This Memorial Day weekend, Earthlings, especially those in North America, might enjoy the sight of a new meteor shower.
Those meteors could explode 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 anxiously awaiting the encounter. According to NASA, the meteor shower could surprise (or disappoint) during the night of Memorial Day (Monday, May 30) and continue until early Tuesday morning.
SW3 is quite close to the sun for kite rules; it completes an orbit of our star once every five years. In 1995, it began to break apart, breaking into dozens of smaller pieces and leaving behind a cloud of debris that continues to revolve around the sun.
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We’ve seen comets split up before. One in 100 periodic comets, and perhaps even more, could eventually break up, according to William Reach, an astronomer at the SOFIA Science Center at NASA Ames Research Center in California.
Famously, in the 1990s, Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 it fell apart, and large chunks crashed into Jupiter. But even if SW3’s ongoing disintegration looks somewhat similar, the process is “almost certainly not the same,” Reach told Space.com.
Scientists aren’t entirely sure what causes comets to break up. It can be one or a combination of several factors. Shoemaker-Levy 9 collapsed under the strain of Jupiter’s powerful gravitational pull, for example. But some other comets could break apart when the volatile compounds inside them, such as water, heat up and go from the solid phase to the gas.
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In addition, the constant back and forth of a comet from the inner solar system to the much cooler outer reaches and back exerts thermal pressure on the body. Given enough repetitive stress, something could give.
In any case, SW3 is breaking up. And, over the last few decades, Earth’s orbit has brought our planet ever closer to passing through the resulting debris cloud. This year finally seems to be the year we get through it. If that’s really the case, much of the comet’s debris will fall into earth’s atmosphere and burn up like meteorites, some of which could be spectacular.
Astronomers certainly expect this to happen; they are eager to see fragments of a celestial object up close. In fact, an astronomer, Jeremie Vaubaillonplans to get even closer by flying a jet over New Mexico and Arizona during the meteor shower.
“By flying through it, even knowing it exists, that shows the particles survived,” Reach told Space.com. “We really don’t know. Some of them are frozen and they don’t survive.”
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As comet fragments enter Earth’s atmosphere, scientists can watch them break apart, which can reveal information about their composition. And some of those fragments may come from deep within a comet, a realm astronomers can’t access simply by looking at an object through a telescope.
Additionally, the potential meteor shower offers a rare opportunity for astronomers to get their hands on some material from the comet. In the past, after all, NASA has flown particle collectors through meteor streams to catch 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 shot them here,” Reach said.
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