May offers an unusual bounty for sky-watching: the chance of two major celestial highlights occurring in the span of a single month.
The first, a total lunar eclipseis a certainty, but the second, a potentially strong meteor shower at the end of the month, is a wild card.
Here’s what you need to know to prepare for both skygazing opportunities.
Related: 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 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 further west will still be able to catch the total phase of the eclipse.
For observers along the Pacific coast of Oregon, the Moon it will be totally eclipsed near or just after moonrise, transforming the moon into a ghostly, reddish orb. The moon will also be “magnified” by an optical illusion as it passes above the east-southeast horizon, which could bode well for astrophotographers, who can very well 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, the moonset will intervene in much of Africa and Europe; much of central Europe will experience the drama of totality when the moon sets.
Here is a schedule for observers in the US:
|moon enters umbra||22:28||21:28||20:28||Not visible|
|Total eclipse begins||23:29||22:29||21:29||20:29|
|mid eclipse||12:12 a.m. May 16||23:12||22:12||21:12|
|The total eclipse ends||00:54 May 16||23:54||22:54||21:54|
|moon leaves umbra||1:56 a.m. May 16||00:56 May 16||23:56||22:56|
Totality will last a little longer than average: an hour and 25 minutes. The the moon will pass south of the center of the earth’s shadowso during total phase, the lower part of the moon will appear brighter, while the upper part should appear noticeably darker and duller.
However, the brightness and colors that appear on the moon will depend solely on the state of our atmosphere and a chaotic mix of clouds, volcanic dust, and other pollutants, so it’s hard to say in advance exactly what the fully eclipsed moon will look like.
May 30-31: a new meteor shower?
In late May, there is a chance that we could receive a new meteor shower with the potential to be the best such display of 2022. It is a unique event and the circumstances for producing meteor activity are quite unique.
In the fall of 1995, a small, faint kite known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, unexpectedly it broke into several fragments. This comet, which orbits the sun every 5.5 years, has continued to disintegrate since its initial breakup. Dozens of bits and pieces have crumbled from the original fragments in the last 27 years.
Since then, astronomers around the world have investigated whether Earth will pass through this swarm of newly ejected material, and if so, whether it could trigger a meteor shower. Sky watchers likely won’t reach a consensus until a meteor shower shows up late at night on May 30, or it doesn’t.
Some factors make the situation difficult to predict. Typically, meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through small particles trailing behind the comet, and the comet crosses the point where the two orbits intersect before the Earth does. But during this encounter, Earth will pass through the intersection first.
Normally, that would mean no meteor shower. However, when this particular comet disintegrated, it did so with terrifying violence, expelling material in all directions at great speed. And while solar radiation pressure would have pushed all the dust-like fragments toward the tail, it shouldn’t have affected larger gravel- or pebble-sized debris.
And maybe, just maybe, enough of those larger chunks fell into orbits faster than the main comet, allowing it to pass the point of intersection before Earth. Although this material would enter earth’s atmosphere at much slower speeds than most meteors, the larger size could make them bright enough to observe.
Unfortunately, such calculations are fraught with uncertainties that could mean the difference between all or nothing.
At best, we might see a group of slow, bright meteors, glowing with a reddish or orange tint, falling at rates of tens or even hundreds per hour.
On the other hand, perhaps the Earth will find very few cometary particles or even none at all. Another possibility is that the meteors are numerous, but so slow that they end up being very faint or not visible to the naked eye. Having never encountered this swarm before, we can’t say for sure what to expect.
If the meteor display materializes, the “shooting stars” would appear to shoot out of a part of the sky near the bright orange star Arcturus in the constellation Bootes the Shepherd. To find it, the stars on the handle of the Great Bear make a curve that translates easily into a smooth arc. Continue that imaginary arc the length of the Big Dipper and you will reach Arcturus.
As for when the rain should peak, for those in the Pacific time zone, it should be 10pm on May 30; for those in the Eastern time zone that translates to 1am on May 31st. Unfortunately, for the Pacific Northwest, the twilight sky will likely be too bright, likely preventing any potential displays from being seen.
For the more technically inclined, you can peruse a research paper I wrote for the International Meteor Organization (IMO) about this possible meteor outburst.
Let’s hope Nature is in a “display mode” that night!
As we get closer to these two events, Space.com will provide additional details on how you can get the best views of them, so stay tuned!
Joe Rao is an instructor and guest speaker at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. write about astronomy natural history magazinethe farmers almanac and other publications. Follow us on twitter @Spacepointcom and in Facebook.