Dust and debris left behind by comets and asteroids are plows through Earth as it circles the Sun. One of nature's most amazing spectacles is the creation of the meteor showers.

Every year, the Earth travels a particular trail of debris and most meteor showers are recurring.

Occasionally, Earth runs through a dense clump of debris. Thousands of shooting stars streaking across the sky each hour are caused by a meteor storm.

A shower called the Tau Herculids could cause a storm of shooting stars in the Americas next week. Astronomers are a little more cautious than some websites.

Introducing comet SW3

The comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 is the beginning of the story. It was first spotted in 1930 and is responsible for a weak shower called the Tau Herculids.

SW3 suddenly and unexpectedly brightened in 1995. There were a number of incidents over the course of a few months. Huge amounts of dust, gas, and debris were released by the comet.

By 2006 comet SW3 had disintegrated into several bright fragments with many smaller chunks.

Fragments of comet 73P were seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. H. Weaver is from the APL/JHU.

Is Earth on a collision course?

At the end of May, Earth will cross comet SW3's path.

The computer modelling shows that debris has been spreading out along the comet.

Is the debris long enough to reach Earth? It depends on how much debris was thrown as the comet fell apart. The pieces of dust and debris are so small that we cannot see them until we run into them. How can we know what will happen next week?

Our understanding of the shower began 150 years ago, with an event similar to SW3's story.

In 1772, a comet was discovered. It was a comet that came back every 6.6 years.

The comet began to act strange in 1846. Observers saw its head split in two, and some described a path of cometary matter between the pieces.

At the comet's next return in 1852, the two fragments were not predictable in their brightness.

The comet was not seen again.

In late November of 1872, a storm of meteorites hit the northern skies, with rates of more than 3,000 per hour.

The comet should have been two months earlier than when the Earth crossed 3D/ Biela. The first storm was weaker than the second, and the Earth once more encountered the comet's remains.

The two great meteor storms it produced served as a fitting wake, as 3D/ Biela had disintegrated into rubble.

A dying comet, falling apart before our eyes, and an associated shower, usually barely imperceptible against the background noise. Is history going to repeat itself with comet SW3?

The main difference between the events of 1872 and this year is the timing of Earth crossing the cometary orbits. After the comet was due, Earth ran through material lagging behind where the comet would have been.

The comet is not due to reach the crossing point for several months. The debris needs to be spread ahead of the comet for a storm to occur.

Could the debris have reached Earth? Some models think we will see a strong display from the shower, others think the debris will fall short.

Don't count your meteors before they've flashed!

Observations of the comet shower next week will greatly improve our understanding of comet events.

The Earth will cross SW3's orbit at 3pm on May 31st. If the debris reaches far enough forward for Earth to see it, there is a chance of an eruption from the Tau Herculids.

If there is one in Australia, the show will end before it is dark enough to see what is happening.

Observers in North and South America will have a seat.

They're more likely to see a moderate display of meteors than a big storm. This would be a great result, but it might be a little disappointing.

There is a chance that the shower will put on a spectacular display. Astronomers are on the move in case.

What about Australian observers?

There is a small chance that any activity will last longer than expected. If you are in Australia, it is worth looking up on the evening of May 31 in order to see a fragment from a dying comet.

The comet has laid down many debris streams in the past.

In Australia, the sky is low in the evening. The museum is Victoria/stellarium.

During the early morning of May 31, Earth will cross debris from the comet. Earth will cross debris from the comet in 1897 at 8pm on May 31st.

The debris from those visits will spread out over time, and we expect only a few meteorites to grace our skies from those streams. The only way to know if we're wrong is to go out and see.

Professor Jonti Horner and Senior Curator (Astronomy), Museums Victoria are both from the University of Southern Queensland.

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