Active right now but peaking on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings May 6-7, the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower likewise peaks our interest in its origin. Most showers trace their parentage to a particular comet. The Perseids of August originate from dust strewn along the orbit of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which drops by the inner solar system every 133 years after “wintering” for decades just beyond the orbit of Pluto.
The upcoming Eta Aquarids (AY-tuh ah-QWAR-ids) have the best known and arguably most famous parent of all: Halley’s Comet. Twice each year, Earth’s orbital path intersects dust and minute rock particles strewn by Halley during its cyclic 76-year journey from just beyond Uranus to within the orbit of Venus.
Our first pass through Halley’s remains happens this week, the second in late October during the Orionid meteor shower. Like bugs hitting a windshield, the grains meet their demise when they smack the atmosphere at 42 miles per second (68 km/sec) and fire up for a brief moment as meteors.
The farther south you live, the higher the shower radiant will appear in the sky and the more meteors you’ll see. For southern hemisphere observers this is one of the better showers of the year with rates around 30-40 meteors per hour. No moon mars the view, making conditions ideal.
From mid-northern latitudes the radiant or point in the sky from which the meteors will appear to originate is low in the southeast before dawn. At latitude 50 degrees north the viewing window lasts about 1 1/2 hours; at 40 degrees north, it’s a little more than 2 hours. If you live in the southern U.S. you’ll have nearly 3 hours of viewing time with the radiant 35 degrees high.
Expect to see 5-10 meteors per hour during the hour or two before the start of dawn Wednesday May 7. Face east for the best view and relax in a reclining chair. An added bonus this spring season will be hearing the first birdsong as the sky brightens toward the end of your viewing session.
Meteor shower members can appear in any part of the sky, but if you trace their paths in reverse, they’ll all point back to the radiant. Other random meteors you might see are called sporadics and not related to the Eta Aquarids. Meteor showers take on the name of the constellation from which they originate.
Aquarius sports at least two showers. This one’s called the Eta Aquarids because it emanates from near the star Eta Aquarii. An unrelated shower, the Delta Aquarids, is active in July and early August.
Happy viewing and clear skies!