Be sure to look up into the sky this month. It's time for the Eta Aquarids. The Eta Aquarids meteor showers will begin around April 20 and continue until around May 21. The best times to view the Eta Aquarids will be very early on the mornings of May 5 and 6. Because May 6 is the date of the new moon and is also near the peak of the Eta Aquarids event, stargazers will be in for a treat with an extra dark, moonless sky playing host to the meteor shower.
While the Eta Aquarids will be visible in the Northern Hemisphere, these meteor showers will be especially impressive in the Southern Hemisphere. Lucky sky watchers below the equator can expect to see 20 to 40 meteors per hour, depending on light pollution and weather. Stargazers in the more northerly latitudes can expect to see significantly fewer meteors, while sky watchers in the southern latitudes of the United States might be able to see between 10 to 20 meteors per hour under ideal conditions.
The Eta Aquarid meteors appear to originate out of the constellation Aquarius. (Photo: Rocky Raybell/flickr)
What causes the Eta Aquarids?
The Eta Aquarids are caused by debris from the tail of Halley's Comet. Meteors occur when dust — and other cosmic flotsam and jetsam — encounter the Earth's atmosphere at 150,000 mph, causing the particles to burn up. Some of these incandescent particles leave persistent trains, which are ionized trails left behind after the debris has been incinerated.
The Earth passes through the debris left behind by the comet every year in the spring and autumn. The spring showers are called the Eta Aquarids because they're named for the constellation from which they appear to radiate, the constellation Aquarius. The autumn shower is called the Orionid meteor shower (since the meteors appear to come out of Orion), so remember to watch for the Orionids in October.
The radiant point of the Eta Aquarids is the faint star Eta Aquarii. You can find Eta Aquaurii by locating Aquarius and then finding the Y-shaped water jar formation, a star pattern located at the northern part of the constellation. Eta Aquarii is the western-most star in the water jar arrangement. The radiant point will rise at about 4 a.m. local to all time zones, making predawn the best time to look for meteors.
However, due to the nature of the Eta Aquarids, you don't necessarily have to locate the radiant point to see the shower. According to EarthSky, "These meteors fly every which way across the sky, in front of numerous constellations." The Eta Aquarids should truly be a sight to behold.
What's the best advice for catching a meteor?
To allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness, it is recommended to give yourself at least an hour to spot a meteor. While no special equipment is needed to view the Eta Aquarids, patience is recommended. You just might be awarded with celestial fireworks.
If you should miss the Eta Aquarids due to location or weather, never fear! Mark your calendar for the next major meteor shower: the Perseids in August.