Monday morning (May 6) may be your last chance to see little bits of Halley’s Comet burning up in the atmosphere – in the form of the Eta Aquariid meteor shower. At least until next year.
Sky-gazers around the world have their eyes fixed on the constellation Aquarius, which, with a dose of imagination, conjures the image of a man pouring water from a jug.
The annual Eta Aquariid meteor shower – which begins in mid-April but peaks in the first week of May – adds to that illusion because the shooting stars all appear to come from within the Aquarius constellation.
In the northern hemisphere, Aquarius appears quite low in the sky – and the meteors witnessed there are known as “earthgrazers” because they appear to skim along the horizon, rather than falling to Earth. It’s a slow show up north, with about 10 meteors per hour.
Australia gets the best view
In Australia, Aquarius sits much higher – at about 50 degrees – and we’re afforded a more spectacular display, with meteors showering up to 50 an hour, even more.
The only difficulty is getting up early to see them – they appear from about 2am up until before just before dawn.
The best time is from about 5am to 6am, in the southern part of the country – and about half an hour earlier up in Queensland.
What we’re actually seeing are dust particles cast off Halley’s comet from hundreds of years ago.
They linger in Halley’s orbital path until they intersect with Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. It’s not a gentle graze. According to NASA, “Eta Aquariid meteors are known for their speed. These meteors are fast – traveling at about 66 kilometres per second.”
Hitting the oxygen causes an out-sized explosion that can leave glowing trails “which last for several seconds to minutes.”
Bring a blanket, be patient
Anyone with a view of the horizon will see meteors – subject to clouds of course. But there willl be no interfering moon, and the rate of meteors is expected to be higher than previous years.
Clare Kenyon, from the University of Melbourne’s astrophysicist group, advises that the meteors will be all over the sky.
She suggests lying on your back or a reclined chair and just looking at the sky. The closer to dawn, the higher they’ll be. If you can plan to drive half an hour out of town, the absence of city lights will make for an even better show. The
Earth actually crosses the orbital path of Halley’s Comet twice a year, the second time in mid-October. This gives birth to what’s known as the Orionid meteor shower, because they appear to radiate from the Orion (the Hunter) constellation, but the May showers tend to be far more spectacular.
As for Halley’s comet? Not due in these parts again until 2061.