If you have clear skies early this Thursday night through Friday morning, watch for a minor meteor shower with a famous pedigree.
Known as the Eta Aquarids, this annual shooting-star show is set to peak in the predawn hours of May 6, with rates of 10 to 40 meteors an hour. While not a spectacular show like its August cousin, the Perseids, the cool factor for sky-watchers is that all those modest meteors are bits of debris from Halley’s Comet.
Each spring Earth passes through leftover bits and pieces shed by the famous icy visitor. Coming through the inner solar system every 76 years, Halley melts a bit from the heat of the sun and sheds some pounds as gas, dust, and rocks break off.
After countless trips around the sun, large clouds of mostly sand grain-size particles have ended up scattered all along Halley’s orbit. The flurry of shooting stars you see during the shower occurs as each of those particles slams into the upper atmosphere at over 100,000 miles (161,000 kilometers) an hour, causing the atmosphere to ionize in a fraction of a second.
While you can start watching for a slight uptick in shooting star numbers on late Thursday night, you will have to set your alarm for early morning Friday if you want to catch the best part of the show.
Illustration courtesy Starry Night Software
Between 3 a.m. and local dawn you will see the peak rates. That’s because all the meteor streaks will appear to radiate out from the shower’s namesake constellation Aquarius, which rises in the southeast in the predawn hours this time of the year.
Night owls in the Northern Hemisphere are favored for this celestial fireworks show, and astronomers say the closer you are to the Equator, the higher the chance for more meteors.
The new moon earlier in the week will ensure that the skies will be perfectly dark for the shower. But no matter where you are, the best way to enjoy the Eta Aquarids is to get to a dark location away from cities and get comfortable on a reclining lawn chair—with lots of blankets and coffee.
Forget binoculars and telescopes, as this cosmic show encompasses most of the overhead sky, so your eyes are the best because they can soak in the biggest chuck of night sky possible.
While Halley’s Comet itself won’t be returning until 2061, you won’t have to wait until then to at least see bits and pieces of the iconic comet streak across the heavens.
BTW, if you have never looked at the rings of Saturn or seen a distant star cluster through a telescope, then May 7 is your best bet to do just that.
This Saturday marks International Astronomy Day, when local astronomy clubs, planetariums, and observatories will conduct beginner stargazing workshops and set up telescopes for the general public to view the wonders of the universe.
Find out what stargazing events are happening in your neck of the woods in the United States on the Astronomy League website, and see what’s going on north of the border on the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s website.
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.