Get set, skywatchers, for bits of Halley’s Comet to come raining down!
If you have clear skies tonight, Monday, into the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday, May 6, keep your eyes on the sky for a minor meteor shower with a famous pedigree.
Known as the Eta Aquarids, this annual shooting-star show will peak in the early morning on Tuesday. While not as prodigious as the August Perseids, the cool factor for nighttime observers is that all those modest meteors are tiny sand-grain-sized particles shed by Halley’s Comet.
Like clockwork, each spring Earth passes through a trail of leftovers dropped by the famous icy visitor as it circles the sun. Plowing through the inner solar system every 76 years, Halley melts a little each from the heat of the sun and releases gas, dust, and rocks in its tail.
After countless trips around the sun, large clouds of comet stuff now litter the comet’s entire orbital stream. The shooting stars you see during the Aquarids shower start when each of those particles slams into the upper atmosphere at over 100,000 miles (161,000 kilometers) an hour, burning up the meteors in a fraction of a second.
The Aquarids are known to be fast and bright, with many leaving behind lingering, glowing trails that can last a few seconds. This is especially the case when you wait until their radiant (origin point) rises above your local horizon in the early morning hours.
When is the best time to look up?
While you can start watching for a slight uptick in shooting star numbers late on Monday night, you will have to set your alarm for early morning on Tuesday if you want to catch the best part of the show.
The shooting stars will begin to show up late night Monday. But it’s between 2 a.m. and local dawn Tuesday, when 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 at this time of the year.
Night owls in tropical locales and the southern hemisphere will have the best seats for the celestial fireworks show. Astronomers say that the closer you are to the Equator, the better the chances of seeing more meteors.
What is the best way to enjoy the sky show?
The waxing crescent moon setting in the early evening tonight 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 find a dark location away from cities. Take along a comfortable, reclining lawn chair—one with lots of blankets and coffee.
Forget binoculars and telescopes, as this cosmic show encompasses most of the overhead sky. Your eyes are the best meteor observers, because they can soak in the biggest chuck of night sky possible.
And if you are clouded out, then check out the meteor shower online through a special webcast right here starting today at 6 PM PDT / 9 PM EDT / 1:00 UTC (5/6) International Times: http://goo.gl/ESSPZv.
How many shooting stars will I see?
The performance of the Aquarids appears to be under the influence of planet Jupiter. According to the international Meteor Organization, the shower tends to show a peak rate occurring every 12-years. From past records, evidence suggests that from this year through 2016, the shower will be in a lull phase, meaning that they will appear at their poorest rates. During the last peak in 2008, as many as 65 meteors per hour were recorded.
But the sky show should still be a pleaser, since anywhere from 10 to 40 meteors per hour should be visible depending on the local light pollution levels.
Halley’s Comet, meanwhile, won’t be returning until 2061. Thankfully you won’t have to wait until then to at least see tiny chunks of the iconic comet streaking across the heavens.