By David H. Levy
On May 30 observers all across the western hemisphere were outside, hoping to see a wonderful “new” meteor shower. The shower is actually not new. It is called the Tau Herculids, and it sends us dust particles from Comet Schwassmann-Wachman III. In 1995 this normally faint comet brightened dramatically as it split into several parts, releasing huge amounts of dust into space.
On May 30, at 10 pm Mountain Standard time, the Earth plowed through the debris released in 1995. We were hoping for a possible meteor storm of hundreds of thousands of meteors. Wendee and I sat outside at Jarnac observatory, waited, watched, and waited some more. There was one bright meteor that seemed too far from the direction my camera was pointing for its lens to detect. Ten o’clock came and went, and we counted a few shooting stars here and there. Over the course of the evening we counted 18 meteors. But a meteor storm? To use the Yiddish word that means what you think it means, we saw bupkis. Somewhat disappointed, we went indoors and completed a quiet evening.
The next day, I examined the pictures I took. I have found that it is very difficult for a camera to record all but the brightest meteors, even from the major showers. But in the second picture I saw it had captured the bright meteor I saw just south of Corvus in Hydra, and the third frame recorded a fainter one. All in all, the camera counted five meteors, only the first of which I actually saw. And one frame displayed two meteors!
Even though these meteors were generally faint, they moved so slowly that they showed up nicely on the camera. So this crazy little shower produced more meteors on camera than any other meteor shower I have witnessed. The experience proved to me that meteor showers, while poorly predictable, do offer surprises, and this one certainly did.
There is more: In Electronic Telegram 5125 of the International Astronomical Union, Daniel Green suggested that “a very faint glow from scattered sunlight may be visible in the sky centered … in Leo.” I had no difficulty at all seeing that glow in Leo, particularly when I used averted vision, and I also noted its absence on the following night. (I saw a similar glow during the strong Perseid meteor shower in 1992.)
The best (by far) meteor shower I saw was the Leonids, from near Alice Springs, Australia, in 2001. During that night Wendee and I counted 2406 meteors. This year’s Tau Herculids might have been less than stellar, but the sky was clear, the night was beautiful, and we enjoyed being outside as planet Earth raced through the emptiness of space, picking up cosmic dust on its windshield along the way.