Having the New Moon on our side may very well increase your chances of catching a well established meteor shower which is now reaching its peak activity time – the Eta Aquarids. No matter where you live or what time zone you observe from, the best time to look for the offspring of Halley’s Comet is over the next few nights during the hours just before dawn.
Although Comet Halley is located in the outer reaches of our solar system at the moment, its visit in 1986 wasn’t the one that left a particularly dense stream of material which may spark activity of up to 70 meteors per hour for lucky observers in the southern hemisphere. But don’t count yourself out if you live in the north! Around 4:00 a.m. the Aquarius constellation is beginning to rise low to the southeast and rates could be as proliferate as an average of one meteor every three or four minutes. Because the constellation of Aquarius is relatively low for northern observers, this means we have at least better chance of spotting those breathtaking Earth grazers!
Comet Halley is responsible for more than just the Eta Aquarids, however. Particles shed during the comet’s slow disintegration over the millennium are distributed along its orbit and Earth passes through these streams three times a year. The Eta Aquarid, the Beta Aquarids (both in May) and the Orionids (during October). When a piece of this debris enters our atmosphere, it is traveling about 66 kilometers per second and can shine as brightly as the stars (3rd magnitude) in the constellation from which it appears to originate.
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Although meteors can appear from any point in the sky, your best northern skies bet will be to face generally southeast, gaze roughly halfway up the sky and get as comfortable as possible. A reclining lawn chair makes a wonderful meteor watching companion! Getting as far away as possible from city lights will also increase the amount of meteors you see, while just ordinary binoculars will help reveal the twists and turns of the faint trails invisible to the unaided eye. Don’t be discouraged if you’re clouded out or unable to view at this time. The most wonderful part about the Eta Aquarids are the fact that the stream is very broad and the peak activity is drawn out over a period of activity from April 21 until May 12. Around 3:00 a.m., the meteors will first begin penetrating the ionosphere and there is a possibility of strong trails which could last for several seconds. As Aquarius rises higher and dawn approaches, meteor activity is seen “face on”. Like driving through a snowstorm, the meteors will seem to come at you more quickly and give a more streak-like appearance. For those working on your Astronomical League Meteor Challenge lists, be sure to take notes!
Don’t let anyone discourage you from watching the Eta Aquarids if you have an opportunity. While it isn’t one of the most prolific showers of the year, it is very well established and dark skies will help tremendously during this apparition. It has been my experience over the last 20 or so years to at least see a few during an observing session and come away feeling very happy indeed that I took the time to look for Comet Halley’s children racing by.
Good luck and clear skies…
The awesome image of the meteor was taken by D. Polishook, N. Brosch, & I. Manulis (Tel-Aviv U., Wise Obs.), and Spacegaurd Israel and supplied by NASA.