(ORDO NEWS) — There’s something beautiful about sitting under the night sky and watching a meteor shower blow overhead. However, observers in the southern hemisphere usually don’t get much: most of the best meteor showers fall to those north of the equator.
However, every May, southern observers receive a special gift – the Eta Aquarids meteor shower. Conditions promise to be perfect this year, making it the perfect opportunity for meteor sightings in the summer.
The peak of the Eta Aquarids meteor shower this year falls on the morning of Saturday, May 7th. The moon is far away, so the meteors will not be lost in its glare.
But what if the sky is cloudy? If you miss the morning peak, don’t panic! The Eta Aquarids are famous for their broad peak, and meteor intensity usually remains high for a week after the peak (May 4-11). So if it’s cloudy on Saturday morning, try again on Sunday or even Monday.
To get the best view, it’s best to get up early in the morning and stay away from bright city lights. Give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness. Sit back, relax and look up at the sky.
You don’t even need a telescope! To better observe meteor showers, you need to look at as wide a section of the sky as possible. Using a telescope or binoculars will make this spectacle nearly impossible.
Dust and debris of the famous comet
As the Earth moves in its orbit around the Sun, it constantly collides with dust and debris from comets and asteroids. Each April and May, the Earth spends about six weeks navigating the river of dust left behind by the famous comet 1P/Halley.
Every 76 years or so, Halley’s Comet passes close to the Sun. Its icy surface heats up until the ice escapes into space in a process called “sublimation”. As a result, the comet is enveloped in a gaseous coma, which flies away from the Sun, forming the comet’s tail.
Gas escaping from Halley’s surface carries dust grains with it, which gradually spread along the comet’s orbit. Some move ahead of the comet, others lag behind.
For thousands of years, the space around Halley’s orbit was overgrown with grains of dust. In fact, the comet is moving through a dirty blizzard of its own production! And every year the Earth passes through this wide river of dust, giving rise to the Eta Aquarid meteor shower.
Interestingly, in October, the Earth again collides with the debris of Halley, causing the famous Orionid meteor shower. However, every year in May we get a more impressive sight – the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, since at this time we are closer to the center of the dust shower.
Where to look?
When the dust left behind by the comet slams into Earth’s atmosphere, it turns into a spectacular fiery streak of light high in the sky. This usually occurs at an altitude of about 80 km above the ground, although the largest debris can penetrate quite deep into the atmosphere before completely burning up.
Dust grains in a meteorite stream move around the Sun at almost the same speed and in the same direction. This means that when falling to the Earth, the grains move in the same direction.
But as they move toward an observer on the ground, from that observer’s point of view, their paths diverge and they appear to radiate from the same point in the sky. This point is known as the “radiant” of the meteor shower.
Meteor showers are named after the constellation in which their radiant is located. So, the radiant of Eta Aquarids is located near the star Eta Aquarids – the tenth brightest star in the constellation Aquarius.
To see the Eta Aquarids, you need to wait for the radiant to rise – before that, the body of the Earth interferes. In the southern hemisphere, we are lucky: the radiant Eta Aquarid rises in the east at about 1:30 – 2 am local time.
Although Eta Aquarid meteors can be seen anywhere in the sky, the ideal location for seeing the most meteors is about 45 degrees to the left or right of the radiant itself.
Luckily, this year we have another spectacular sight in the morning sky. Four planets – Saturn, Mars, Jupiter and Venus – line up in one line. For the best meteor show, look 45 degrees to the left or right of this line of planets.
To see how the planets and luminaries will rise from your location, visit the Stellarium Planetarium website, determine your location and move the date and time to the morning of May 7th. If you turn on “constellations” and “constellation art” (at the bottom of the screen), you can watch the rising of Aquarius and the planets without leaving your computer.
How many meteors do I expect to see?
Eta Aquarids is the second best meteor shower of the year for Australians. They can put on an impressive show, but don’t expect meteors to fall like snowflakes.
When the radiant first rises above the horizon, at about 1:30 am, the meteors from this shower will be few and far between. If you see five or six Eta Aquarids within the first hour, consider yourself lucky.
However, these early meteors can be really impressive. Known as “terrestrial scavengers,” they often appear to zip from horizon to horizon across the sky. Earth Grasers are the result of meteors falling into our atmosphere at a very low angle, almost at the edge. They are rare, but watching them is simply incredible!
As the night continues and the radiant rises higher into the sky, the number of meteors should increase. In the predawn hour, 20 to 30 meteors per hour can be observed.
And one more warning: meteors are like buses – if you expect 30 an hour, you can wait ten minutes and see nothing, and then three will arrive at once. Be sure to dress warmly so you can stay under the stars for at least half an hour or more!
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