You’ve probably heard of Halley’s Comet, which takes 76 years to orbit the sun. But what about the Eta Aquarids?
The Eta Aquarids are the debris left in space by Comet Halley, and when the Earth passes through this debris on its own orbit of the sun, the result is a spectacular meteor shower. If you enjoy stargazing, here’s some good news: The meteor shower will peak next week on May 5 and 6.
Why Meteor Showers Occur
About the “size of a small town,” a is comet basically a giant “dirty snowball” made of frozen gasses with embedded rock and dust particles, NASA explains. They originate outside the orbit of the outermost planets then follow an elliptical orbit around the sun.
As comets orbit the sun, they leave what can be thought of as a debris trail behind. Every year, when the debris particles collide with Earth’s atmosphere. When this happens, the particles disintegrate, creating streaks across the sky.
The Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower
Comet Halley, which measures 10 x 5 x 5 miles, was discovered in 1705 by Edmund Halley, NASA explains.
The comet takes about 76 years to orbit the sun once. As it passes Earth, the comet is easily seen by casual observers. You may even remember the last time Comet Halley passed Earth — in 1986.
Now, about the meteor shower’s name. Although meteor showers are caused by debris left behind by comets, they are named after their radiant — the point in the sky where they appear to emerge.
In this case, the meteors caused by Comet Halley’s debris entering Earth’s atmosphere appear to emerge from the constellation Aquarius. The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is named after the brightest star in that constellation — Eta Aquarii, Time and Date explains.
Eta Aquarid meteors are fast — traveling at about 148,000 miles per hour or 44 miles per second as they enter Earth’s atmosphere, NASA notes. Interestingly, fast meteors leave a trail of incandescent bits of debris — or a “train” — that is visible for anywhere from a few seconds to minutes. Because the Eta Aquarid meteors have long trains and appear low on the horizon, they are often called Earthgrazers.
How To Watch The Meteor Shower
The Eta Aquarid meteor shower lasts from April 19 to May 28, but it will peak on May 5 and 6. However, as EarthSky points out, the meteor shower has “a rather broad maximum, so just as many meteors may be flying on the mornings before and after May 5.”
The best time to see the meteor shower will be in the hours before sunrise, while the sky is still dark, and there should be as many as 50 meteors per hour.
Watching a meteor shower is easy because it doesn’t require any special equipment. First, you’ll need to find a secluded spot away from city lights. Once you’re at that spot, simply lie down or recline in a chair and look up. After about 20 minutes, your eyes will be used to the dark and you should begin to see the meteors.
Pro Tips: To really increase your chances of seeing the meteor shower, you’ll want a viewing area that is really dark. A map of dark places for optimal stargazing may be found here. For help determining where to look for the meteors, check out Time and Date’s Sky Map. Alternatively, if you want to plan a getaway around the Eta Aquarids shower, consider