastern time - during our day.
So, if it does happen, we are likely to miss most of it here in Australia. If we are lucky, we might have a bunch of extra meteors in the early evening on Tuesday.
Exactly how many is hard to say. Some are hopeful that there could be well over a hundred, and we also could get none.
Meteor showers and storms are like cats - we love them, but they are hard to understand and predict what they may do.
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