Meteor shower peaks overnight Monday as Earth passes through the tail of Halley’s Comet


Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower | COURTESY: EarthSky

(KXAN) — We’ll kick off this year’s Cinco de Mayo festivities with an exciting celestial event, the Eta Aquarids meteor shower, which is expected to peak early Tuesday morning.

Halley’s comet is one of the most famous comets known in our current study of space science. The comet is only visible to Earth every 75 years, but it leaves behind a bright trail of debris that our planet runs into twice a year, creating two annual meteor showers: the Orionid meteor shower in October and the Eta Aquarids meteor shower in May.

March 1986 photo of Halley’s Comet (NASA)

The last time Halley’s comet was visible from Earth was in 1986. It’s not expected to be seen again until 2061.

As Halley’s Comet circles the sun, its heat slowly melts the comet’s ice. It sheds pieces of dust, rock, and gas that trail behind it. Earth first intersects this debris trail in late April and May. The small comet particles—typically the size of sand grains or gravel—enter Earth’s upper atmosphere at nearly 150,000 miles per hour. As these small pieces of comet debris vaporize, they create visible streaks in the night sky: the Eta Aquarids meteor shower.

This year, the meteor shower runs April 19 to May 28, peaking before dawn on May 5.

The Eta Aquarids are visible all across the globe, but are more pronounced in the Southern Hemisphere. There, the Eta Aquarids can produce up to 40 meteors per hour. In the mid-northern latitudes, the count is closer to 10 meteors per hour.

There is an opportunity to see a few meteors late evening (after sunset on May 4) as this is when “earthgrazers” are best seen. Earthgrazers tend to be fewer in quantity, but are known to make exceptionally long streaks in the sky. As night falls, the streaks get shorter, but the meteors become more numerous.

Look toward the southeast sky at the constellation Aquarius. The radiant, or point where the meteors seem to come from, is near this constellation, nearly aligning with the faint star Eta Aquarii. This is where the meteor shower gets its name.

Aside from gloomy spring cloud cover, another snag in this year’s viewing conditions may be the bright waxing gibbous moon, over 80% full on May 5. True full moon appears on May 7. To maximize viewing potential, get out of the city, and away from as much light pollution as possible.

For more on the Eta Aquarids meteor shower, visit EarthSky.


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