The Eta Aquariid Meteor Shower Is About to Light Up The Skies, Here's How to See It
There's something wonderful about sitting under the night sky, watching a meteor shower play out overhead. Every May, however, southern observers get a special treat – the Eta Aquariid meteor shower. The forecast peak for this year's Eta Aquariids falls on the morning of Saturday, May 7. But what if skies are cloudy? Well, if you miss the morning of the peak, don't panic! The Eta Aquariids are famed for their broad peak, and meteor rates typically stay high for about a week around the peak (4–11 May). To get the best view, you'll want to get up in the early hours of the morning and be well away from any bright city lights. You won't even need a telescope! To best observe meteor showers, you'll want to watch as wide an area of sky as possible. As the Earth orbits the Sun, it continually runs into dust and debris from comets and asteroids. Every 76 years or so, Comet Halley swings close to the Sun. The gas escaping Halley's surface carries dust grains, which gradually spread around the comet's orbit.
Over thousands of years, the space around Halley's orbit has become thick with dust grains. Interestingly, the Earth runs into Halley's debris again in October, producing the famous Orionid meteor shower. When dust left behind by a comet smashes into Earth's atmosphere, it becomes a spectacular fiery streak of light high in the sky. The dust grains in a meteor shower all move around the Sun at essentially the same speed and in the same direction. But as they move towards an observer on the ground, that observer's perspective will make their paths diverge, and they will seem to be radiating out from a single point in the sky. The Orionid meteors show how meteors in a shower seems to radiate from a point. Meteors showers are named for the constellation in which their radiant lies. To see the Eta Aquariids, you'll need to wait until the radiant rises – before that, the body of the Earth gets in the way. While the Eta Aquariid meteors can be seen anywhere in the sky, the ideal place to see the best number of meteors is about 45 degrees to the left or right of the radiant itself.
Fortunately, this year we have another spectacular sight in the morning sky. Above: The line of planets and the Eta Aquariid radiant as they will appear at around 4 am from Sydney. To see how the planets and radiant will rise from your location, visit the Stellarium planetarium website, set your location and move the date and time forward to the morning of May 7. The Eta Aquariids are the second best shower of the year for people in Australia. When the radiant first rises above the horizon, at around 1:30 am, meteors from the shower will be few and far between. As the night goes on, and the radiant climbs higher into the sky, the number of meteors should increase. Oh, and a word of warning: meteors are like buses – if you're expecting 30 per hour, you can easily wait ten minutes and see nothing, before three come along at once. Jonti Horner, Professor (Astrophysics), University of Southern Queensland and Tanya Hill, Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy), Museums Victoria This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
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