Get Ready for Possible Once-in-a-Lifetime Meteor Storm Monday


Keep your eyes on the cloud cover forecast for Monday night into Tuesday morning, when Earth will pass through the remnants of a comet and we could possibly see a once-in-a-lifetime meteor storm.

We won't know until we get there though, even for people in areas with forecasts for perfectly clear skies. Experts don't know whether it will be a shower or a true meteor storm, the last of which was the Leonid meteor storm of 1966, according to EarthSky.

"This is going to be an all or nothing event," wrote Bill Cooke, who leads NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center, in a blog post on the shower.

During the Leonid storm, meteors fell at rates as high as 40 meteors per second, said EarthSky. "People who watched the 1966 Leonid shower said they felt they had to clutch the ground, so strong was the impression of Earth moving through space."

The possible storm will peak Monday into Tuesday as the Earth passes through a particularly dense stream of icy particles left behind in the years 1995, 1897 and 1892, by comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3.

Maximum activity is expected to be around 10 p.m. Monday, Pacific Daylight Time. It doesn't get dark on the West Coast, though, until about 10:30 p.m. After that it will be a dark, moonless night. The shower's radiant (the point from which all meteors stream) will be almost straight above Baja California.

According to NASA, German observers Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann discovered a comet in 1930 known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, or "SW3," which orbited the sun every 5.4 years.

Being so faint, SW3 wasn't seen again until the late 1970s and seemed "pretty normal until 1995," NASA said. That's when astronomers realized the comet had become about 600 times brighter and went from a faint smudge to being visible with the naked eye during its passage.

Upon further investigation, astronomers realized SW3 had shattered into several pieces, littering its own orbital trail with debris. By the time it passed our way again in 2006, it was in nearly 70 pieces, and has continued to fragment further since then.