See the Eta Aquariid Meteor Shower

An Eta Aquariid meteor over the Devil's Tower in Wyoming (credit: David Kingham)

An Eta Aquariid meteor over the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (credit: David Kingham)

The usually reliable Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks on the night of May 5-6 this year. The shower runs from April 21 – May 20, 2015, with many meteors still visible for several days on either side of the peak. It is perhaps the best meteor shower of the year for southern hemisphere stargazers.

The annual Eta Aquarids occur as Earth passes through an stream of icy and dusty debris from the famous Comet 1/P Halley, more commonly called Halley’s Comet. We pass through a second stream of the comet in late October. This results in the Orionid meteor shower. So if you missed the comet during its last apparition in 1986, you can at least see sand-grain-sized bits of the comet burn up in the atmosphere during these two meteor showers.

The Eta Aquarids gets its name from the 4th magnitude star Eta Aquarii in the constellation Aquarius. The star is 168 light years away and bears no physical relation to the meteor shower. But the meteors appear to trace their paths back to a point in the sky near this star as the Earth moves into the debris field.

Because Aquarius lies on the ecliptic well south of the celestial equator, this is a better meteor shower for observers in the southern hemisphere. Rates of 30-60 meteors per hour are typical. Northern stargazers can see perhaps half as many near peak, but it’s still an impressive event. The Eta Aquarids on average are quite speedy and enter the atmosphere at 66 km/s (148,000 mph).

As with most meteor showers, the hours before twilight dawn, as the Earth turns into the meteor stream, are the best time to see the Eta Aquarids. You don’t need to find the star Eta Aquarii to see the meteors. They can appear anywhere in the sky. You don’t need any optics… just lie back under dark sky and look up.

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