Comet Halley Plays Bit Part In Weekend Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower

Watch for the Eta Aquarid shower this week, so called because meteors will appear to radiate from near the star Eta Aquarii.  The meteors originate from fragments of Halley’s Comet strewn about its orbit. Every May, Earth crosses the stream and we get a meteor shower. At maximum on Saturday morning May 6, 25-30 meteors per hour might be seen from the right location under dark skies. Map: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

Halley’s Comet may be at the far end of its orbit 3.2 billion miles (5.1 billion km) from Earth, but this week fragments of it will burn up as meteors in the pre-dawn sky as the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. The comet last passed our way in 1986, pivoted about the Sun and began the long return journey to the chilly depths of deep space.

Comet Halley’s still hanging around in the evening sky a few degrees to the west of the head of Hydra the Water Snake not far from Procyon in Canis Minor. It’s currently 3.2 billion miles from Earth. Created with Stellarium

Today, Halley’s a magnitude +25 speck in the constellation Hydra. Although utterly invisible in most telescopes, you can imagine it below tonight’s half-moon near the outermost point in its orbit four Earth-sun distances beyond Neptune. Literally cooling its jets, the comet mulls its next Earth flyby slated for summer 2061.

Halley’s Comet follows an elongated orbit that takes 76 years to complete. Solar heating boils off debris that peppers the comet’s path coming and going.  Earth intersects the stream twice: first in May on the outbound portion of Halley’s orbit, and again in October, on the inbound leg. Each time, the planet plows into the debris at high speed and it burns up in our atmosphere. Credit: Bob King

Some meteor showers have sharp peaks, others like the Eta Aquarids, a broad, plateau-like maximum. The shower’s been active since mid-April and will continue right up till the end of this month with the peak predicted Saturday morning May 6. Observers in tropical latitudes, where the constellation Aquarius rises higher than it does from my home in northern Minnesota, will spy 25-30 meteors an hour from a dark sky in the hour or two before dawn.

Skywatchers further north will see fewer meteors because the radiant will be lower in the sky; meteors that flash well below the radiant get cut off by the horizon, reducing the rate by about half ( about 10-15 meteors an hour). That’s still a decent show. I got up with the first robins a couple years back to see the shower and was pleasantly surprised with a handful of flaming Halley particles in under a half hour.

A long-trailed, earthgrazing Eta Aquarid meteor crosses a display of northern lights on May 6, 2013. Credit: Bob King

While a low radiant means fewer meteors, there’s an up side. You have a fair chance of seeing an earthgrazer, a meteor that skims tangent to the upper atmosphere, flaring for many seconds before either burning up or skipping back off into space.

The Eta Aquarids will be active all week. With the peak occurring Saturday morning, you should be able to see at least a few prior to dawn each morning. The quarter-to-waxing gibbous moon will set in plenty of time through Friday morning, leaving dark skies, but cuts it close Saturday when it sets about the same time the radiant rises in the east.

The annual Eta Aquarids meteor shower captured from Otago Harbour at Aramoana in New Zealand. Eta Aquarids are fast, striking the atmosphere at more than 147,000 mph (66  km/ sec).  The photographer stacked multiple unguided 30-second exposures over 50 minutes taken with an 8mm fisheye lens @ f/3.5, Nikon D90, ISO 3200. Credit: Starman_nz

For best viewing, find as dark a place as possible with an open view to the east and south. I like to tote out a reclining lawn chair, face east and get comfy under a warm sleeping bag or wool blanket. Since twilight starts about an hour and three-quarters before your local sunrise, plan to be out watching an hour before that or around 3:30 a.m. I know, I know. That sounds harsh, but I’ve discovered that once you make the commitment, the act of watching a meteor shower becomes a relaxed pleasure punctuated by the occasional thrill of seeing a bright meteor.

You’ll be in magnificent company, too. The Milky Way rides high across the southeastern sky at that hour, and Saturn gleams due south in Sagittarius at the start of dawn.  If you’d like to contribute observations of the shower to help meteor scientists better understand its behavior and evolution, check out the International Meteor Organization’s Eta Aquariids 2017 campaign for more information.

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

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